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Monday, March 30, 2009

An Interview with Writer Jack Woodville London

Jack Woodville London burst on the writing scene February 2009 with the first book in a trilogy – French Letters: Virginia’s War ( Using vivid word pictures, he shows how war affects a small Texas town during World War II.

Military Writers Society of America recently conducted this e-mail interview with him as he heads out to speak about and sign his book..

1. Tell us about you. What makes you tick? Conflict. I am astounded that people spend much of adulthood acting in ways that a paper boy or Girl Scout knows not to do. All of us know someone who made up stories to cover something up, figuring that they could sort it out later. Virginia Sullivan wakes one morning to find that her father has told her town and friends that she eloped, which was not true, in order for him to save face in front of the town over her pregnancy, which she should have known could be a problem, given that Will, the young man to whom her father journalistically married her, was a soldier in Europe at the time and knew nothing about it. Virginia was all set to have a clash with her father over the pregnancy, the false elopement, and Will, until later the same day she ran into Shirley, her long time rival for Will’s affection. Then, at least for a while, she enjoyed letting the lie be the truth, just to poke a stick at Shirley. Conflict.

2. Where do you get your ideas? Little known facts that I run across. For example, it is well documented that the out-of-marriage birth rate in England went through the roof when American soldiers were there between 1942 and 1945, a phenomenon known as ‘over-paid, over-sexed, and over here.’ A statistic almost no one knows is that out-of-marraige birth rates in the US went up too, to 7.3 births per thousand in white women under the age of 25 before 1946. A lot of mail went down in the North Atlantic on US ships during that time. We know that some of the letters mailed to soldiers were Dear John letters. What do you get when you combine Dear John letters that the soldier doesn’t receive because of a torpedo to the mail boat and 7.3 out-of-marriage births per thousand to the girls back home? Some soldiers got a shocking surprise when the war was over. Conflict.Another little known fact is that after the initial panic over food rationing, most Americans gained weight because the eventual allowance for meat was more than Americans had been getting before the war. Then there was a black market in rationed goods, such as tires and gasoline....

3. I’ve read that you create maps of your scenes. What made you decide to do that and how do you do it? I learned mapping and orienteering in the Army, and later as a pilot. It is very helpful to me to create and inhabit a place and let the reader live there for a while. I usually map-sketch the streets and businesses, such as Poppy’s newspaper and the town square, Doc’s clinic and Bart’s post office, the road out to the cemetery and the quarry. When I do, events that happen there always happen in the same place and people go to them or leave them or refer to them the same way. In the sequel, many of the things that happen to Will in France are in a town where his field surgery is dug in for a week. He spends much of it in a Calvados barn near a wash house on the river, and across from a gothic monastery that was abandoned after the Germans took away some of the monks for labor.

4. What first fascinated you with writing? Mind travel. I remember very clearly reading about the Italian Mille Miglia, the one thousand mile auto race through Italy for sports cars, and from the words on the page I could see red Ferraris, green Jaguars, Porsches and Alfa Romeos, all downshifting on hard corners in Tuscan villages. I was ten years old. I had a wonderful high school teacher who led me through literature that most students didn’t read. As for the writing of it, my seismometer moved when I read ‘The Eve of St. Agnes,’ then read a marked up draft in which Keats had struggled with word choices about the sound that a woman’s night clothes make on their way to the floor. I hadn’t gathered until then that writing was work, and it was rewarding to discover the many ways one could express a single idea. Then I discovered ‘Men at Arms’ by Evelyn Waugh, and I was hooked.

5. How did you conduct your research when you were writing French Letters, Book One? Source documents where possible. I looked at original ration cards, cotton gin engine specs, the shift mechanism of the 1937 Ford, brands of beer sold in Clovis, New Mexico in 1944, who trained to fly what kind of aircraft in Lubbock and Clovis and which airplanes were manufactured in Fort Worth. I tried to know what people living in a Tierra, Texas would know.

6. Who are your favorite contemporary writers and why? Donna Tartt has more skill to put you in a story than anyone I can think of. I am taken with every sentence she writes. Alain de Botton writes prose that makes me believe he was sitting behind me as I went through my day, then cracks me up. He wrote one chapter in which he meets a girl on an airplane, then falls in love with her, asking ‘what are the odds?’ He then replicates the seat layout of a Boeing 737, multiplies the number of seats by the number of passengers and applies the formula to determine what the odds were. Simon Schama writes about many of those little facts that are hidden between the big facts. Michael Chabon has the ability to make complicated stories appear disarmingly simple.

7. What made you choose this particular topic? My wife and I were in Belgium reading the morning paper. I learned that a farmer was tending to his barn one morning when a cow exploded in his pasture. The cow had stepped on an unexploded shell from World War I. I believe we are all still walking on, and occasionally being exploded by, shells from World War II. Sometimes those shells are in the form of people who were born to parents we don’t know as well as we think we do, and for reasons we would never dream of (talk about a baby boom...). Much is made of what our fathers and grandfathers did in the war. No one seems to have asked our mothers and grandmothers what they did while they waited or even if they waited.

8. Did you model Tierra, Texas after a particular place? If so, where? I grew up in a small town in the Texas Panhandle but went on to do military service in small towns in Kansas, Kentucky, and Virginia. As a lawyer I have worked in hundreds of small towns all over the United States. I have learned that people are much the same everywhere. Each town has its gossips, its bankers, a lawman with a second set of rules, someone with his thumb on the town’s scales, somebody with a perpetual belief that a bigger town has a lot more to offer but no one would want to live there, and a lot of very nice people who get caught up in their whirlwinds and conflicts.9. This is the first in a trilogy. Tell us about the next two books in the series and when they will be released. I have alluded to Will. The second book is what happens in his life during his military service as a field surgeon in France at the exact same time as the events in Virginia’s War are unfolding in a small town in Texas. The publisher says sales have to drive publishing but, subject to that Draconian caveat, the editor and I hope to have Will (tentative title) in your hands before the summer of 2010. It is well along now.Book Three is "Children of the Good War." The prologue to Book One sets the stage for that novel about Virginia’s and Will’s children, if they are Virginia’s and Will’s children.

10. Where will you be speaking next and signing your book? Maple Street Book Store, New Orleans, on April 1.Lakeway, Texas Activity Center May 13Steve’s Sundries in Tulsa the morning of June 6, D-DayFull Circle Books in Oklahoma City the afternoon of June 6Still pending in November are Silent Wings Museum, Lubbock, on Veteran’s Day andPanhandle Professional Writers in Amarillo on November 26.
To see if I'm coming to your town, please view my complete tour schedule at
I also invite your readers to blog with me from the link on my website,

If you are in the vicinity of any of these places, go by and meet the author.

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