Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Q&A with Emily Bleeker




Emily Bleeker is the author of the new novel When We Were Enemies. Her other books include the novel The Waiting Room. She lives in the Chicago area.


Q: How much did your own family history influence the writing of When We Were Enemies?


A: My father once told me a quick little story about my grandmother becoming good friends with an Italian priest while working as a secretary in a POW camp during WWII. That is where the idea for this novel started. This tiny bit of information is the seed that settled in my mind years ago and eventually grew into When We Were Enemies.


Q: How did you research the novel, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?


A: This novel took a lot of research. I read many books about the US POW camps during WWII, and others about the inner workings of the USO system and the women who ran it.


I visited Camp Atterbury and The Chapel in the Meadow, which was built by Italian POWs. I went to museums and historical displays that held examples of uniforms, letters, and daily camp life.


I devoured every bit of visual media online and via library resources that could give an idea of what the POW experience was like for Italian soldiers being held on American soil.


I also sent the book to beta-readers with a background in Catholicism to help me make sure I was representing those elements accurately. The list goes on and on.


The most surprising piece of information I took with me was how closely the US government followed the Geneva Convention when it came to the treatment of prisoners of war.


The second biggest surprise was how many Italians went on to enlist with the US Army after Italy switched sides in the fall of 1943. All deeply interesting topics to delve into!

Q: The novel alternates between Elise’s and Vivian’s stories--did you write the novel in the order in which it appears, or did you focus more on one character before turning to the other?


A: I started writing the novel by alternating timelines as I wrote but for the last few chapters of each woman’s story, I ended up writing them separately so I could keep their mindsets and storylines consistent and focused.


When I turned in the book, in some ways I felt like I’d written two whole novels that I’d woven together into one. But I like that each story is fully realized but also elevates the other it is paired with.


Q: How was the book’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: This might be my favorite title of all of my books. It perfectly highlights the meaning of this story.


I think the idea came from the initial research I was doing before I pitched the story when I learned in greater detail about Italy’s shifting allegiances in WWII. And I loved that there was one summer in 1943 where Italian soldiers were on American soil as prisoners and by the end of that summer they’d become allies.


For me the title When We Were Enemies came to mean that people can change, enemies can change, peace can occur.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am working on a companion book to When We Were Enemies that tells the rest of Hollywood icon Vivian Snow’s story. It covers six decades of her life and has been a joy to research and write. It will be available next summer!


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Fun fact! The church on the cover of When We Were Enemies matches the real-life church reference in the book and that still exists in Edinburgh, Indiana.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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