Remember Wake

How did you come across the story for Remember Wake?

I was working as a research assistant for a PBS series on the history of Idaho and was sent to do a preliminary interview with a man named Clint Haakonstad, a survivor of the Battle of Wake Island. I was excited because, though I was a history major, I'd never heard of Wake. I found his story compelling, informative, and utterly inspiring. But I couldn't help but notice his wife, Audrey, who sat beside him showing off scrapbooks and filling in details for him. She knew his story as well as he did, but her presence made me wonder what the experience must have been like for women back home. Later, I had a chance to interview Audrey for an exhibit I was working on and learn more about her interesting past.

You based this story on real people?
I interviewed thirteen men and women who actually lived the experiences depicted in my novel, so virtually everything you read, down to the smallest details, actually happened to at least one of my interviewees. That authenticity was important to me.
Why write this true story as fiction instead of nonfiction?
Because it was important to me to tell the women's story as well as the men's, I felt a novel format would allow me to build the necessary tension in the women's story to assure it could hold its own against what the men went through. Also, Wake Island has been covered in nonfiction, but this story has never been told in fiction, so it was a chance to inform a new audience. Furthermore, there couldn't be a better story for a novel.
Why is the Wake Island story important?
Wake Island is often overshadowed by Pearl Harbor. Few people have heard of this important early battle in WWII. Wake marked the first small victory for our American forces after the decimation of our fleet at Pearl. It gave Americans a chance to once again believe in our fighting spirit. The Wake defenders became heroes to a country still adjusting to war.
Where did the title come from?
As the men fought for sixteen long days to hold the island against overwhelming Japanese forces, people back home couldn't help but see a comparison between their siege and the famous siege of the Alamo. So "Remember Wake" became a battle cry, much as "Remember the Alamo" had been in the previous century.
What makes Remember Wake unique?
This was the first time the Wake civilians' story had been told in such detail. Usually, the Wake civilians are given a mere mention, whereas the Marines are given most of the credit for holding the island and there is some validity in that. But I wanted to tell the civilians' story and let people know the particular hardships they and their families suffered. This is the first time the women's story has ever been told.
Were the Wake Island civilians ever given their due?
In 1981, special legislation finally provided Veterans status to the civilians, making them one of only a handful of nonmilitary groups to be granted veterans benefits. Though the country has forgotten these men, they hold no grudges. They continue to support each other through the Survivors of Wake, Guam and Cavite Organization. It is my hope that Remember Wake will honor their contributions and will inspire as well as inform.

Dancing in Combat Boots

How did you find the women to interview for Dancing in Combat Boots?

Finding the women for this book required creative thinking and a lot of detective work. Before I started writing the individual stories, I thought about what types of women I'd like to feature in the book. I categorized them under subject headings: Military Women, Working Women, Professional Women, Mothers and Wives, Children, Women in the Thick of Things, etc. I wanted this book to represent all the important roles women played. I also made the conscious decision to include the voices of women from various ethnic and socio-economic groups, voices so seldom heard. And I wanted the book to be a sampling of women's experiences across the country. So I set myself a pretty wide-reaching task.

I started by contacting established organizations like the Red Cross and women's military groups and asking around for names of women with good stories to tell. When I'd find a woman whose story sounded promising, I did an initial interview to see how well she could tell her story. In that way, I was able to track down women who not only had had interesting experiences, but could remember them in great detail. At times, it was the women I interviewed who led me to other women with whom to speak. The search was part of the fun of writing this book, and I talked to many interesting women whose stories, for various reasons, did not make it into the final manuscript. I hope to one day do something with those stories as well.

Why did you decide to write these accounts as short stories?
Initially, I conceived of this book as an oral history collection. I actually wrote each of these stories as interviews in the women's own words. When I submitted the book in that format, however, I was told by agents and editors that "oral history collections don't sell." How disheartening that was! I'd put a lot of work into that book and I, for one, loved the format. At that point, I had a decision to make. I could give up on the stories or find another way to tell them. I almost gave up, believe me, but I couldn't let these stories go. So I started the arduous task of turning each interview into a short story. In the end, I wound up really liking this format. The elements of fiction made it possible for me to make the women's memories come to life for the reader.
As a writer, what was the most challenging thing about writing these stories?
Short stories are deceptive. Because they're short, there's a tendency to believe they are easy to write. Nothing could be further from the truth! Each of these stories took several months to write. Then you add on the extra challenge of writing a fictional story that is based on fact. It was important to me to remain as close to the women's actual experiences as I possibly could. At times, this meant sacrificing a bit of dramatic tension or poetic license, but I felt sure the reader would respond to the underlying, subtle truths in these stories. In nearly all of the stories, ninety percent of what you read really happened. I used that same technique with Remember Wake and it served me well.
Where did the title come from?
The title came from the opening story of the same name. The Red Cross volunteer I interviewed for this story recalled a wonderful detail. She said that when they danced with the soldiers in their high-cuffed combat boots, their ankles actually bled. It was an image that seemed to resonate on several levels, and it was also a great-sounding title.
You are now asking people to record their own stories on your website. Why is this important?
I've often been asked why I keep writing fiction set in WWII. Well it's largely because I keep coming across wonderful stories I've never heard before. The breadth of that war is astounding. 70 million people in 50 countries participated in WWII. That's 70 million stories we haven't heard. The World War II generation is fast passing from us. It's my goal and passion to try and save as many of their memories as I can. Today's kids are learning very little about this critical period in our history and I'm hoping the website can serve as a repository to help them find out more.
What makes Dancing in Combat Boots unique?
To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time such a diverse collection of women's voices from that time period has been gathered in one work of fiction. It's my hope that when people finish reading Dancing in Combat Boots they will have a better appreciation of the contributions of women. It has been argued that the hard work of the women on the home front had a direct correlation to our victory in that war. Knowing how busy women are today, we can well relate to how difficult it must have been to work a job, care for kids, volunteer for the war effort, tend a Victory Garden, deal with rationing, etc. while husbands and brothers were away at war. What we can't always see and what the women couldn't see while they were living those experiences is how our seemly ordinary lives can change history. It's my hope that this book honors and celebrates our mothers and grandmothers who set women on a new course.

Doing My Part

What made you decide to write a children's book?
Knowing I was thinking about how to adapt my grandmother's story (she was a Mexican immigrant), a writer friend suggested I read a book called Esperanza Rising. I was enchanted by the story and I started to wonder if I could write my own historical novel for kids. A few weeks later, I was asked to speak to a fifth grade class about writing and World War II. I was so impressed with their interest in that time period and with their desire to learn more, but also dismayed to realize there wasn't much World War II literature out there for children. I immediately thought of a woman I had interviewed for Dancing in Combat Boots. Her story never made it into that collection because I decided to stay focused on older women, but I'd never stopped thinking her story was compelling. I realized it would actually make a great children's book, so I started writing.
How long did it take you to write Doing My Part?
Doing My Part was a rare blessing, a story that told itself. Unlike my previous books, which took years to write, I wrote a complete first draft of Doing My Part in a five-month period. Within a year and a half of coming up with the idea, the story was on the shelves. I won't say writing Doing My Part was necessarily easier than writing my other two books, but it definitely seemed to come from someplace deep within and, of course, it helped immensely to have Shirley's story to build upon.
How much of Doing My Part is true?
Unlike my other two books, I took a little more license with Doing My Part. I felt I needed to in order to build upon these great anecdotes Shirley had told me and I also knew I needed the freedom to be able to create a character with a rich internal life, which meant putting a little distance between the character, Helen, and her inspiration, Shirley. But most of the events and details in the book are based on things Shirley told me and on information I gleaned during my research trip to the Illinois Valley where Shirley grew up.
Is Westclox still there?
The Westclox factory building is still standing. It was a thrill to walk beside it. It's an amazing old building and still looks much the way it does on the cover of Doing My Part. It's mostly abandoned now, although there a few shops in part of the factory. But the building itself still seems to breathe. It hasn't yet given up its ghosts.
Where will the Home-Front Heroes stories go from here?
Helen Marshall is only the first of the Home-Front Heroes. The next book will take place in a Japanese internment camp in California. Three more books will round out the series. One will involve a 12-year-old Mexican-American boy growing up in San Antonio. Another will chronicle the friendship between a Jewish girl in New York and an English boy who has been sent to America for safe-keeping. The last will deal with an African-American girl in the segregated south. Each of those books are based on stories told to me while researching Dancing in Combat Boots.
What do you hope kids will take away from the Home-Front Heroes collection?
I hope they will learn and appreciate how important kids were to the war effort. Unlike many wars in our history, World War II asked for something from every citizen. Everyone from the president on down was calling out to children to participate in scrap drives and war bond drives, to spot enemy air planes, to draw the black-out curtains, to help their neighbors. Kids were a vital and appreciated part of the war effort. Kids can make a difference.

The No-No Boys

Why did you choose The No-No Boys as the second book in your Home-Front Heroes Series?
All along, I knew I wanted to tell the story of Japanese internment in the second book in the series. This was such an important part of how this country experienced the war and it's not something kids are hearing about today. I remember as a child thinking that America was the "good guy" during World War II and that we'd done everything right. Not until I heard about the internment of people of Japanese ancestry did I realize that we might have made mistakes as well.
How do the schoolchildren you visit react when they hear about this episode in our history?
Whenever I start to tell them about how kids as young as themselves were rounded up and sent to internment camps along with their families, I pause for a moment to let the information sink in. Inevitably, one child raises his hand and says, "Here? We did that in this country?" We go on then to talk about whether or not the internment was right or fair, but I also try to put into context the feelings of the times. It's never completely fair to judge history by today's standards. We have to understand how we used to think and feel and what forces changed those thoughts and feelings that led us to progress to where we are today.
How can kids today apply what they've learned about the Japanese internment experience?
I've always felt we have to know and understand our past in order to keep from repeating it. When I speak to kids today, many of them are able to make the connection that prejudice in all forms, even in times of war, is wrong. And stories like The No-No Boys help them connect to characters who in most ways, are not so different from kids today. Once they can connect to characters in such a way, they can better put themselves in the shoes of their peers around the world.
What were your concerns in writing The No-No Boys?
I know this episode in American history is very important to the Japanese-American population and especially to those who lived in the camps. I was extremely concerned that I not only get the facts right, but that I do the best I could to relay the camp experience. I did this by relying on the memories and stories told to me by the four people who inspired the story as well as by my additional research. But it wasn't just the camp details I felt I had to get right, but also the Japanese-American culture. I did the best I could to take what I knew about Japanese culture from my research, my trip to Japan and my friendship with Japanese and Japanese-American citizens and weave that into the story. In all cases, I hope I got the details right.
How did you create the character of Tai Shimoda?
Two of the men I'd interviewed from the camps told me that before the war broke out, they never thought of themselves as anything other than "regular American kids." So I wanted Tai to portray that above all else. He likes sports and hanging out with his friends. He has a crush on a girl and is caught up in the same kind of peer pressure any young teen experiences. Though kids today may not be able to relate to the camp experience, they can relate to Tai and that makes his dilemma all the more immediate to them.
What surprised you about writing this story?
That I had never heard of the No-No Boys or the dissension in the camps and that there was, as there so often is, more than one way to respond to anything. Tai's family makes decisions based on what fits their particular view of the world. His friends' families do the same. It was important to me to show in this book how complex those decisions really were. And I trusted that kids would get that, and they do.

V for Victory

How did you get the idea for V for Victory?

This book is actually taken from my mother's family history. The main character is based on my uncle, Roman Talamantez, and his experiences helping in the family grocery store in San Antonio. It was fun writing the character of Miguel, because he's a little more ornery than the other characters in my books. That's because my uncle described himself that way, although he was also a very responsible and helpful child.

Incidentally, that's also my uncle featured on the front of the book. We got a picture of him when he was about Miguel's age and drew him onto the cover. The baby in the wagon is my son!

What makes V for Victory special?
There are few books of historical fiction that feature Mexican-American main characters, so that gives this book special appeal. It was important to me with the Home-Front Heroes Collection to make this a multi-cultural series. In the 1940s it was unusual for people to travel more than 50 miles from where they lived, so your neighborhood was your experience of the world. It was fun to include details of Mexican-American culture and some Spanish words for the kids.
How do you choose which WWII details will go into each book?
I had to think through most of the series before I began writing. I didn't want to repeat details, so I had to figure out which book was the best place to tell which facts. In V for Victory, for example, we get a great scene that takes place at the Saturday matinee, which was a favorite pastime for kids in that era. It's the only book that features going to the movies in detail. In each book I also try to expand a little on the understanding of the repercussions of war. In this book, Miguel is helping a wounded veteran who lost his arm in battle. I wanted to show how the war continued to affect lives long after it ended.
What is it that Miguel really wants in this book and how does that speak to young readers today?
Miguel wants to be old enough to do his part. He sees his sister and aunts and parents all helping the war effort, and he wants to be treated as more responsible. Like many kids, he longs to be older so he can play a more mature role in the world around him. It's only as the story unfolds that Miguel realizes we ALL contribute in our own way, even kids. Through his efforts in the scrap metal drive, his help of the wounded veteran, and his care for his young nephew, he actually does much more for the war effort than he gives himself credit for.
How was writing V for Victory different than writing the other books?
As with all of my books, a lot of research went into this book. I had to bone up on San Antonio history, Mexican-American culture in that city, and refresh my limited knowledge of Spanish, among other things. And the fact that this book was based on family stories made it challenging too. The character of Miguel had to develop in tandem with and apart from what I know of my uncle. The character himself is quite different from the other characters in my series. And it's no small task to make a one-year-old character hold his own in a story, but the kids love Victor. I also really wanted to do justice to the character of Alfonso, who has suffered so much in the war.

Wave Me Good-Bye

Each of your books is based on a real person, how did you find the inspiration for Miriam in Wave Me Good-bye?
Miriam is based on a woman named Roslyn Arnstein who grew up in the only Jewish family in her Bronx neighborhood. I happened on Roslyn when I was doing research for my book Dancing in Combat Boots, and we got to chatting about her childhood in New York City. She had so many great stories, and I had been wanting to find a way to include a Jewish family and some details about the Holocaust in my series, so hers was an obvious story to tell.
What surprised you while researching this book?
I think I was surprised by how much the Jewish community in America knew about what was happening to the Jews in Europe. There were rumors and even some leaked pictures of the camps. The New York Jewish community, in particular, really rallied for our government to let in more refugees or to take action on what was happening in Europe, but to little avail. One person told me that not a single Jewish family in America was untouched by the Holocaust. They all knew friends or relatives that perished in the terrible event.
Is that why you chose to include a story line about Rachel, a Jewish refugee from the Holocaust?
Yes. I wanted to find a way to introduce young readers to the Holocaust in the way that a Jewish child in America would learn about it, through a refugee. Rachel's story is tragic, and I wanted to leave certain parts unresolved so the kids would continue to wonder what happened to her family. This is actually one of the only books in print that depicts a Jewish family on the home-front during the war. For that reason, it's a good introduction to the subject of the Holocaust for young readers because they get to experience the sadness of the event, but they are not yet exposed to all the details.
The larger story line in this book deals with the friendship between Chris, an English evacuee from London, and Miriam. How did that story line develop?
Roslyn had mentioned that there was an orphanage near her home, and during the war, it housed English evacuees. As I researched the story, I came to discover that the children were from the Actors' Orphanage, which was created in England to care for the children of mostly stage actors who had either passed away or were too ill to care for their children. The orphanage was supported partly by American movie stars, and they came often to visit the kids in New York. Such a fascinating and forgotten tidbit from history. I simply had to include that story. And I wanted to keep the original aspect, which was that Roslyn would take to these kids only through the fence.
The friendship between Chris and Miriam is of great interest to young readers. How did you make a friendship that takes place through a fence grow and develop?
That was a challenge I was eager to tackle. I had this idea that kids can make friends anywhere, and in any situation. So I wanted to try something unusual. I wanted to end each chapter with Miriam talking to Chris through the fence. He would become her confidante and help her make sense of a senseless world. I wanted to do it mainly through dialogue, because I felt my young readers would relate thoroughly to this friendship, even though it takes place back in the 1940s. My writer's group said I'd never get away with it -- having the second half of every chapter return to the fence, but I knew kids would like it, and they do. My fans and the teachers I work with all tell me that is the kids' favorite part of the book. Of course, it helps that this is a friendship between a boy and a girl, which is perilous territory to young reader.
Most of your books feature the real-life inspirations for the books on the covers. Is that true here?
Yes. The girl you see on the cover is a depiction of the real-life Miriam. The boy, though, was created by my illustrator, loosely based on a picture I gave her of one of the boys in the family I lived with in London when I was in college. That boy, too, was named Christopher. As with all of my covers, there is much history to be learned in the artwork. The building is a drawing of one of the actual buildings at the orphanage. The comic book cover is a close representation of covers from that time period, and, of course, we work really hard to get the details of clothing and hair correct on every cover. It's great fun to work with the illustrator. We start with a little stick-figure drawing of what I have in my head, and then she makes magic.