Thursday, June 10, 2021

Q&A with Alfred Nicols




Alfred Nicols is the author of the new historical novel Lost Love's Return. He has worked as a lawyer, a state trial judge, and a federal judge, and he lives in Mississippi.


Q: How did you come up with the idea for Lost Love's Return, and for the characters Peter and Elizabeth?


A: Not really an idea, more an evolutionary process. I started writing a novel inspired by a strange case I had as a lawyer with a general practice in a small town. I soon got caught up in creating a backstory for my protagonist, which led me back to the period of World War I.


We were approaching the centennial of World War I. A history major, I was familiar with this war, but had no idea the horror of it for those on the battlefront, the incredible tragedy and loss of life.


I had read Steinbeck's East of Eden 50 years before (always my favorite novel), and for some reason decided to read it again. I was stunned.


In this novel Steinbeck tries to take on almost all of life, our humanity: love and hate, good and evil, sin and salvation, faith and doubt, pain and pleasure, wealth and poverty (material and spiritual)—what human life is all about, at its best and worst.


Steinbeck lays bare family relationships, with all the layers of ego, all the potential for jealousy, selfishness, resentment, and oppression, as well as all the potential for selflessness, concern, support and love. And he makes the point that nowhere in life is the difference between perception and reality more destructive than in family relationships.


Suddenly I decided: What Steinbeck did in a big way, maybe I can do in a small way.


But I was immediately confronted with two realities of today's literary world. Steinbeck, being a famous writer at that point, had almost unlimited ink. My debut novel needed to be less than half the length of East of Eden.


And, secondly, I am confronted with the often-repeated advice: if you want to write successful fiction, write to entertain, don't try to edify!


Thus comes the decision: do I want to write to be commercially successful or do I want to hope to touch a few lives in a positive way?


As a lawyer handling hundreds of divorces, giving insight into what makes a marriage succeed or fail, as a judge handling hundreds of cases involving tragic circumstances, I was in good position to do the latter, and I should try.


If that's my mission, what edifying messages do I want to preach?


The first became the tragedy of war, where men kill others (essentially just like them) because they have been told these others are the enemy—usually for political gain by people who are in no risk of death.


Secondly, being involved with a charity that provides for abandoned children, I wanted to preach the value of family ties, even to imperfect people. We tend to find fault in our parents, children, siblings, in-laws, other relatives; but having family heritage and support is a blessing that needs to be appreciated.


Having these two early goals, I needed to create my initial characters.


I chose to create Peter as the main protagonist, the central character of the novel. He would be a uniquely honest, lovable young man, from a strong, rigid, opinionated family background. He would be a disgrace to the family tradition, too tender-heated to kill even a squirrel, a sissy in his grandfather's eyes, yet go on to kill numerous humans. Why? How? He would bring out my theme of the absurdity and tragedy of war.


The second theme I wanted to emphasize was the value of family ties, even to imperfect people. I wanted a character with no family ties.


Thus, Elizabeth, who would be the daughter of a London prostitute, with no family ties, abandoned to an orphanage at 4, knowing no father, because her mother couldn’t be sure who he was.


Peter's narrow-minded, stern father and grandfather had caused Peter much emotional pain. Elizabeth would teach Peter the value of family ties, even to these imperfect people.


At that point, I started looking for other issues in life I could embrace in the story, emphasizing the choices we make in life and their consequences.


Peter needed a lot of help. If I wanted Peter to show that bullies don't pick on people long who stand up to them, I needed to put Peter in a position to do that.


If I wanted to make the point that men have sexual performance failures of several kinds, and the way they and their partners deal with them is important, I must put Peter in a position to experience that part of life.


If I wanted to preach the Golden Rule as the essence of universal morality, I needed to create a scene that was the pulpit for that sermon.


And, if I wanted to show that you should never give up on true love, Peter and Elizabeth would need help to do it for me.

Q: Did you need to do much research to write the novel, and if so, did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: Looking back, the amount of research I put into this novel amazes me. I would estimate that for every hour spent writing, four hours went into research. Being a bit of a perfectionist, I wanted every minute detail to be perfect. And this was a world I had not lived in and knew virtually no details about.


I started by buying everything I could find about World War I, including half a dozen histories that gave detailed descriptions of small arms, cannons and artillery, machine guns, barbed wire barricades, battlefield tactics, specific battles, and the casualties in various battles.


Then I bought every work of fiction I could find that might give me a feel for the life of the soldier on the Western Front: All Quiet on the Western Front, A Farewell to Arms, Generals Die in Bed, Birdsong, Pat Barker's World War I trilogy, many others.


About that time, my brother Randy, who worked at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, introduced me to Anne Webster. Anne was a retired co-worker and was a renowned Mississippi historian, having published several books. One was a book of letters home from Mississippi soldiers in World War I. Anne offered extensive help and advice.


Randy furnished me countless portfolios of period photographs that helped me have a needed feel for the scenes I wanted to create.


When Peter sustained a severe leg injury, where would he be treated? A young surgeon wanted to amputate immediately, an older one advised waiting. The internet began to prove an invaluable research tool at that point and would dominate my life for the next several years.


With hours of research, I found that he would likely be shipped to England. Where? What would the treatment facility be like? Research revealed there were over a hundred military hospitals he could have gone to. I settled on Edmonton Military hospital in North Middlesex because they would have been a candidate for his treatment, and I found many good pictures and descriptions of it.


From there on it was hours and hours on the internet about his hospitalization and release. What was the state of the art for his treatment at that time with no antibiotics? What would Elizabeth’s nurse’s uniform look like? What would her flat look like? What kind of vehicle could he get access to? What was a pub they could go to on their first date at that time? What would her slum where she was born look like? Her orphanage?


Everything about the chapters in England at that time took hours of research. What did the streets look like? The trams? When she wanted to go out from London for a picnic, I had no idea where they could have gone in 1918. I spent days researching the landscape north of London to write a very short scene that took only a few hours to write, when I got the needed picture in my mind from research.


I could write a book on each aspect of the novel and the hours and hours of research that went into just the description needed to make one paragraph have vivid, accurate detail.


Then there were big plot challenges in the novel that took days of research to work out. How could the disconnect when Peter got home be explained? What mail, telegraph and other means of communication with her were available? Where could they break down?


The plot needed for Peter to make some significant money at some point. How? Everything I could think of I would research and come up short. Finally, I came up with the growing pulpwood industry in south Mississippi at that time and it worked.


In short, virtually every page of the novel took days of research. If I write another novel and it is historical fiction it will definite be in a period of history I lived in.


What did I learn from all this research that especially surprised me? More than anything else, the incredible horror of war. I had read about both world wars, seen many war movies. But I never really focused on the specifics.


The insanity of full frontal attacks, men marching across open fields in waves to attack the enemy, had been proven to be folly in the American Civil War. But early in World War I waves of men would go out to attack and be mowed down by the hundreds with newly perfected machine guns.


In the infamous Battle of the Somme, for instance, the British suffered approximately 57,000 casualties, over 20,000 of them deaths on the first day. By the end of the Somme campaign approximately a million casualties had been suffered on both sides.


Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: I did not know how the novel would end when I started writing it.


But when I had finished the first sex scene in chapter ten, I knew that I had written scenes that brought out the two big points I wanted to make: the horror of war, where a tender-hearted man becomes a killer of men, and the value of family ties, even to imperfect people.


And I knew that in doing so I had a love story. If I had a love story, I wanted it to have a happy ending.


 And I knew that if I was going to now take on the challenge of writing a novel with as much substance as I could, as many situations where I could depict the choices we make in life and their consequences, I would need some space. I felt it needed to be a saga covering at least two generations.


Then I realized for a happy ending Peter would have to reconnect with Elizabeth in a credible way after decades apart. I wrote several versions of this ending before I settled on how and where to make it happen.


Along the way I made countless changes. At one point the manuscript was approximately 120,000 words. I kept reading that the sweet spot for a debut novel was about 90,000. Cutting 30,000 words required many changes, even eliminating whole chapters and characters. Many of the cuts were changes that were painful. But I think I ended up with a tighter, more focused, more compelling read.


Q: What do you want readers to take away from the story?


A: There are 17 points in the Reader’s Guide that highlight issues in life I’m wanting to make the reader focus on with the novel. There could have been half a dozen more. I was determined to hold it to 15 points, but 17 was the best I could do.


The novel begins with Peter thinking about being in love with Hannah Nixon and being jilted by her when he could no longer give her what she wanted. But he goes on to find Elizabeth, when and in a way he could have never imagined. The point is obvious. Love is a risk. When it doesn’t work out, don’t give up. There are many other potentials that may prove even better.


Also, in the first chapter is the story of Bruno the Rat, a huge rat that the most experienced sergeant on the Western Front had tried unsuccessfully to kill many times with a rifle. Peter kills Bruno his first week in the trenches with a left-over duckboard slat. Why? Because Bruno got careless for just a moment. Like texting and driving perhaps?


In the first chapter Peter is being picked on and bullied by Sergeant Mulholland. That ends abruptly when Peter fights back and refuses to be intimidated and bullied. The message: few bully long those who stand up to them and refuse to take it.


In chapter thirty-five, at the end of the novel, when Peter so wants to make love to Elizabeth again after twenty-seven years, he is humiliated by his sudden impotence. Elizabeth gives him a short lecture on her belief in the power of faith.


I wanted to end the novel by urging the reader to realize the power in faith: realize that much of our success comes from faith in ourselves; much of our happiness comes from faith and optimism about the future, from faith in our human ability to solve our human problems, as terrifying as some of them appear; and, for many, faith in a deity who can save us from our biggest fear of all—our mortality.


Between chapter one and chapter thirty-five almost every chapter was created for the purpose of highlighting some issue in life, the choices we make and their consequences.


The Golden Rule is considered the essence of universal morality and is found in some version in every major religion. Live by that, and you will be essentially a moral person; don’t and you won’t. I wanted to create a scene where I could get that in.


Perhaps the greatest theological dilemma of all is the question: Why does a loving God let bad things happen to good people. I created a chapter where I could bring that big dilemma out to be confronted by the reader.


I could go on and on, as there are at least two dozen issues in life I’ve tried to bring into focus.


As a lawyer and a judge, with a long and blessed life, I’ve had enormous opportunity to see humanity at its best and worst. I thought I could give insight into the choices we make and the potential consequences. I tried to get in as much as I could in a novel of modest length and still make it an enjoyable read.    


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I have in mind making Lost Love’s Return the first novel in a trilogy, picking up with Casey when he comes home and becomes a lawyer. I have made a start on that. This gives me almost infinite stories from my own experiences as a lawyer where I could write from a world I lived in and would require little research.


Then I have a third novel in the trilogy that I see as the story of Casey, Jr., the little boy Casey comes home to in 1945. He winds up, by a strange coincidence of talent and timing, to get a full scholarship to Harvard, goes on to become a big partner in a New York law firm representing the Italian fashion industry.


Then he gets seduced by his secretary, loses his wife, realizes his mistakes and struggles against great odds to get her back. This would require some research, but nothing like Lost Love’s Return.


I also have another novel I wrote about a hundred pages on 20 years ago, before I got swamped by things involving my family and my art. I am considering revisiting it, and seeing potential to bring it in as part of the second book of the trilogy.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Maybe the parallels between my efforts to learn to paint and my efforts to learn to write creative fiction would be interesting.


Almost 60 years ago, in my early Army years, on a whim, I picked up a beginning painting set in a mall in San Antonio. In time, it became obvious that I had some potential, if I would just develop it.


I found it hard, tedious work, but was thrilled at the ability to take my imagination, a blank canvas, brushes and paint, and create something people seemed to enjoy and desire.


Since that time, I have done at least a thousand paintings, primarily large Southern landscapes. They have been reproduced into approximately 12,000 prints. Anyone on Planet Earth today who searches the web for “southern landscape paintings” will likely find my website near the top out of millions of hits. My site gets hits from all over the world monthly.


I was invited to write a 10-page feature for International Artist magazine and suddenly found myself, to my surprise, pictured on the cover painting in my studio. The article is crosslinked on my website.


Early on, I sought some formal training and went to painting workshops. But it was difficult to schedule and I got little out of it, for various reasons. So I analyzed all the accepted concepts of painting: linear perspective; atmospheric perspective; line and drawing; composition; tonal climax; color and color harmony; edges, etc.


Then I sought to master them one at a time. I would assemble everything I could find on a concept, spend six months on that concept, conclude I had learned all I could master at that point, then move on to the next concept.


When I decided almost 10 years ago that I had really always wanted to write creative fiction, more than I wanted to paint, I took the same approach.


I analyzed the accepted concepts of writing fiction and focused on them to study them one at a time, for as long as it took to feel that I had a basic understanding of that concept.


Plot, months on that; point of view, months on that; good dialog, months on that; good narrative and balance of dialog and narrative, months on that; on and on, one concept at a time. As in most things, the more I studied the more I found I had to learn.


But when I concluded I was ready and went on to start what became Lost Love’s Return, I think this approach and effort paid off. And, like painting, writing fiction proved hard, tedious work, but I found excitement in the result.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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