Thursday, November 2, 2023

Q&A with Heather B. Moore




Heather B. Moore is the author of the new historical novel Under the Java Moon. The novel is based on the World War II experiences of Marie (Rita) Vischer Elliott. Moore's many other novels include In the Shadow of a Queen.


Q: What inspired you to write Under the Java Moon?


A: My publisher brought the story idea to me, and so I reached out to Marie (Rita) Vischer Elliott. We met in August 2021 when she visited my home state. We were both vetting each other—she, wondering if I could write her story, and me, wondering if I could do it justice.


We talked for about two hours, and I was astounded to hear her experiences since I’d never read anything about the Dutch plight in Indonesia during WW2. Having read dozens of WW2 books over the years, I wondered how many other people, like me, had no idea what had gone on throughout the archipelago.


Leaving that initial meeting with Rita I knew it was a story I’d love to write in order to honor the memories of those who endured so many challenges in that part of the world.


Q: As you noted, the novel is based on a true story--what did you see as the right balance between fiction and history as you wrote the book?


A: Since Rita was a young girl when the Japanese invaded Indonesia (then the Dutch East Indies), I tried to talk her into letting me age her up to around 11 or 12 years of age. She was adamant that at the age of 5 she was very street-smart. “War forces children to grow up,” she told me.


I still wanted to have an older character’s point of view, so I decided to add in her mother’s POV as well. And to balance that because her family was divided (men separated from women and children), I included her father’s POV.


That still left me with many scenes in young Rita’s POV, so I gave her a fictional friend—Johan—who was a couple of years older than Rita and could be the buffer between the adult world of secrecy and the innocence of Rita.


Although some of the sub-characters are fictional, the majority are real people, or based on real people. I didn’t have to create any imagined scenarios since I based the camp experiences and any fictional character plot elements on other true stories that I’d found in the half-dozen self-published memoirs I pored through.


Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: Rita and I brainstormed some titles together, and Under the Java Moon was on that list. I had initially come up with a connection that could bond Rita’s parents together as they suffered through the war years in separate prison camps, not knowing if the other was still alive.


I hoped to have “Java” in the title, and it made sense when George told his wife to look at the moon each night and he would too—in order to feel connected during their unknown future. I was grateful that the publishing committee agreed on the title. That doesn’t always happen!

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


A: After reading through the notes Rita had sent me as well as a series of articles her father had written for the Moth Magazine about his survival on the Java Sea, I scoured online sources. I couldn’t find any films or documentaries, or any traditionally published books for that matter.


I discovered several self-published memoirs of survivors from either Tjideng Camp or other camps throughout the islands. Those became immensely helpful as I was crafting the points of view of Rita’s parents and what they must have endured.


It was surprising to me that the war didn’t end on Indonesia in 1945. The Japanese soldiers were ordered to stay in the camps and guard the Dutch inside the walls in order to protect them from the Indonesian uprisings that turned into the Bersiap—Indonesian National Revolution.


Europeans and Japanese were targets, and it took months for most of the Dutch to finally get out of Indonesia. It wasn’t until 1949 that Indonesia was finally awarded independence from the Queen of Holland and that was only because of pressure from other allied countries to give up colonization.


Also shocking to me was to learn that in 1941, the total population of the Dutch East Indies was around 60 million. By the end of the war, 30,000 European POWs, the majority of them Dutch, had died. In total, 4 million civilians, including Indonesians and Indo-Europeans, perished as a result of malnutrition/famine and forced labor.


Q: That is indeed shocking and horrific…


On another note, what are you working on now?


A: I’m in the editing process for another WW2 novel. This one is about aviator Nancy Harkness Love, who founded the WAFS (Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron), which eventually became the WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots) organization, and was comprised of US female pilots.


These women trained on and flew the WW2 bombers coming off the manufacturing floor and delivered them to air bases around the country. Nancy Love was the first woman to fly bombers such as the P-51 Mustang. The service of the WASPs saved thousands of hours and enabled the male pilots to fly combat overseas.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I thought it was very interesting WHY Rita finally decided to allow her story to be told—in this form. It certainly wasn’t an easy decision for her. From our first meeting in August 2021, until she signed the contract the end of January 2022, she studied it from all angles.


Recently, she said: “One of the thoughts I’ve contemplated over the years has been how incredible it is that there were people, including myself, who actually survived these awful conditions. What was the secret to surviving a concentration camp—an inherent strong constitution, the will or instinct to survive, the fear of death, courage, or a mass of people standing together and determined to beat the enemy by surviving? In my case, it could possibly have been my mother’s strong willpower to keep her children alive at all costs. I could sense it and feel it! I learned that the human race is very resilient and adaptable, but life itself is fragile. We should not take it for granted.”


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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