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Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Don't call Shem Fleenor a writer.

Even though the UF history major just published his first book at age 22, that's not a label he would give himself.

"I consider myself an artist, and writing's just another canvas," Fleenor said.

Fleenor's novel, "American Idolatry: Memoirs of a Bitterly Cold War," follows fictional CIA agent Samuel Haydn from World War II to the end of 2001, placing him in pivotal events throughout modern American history. These events include the John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy assassinations, the Richard Nixon scandal and the Cuban missile crisis.

Josh Wetherington, the book's editor, described the novel as "'Forrest Gump' for conspiracy theorists."

Fleenor said he wanted the novel to be "gritty and raw and have rough edges" because it's told as a memoir from Haydn to his daughter. He didn't want it to be too refined or polished, or it would lose its authenticity.

"I wanted it to be really stark and austere because it's supposed to be a memoir from an ex-CIA agent who basically abandoned his family for the CIA," he said. "[He was] doing what he thought was right because he thought he really loved his country, but he had a sick love that blinded him to what love really was."

Fleenor said the idea for the book came from the fact that so much of what happens in the CIA is censored. He decided he was going to fill in the gaps however he could imagine them.

"So much of our history - the story of us - is kept from us," Fleenor said. "It was almost just out of spite."

He said that even though it's fiction, if you give a name, face and personality to one person who could fill in all of these gaps, it makes it much more real.

"It gives these things a deeper truth," he said.

He said he felt like writing the book was meant to happen based on the classes he took last semester. He took a 1960s seminar, a history by Hollywood class and researched the CIA on his own.

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He described the combination of these things as a "perfect storm." He said every night he'd sit down and ideas would just flow from him.

He wrote the draft in 12 days and took another week to remove unneeded parts. He left it alone for a few months before sending it out to friends and professors to see what they thought worked and what didn't.

Wetherington, who grew up with Fleenor, was naturally one of the first to receive a copy.

He said he read the whole thing in one night, made notes as he went along, gave feedback to Fleenor and ended up becoming his editor.

Wetherington, who is a music producer, described himself and Fleenor as "creative colleagues." He said a big part of their creative process is to send each other projects and bounce ideas off one another.

Wetherington said Fleenor has always been "kind of a character, kind of a storyteller."

"Even in those little anecdotes you share with friends," he said. "When he tells a story, it's like he's writing a novel. It's always been like that growing up with him."

For someone who doesn't consider himself a writer, Fleenor has a rather prolific collection of works. He has written three novels and eight scripts and has no intention of stopping.

Still, he said he will not concern himself with whether he becomes a huge success or not.

"It feels natural for me to write, so that's what I do," Fleenor said. "If good things come of it, great. And if they don't, it's nothing I have control over."

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