One morning, Sid Balman, Jr., an AU alumnus, walked into a coffee shop in Dupont Circle, holding a novel.
A woman in the shop looked at the novel Balman had in his hand and said, “That looks like an interesting book, what’s it about?”
Balman explained the plot of the novel to her. As he began walking away from her, he stopped, turned back and said, “I wrote this book.”
“It was such a strange feeling, really,” Balman said, reflecting back. “I really did write this book. It’s a weird thing. Not weird, but, you know, gratifying.”
Balman, an author, businessman and Pulitzer-nominated journalist, combined his areas of expertise to craft his first historical fiction novel, “Seventh Flag,” which debuted on Oct. 9. The novel, according to Balman, is “a modern parable about the radicalization of the United States … told through four generations of two families in the small west Texas town of Dell City. One is a prosperous farmer family, the other is a family of Syrian immigrants that helps them build an empire on the high desert.”
A fourth-generation Texan, Balman grew up in a rural town outside of Dallas. He studied literature and business as an undergraduate at Vanderbilt University, where he realized he wanted to write. He took a course in New Journalism, where a journalist begins to interpret and bring more artistic liberties to the news.
The most impactful New Journalist Balman said he studied was Jack Kerouac.
“The book that really, really hit me, I don’t know why, I have read it seven times, was Jack Kerouac’s book, ‘On the Road,’ that looked at a time not dissimilar from the one that we’re in now,” Balman said. “That book, just the way it was written, the story it told, the characters, it really appealed to me. That’s when I started writing.”
Becoming a novelist was a distant dream of Balman’s, but it felt too risky for his writing abilities, he said.
“A writer is someone who makes a living writing,” Balman said. “A 24-year-old novelist? I certainly wasn’t at that level. So, I figured journalism would be a way for me to make a living as a writer.”
After graduating, Balman traveled the world for about a year and a half, until he started attending American University, where he got his master’s degree in journalism and public affairs. He interned for the Dallas-Times Herald, which landed him a job at the paper covering police officers and crime in Dallas.
At the age of 28, Balman began his last major job in journalism as the diplomatic and national security correspondent for the United Press International, a news wire service. In this position, Balman had two main tasks: to cover all the wars of the ‘90s, including Iraq, Somalia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, and to travel with presidents and secretaries of state, such as George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Madeleine Albright, when they went overseas.
“I was always gathering yarn like every journalist,” Balman said. “I felt like I had a novel in my back pocket, but I needed to find just that way to stitch through it.”
His time abroad was only one of the “pieces of yarn” Balman needed to help him tie together his ideas for “Seventh Flag.”
Balman said that people often ask him how long he spent researching for his novel. He usually responds, “I have been researching it my entire life.”
After his time abroad, Balman became a division director at an international development firm, the D.C.-based Creative Associates International. He and his division took a public health approach to counter violent extremism in behavior-change communications.
With his research in violent radicalism, Balman said he felt like he was a step closer to understanding how all his ideas could be stitched together into one cohesive novel.
“Violent extremism, across the political spectrum, is like a disease that arises from an external infection and spreads through its victims or entire communities over time, leading to violence if left untreated,” Balman said in a press release about the book. “These factors come into play in the radicalization of two primary characters, Ray Laws, who evolves into a white nationalist, and Anil Zarkan, who flees West Texas to join ISIS.”
Two more experiences would solidify his plot. The first came from a small west Texan town, known as Dell City, with a population of 300 people. This would become the setting for his novel.
“A buddy of mine, about 15 years ago, bought a piece of land in west Texas, [which is] one of my favorite spots in the world,” Balman said. “They were completely off the grid … I got to know the community there. Those families became the quilt for a couple of the families in the book.”
The final influence for Balman’s novel came from a YouTube documentary about a football team in Dearborn, Michigan, that was primarily comprised of Muslim students. The documentary depicted both the stigmatization of Muslim people in post-9/11 America and the hardships the students went through with multiple practices per day during Ramadan, when many of the Muslim students were supposed to fast from dawn to dusk.
“At that point, it really just clicked for me,” Balman said. “I found the central theme. [The novel] was going to be about two families, based in west Texas, [and] the radicalization of nations. Through iconic themes in our society — football, military, gender, resources and immigration — I would tell this fun, rollicking, global story that showed how our nation has become radicalized since World War II but emphasized the commonality between all these different kinds of people.”
Balman views the U.S. as a radicalized country. In a highly polarized nation, he said, what could he do to make a change?
“When you think about what you can do to make a difference in the world, I know some people run for office [and] journalism is one way to do it,” he said. “It may sound a little bit corny … but I felt that this book could contribute to making an impact, to making a change. And in the end, the places where our country can be held together are in family and community; the basic building blocks.”
“Seventh Flag” is now available for purchase. Sid Balman Jr. is currently on a book tour and will be speaking at Politics and Prose Connecticut Ave location on Jan. 12, 2020.
This article originally appeared in The Eagle's December 2019 print edition.