Sunday, August 2, 2009

Charles McCain author of "An Honorable German" - Loaded Questions Author Interview

An Honorable German centers on Max Brekendorf, a young German naval officer during WWII who is serving on a battleship in the Atlantic and volunteers for the U-boat force. The German Navy and the submarine on which Max is serving during the war is heavily populated by Nazi loyalists causing a troubling situation for the book's central character in which he must choose between his morals and the increasingly powerful Nazi party. Charles McCain, in his debut novel, has written a book full of fascinating action sequences and great detail gained by years of research as you'll read below.

Stay tuned tomorrow for a Loaded Questions exclusive - an unprinted excerpt from An Honorable German!

Loaded Questions: This is your first novel; how are you enjoying being a published author? Are you heading off on a book tour?

Charles McCain: I'm still getting used to it. My biggest surprise is the interest people take in my life as a novelist. Given that I spend large amounts of time alone; reading or writing or thinking, my life as a novelist ain’t too glamorous. Everyone wants to learn the process of how I write a novel. They assume there is a “way” to do it; a step by step process of some sort which I follow. When I tell people it is a mystery to me how the novelist part of me actually works , they seem disappointed. I liken it to someone who cooks by feel and someone who cooks with a recipe. I write by “feel.” That’s all I know about it.

Writing has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. By age ten I was writing about things going on around me. When I was fourteen I tried to write my first novel—didn’t get very far—and later on in my late teens I wrote two novels, which I threw away. The corollary to novel writing is novel reading and there were many years when I read two hundred or more novels. Curiously, I don’t read a lot of novels these days.

I wrote the initial drafts of An Honorable German in the early 1980s shortly after I graduated from college. I was 21, and determined to be a published novelist. My life took a different course for many years but I always felt that somehow I would seize the brass ring. So becoming a published novelist is the fulfillment of a life long dream. To have my talent recognized and to walk past a bookstore and see my book in the window gives me a warm feeling of satisfaction and achievement. Sometimes I read through my novel and think, “I wrote this!”

I’m not off on a book tour. As an unknown first time novelist, there is no way I can sell enough books to cover the costs to the publisher of a book tour. I’ll just have to wait until I’m famous! I do have friends in various parts of the country who are going to hold book signing parties for me after Labor Day and I anticipate those will sell a lot of books, partially because my friends will make it clear to everyone they invite that they have to but a lot of books.

A friend of mine in my home state of South Carolina went to visit with her priest several weeks ago to discuss several spiritual issues. Before starting their discussion, she made him buy go online and buy a book. Another friend was in a B&N in Manhattan and a man was standing next to her at the fiction table looking through a book and he couldn’t decide whether to buy it. She actually took it out of his hands and gave him my book and said a friend wrote it and he must read it. And he bought it!

LQ: You have written that the idea for this story first struck you in the late 70s when you came across a Time Magazine article from 1944 about German POWs escaping from a camp in Arizona. How detailed was your initial idea? Were you simply interested in exploring how the Germans came to be POWs in Arizona and where they were trying to go, or did were you struck by a more complete picture of the story you wanted to tell?

CM: I initially wanted to write the German version of The Great Escape. But first I had to get the men to the POW camp. Several Germans named in the Time Magazine article had been aboard the Graf Spee, including the leader of the escape, who had been the Senior Navigation Officer. I later corresponded with him. These men from the Graf Spee had escaped from Argentina in 1940 and had made their way back to Germany and served on U-Boats which is how they got captured. I discovered all of this through my research. The journey of these men from the Graf Spee to U-Boats to captivity in a POW camp in Arizona fascinated me.

When I plotted all that out over time, and wrote and rewrote different pieces of the novel, it finally became clear that the journey of the protagonist to the POW camp was the most interesting and longest part of the story line. But this was more of an unconscious process at the time. Only by looking backwards do I understand it.

LQ: The depth of historical detail in this book is amazing. What sort of sources did you look to in exploring German history? Did you focus primarily on history from the German point of view or did you just read anything you could get your hands on?

CM: Most readers tell me that they are fascinated by the small facts woven into the narrative. It helps them connect with the characters. I wish I could say I had this in mind when I wrote the novel but I didn’t. I just find small details about history to be fascinating and when I would talk to people over the years, they were always intrigued by the small details such as the Graf Spee having Chinese laundrymen aboard.

Slipping in those facts took a whole lot of thinking and rewriting. I liken it to painting with watercolors on an egg shell. I had to paint the history in very delicately, so delicately that people would not actually notice the history but simply come across a historical fact as a natural part of the story.

In terms of researching, I just read anything I could get my hands on for many years. I started reading about World War Two when I twelve so my interest in the subject arose early in my life. In college I majored in history and spent most of my spare time—when not being a delinquent—reading history and novels. One of the reasons I read so many books when researching is that “I don’t know what I don’t know.”

Hundreds of times I came across small facts that I never would have imagined—such as people in Berlin playing ping-pong during the war. Often I would plough through a five hundred page book like The German National Railway in World War II and find maybe one or two facts that were useful. But those facts were important to know. One of the facts that came from that book—actually its in two volumes (I will lend them to you if you want to read them!!)—was how trains in Germany during WW II were often made up of rail cars they had stolen from countries they had conquered. That is the kind of detail which gives that sense of verisimilitude and “you were there” feeling to the novel.

Additionally, I met a guy on the Deutsche Kriegsmarine forum who had recently retired from the German navy and had an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of the German navy and of Germany. We got to know each other via email and both came to realize the other person was above board. Jürgen, his name, first asked me if I had seen the movie U-571 (with Matthew McConathy) and what had I thought of it? I told him I almost stood up in the middle of the movie and yelled, “this is all completely wrong!” That was his feeling and he said he would do anything to prevent another U-571 from happening so he would do anything he could to help me. He didn’t realize what he was getting into. BTW, U-571 was so historically inaccurate that for the first time ever, the Chief of Naval History for the U.S. Navy issued a statement saying the movie was highly inaccurate.

Jürgen was a huge help in many ways. He not only read the entire manuscript, he corrected mistakes in how I described a ship being maneuvered and informed me that in the German Navy, unlike the US Navy, officers did not swear in front of the men and that no one ever used the popular four letter word, with the letters ing often added. In fact there wasn’t a German expression for that. He also had me change such things as officers running to battle stations (German navy officers are instructed to never, ever run), and he corrected something I never would have thought of: German Navy officers never clicked their heels when receiving orders as did German army men. The reason: you would never bring your feet together on a ship since you could easily fall over.

He supplied several dozen small details, such as what type of cigarettes the officer’s smoked. His father had served in the German Navy in WW II and he had talked with his father extensively over the years about his service in WW II. Jürgen even gave me a copy of his father’s unpublished memoirs which also had fascinating details, many about cadet life in the 1930s. Jürgen read the entire manuscript and was an invaluable help.

In the last years I read or re-read German history books by the dozens and continue to do so to this day. I also bought a lot of stuff on EBay from the era such as books published by the German Navy as P.R. during the war and I looked at hundreds and hundreds of photographs. To write a World War Two epic from the German POV required that I know German history so well that I would automatically know how the different characters would have reacted to events around them. When writing, I almost had to temporarily became German. It sounds weird but if you are writing authentic historical fiction you have to be able to project yourself into the time you are writing about. This caused some confusion in the editing process.

Example: In 1943 a major British air raid on Hamburg killed 50,000 people. In the novel, the protagonist discusses this with several others and uses the figure of 200,000 people killed. The copy editor flagged that, which was his job, and pointed out that Wikipedia said only 50,000 people were killed.

I told him that he was absolutely correct. That it had been established after the war, that only 50,000 people were killed in the RAF raid on Hamburg in 1943. But at the time German newspapers, all of which were under government censorship, reported 200,000 people had been killed. Therefore, that would be the only figure the character would have know. The New York Times also used that figure in its coverage, claiming to have verified the figure with neutral sources in Berlin.

So when writing An Honorable German I had to know not only the actual facts of a situation but I had to know what the people of the era had been told since you can never, ever, write anything that gives the slightest hint that the characters have some foreknowledge of events since they don’t and couldn’t. That would break the “suspension of disbelief.”

We know who won the war and the history of the various events that make up the war, but the characters don’t. When rewriting the novel I watched like a hawk to ensure there was nothing in the narrative which was out of synch with the era. I originally had a florescent light in one scene and I tracked down when florescent lights started to be manufactured. They were not being made in the year the scene occurs so I had to change it.

And finally, I had to understand and be familiar with the entire war from several sides to write the novel. That involved reading a whole lot of books.

LQ: Would you ever consider writing about another aspect of German history?

CM: Right now I wouldn’t write anything outside of the Third Reich during the war years. There are so many untold stories about Germany in World War Two that I plan to stick with that for awhile. It took me years and years to acquire the knowledge I have.

LQ: Without giving away too many of the books details I thought that one of the most poignant parts of the story was when the character Max was in the American south. It is always interesting to see America through the eyes of an outsider but the contrast between the German and American societies and war experiences was really insightful. Was that exploration one of your goals when you sat down to write the book?

I really want to answer this question in a deeply profound and intellectual way so anyone who reads this will be impressed by my forethought and literary touch. Yet, truth be told,

I never thought of that until you mentioned it in your question. When I’m writing, I’m focused on three things: creating characters who are realistic, moving the story as fast as I can in what I call my “waterfall style”, and maintaining complete historical authenticity.

I never think about symbolism when I’m writing. I’m not sending a message. I’m just trying to tell the story in the quickest, most dramatic and factual way. Because I’m from the Deep South, and was living in Louisiana when I first wrote the drafts, and there were POW camps in MS which was right next door, it was easy to write those scenes since I knew exactly how people would have behaved and would have said. As sickening as it was, strict segregation was maintained all through the South during the war which often found white German soldiers eating in restaurants African- American G.I.s could not eat it. The Germans were the enemy but they were white. One of very key scenes in those chapters was a story told to me by an old timer in New Orleans in the early 80s.

LQ: You've said that one of the hardest things about finalizing this book was cutting sections that didn't move the story forward. Can you describe one of your favorite scenes that didn't end up making the final version?

CM: There is a scene featuring Max’s father, Johann which I really, really liked but cut down to a few sentences from a page and a half. He calls on Countess von Woller at her request to tell her details of how her oldest son, Ernst, perished at Verdun. She asks Johann such questions as “did he have a quick death, Sergeant Major?” “Did he suffer?” etc. And Johann assures her that he had a quick death.

But Ernst didn’t have a quick death. He took a piece of shrapnel through the side of his head which blinded him and drove him to madness with pain. It was horrible, Ernst tried to claw out his own eyes, he suffered terribly. As Countess von Woller asks these questions, the description of the actual events is told through interior monologue from Johann’s point of view. He keeps promising her on his oath as a Prussian soldier, or in the sight of God that Ernst didn’t suffer. Only we know he is lying about the entire incident to save her from the brutal truth. And its very moving and says a lot about Johann. But we already know that Johann is a sensitive man in his own way, that he had the deepest respect and admiration for “Herr Ernst” and that Johann took care of his men. So it wasn’t necessary to repeat it but it was a wonderful scene. I’ve attached it so you can read it. I guess it would be an “outtake.”

LQ: And to sort of piggyback on that question, because I am suddenly struck by the fact that books should come in collector's editions with "extras" much like DVDs do, I read that you created extensive histories and family trees for each character. How detailed did you get? What are some of the silly, random facts that you used to shape a characters world view that were never explicitly stated in the book?

CM: Hmmmm. I’m not sure about that. I worry it might destroy the “suspension of disbelief” which is so critical to maintain. I think it was Bismarck who said the two things you shouldn’t watch being made were sausage and legislation. I would add novels to that list.

Besides the family trees, I wrote down in detail how Johann met his wife, what her parents were like and what his parents were like. His wife’s parents had a large farm in Silesia and employed lots of farm workers which would have put his wife on a higher social level. I sketched out Johann’s military career.

I wrote how it was that Max met Mareth. I wrote scenes which weren’t intended to go into the book such as how Max lost his virginity, how the village priest keep wanting him to go into the priesthood and how strongly he resisted especially when he started to sleep with women. I wrote about Max stealing pipe tobacco from his father and coughing so badly he started crying and his father picked him up and walked him up and down in the garden till he got over the coughing fit. His father taught him to sword fight. Lots and lots of things like that along with a very specific timeline of Max’s life and what was going in Germany during each year of his early life.

I wrote down what Mareth’s life in Berlin would have been like during Weimar, the art she would have liked, shows that she would have seen, who her friends were, what kind of car she drove.

LQ: What's next on the horizon for you?

CM: I very much plan to continue with writing novels and hope I can make a living at it. I have always followed my interests in life and that has worked out for me. I’m even more determined to do that now because I was diagnosed with lymphoma three weeks after I signed the final proof of my novel. That was a trick of fate. With the help of the Almighty and the brilliance of the physicians at the National Cancer Institute, I was cured of that monster. But it was yet another reminder to me of how brief and fragile life is. No one knows the future so you need to enjoy the present and take risks in the present and not wait until everything is lined up since that never happens.

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