Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Q&A with author Adam Makos

Adam Makos

Q: You write that your work on A Higher Call first began when you wrote an article for your magazine. Can you tell us about how you ended up spending eight years writing the book, and the type of research you conducted?

A: I first heard the story of Franz and Charlie from the WWII veterans I had interviewed for my magazine. They always told me about “the German who let the Americans get away.” They spoke of the story with awe and wonder.

I thought the story was too good to be true—two enemies met in combat and decided not to kill one another? But there’s something in us that wants to believe that goodness triumphs over evil. So, I set out to find the two men who supposedly had this encounter.

That’s my primary research method—to go and sit down with the men who were there. That’s the best way to understand their stories, to take the time to listen. Talking with the WWII veterans has always been like talking with my grandfathers who both served. They’re cut from the same block.

So one day I tracked down Charlie Brown, one of the participants in this “legend.” I called him at his home in Miami. And I couldn’t believe what he told me. It was true. There was a German pilot named Franz Stigler who did encounter Charlie’s defenseless bomber and instead of shooting it down, he escorted it out of Germany.

I was intrigued and had to know “why” Franz chose to spare Charlie. To appreciate the encounter between these enemies, I needed to know who these men were before that December day and how that day changed them. That’s the story I wanted to tell. 

Charlie next introduced me to Franz by phone and the next week I found myself hopping a plane to Vancouver, Canada, where Franz lived, to chase this incredible story.

Q: What surprised you the most in the course of your research?

A: Before I wrote A Higher Call, I thought of Franz Stigler—the enemy of my grandfathers in World War II—as universally evil. It’s easy to get swept up by the blind fervor of “us versus them.” But when you think of it, nearly all of our enemies of the past are now our friends—the Germans, the Japanese, the Chinese from the Korean War, and you can go to Vietnam as a tourist today.

I hope readers will close this book and think twice about the enemy we’re taught to hate. Maybe that person wants the same happiness you do? Maybe that person shares the same dreams as you, only he or she was born under different circumstances? I hope readers never look at World War II—or any war—in the same light again.

Q: How did you accumulate the details needed to give such a compelling picture of what happened on December 20, 1943, and during the other battles?

A: In addition to working with the primary sources, Franz and Charlie, I worked with other veterans both American and German, some of whom flew and fought in the same battles. That’s a unique thing about A Higher Call, the book shows both sides of the same event. So when you see Franz Stigler attack a formation of American B-24 bombers, we take you inside the American plane, too, to show the men who were firing back at him and to show the tragic consequences of war.

Overall, A Higher Call follows Franz first, then Charlie, then it jumps back to Franz and so forth. Essentially their stories are carefully blended. Both men were supportive of this style, to juxtapose the stories of their war years. Franz and Charlie couldn’t have been more gracious. They appreciated how unique “their” story was—they are the only known enemies who met in World War II, chose not to kill one another, and later reunited as friends. They knew their story had transcendental power. If told right, it could show how good men fought on both sides and the fact that they were killing one another was the ultimate tragedy.

Q: Why did you choose A Higher Call for the book's title?

A: The title “A Higher Call” was inspired by America’s top aviation artist, John D. Shaw. He did a painting for the book’s cover and proposed that brilliant title for his painting—and since the painting represented the soul of the book, I decided we could not separate the two.

The title has religious roots as well as a simple, common sense: “Do the right thing, especially when no one’s watching” message, a theme the book reinforces. That’s the challenge Franz and Charlie left us: live better lives, rise above your humanity. If two enemies can become best friends, imagine the good you can do…

Q: Are you working on another book?

A: I have a second book coming out in April 2013 called Voices of the Pacific, about the Marines who fought the Japanese in the islands of World War II. I’m more the book’s editor than author because it’s written in an oral history style, in the words of the Marines.

I compiled this story so these aging Marines could have the last word, a last chance to tell the stories they always held back, to cement their legacy. I have the deepest respect for them, considering the horrors they faced and how quietly and honorably they returned home to live wonderful lives.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I often think of the relationship between Franz Stigler and Charlie Brown in the context of a quote we’ve all heard: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” But their story takes it further when you consider this thought: If it’s the highest love to lay down one’s life for one’s friends, what about the man who is willing to lay down his life for his enemies? 

That’s the power of A Higher Call. I just wrote it. Franz and Charlie lived it. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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