Thursday, February 9, 2023

Q&A with J.B. Rivard




J.B. Rivard is the author of the new historical novel Dead Heat to Destiny, which is set in the World War I era. His other books include Low on Gas--High on Sky. He lives in Mesa, Arizona.



Q: What inspired you to write Dead Heat to Destiny, and how did you create your cast of characters?


A: The inspiration came as I finished my nonfiction book on [aviator] Nick Mamer, Low on Gas – High on Sky, in 2019. Although that book featured Mamer’s record-setting flight of 1929, it also included a short biography.


Because Mamer’s official military records were destroyed in the St. Louis Archives fire July 12, 1973, deep study of alternative sources was needed to uncover his military experience. This led me to fascinating details about the U.S. Army Signal Corps and flying the crude wood, wire, and fabric “aeroplanes” of 1916-18. (This research incidentally resolved several myths about Mamer’s life that appeared in news stories following his death in 1938.)


Nick Mamer’s career as a pilot began in 1916 when he enlisted in the U.S. Army. Although he later learned to fly as a cadet, was commissioned a lieutenant and designated a “pursuit” pilot, he had actually flown earlier during his deployment in Panama as an enlisted man.


As I finished the Mamer book, I conceived the idea for a more expansive story of WWI. This novel would treat the fictional lives and loves, adventures, and interaction of diverse citizens across two continents, including—of course!—a Mamer-like American.


As a young student in Paris prior to WWI, Will Marra pursues Adrienne Boch, a beautiful Belgian student dedicated to achieve in the booming whirl of Parisian fashion. Despite Marra’s persistence, she deflects his attentions.


Meanwhile, Adrienne corresponds with her closest and dearest cousin, Gregor Steiner, who upon completing his training at the Naval Academy becomes an officer in the German Imperial Navy.


Later, Will Marra returns to the U.S., abandons his studies short of graduation, and enlists in the Army. He learns to fly, helps the 1st Aero Squadron during General Pershing’s ill-fated pursuit of Pancho Villa, and is assigned to duty in Central America.


At the thrilling climax —during which life and love hang in the balance—these characters meet in an emotionally stirring clash.   


Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: The research and writing of Dead Heat to Destiny began in January of 2021, and consumed the next 18 months. Because the novel treats the euphoria of the Paris fashion world, the technological developments as well as conflicts of WWI for both military and civilian, I immersed myself deeply in research of these subjects from 1900 to 1917. I read dozens of books and interrogated multiple sources  that produced reams of paper files.

The research ranged from study of German warships and U-boats to New York’s “Fete Parisienne” fashion show of 1915. I enjoyed the flamboyance of French comedienne Cécile Sorel while engaging the difficulties of flying a Curtiss R-series float plane off choppy seas.


Along the way, I discovered the serious deficiencies that plagued the leadership of the U.S. Army’s Signal Corps (via Dwight R. Messimer’s An Incipient Mutiny), the United Stat­es’ lack of appreciation for the importance of aviation in war and U.S.’s resulting lack of competitive aircraft, as well as the kaiser’s fateful mistreatment of Germany’s High Seas Fleet (via Görlitz’s The Kaiser and His Court as well as other sources).


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


A: Good history and good historical fiction represent but a fork in the road to understanding the past. Because I wanted to bind real history with a thrilling fictional story in a book that would offer a valid portrait of time, place, and people, I began Dead Heat To Destiny by outlining.


The outline spans the period from 1903 to 1917, during maturation of the three main characters from childhood to adulthood. It follows them as they embark on careers and react to the war’s devastation of Europe. Over this same period, a Central American rebel intent on independence from Colombia becomes a spy for the German government.


The outline concludes with the novel’s final episode, when these four characters experience an unexpected and dramatic incident labeled a “dead heat.”  Because of its climactic nature, this event establishes the near-term destiny for each of the four characters.


Over and over, while writing this novel, I found it essential to entwine real history with the fictional story. Whether it was the declarations of real men such as Captain B. D. Foulois, commander of the 1st Aero Squadron during the pursuit of Pancho Villa in 1916, or racer Arthur Duray setting the 1903 land speed record of slightly more than 80 mph in Ostend, Belgium, I was always enthralled by learning of the real people and events of the period and how they offered the opportunity to combine them with the fictional drama.


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


A: In Dead Heat to Destiny, readers may lose themselves in the fears, hopes, and compromises that attended events such as the crash of zeppelin LZ.14 (known as L-1) on September 9, 1913, the famous flying exhibitions of Wilbur Wright at Le Mans, France in 1908, or the arrival of the battle cruiser Berlin at Agadir, Morocco during the Agadir Crisis of 1911. These, and more, join the family exploits, loves, and adventures of the three protagonists and the German spy.


Stitching real people and events into this novel permitted me to at least touch upon the awesome complexity of real events while unfolding an entertaining drama of four participants in one of the world’s most horrific wars.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: In addition to responding to requests in support of the launch of Dead Heat to Destiny, I am enjoying writing spinoff stories such as “From Hay Burner to Front Burner,” how motorized taxis displaced the horse-drawn fiacres of Paris. Thousands of hired drivers of that beautiful city quickly realized the benefits of abandoning their horses for such mechanical marvels as the Renault AG1. This remarkably rapid change occurred during just a few years of the first decade of the 20th century.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Readers interested in the German spying that occurred during World War I could do worse than consulting Dwight R. Messimer’s fascinating recounting of Etappendienst’s activities in the U.S. in his 2015 book The Baltimore Sabotage Cell.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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