Friday, August 12, 2022

Q&A with Steven T. Collis



Steven T. Collis is the author of the new novel Praying with the Enemy, which focuses on the Korean War. His other books include The Immortals. He is a law professor at the University of Texas School of Law, and he lives in Austin, Texas.


Q: What inspired you to write Praying with the Enemy?


A: I found the story 20 years ago in the basement of a university library in the form of an out-of-print memoir, and it has been in the back of my mind ever since. I began the earnest writing of it two years ago, after I pitched the idea to my editors, and they fell in love with it. It’s just an incredible story that deserves to have a bigger audience. 


Q: The book is described as being based on a true story. How much of the book is true, and how did you research the story?


A: Most of the primary storyline is true. When I began drafting, I faced a dilemma: keep it purely nonfiction or make it a novel based on the true story. I opted for the latter, which allowed me a bit more control over narrative pace and the number of characters to manage. The vast majority of what I have written, however, is true.


In some places, I consolidated multiple people into one character. Lieutenant Kang, for example, is a composite of many people [Captain] Ward [Miller] dealt with during his captivity. Private Pak was fictional, to give Jae Pil an interlocutor.


In other places, I needed to skip some events or conversations, just to keep the story moving. Finally, I added dialogue to flesh out characters or issues, but never in a way that strayed from the research.


Aside from those minor deviations, I was able to follow the actual events as they occurred. A good rule of thumb for the reader is this: the more unbelievable the detail or anecdote, the more likely it is actually true.  


Q: How would you describe the dynamic between Captain Ward Miller and North Korean soldier Kim Jae Pil?


A: Hesitation, followed by trust, followed by true friendship. Though it was difficult for them to communicate, they both came to realize they could rely on and trust the other.  


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?


A: I hesitate to give my readers any sort of pre-drawn conclusion, especially when I write fiction. As the author, I see it as my job to bring the story to light in the best way possible, then let readers draw from it what they will.  


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I have some new historical fiction I'm working on, as well as quite a bit of nonfiction.  


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: After the book launched, a woman who had once lived in Korea reached out to me after seeing me on a TV interview. She had actually met one of the men I wrote about, Kim Jae Pil, some 30 years after the events I described in the book. I couldn't believe she had seen me, and I was even more floored that she had met Jae Pil. I'll be writing about that separately.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Steven T. Collis.

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