Award-winning author Jack Woodville London studied the craft of fiction at the Academy of Fiction, St. Céré, France and at Oxford University. A former U.S. Army quartermaster officer and courtroom lawyer, he has authored nonfiction articles and reference books, as well as novels and short stories. Jack shares his love of writing at national and international conferences and teaches veterans who want to pen their own stories. Meticulous research of World War II and its affects on the home front play out in his French Letters historical fiction series praised for its authentic portrayal of the culture and the times. Children of a Good War (Vire Press, 2018) is the third book in that series. You’ll find Jack on his website at JWLBooks.com and on Facebook.
What is your elevator pitch for Children of a Good War?
Hamilton and Burr. Grant and Lee. Custer and Crazy Horse. Nixon and Kennedy. And the Hastings brothers, Frank and Peter, each of whom detests the other. Peter accuses Frank of being a bastard their father brought back from WW2. Frank believes Peter stole their parents’ home and dumped them to die in a soulless retirement center. Neither will learn who the other truly is until he learns who he is himself, quests that take Frank to France and Peter into the cockpit of a hijacked 747. Included in the Kirkus Review edition of Best Books 2018, SouthWest Writers’ own Parris Afton Bonds says the novel is “Beautifully written, a paean to humanity and a masterpiece of insight.”
When readers turn the last page in the book, what do you hope they take away from it?
Are we who others think we are? Or who we have decided for ourselves to be? We often wear masks to make others see us as we want them to see us or as we think they see us, but hide inside who we really are. We even take for granted who our parents are, rarely knowing who they were before us, people who had their own loves and suffered their own tragedies and who kept hidden their own secrets. And, of course, we are usually wrong about thinking we know all there is to know about others. Two of life’s most important quests are to find out what is behind these masks to discover who our parents were and who we really are.
What would you like people to know about the story itself?
The brothers’ mother, Virginia, gave birth to Peter when their father, Will, was an army doctor in France during WW2. The brothers grew up assuming they were married and also assuming that their parents had cozy lives together when in fact WW2 cost each of them the people they deeply loved. Four decades after the war, when the United States had become rich, urban, self-centered, and polarized, the brothers discover their parents did have secrets and that they may not themselves be who they think they are.
Tell us a little about your main characters. What is it about your protagonists that will make readers connect with them?
Peter was a star athlete, great student, Air Force Academy graduate who loved flying gunships in Vietnam before becoming a Pan Am pilot, the golden child everyone wants to be growing up. Frank was an ugly duck who was kicked off school teams for mooning Peter and for using chicken manure napalm to scorch the school rival’s initials into the football field, a skill he came to regret in Vietnam. His good quality was to question why things are the way they are. Their last argument arises from putting Will and Virginia in a nursing home. Candace, Peter’s wife, was a child of the sixties who becomes a loving suburban mom. Eleanor, a doctoral student from England, sees and brings out the goodness in Frank’s inner core. Their father is Will, a doctor who dies while on a walk from his retirement home and leaves the boys to fight over what will happen with their mother, Virginia, who has become aphasic and alone. And in France, four bitter widows use their medicines to play poker, remembering what really happened in WW2 when Will saved lives in their apple barn as a young army doctor. And one lonely, wonderful French nun in an Irish convent…
What sparked the initial story idea for the French Letters series?
A combination of Bible stories (Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau) and the observation that all of us put on our best face to others. We may lapse into being who others think we are or we may hide who we really are to make others believe we’re better or different from the person who (deep down inside) we would like to be. I framed the issue with three stories. In the first book, Virginia is a single woman in a small town during WW2 who hates being gossiped about and taken for granted, and who gets pregnant. In the second book, Will is thrown into mortal combat in Normandy and loses everything—Virginia, family, friends, and nearly his life, because he refuses to be who his commanders consider him to be. Their Children of a Good War, Peter and Frank, know nothing of their parents’ pasts or secrets and are comfortable baby boomers, happily hating one another over mistaken beliefs about each other’s supposed bastardy and treachery.
What was your favorite part of putting this project together?
Integrating into the story historical details—rationing of food, gasoline and gossip in a small town during the Second World War, landing on Omaha Beach and struggling through France, the barely perceptible shift from small town to big city America, and the polarizing division between Americans. The long story arc also includes more recent history: the AIDS fright of the 1980s, bank failures, hijacking of Pan Am airplanes in Pakistan, the discovery of DNA. All of these shaped us as a people while we soldiered on in the comfort of thinking we know who we are. Among my personal favorite episodes are two backstories I wrote: the Navy losing its goat at a football game and Pakistani government ministers trading a hijacking captive for a box of helicopter parts.
What do many beginning writers misunderstand about telling a story?
When readers pick up a book they look for three things: what is the story about, who are the characters, and where do I come in? Telling a story is a contract between the storyteller and the audience. The reader has to become invested in the story for it to succeed. To invest readers, the story must be something they can see themselves being a part of. The story must make the reader expect the conflict to come out a certain way and continue reading until the conflict does come out, although not necessarily as expected. The story doesn’t get better with clever phrases and lots of adjectives.
Do you prefer the creating or editing aspect of writing? How do you feel about research?
I prefer creative writing and love research, and don’t so much love real editing. Whatever I have written that has become readable is so because I have wonderful editors.
How has your experience writing nonfiction benefited your fiction writing?
It has taught me to be precise. Care with language, with accuracy of details, and writing the fewest words possible to convey the story all come from practice in nonfiction. Having said that, and reading what I wrote above, one could reasonably argue that I should practice what I preach.
Looking back to the beginning of your writing/publishing career, what do you know now that you wish you’d known then?
I was the John Snow of beginning writers. Criticism is painful, but not fatal.
Do you have a message or a theme that recurs in your writing?
It hurts when people take us for granted. It hurts when we lose people we care about. It hurts when we discover that our lives and the lives of people we care about are messy and uncertain. People do have secrets, often for good reason. And, everyone we know is more complicated, richer, deeper, better but also sometimes meaner and nastier and greedier than we see on the surface. Know yourself; whether you choose to let others know that self is up to you.
What are the hardest kinds of scenes for you to write?
Sex scenes. I vastly prefer to invite the reader to imagine any necessary details.
What writing projects are you working on now?
A lighthearted and funny (I hope) Popeye versus Bluto story set on a WW2 troopship in the Pacific, in which the Popeye character disappears overboard and Bluto washes up on a desert island—next to a Japanese POW camp. Their names are Bart and Olafson and, despite the improbability of the story, the historical backdrops are accurate.
Is there anything else you’d like readers to know?
Don’t write for money. Write for the art of writing. There isn’t much money and what little there is will disappear fast. But, the satisfaction you will have from your artistry will be with you always.
KL Wagoner (writing as Cate Macabe) is the author of This New Mountain: a memoir of AJ Jackson, private investigator, repossessor, and grandmother. Kathy has a new speculative fiction blog at klwagoner.com and writes about memoir at ThisNewMountain.com.