Every book gets written for a different reason and every writer’s journey to becoming an author is different. Today I’m sharing what I’ve learned about John R. Bell and his World War II thriller, The Circumstantial Enemy. Here is our Q & A:
Why did you write this particular story?
The list is long of authors who’ve had a burning desire to write a novel from an early age. I am not one of them. The inspiration came late in life with one potent statement from my daughter. Fifteen years ago, she said, “If you don’t write it, Grandad’s story will be lost forever.” I’ll never forget the yearning in her eyes. Grandad was 80 at the time and though in good health, he wasn’t about to be the first person to live forever. The family had heard his tales and tribulations as a young Croatian pilot coerced into the Luftwaffe in 1941. Writing a record of events stapled together became a biography with enough books printed for the family and several generations to come. I thought I was done with writing. Not so.
Three years later, I re-read the biography and wondered if I could dramatize that fascinating journey to freedom and redemption into a thrilling novel. If I added elements such as hatred, betrayal, lust, and revenge, would a bona fide publisher share it with a larger audience? Writing historical fiction would become the greatest challenge of my adult life. Eight years of research, writing, editing, rewriting (ad nauseam), and seeking an agent and/or publisher finally came to fruition with the release of The Circumstantial Enemy at the end of 2017. At age 71, I was a novelist.
When you are on the wrong side of a war, there is more than one enemy. That assertion appears on my book’s cover. At page 120 of the 324-page novel, I introduce the main antagonist, SS Major Helmut Mauer. Mauer is interned at a POW camp for Germans in Rockford, Illinois in 1943. Mauer is the quintessential Nazi with three peculiarities—he puts his own interests ahead of Hitler’s ideals, he loves catch-and-release fly fishing, and he is infatuated with strangulation. At this point in WWII, the US War Department pays little attention to what goes on behind the barbed wire of the 400+ POW camps on American soil. At Camp Graham, a gang of Nazis rule with an iron fist. A few pages beyond Mauer’s introduction, he meets and interrogates the novel’s protagonist, Tony Babic, the latest arrival. Each man’s cautious and orchestrated interface hints at their personal motivations and establishes a conflict that will accelerate.
Describe your process in writing this book. (e.g. did you outline? Did you choose one pov and stick to it? What did you add? How many drafts did you write? How long did it take?
After penning a few chapters of what would become The Circumstantial Enemy, I was struck by my naivety. I was in over my head. I knew nothing about writing fiction. Eager to learn, I didn’t write a word for a year, throwing myself into every book I could find on how to write fiction. I learned about dialogue, characters, plot, viewpoint, even romance. After preparing a plot arc and compiling a sizable portfolio of research, I began writing for the second time in 3rd person omniscience. My next mistake was a bloated first draft of 225k words. When literary pundits said it was too long, I cut out 45k words. Then, over the course of 3 years, another 200 pages went into land fill. By the time the remaining tight manuscript reached the promised land of publishing, 8 years had passed. The first draft was complete in 18 months. I needed another 4 years for rewriting and editing as well as checking the historical facts and all those little details of the 1940s that had to be error free. Another couple of years of fine-tuning kept me occupied while I tried to persuade bona-fide publishers to take on the project.
Share some book love. Please recommend at least one novel you have read and loved.
My favorite book is the unabridged version of The Count of Monte Cristo. (ME TOO!) At 1276 pages it is also the longest book I have ever read. Alexandre Dumas’s epic classic chronicles the protagonist’s imprisonment and his subsequent persecution, suffering and retribution. This is the book that Tony Babic’s lover sends to him during his incarceration. In some ways it parallels Tony’s predicament. I am also a fan of the late Australian novelist Bryce Courtenay. I’ve read all of his books, but my favorites are Bryce’s early works, The Power of One and The Potato Factory.
Recommend a work of non-fiction.
Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers tackles a fundamental question about high-achieving people. What differentiates them from the rest of us? He introduces the notion that 10,000 hours of practice is vital to greatness and uses several examples including The Beetles’ 3 years in Hamburg where they played 8 hours a day, 7 days a week. I invested 10,000 hours into my novel. Does that put me up there with Steinbeck? Of course not. But there is no doubt in my mind that the 5,000-hour version of The Circumstantial Enemy can’t hold a candle to the published novel.
What is the best piece of advice you have for other writers?
By the time I finished reading those self-help books on writing novels, I was left with the indelible principal that characters and conflict are critical to great fiction. But nothing surprised me more than discovering that when it came to POV, I found it no more difficult to express the POV of a romantic female as a chauvinistic male. Why is that? It comes down to knowing your characters. When you know a character like a close member of your family you know what they will do and what they won’t do.