In summer 2009, Montreat College history professor William R. Forstchen was enjoying the success of his latest novel, One Second After, a post-apocalyptic thriller about an electromagnetic pulse attack on the U.S. that cripples the nation’s electrical grid and sends its citizens into a panic. Set in Black Mountain, where Forstchen has lived for 30 years, and featuring numerous locations and characters inspired by his surroundings, the book resonated with area readers in unexpected ways.
The author remembers an event shortly after the book’s release. He and his daughter, Meghan, were sitting out on his deck, enjoying what he calls “a magnificent view to the west.” A thunderstorm was approaching, and though the rain was still miles away, the whole Swannanoa Valley suddenly went dark. His daughter turned to him, fearful her father’s story was coming to fruition.
“I said, ‘Honey, as long as your cellphone’s working, everything’s cool,’” Forstchen recalls. “A couple of minutes later, my phone rings, and it was an administrator at the college … who suddenly goes, ‘My God, Bill! Don’t tell me this is for real.’”
Unable to resist, Forstchen told his friend, “Yeah, we’re screwed,” before calming him down.
Over the subsequent years, Forstchen has expanded One Second After into a series. And with the Tuesday, Aug. 22, publication of saga closer Five Years After, he’s comforted by the ever-increasing number of people he’s exposed to the very real possibility of an EMP incident. He also holds out hope that his books have played a part in elevating the importance of replacing the country’s fragile electrical grid so that the nation can avoid the future described in his novels.
The idea for One Second After came to Forstchen during Montreat’s 2005 spring graduation. Over the previous two years, he’d started working on a novel about an EMP attack but hadn’t progressed very far.
“I was stuck in the Tom Clancy model — (an enemy has) three weapons, they detonate one, our hero saves us from the others. It just wasn’t working,” he says.
On that 90-degree day, wearing heavy academic regalia and sweating profusely while wondering when the commencement speaker would wrap up, Forstchen had what he calls a “God slapped me’ moment.”
“The book came to me literally in one second,” he says. “I’m looking at the graduates. I’m looking at the people in the audience. A good friend who was a D-Day veteran was in the front row. And I thought, ‘I’m going to write about us. I’ll write about what happens in my hometown of Black Mountain for one year after an EMP strike.”
Inspired, Forstchen says he couldn’t stop writing and churned out 6,000 to 7,000 words a day. Within a couple of weeks, he’d finished the first draft of John Matherson’s heroic efforts to keep his community safe in the wake of the attack, followed by plentiful editing before the novel’s publication in 2009.
After finishing the bleak, plausible tale, Forstchen says he never wanted to revisit the topic. But One Second After exceeded his and publisher Forge Books’ expectations, becoming a New York Times bestseller the week after its release. Before long, the idea for a series was floated.
“As they say in The Godfather, ‘They made me an offer I couldn’t refuse,’” Forstchen says with a laugh. “And then they came back, and they made another offer I couldn’t refuse.”
But with Five Years After, the fourth in the series, Forstchen says he’s ready to wrap it up.
Five Years After finds the Republic of New America struggling to remain stable in a post-EMP world. After a few years of trying to carry on his quiet existence in Black Mountain, John Matherson receives word that the president is near death from a possible assassination attempt and is asked to step in and negotiate with a potential new military power.
While the previous three novels focused on Black Mountain’s recovery following an EMP attack, Forstchen says the new story is heavily influenced by the COVID-19 pandemic. In particular, he explores what might happen if a plague were to break out in a society already recovering from an unthinkable attack.
With his latest book, Forstchen’s primary focus has also shifted away from simply raising awareness about EMPs to the country’s outdated electrical grid. Though he notes that EMPs remain a concern, cyberattacks and the grid overloading and shutting down are even more plausible.
Forstchen believes replacing the grid should be a key issue for voters in the 2024 election. He also notes that tapping into an array of energy sources is critical for the future.
“I do like green energy. But green energy is not the total answer — it only works part of the day,” he says “We need plain old nuts-and-bolts, electrical generating systems. One could even be nuclear. It’s been 40 years since we built a nuclear plant. They’re a hell of a lot safer today. We should be looking at things like that.”
Though there’s plenty of gloom and doom in the John Matherson saga, there’s also a generous dose of optimism regarding the resilience of the human spirit and the willingness of a small town to work together for the greater good in the wake of a tragedy. And while Forstchen himself acknowledges the subject matter’s depressing aspects, his goal all along has been to raise awareness and get people thinking about a very real threat.
“Some people go to an extreme and prep for years,” he says. “But even if a person just keeps a couple of months’ worth of food and water and medication in their home in times of emergency, I’m happy.”
His neighbors also haven’t minded seeing themselves and their town represented in literary form. Forstchen’s friend Lee Robinson has a character named after him in the series. Montreat College also plays a major role in each chronicle. And students, says Forstchen, have regularly requested cameos, noting they’re fine with their characters being killed off — a conceit the author is happy to oblige. Interest has even been high enough for Europa, a local gift shop, to produce maps of the books’ key sites.
With the EMP series now behind him, Forstchen notes he may return his focus to the Civil War for his next project. But for now, he’s taking it easy and waiting for inspiration to strike.
“I’m enjoying summer,” he says. “The book’s in — I don’t have any worries for a while. There’s nothing worse than a deadline staring you in the face.”
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