Kathryn Lasky is the author of the new young adult novel Night Witches, which focuses on a regiment of Russian female pilots during World War II. Her many other books for children and young adults include the Guardians of Ga'Hoole and Wolves of the Beyond series. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Q: You've noted that you became fascinated with the Night Witches after reading the obituary of one of the women. What made you decide to write a young adult novel about them?
A: Saint Augustine once said something to the effect that when people die, they don’t vanish, they just become invisible. I wanted to make Nadezhda and these other women visible.
Q: What did you see as the right blend between the actual World War II history and your own fictional creations?
A: It is a balancing act to a certain degree. But I adhered very closely to the events of the war and what was happening in Stalingrad.
For example, the transport boat that was leaving the pier really was bombed and hundreds of lives were lost. I made my character Valya a witness to this. We see it through her eyes, and she had been anxious to get on this transport out of Stalingrad and would have been on it but it was already too crowded.
The characters were definitely fictional creations in terms of their names, backgrounds, personal history. Fictional creations but informed by a lot of research.
I discovered that a lot of them had attended or were attending polytech schools. Many had joined flying clubs before the war. These clubs were popular. I read accounts of actual combat missions. So I often plucked an event from one mission or another and adapted it to a particular character.
There was a devastating night that I give an account of where at least four flights went down and eight crew members were lost. I used that event in relation to the disappearance of Valya’s sister Tatyana.
Q: Can you say more about your research for this book, and did you learn anything that particularly surprised you?
A: First of all, I was continually being surprised. That’s what happens when you undertake a project like this.
My research was extensive. A friend of mine had access to a Ph.D. thesis on the Night Witches and two other all-women Russian regiments and he sent that to me. By the way, the other two regiments were not bombers and did not remain exclusively women.
One of my best sources was the book Wings, Women and War by Reina Pennington. I did read some interviews, journal-type diaries that were part of another book.
The book was published in the early ‘80s and I had an eerie feeling as I was reading these accounts that they had in some way been censored. Perhaps the women had self censored these accounts. I’m not sure.
Anthony Beevor’s books on World War II and in particular the one on Stalingrad were invaluable.
Q: What would you say is the legacy today of these young women?
A: I can’t really say. But I think there is a lot of resonance, particularly when one considers Trump’s ridiculous tweet about transgendered people not being able to serve in the military. I mean, really, imagine rejecting smart, capable human beings who are passionate about their country and democracy being forbidden to serve!
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Well, I am back in the animal kingdom with a new series about polar bears. The series is titled Bears of The Ice. The first book which will come out in February of 2018, is called The Quest of The Cubs.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: On the very first page of the book there is a hideous error. Not my fault. Just under the words Chapter 1 they printed a date, Stalingrad 1941. It should be 1942. It was 1942 in my original draft. Somehow it got changed. They have corrected it in the ebook and shall be correcting it in subsequent printings. Oy vey, worst error I ever experienced!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Kathryn Lasky.