Q: What inspired you to write Louisa June and the Nazis in the Waves, and how did you create your character Louisa June and her family?
A: I had been wanting to write about the WWII maritime families of the Chesapeake Bay region ever since publishing Across a War-tossed Sea, the home-front companion to my first and still most successful novel, Under a War-torn Sky.
The frustrating thing about researching historical fiction is there is always some fascinating tidbit that just doesn’t fit into that particular character’s story and arc.
Across was focused on two young British evacuees living with Henry Forester’s high school sweetheart, struggling to assimilate in Tidewater Virginia and large farming family while worrying about their parents and friends left behind in London.
German P.O.W.s working Virginia farms during the war, Richmond’s decoy airfield filled with fake plywood planes, and the intense wartime shipbuilding going on in Newport News became the linchpins of that plot.
While researching, I read about the devastating and little-remembered U-boat attacks along our East Coast in the first six months of 1942. Just days after Pearl Harbor, Hitler sent five submarines to take out as many freighters, cargo ships, and tankers sailing our Atlantic shore as possible. We were totally unprepared.
Those five U-boats averaged taking down a ship a day from January through July—and during the worst month, one ship every eight hours. Millions of tons of precious fuel and supplies to the ocean’s bottom, miles of waves burning from the explosions and spilled oil, and hundreds of sailors thrown into the sea or killed.
The brave men of the merchant marine who reupped repeatedly even after suffering through their ship sinking—some as young as 17 and others as old as 70—suffered the highest casualty rate of any service during WWII. Hardly anyone talks about them.
I wanted to explore that forgotten history, those unsung everyday heroes, and what that harsh reality and anxiety was like for the fishing families who sent their husbands, fathers, and sons to a sea where Nazis lurked beneath the waves, waiting and watching.
William Geroux’s wonderful The Mathews Men: Seven Brothers and the War Against Hitler’s U-boats helped provide some inspiration, but Louisa June and her Tidewater family and farm are very familiar to me.
My father and his family were from that region, so their soft drawl, the area’s love for good stories well-told, fierce multi-generational family ties, matter-of-fact bravery, and spiritual communion and understanding of nature are very much part of my vernacular.
Q: The Kirkus Review of the book says, "Successfully tackling the devastation of depression on family relationships, the bitter cost of war, and the uplifting strength of no-nonsense friendship, this story has impressive depth." What do you think of that description?
A: Oh my, well, I teared up when I read that starred review, because the writer captured and appreciated all I was trying to do with this novel. Louisa June’s story is about many things: WWII on the home-front, but also emotional health, sudden loss and grief, and its impact on family.
I wrote Louisa June and the Nazis in the Waves during the worst of COVID, as we grappled with its unforeseen, terrifyingly unpredictable, and deadly menace.
The lightning quick appearance and sweep of the pandemic was not unlike that of Nazi U-boats suddenly appearing along our coastline, rising up from the sea to torpedo a ship and then disappearing again.
Life turns on a dime and with earthquake force for Louisa June as she faces the shocking, out-of-the-blue death of her beloved brother—a loss similar in its grief to the death of immediate caregivers (parents, grandparents, extended family) which the NIH says close to 200,000 children under the age of 18 are currently struggling through because of COVID.
I hope those readers find reassurance in Louisa June’s strength, optimism, and journey to healing, and that their friends, who were luckier during the epidemic in terms of not losing someone, find compassion and understanding of the grieving process.
Louisa June’s elderly Cousin Belle advises her: “Don’t dismiss it. Stare sorrow in the face. Recognize the pain for what it is. Then it will back down a tad and walk beside you, maybe give you a little bit of a limp for a while, or for forever. But it will not undo you or sneak up on you from behind in a surprise attack. Of course, facing sorrow head-on and accepting its presence takes honesty, courage, and a bit of spit. Which you have in spades, child.”
May is mental health awareness month. Louisa June’s story carries an additional undercurrent about depression in family members—which is a different thing entirely from sorrow, as Cousin Belle wisely says.
These are the first words we hear from Louisa June: “My mama has the melancholy. Always has. But recently it’s gone from her customary pinkish-gray—like a dawn mist in the marshes, still hopeful and able to clear into bright blue with the right sprinkle of sunshine—to thick, storm-surge purple black.”
Louisa June is watchful, always assessing her mother’s mood to know how to act, hoping to help by finding little amusing stories and “somethings nice,” as Louisa June’s mama calls them, to cheer her up.
As many as one in five children live with a severely depressed parent, according to NAMI (National Alliance for Mental Health). The impact on their children is vast.
In 1942, there were no truly viable treatments for depression and anxiety disorders. That was then. Today, a carefully prescribed regimen of CBT talk therapy (cognitive-behavioral) and medication can provide relief in eight weeks in 60 percent of people.
My goal is that Louisa June will help my teen and ‘tween readers who might be in a similar situation to feel seen and understood. To be encouraged by the supportive example of Cousin Belle—that “uplifting strength of no-nonsense friendship” as the Kirkus review kindly says—to ask adults they trust for help, especially in this time of increased, COVID-sparked mental health issues.
Q: How did you research the novel?
A: I researched it through some fairly esoteric naval histories and scholarly webpages. (See my website for these links and resources if you’re interested in learning more yourself: https://www.lmelliott.com/book_landing_page_historical/louisa-june-and-nazis
The novel’s specific events and Louisa June’s family were largely spawned by information I found on https://uboat.net/, which posts a page for each ship hit by a German U-boat during WWII, giving details of the attack and a list of crew members.
Skimming through the site, I came across the brutal sinking of a small tugboat in March 1942. Reading the list, I spotted a 17-year-old able seaman and realized, given the last names and ages, there seemed to be two sets of fathers-and-sons in the 18-man crew.
Only two people survived. The teenager and both of those 22-year-old sons perished. One of the fathers lived. As a mother, that information made my heart stop and my eyes tear up.
I was able to find more information about that terrible night and the two survivors because of a lawsuit against the shipping company that owned the tug for failing to adequately update the life flotations.
In those details was the fact the captain (one of the survivors) had placed a ship-to-shore call home to tell his family all was well the night his tugboat steamed out of Norfolk hauling three barges of coal and timber. The Nazi U-boat likely located the tug by catching that radio signal.
Again, I caught my breath at the tragic irony, the regret and recrimination that fact would likely cause. The novel wrote itself from there.
Q: In your author's note, you write that this novel “features a more intimate and idiosyncratic first-person voice than I usually use for historical novels.” Why did you choose this voice for the novel?
A: Because of those undercurrent themes of loss and sadness, of “melancholy” as Louisa June calls her mama’s emotional health struggles, that kind of voice creates a palpable immediacy. It takes the reader straight into Louisa June’s poetic heart and mind, and her deep love of the delicate beauty of the marshes surrounding her home.
For her to be able to say things like: “I was learning that blame was like the sea nettles that clog the bay in the summer, their threads of poison floating outstretched, waiting. The first brush of one of those long tenacles would sting a little—survivable, for sure, but definitely enough to slow a thing down. The kill came when that jellyfish quick-closed its fanned-out strings to entangle the injured prey. . . The question—what if—was the first sting that began the death-dance of blame.
That voice also allows me some deadpan humor, which does permeate the novel, too. I promise Louisa June has a counterweight of light, whimsical moments, and wry commentary! Take Louisa June’s quirky friend, Emmett, with his outrageous plans that he convinces her to join in on.
“You know the tides are coming in higher these days because of all them Nazi tinfishes floating around out there, right?”
Emmett is one for half-baked conspiracy theories. “I don’t think a bunch of submarines can make the entire ocean level rise, Emmett.”
“LJ, you don’t have no imagination, do you?” Emmett drew his twelve-year-old-self up tall and looked at me with pity for my limited brain power and tried to explain his higher understanding of the universe. “You ever take a bath? Maybe you take a jug and put it down to collect water for rinsing your head? And the water rose up when you did?”
“Yes, but that’s a bathtub, Emmett.”
Shrugging, he ignored my disbelief. “Well, they’re out there, LJ. Thick as sharks. I ain’t gonna stand by and do nothing. I’m going to build me an observation tower and join the Confidential Observers.”
In addition to Emmett, there’s Louisa June’s sassy big sister. Her Cousin Belle is a bodacious, outspoken great-aunt/cousin who has had an adventure-filled life, collects stray cats, (or should I say they collect her), and names them for Musketeers. A pig chase. Netting for elvers that instead lands a whale of an eel. And eventually, a life-changing, harrowing search-and-rescue.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: A YA novel set during Watergate, for Algonquin, following the docudrama formatting of Walls and Suspect Red. As you would imagine given Watergate’s parallels to today’s headlines, the research is fascinating and infuriating, which always makes for good writing.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Education and literacy expert/advocate Rachael Walker (https://www.belleofthebook.com/ ) developed a thoughtful and thought-provoking discussion guide, using Louisa June as a springboard for educators (and parents!) to talk about mental health with ‘tweens and teens.
One of the exercises is an art project that plays off a comment from Louisa June’s beloved brother, Butler, about finding stars—moments of uplifting beauty—in the waves. It is such a beautiful, proactive concept that Rachael created, I would wish for all of us to do it. Please see: https://www.lmelliott.com/application/files/7716/4830/0346/Louisa_June_and_the_Nazis_in_the_Waves_Discussion_Guide.pdf
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with L.M. Elliott.