Thursday, April 3, 2014

Q&A with children's author L.M. Elliott

L.M. Elliott is the author of historical novels for young adults, including Under a War-torn Sky, A Troubled Peace, and the new Across a War-tossed Sea. As Laura Malone Elliott, she has written picture books, including Thanksgiving Day Thanks. She lives in the Washington, D.C., area.

Q: Your new book, Across a War-tossed Sea, is a companion to Under a War-torn Sky. How do the two books complement each other?

A: Across a War-tossed Sea focuses on what is happening back home in the United States with Henry Forester’s girlfriend, Patsy, and her brothers, as he is off flying missions over Nazi-occupied Europe and then on the run with the French Resistance in Under a War-torn Sky.

So it is a parallel story. Under a War-torn Sky and its sequel A Troubled Peace—in which Henry returns to post-war France to find the little boy who saved his life—are told through Henry’s perspective and experiences.

From Henry, we hear a great deal about Patsy and his parents, and the life-saving influence they have on him when Henry needs to summon all his courage and resolve or die. In the constant crises he faces as he tries to escape the Gestapo, Henry is able to call up and hear their voices, their love, their philosophies to give him direction.

Yes, he survives because he has tenacity, quick-witted problem-solving, and the ability to care about other human beings, even amidst the carnage of WWII.  But those admirable personality traits come from someplace—his family and his rural Virginia childhood.

So Across a War-tossed Sea takes us to the place Henry grew up and provides that context.  (Rest assured, though, it can be a stand-alone read as well!)

I think this novel also fills a hole in WWII literature, just as Under a War-torn Sky did with its look at ordinary French people—teenagers, young children, and women—who saved so many of our Allied fliers after they fell out of burning planes.  

A Troubled Peace did the same, I hope, with its exploration of post-war France, the rubble, political upheaval, and violent retributions left behind in the wake of liberation, in the aftermath of war.

Across a War-tossed Sea features two London boys who are staying with Patsy’s large, American-rowdy family. As such, it explores a little talked about element of WWII history—the 3,000 British children who made the treacherous crossing of the Atlantic Ocean, infested with Nazi U-boats targeting Allied convoys, to escape Hitler’s Blitz.

Once here these British youngsters struggled to adapt to American society, expressions, and prejudices, and being completely cut-off from their families enduring nightly bombings by the Luftwaffe.

Charles and Wesley, for instance, must learn to fit in with Patsy’s rough-and-tumble brothers, to adopt American customs, to recover from gaffes stemming from differing expressions and attitudes, and to deal with disturbing surprises like segregation, all while worrying about whether their parents are still alive.

The novel features wartime Tidewater Virginia, where local merchant ships and sailors leaving the docks of Norfolk/Hampton Roads/Newport News faced the very real possibility of being torpedoed by Nazi U-boats trolling the Chesapeake Bay. It also includes an actual secret decoy air base just outside Richmond and some of the thousands of German POWs working American farms.

We’ve all read gripping accounts of those brave boys storming Normandy beaches and heard their testimonials about their terrifying experiences. As a counterweight, Across a War-tossed Sea includes a scene where my characters learn of D-Day events the way most Americans did on June 6, 1944: over the radio, with announcers sitting in sound booths far away from the action, being handed slips of paper from wire services detailing breaking events, speaking in excited, nervous voices.

In my scene, Virginia farmers—black and white—London boys, and German POWs, all drop their hoes and pick-axes to gather, hushed, around a pick-up truck to hear reports coming in crackling broadcast about the day that would either end Hitler’s brutal regime or cement it.

I hope it really conveys the anxiety, the sense of risk and dread so many Americans felt on D-Day, as a parallel, complementary scene to the film footage and photos we know so well of those determined soldiers wading through waves, dodging bullets, to join a bloody battle on the beach.           

Q: What type of research did you conduct to write Across a War-Tossed Sea?

A: Across a War-tossed Sea exists because of one paragraph I stumbled onto in a collection of 1940s Richmond news accounts that I found so surprising I just had to drop it into the final chapter of Under a War-torn Sky. Just a dollop of the kind of day-to-day life detail that provides any historical novel authenticity and a rich, thick backdrop.

That factoid?  A Richmond church and private school were trying to find homes for British children who had been evacuated from the London Blitz. Period.

I had had no idea parents had made that heartbreaking choice to put their children into such danger—crossing the Nazi U-boat infested Atlantic—to try to save them from Hitler’s deadly bombing of England. It was a stunning and vivid window into the kinds of risks and wrenching decisions that war forces on people.  

So I simply have Patsy mention the existence of two British boys living in their already crowded farmhouse as a way of “showing rather then telling” that harsh, poignant reality but also the instinctive generosity of Patsy’s family and others during the upheaval and cruelty of WWII.

I mention this because that’s the kind of gem the treasure hunt of research provides and what directs my “methodology.”  You find things you didn’t even know existed that are fascinating windows into the human spirit and a period in history.  Then you follow the trail. From that itty bitty detail came the whole idea for Across a War-tossed Sea.

So, as an old journalist I “report” my narratives—by researching primary documents (photos, letters, ads, editorials, radio broadcasts), memoirs, interviewing experts and survivors, and immersing myself into the music, dress, prevailing attitudes of the time.

Those things tell me what to write. I don’t go into the research process with a preconceived notion of what to look for or what I am trying to prove. 

During the 18 months I researched this novel, I played WWII big band music constantly, watched 1940s films to get the lingo and interplay of the times, read every memoir by evacuees I could get my hands on, every newspaper account of their arrival, and reached out to librarians like Bill Barker at the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News (who graciously sent me reams of information about wartime ship production, the newly integrated shipbuilding workforce, merchant marine sailors, and convoys leaving Chesapeake Bay ports).

I asked British friends to remind me of typical “Briticisms” that could humiliate boys in front of their peers (“pants,” for instance, means underwear to Brits). I reconnected with my Tidewater cousins to get the right, wonderfully pictorial and commonsense colloquialisms of that region.

I found websites devoted to German POWs housed here in the U.S. and discovered those camps were plagued with a very dangerous Lager Gestapo terrorizing more moderate German POWs.

I collected little “telling” details like the fact matrons gave up their rubber girdles to be recycled for gas masks; milkweed fluff was put into life-jackets to keep sailors afloat; and children carried handkerchiefs to stuff in their mouths to protect their teeth in case Nazi aircraft dropped bombs on their schools.

I even sailed up and down the James River, around Turkey Island and Curles Neck, with Captain Mike of Discover the James to get the feel of the river. And to figure out where the currents were dangerous and where it was logical for Charles to nearly drown the night he runs away, determined to stowaway on a cargo ship bound for England so he can return home to fight Nazis. I suspect Mike has had a good laugh with friends about the crazy writer who suddenly cried out, “Oh, oh, stop! Is this a good place for me to try to drown a boy?”

Q: You've written about various historical periods--is there one that's been especially interesting for you?

A: Ha-ha! Most historical novelists are more practical (or smarter!) and stick to a general time period because the learning curve for each era is so steep. I majored in English and music at Wake Forest and have a master’s in journalism from UNC-Chapel Hill. Notice there is no mention of history!

The great thing about being a writer and journalist, though, is you SHOULD be able to write about any topic—that’s what my liberal arts education and reporting techniques gave me.

So…to your question, do I have a particularly favorite time period? No. I love being forced to learn about so many different time periods. But I will say I particularly admire and remain rather stunned by the raw courage and stubbornness of the colonists who were willing to stand up to the British juggernaut—many of them illiterate and extremely poor—for the sake of principle and a truly revolutionary ideal of individuality and the right to make up and to speak their own minds. (highlighted in Give Me Liberty)

I think the Civil War is captivating but one of the most heartbreaking and frustrating periods I have studied. Given the often poetic and chivalric camaraderie between officers and soldiers following a horrific battle, why they couldn’t negotiate a peace and end the abhorrent practice of slavery without millions having to die is very hard to understand. (Annie, Between the States)

The ‘60s are a fascinating confluence of so much cultural change tragically brought about with such pain and ugliness—think about one decade seeing the assassination of JFK, his brother Bobby, and Martin Luther King, Jr., and our Napalming villages in Vietnam and turning fire-hoses on peaceful protestors juxtaposed with the signing of Civil Rights legislation and a man walking on the moon! (Flying South)

But if you want to really see the absolute worst and the breathtaking best of mankind, the ability to befriend and show kindness in the face of appalling prejudice and sadistic violence, nothing beats WWII. If a writer manages to produce a bad, uninspiring WWII story, he/she should find another profession.

Q: As someone who's written for different age groups, do you have a preference between novels and picture books?

A: No, they are both equally rewarding. In fact, I think I am a better writer because of toggling back and forth between genres. It keeps me fresh. Plus, each age has its own charms that I so enjoy revisiting as I write for different audiences.

I speak often to middle school groups and I always learn and am inspired by them. A Troubled Peace came about, for instance, because so many teenagers were so very concerned about what happened next to Henry, Patsy, and the little French boy who saved Henry. 

And I do relish the collaboration required in making a picture book. I am incredibly blessed to have worked on five picture books with the talented Lynn Munsinger, whose drawings are so full of warmth, whimsy, and palpable emotions.

Our first series, starring a little raccoon called Hunter, started as bedtime stories for my then pre-school aged son. The two-book holiday series, featuring Sam and his clever best friend, Mary Ann, was sparked by my daughter’s love of making Valentines by hand.

But the plot for our latest book, Thanksgiving Day Thanks, was almost completely dictated in my mind by knowing what Lynn illustrates particularly well—sweet-faced animals who face a moral conundrum and overcome it in amusing trial-and-error mistakes and with the help of devoted friends. The expressions on her characters’ faces are so touching!

Q: When you're writing a novel, do you usually know how it will end, or do you change the plot as you're writing?

A: I always try to decide a novel's opening and ending (in general) before beginning to write -- that way I know the trajectory I should take. That doesn't mean I don't veer a bit as I go, though, as I discover interesting tangents or characters become larger than I initially conceived. Sometimes characters can become quite bossy that way!

For one novel, Give Me Liberty, I essentially wrote backwards. I learned of a little known Battle of Great Bridge and in reading about it found a climatic end, the novel's primary themes, and the necessity for two friends who would have to end up on different sides at the skirmish. And then I built a story that led to it.

Q: Who are some of your favorite authors?

A: I have authors I love to read at different times. If I need to write pictorially, I pick up some Shakespeare; if I need to write good male dialogue I delve into Steinbeck; if I need to write in a strong, evocative voice I read Harper Lee, S. E. Hinton, or Phyllis Reynolds Naylor. For laughs, Nora Ephron and Ogden Nash.

I read a lot of YA novelists as you would imagine and am particularly in awe of Laurie Halse Anderson, Christopher Paul Curtis, Jerry Spinelli, Lois Lowry, C. S. Lewis, and A. A. Milne. Adult favorites: Pat Conroy, Truman Capote, and Anna Quindlen.
Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am immersed in Renaissance Italy for my next novel, involving a specific and beautiful piece of art.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Just my fervent belief that good historical fiction (well researched and accurate) is a tremendous way to humanize history, which sadly can be reduced to a very dry recitation of the bare-boned facts and dates of battles, legislation, court cases, inventions, and philosophic trends.

History is a wondrous human drama, the story of how we as a species came to be what we are, full of mistakes and triumphs, villains and heroes, and everyday people like you and me who had to reach down deep into their souls to find courage and their own answers to the challenges the circumstances of their day shoved at them.

Please check out my website for more information about my books and links to information about the time period featured in each.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. L.M. Elliott will be participating in the Bethesda Literary Festival, which runs from April 11-13, 2014. For a complete schedule, please click here. An earlier version of this Q&A appeared on January 20, 2014.

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