Yesterday, we had a great post by Jesse Cozean about writing like Kurt Vonnegut. If you haven’t read it yet, you might want to swing over there.
Jesse recently published My Grandfather’s War, a book about his relationship with his grandfather and his grandfather’s experience in World War II. Today, I’ve asked him to tell us what it was like to write about a family member, particularly one who had experienced so much.
If you write memoir, or have ever thought about writing it, this should be very interesting interview for you.
Hey Jesse! Thanks for joining me today.
You bet, Joe. Thanks for having me, I love the blog!
So I’m fascinated with this idea of using your family for inspiration and telling the stories of those closest to you. What first captured your imagination about your grandfather’s story and made you want to write about it?
Well, my grandfather hadn’t mentioned his story for nearly 60 years after he came home from the war, and had finally begun opening up about it, at least a little. One night, after Thanksgiving dinner, actually, we had some time alone. He told me a story about how, after he was captured and loaded into a boxcar bound for a Nazi POW camp, the rail yard where the boxcar was parked was bombed by U.S. planes. The men stood – there were too many men crowded in the car to sit on the dirty straw – and cushioned each other as the bombs bounced the boxcar on the tracks. After that story, would you be able to stop listening?
How did you get him to talk about the story? Was he reluctant at first?
I planned to interview him after that night, though it took a while to actually find a time that would work. I was hurried along when he was diagnosed with a faulty heart valve, which would require open-heart surgery.
It was difficult to get him to open up – there was a lot of long silences. I had stupidly expected it would be easy, but asking him what he felt when one of his friends was cut in half by machine gun fire was probably the most difficult question I’ve ever had to ask. Fortunately he had saved all of the documents and letters from his time in the service, so we were able to go through those and get much of the story that way. Those letters were a treasure as I wrote the book, and many made their way into the pages, because they gave the truth of his experience, as he had experienced it. That was a major focus of the book – trying to show what it was like for him and those of his generation, without the benefit of hindsight.
Was he excited about the idea of his story being told in a book?
He actually never knew that it was going to be in a book. I did present him with a copy of his war story on the last Christmas we spent together, which he kept on the nightstand by his bed. But the rest of the book, about the time we spent together as he recovered from his surgery, was written after he passed away.
Did you write much about your own experience as you reflected on his life? What was that like, interacting with his life through the page?
I did – and it was a very challenging process for me. The story goes back and forth between his war stories and the time we spent together towards the end of his life, while he was living with me after his surgery. My editor was constantly pushing me to put more of myself into the book. I had originally wanted to write about how one moment – his capture – had changed his life and affected everything else, even after his release and return home. The night before the final manuscript was due, I was re-reading it, and I realized that I had written a book about how one moment – the decision to interview him and be his caretaker – had changed our relationship and my life.
Would you recommend capturing the family stories to other writers? Why?
Oh, absolutely. There are so many amazing stories that lie buried underneath the surface. I didn’t set out to write a book about my grandfather, but was just trying to get his history told because it was something that was important to him. I learned how his experiences had shaped him, and, through him, my entire family. I think every family has those stories.
What are three things you learned about writing?
1. It’s hard! There’s a lot to keep track of in a book – the plot, what the reader knows at each point, how the narrative flows. And having to open up and put in personal details was probably the most difficult part for me.
2. It’s humbling. I’ve never seen so much red ink on a piece of paper as when my first draft came back from the editor – she must have gone through a whole box of pens! My mantra when I was writing was stolen directly from Kurt Vonnegut: “Every sentence should either reveal character or advance the action.” You absolutely need good editors and readers to give honest (and often harsh) feedback to push you.
3. It’s incredibly rewarding. When I finished, I felt like I had written the best book I was capable of, but I didn’t know if readers would enjoy it. Since then, I’ve met some amazing people and gotten some great feedback, and the book has really seemed to resonate. Would’ve sucked if people had hated it!
If you could write the book over again what would you do differently?
You know, I really feel that everything in the process worked out the way it was supposed to, and even with hindsight, I’m not sure how I could have short-circuited the long (it took nearly 3 years, all told!) process. I would definitely have tried to record some of the interviews with my grandfather, just to have his exact words and voice saved. But everything just seemed to come together. I even had to have surgery on my ankle just a few months before the final manuscript was due, which made it much easier to stay indoors, ignore the pull of the beach, and finish the editing process.
Most painful writing experience you can remember?
I don’t want to give away anything in the book, but it was definitely writing the final chapters of the story. You’ll just have to read it to find out!
Write about your grandfather.
Write for fifteen minutes. When you’re finished, share your story in the comments.