Today we welcome Jack Woodville London.
Book ‘Em: Tell us about you and your life outside of writing.
Jack W. London: I live in Austin, Texas, with my wife Alice and Junebug, the writing cat. I grew up in a very small town in the Texas Panhandle; Alice grew up in El Paso. We met in Austin. In addition to undergrad and law school, I have a certificát from the Fiction Academy in St. Céré, France, and am a graduate student (a very old graduate student) at Oxford University.
Book ‘Em: Which books have you written?
French Letters, Virginia’s War and French Letters, Engaged in War, are my two published novels about a couple in World War II. It is discovered that Virginia is pregnant and no one pays attention to the fact it might be a bit late for it to be the child of her longtime boyfriend, Will, who has been sent off to Europe in the war. Her father publishes a false news story that they eloped before Will left, a fact that infuriated Virginia and would have surprised Will if he had known it. I chose to write them because the story of the women who were left at home during the war is largely untold and because the painful loneliness of soldiers who have no idea what is going on at home become defining moments for everyone who has been in war. The things they do and secrets they carry become like bombs that were dropped but instead of exploding, bury into the ground and wait for decades before exploding and hurting people. The books won awards for Best Novel of the South, Romantic Novels with a Twist, and the Silver Medal in the London Book Festival.
The third novel in that series, Children of a Good War, is in the hands of my agent. Pray for it. As for what it is about, see above, about bombs waiting for years to go off and hurt people, in this case the children of Will and Virginia.
My fourth book is a non-fiction work titled A Novel Approach. It is a short work for those who wish to go about writing their first book and have no training or experience. It won the 2015 e-Lit gold medal.
The fifth book is both ‘out there’ and also is a work in progress. It is a serialized novel, The (very brief) War Diary of Bart Sullivan, Seaman Second Class. It is an adventure fun fable in the vein of Indiana Jones. It is about a sailor who is a real scoundrel and who chickens out on his first day in the war, sees his past and future pass before his mind’s eye as he is being murdered (maybe) on the beach by his furious chief petty officer, and then…. By ‘out there’ I mean that it is presently available to readers of my newsletter, First Draft, upon request, while the remainder of the serialized novel unfolds. Just subscribe to First Draft and ask for it.
Book ‘Em: Do your books have a message?
Jack W. London: The human grip on so many things is fragile, at best, so when we lose things that matter – the one we love, a lifelong friend, a farm, a brother, one’s footing on a ship’s deck – the pain is exquisite and the consequences often of long duration, no matter how hard we try to carry on. All of my books are about us; they involve people who are essentially alone in a world full of people who get caught up in things beyond their control; things happen to them or, conversely, they cause things to happen, that hurt just because someone has nothing better to do, people like boy- and girlfriends, married couples, military officers, komodo dragons…
Book ‘Em: Do you have a work in progress?
Jack W. London: The (very brief) War Diary of Bart Sullivan is a work in progress; it is a three part adventure fable of a scoundrel of a sailor who cheats and mistreats everyone until he disappears at sea, either tossed off the ship by his shipmates or fell overboard. And then….
I am in the collecting and research stage of a book about a road trip that I was talked into by my two lifelong friends, who I thought were daft for wanting to do it. Yet, when we finished the trip, I discovered that no one, ever, had gone where we had gone. It involves rivers, mountains, cows, flags, cannons…
And, I write from scratch my newsletter, First Draft, in which I tell my core readers a bit about what I’m doing, where I’m speaking, courses I’m giving, where I’ve been to do research, some of my reviews of books I read. In 2017-18 I include a section in each issue about life in the United States exactly 100 years ago, during World War 1. And, in each issue, I give readers one chapter of my serialized novel in progress. You and everyone can subscribe to it at http://jwlbooks.com/books/first-draft/
Book ‘Em: What was the most difficult section/piece you ever wrote? What made it difficult?
Jack W. London: In French Letters, Engaged in War, my American army doctor lands in France in WW2, soon to discover that he has lost his brother, his girlfriend, and his unit. He is in combat, yet alone. I created all the minor characters of a French town and gave them hidden agendas, such as a local doctor who wanted to get his hands on medicines from the American army doctors, a priest who gave ecumenical blessing to a family to either let their child die of an ear infection or seek fruitless medical help, either view being okay with the Church, and a family at cross purposes over whether the eldest daughter would become a nun or be married off to a despised relative in order to keep the family farm intact. They had to be not only believable and to act like French villagers and farm people, use French expressions, and live through a war, they had to do so in language that would make them seem just like us, understandable to Americans (readers and soldiers) and while under German occupation.
Book ‘Em: What sort of research do you do for your work?
Jack W. London: Down to the last button. Even my novel about Bart Sullivan, the scoundrel sailor, accurately details the relevant portions of a naval troop transport ship in the war in the Pacific, the dates and places of battle, the types of sea snakes in the region, nutmeg and clove plantations, and even a poisonous bird.
Book ‘Em: Which books and authors do you read for pleasure? Is there an author that inspires you?
Jack W. London: Evelyn Waugh is my touchstone. I read and re-read his novels over and over, particularly the Guy Crouchback trilogy. As for fiction, I am much taken with Hilary Mantel (Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies) and Elena Ferrante (the Neapolitan novels). I am currently reading Gerald Durell’s book about his family in Corfu and HW Brands’ book about the dispute between President Truman and Douglas MacArthur. Frederick Law Olmsted wrote a book in 1856 about his travels through frontier Texas on horseback. Anything that is really well written.
Book ‘Em: Was there a person who encouraged you to write?
Jack W. London: Mrs. Alberta Bones, my high school English teacher, and Evelyn Waugh.
Book ‘Em: What would you say are your strengths as an author?
Jack W. London: Storytelling, plus I have a very long history of writing legal and technical papers which cause me to have a strong sense of editing, not only line editing but for story-telling and balance editing. I enjoy research but often let it distract me.
Book ‘Em: How often do you write, and do you write using a strict routine?
Jack W. London: Daily, for at least four hours. My goal is to compose a thousand words, then to edit what I wrote the day before and re-edit the work of the day before that, then turn to things like this, correspondence, composition of my newsletter, that sort of thing.
Book ‘Em: Five years from now, where do you see yourself as a writer?
Jack W. London: At my word processor.
Book ‘Em: If you could offer one piece of advice to a novice writer, what would it be?
Jack W. London: Know your story. That sounds simplistic, but so many novice writers and not-so-novice writers get adrift in back stories and foreshadowings and running after clever characters. Stick to telling the story about your primary conflict and the characters and events who drive it.
Book ‘Em: What would you consider the best compliment a reader could give your book?
Jack W. London: One of my best memories as a writer was being interviewed by a French radio host about French Letters: Engaged in War, he asked how long I had lived in Normandy (never, just a week here and there). He then asked where the two main characters are now, Will and a French girl named Géraldine. I told him they were just characters; he refused to believe me and admitted that he had gone to the prefecture in St. Lô, France, to look for their marriage license, their birth and death certificates, children, all of it and was upset he couldn’t find them. He wanted to know what had become of them after the war. (Hint: wait to read the third novel).
As for compliments, I would be thrilled to know that someone gave copies of my books to others for presents.
Book ‘Em: Provide an excerpt of your writing that you would like to share with our members.
Jack W. London: I have attached an excerpt, A Bit of News, from French Letters, Virginia’s War.
From French Letters, Virginia’s War, Copyright, © Jack Woodville London
A BIT OF NEWS
On the Sunday before Easter, between the story about the community egg hunt on the courthouse lawn and a column which began and ended with a list of Easter Services, there
was an announcement:
Mr. Michael Sullivan wishes to announce that his daughter, Virginia Sullivan, of Tierra, and Captain Woodrow Wilson Hastings, a graduate of Tierra High School and the University of Texas Medical School at Galveston and now of the United States Army in Europe, entered into the holy state of matrimony before a justice of the peace in Clovis New Mexico during his leave over the Thanksgiving Holiday, November 25, 1943.
There was a ribbon and heart beneath the announcement.
Michael Sullivan, Poppy, was the Tierra Times. He had taken Doc Pritchard’s phone call, then thought through the implications of his pregnant daughter and her soldier/doctor five thousand miles away in England. He decided it was a good thing and made several decisions about the couple’s, and the town’s, future. Two weeks later he published his announcement of their elopement, an imaginary union that was as much a surprise to his daughter as to the rest of the community.
Sandy may not have read the announcement but everyone else did. Regardless of what might have been said at the beauty shop, the town congratulated Poppy and wished the happy couple well. Mrs. Tarlton and Shirley’s mother, with visions of missed cakes and needlework dresses, clucked over the lost opportunity to stage a wedding, but their seed fell on thin soil. Others, keenly aware of Poppy Sullivan’s encyclopedic knowledge of local wealth – who had spare blue ration coupons, a tire hidden in a loft, a cattle pen with more yearlings than reported to the OPA contractor, a farmer with one tractor and gasoline tanks for three – breathed a sigh of relief that no gifts were called for, at least not yet. For Poppy, it was business as usual. He composed the next edition of the Times, stopped in at the bank and the co-op to talk about cotton prices, and kept an eye on Bart’s urges.
The two who didn’t congratulate Poppy on his announcement were Virginia herself and
Butch’s sister Shirley.
Virginia had learned of her marriage to Will the same way she learned most things about their long-distance courtship – she read it when Bart tacked it to the bulletin board at the post office. Her first reaction had been disbelief. She pulled out the thumbtack and the wedding announcement, looked around the room to see who was watching, and stormed out. By the time she got to the newspaper office disbelief had turned to fury.
Her fury fell on deaf ears.
“What’s done is done,” Poppy told her. “You did what you had to do so I did what I had to
do. You’d better learn to live with it – like I tell Bart, take the long view.”
“How dare you ….?”
“How dare I what? You are hereby married to Will. The paper says so. But,” and he paused long enough for her to recognize the familiar sign of Poppy’s threats, “if you want to go tell everyone in town that it was a misprint, well that’ll give them two things to talk about when you start to show. What’s done is done.”
He let the warning sink in. Who would people believe? Her or Poppy? And their own eyes. “And besides – you couldn’t have made me happier! When Will comes home, well —.” He waxed poetic at the thought of Will coming home to become the town’s beloved doctor. “He’ll build you a two-story home. There’ll be more babies, nice cars, maybe even a real hospital. He’ll be the man everyone wants, school boards, the bank, the cotton co-op.” Will, and Virginia, would reflect in the glow of Poppy’s golden years and Tierra would be eternally grateful. “I suggest that you give these people what they want – a war bride. When God gives you crumbs, go bake a cake. A wedding cake.”
For the next two hours Virginia sat at her desk in the courthouse, her eyes fixed on ration coupon books, OPA registries, and bulletins announcing rules changes in the number of yellow coupons that could be used to supplement red stamps for meat (not very many) or blue stamps for cottage cheese (no limit). Her mind, however, was not focused on month-to-month whimsies of the Office of Price Administration.
From the moment Doc Pritchard had told her to get dressed Virginia had imagined the day when she would tell Poppy she was pregnant. His reaction would be to slap her (possibly), to insult her for sleeping around (probably), to ask how she thought it would make him look in the eyes of
the town (certainly), and to tell Bart that Virginia, too, had brought shame on the family (as he had done when they left Emma at the State Hospital in Lubbock). She would stand defiant. If he slapped her, she would smile. To his accusation, she would tell the truth: she had not slept around. He’s the only one, and I planned it as much as he did. Maybe more. As for how it would make Poppy look, Virginia carefully scripted the scene: For once, Poppy, it isn’t about you! It is my baby and I’ll have it no matter what you or anyone in town says! As for Bart, she would snort that at least one of Poppy’s children could procreate. She had no answer if Poppy were to say anything hateful about her mother; she prayed he would not.
Nothing she had planned for had come to pass. She was flabbergasted that he had announced in the Times that she had eloped with Will. He might have expected her to elope to defuse an embarrassing pregnancy, but he wasn’t embarrassed – he was delighted! He should hate me; instead he’s turning it into another opportunity to own the town… She thought of how often she had seriously considered marrying Will (a few times, not many) and of how often Poppy succeeded in making her do as he wished (every time). To those thoughts she added a fair degree of anxiety, given that she was likely to lose her job at the ration desk when the county commissioners learned that she was pregnant and a war bride to boot, a woman whose husband who could send money home from the army.
And, to her credit, she was concerned for Will. What would he think when someone told him that he was married to the girl who, the last time she saw him, had not agreed to wait for him? She hadn’t been prepared to marry him but she also hadn’t set out to hurt him.
By five o’clock she had cooled off. She left the courthouse, marched down the wooden sidewalk past the general store and the bank, and stopped in at the drug store before circling back to Reilly’s Grocery. She knew it never occurred to Poppy to ask his daughter’s permission to announce her elopement to cover up her pregnancy. Even so, as anger and uncertainty wrestled for
primacy, she understood why Poppy had done it. Every single person in Tierra depended on him one way or another. He was looked to and listened to, his help sought by all. Now his daughter was pregnant and her soldier was five thousand miles away. Poppy could not lose face before the town.
It was then that Virginia saw Shirley Fleming walk out the front door of Reilly’s Grocery.
Virginia saw Shirley’s eyes bulge and her face tighten. She knows. It was the first joy Virginia experienced as a married woman. She actually smiled.
“Hello, Virginia.” Shirley quickly put up her own guard, tilting her head to the right and peering at Virginia from the left sides of her eyes, arching her brows in rebuke as if Virginia was one of her third grade pupils. She crossed her arms and made no secret of examining Virginia from head to toe for evidence of a shotgun to explain the surprise wedding announcement.
“Congratulations,” she resumed, “Will must be very… happy.”
“He certainly is,” Virginia answered. “He always wanted to get married. Of course, you know that. When was the first time he proposed to me? Let me think.”
They both knew the first time. It had been at their high school graduation dance, one week after Will had told Virginia that he had a scholarship. Will had broken up with Shirley at the football Homecoming Dance and Shirley had accused him, correctly, of wanting to ‘go out’ with Virginia. Virginia indeed had wanted to go out with Will; he was rather nice to look at and reasonably intelligent and, as much as anything else, Shirley had him. For the rest of their senior year merely going out with Will had been pleasant enough. He had bought her a record for Christmas, some chocolate on Valentine’s Day, and a corsage at Easter. When Spring rains had filled the quarry they went swimming with Hoyt and Johnny and Molly, although not with Shirley and definitely not with
Bart. And, of course, she and Will had gone to the quarry by themselves, once, ostensibly to swim. Even now Virginia enjoyed the memory of their senior year.
Then came the graduation dance. The first shock had been that Hoyt Carter and Johnny Bradley had signed up for the army. “Got nowhere else to work, not here,” they had said. “We have to go to the army.”
The second shock had been Will’s college scholarship. “Just got this letter,” he had said, showing her. “And if I do well the first two years, they’ll let me go to medical school.” The letter did say that. At eighteen she was not sufficiently experienced to consider that such a scholarship was quite unusual, mysterious even.
“I’ll have a future, Virginia, a real future. Will you …?”
At that first of many proposals, Virginia had said no. She wasn’t ready to settle down, something Will should have figured out for himself from the incident at the quarry. Rumors, never proved, also held that Shirley had proposed to Will, who likewise said no. It was no secret, however, that Virginia suggested to Shirley that she encourage Hoyt Carter, an act Virginia regretted because of the scorn it brought to Hoyt from the cheerleader who said he wasn’t good enough.
And thus ensued the first of many parting scenes at the Greyhound bus stop in front of Nona’s Café. Hoyt tried to say goodbye to Shirley, who ignored him. Molly said goodbye to Johnny, then burst into tears. Bart, at a distance, said good riddance to all of them, to Molly who deserved it for picking Johnny over Bart and to Shirley who had chosen Will over Bart. He had gotten even with Johnny, and Hoyt in the bargain, but in his mind he still had a score to settle with Will. As oblivious to Bart as to Hoyt, Shirley spied. Will asked Virginia to ‘wait for him,’ which Virginia thought was sweet but, knowing instinctively what happened to girls who waited for boys away at
college, she didn’t exactly promise she would. The bus pulled away. The Flemings drove Shirley off to college at Texas Tech. Virginia assumed that she had probably seen the last of all of them.
Virginia would have written Will a letter to finish it herself except that, at Christmas,
Shirley had come home from school and made the mistake of letting it be known that she had been writing from her dormitory room in Lubbock to Will at his in El Paso. That was enough to make Virginia decide to re-kindle Will’s flame. At the end of Christmas he stood on the bus steps and asked her again. Everyone in town knew it.
When he came home for summer, that year and every summer and holiday afterward, Shirley beat Virginia to the bus stop. Hers was the first face Will saw. In September, then and every year after, when it was time for Will to go back to school or to summer internships or Will’s first military training after medical school, Shirley showed up at the bus stop and stood by as Will again asked Virginia to wait for him. At first Virginia would have broken it off if Shirley hadn’t been so stupid as to keep showing up, and showing interest, at times when Virginia had the expectation of enough privacy to tell Will it was over. However, as they went along, Virginia was less sure. The nice looking boy gradually became a thoughtful and caring, albeit quiet, young man. Will’s boyish good looks matured into a kind face and gentle demeanor. If anything, he was even more tolerable to look at and very well educated, at least compared to anyone else Virginia knew. More than once, she almost agreed to wait for him. This went on among the three of them for seven years.
“Well, no matter, Shirley. That’s all history now, isn’t it?” It was not so clear that Virginia really wanted her prize as much as the consolation of knowing that Shirley had lost hers. “We can all stop wondering about it now, can’t we?”
“I was just so – what is the word?” Furious was the word, but even Shirley couldn’t say that.
“Surprised? Yes, surprised. That’s the word. And here we are, let’s see, December, January, February, March, April. Yes, here we are in April and your little secret comes out, doesn’t it? I’m – surprised – that you didn’t announce it at Thanksgiving. Why, bless your little heart, we could have had a party before Will had to go off, couldn’t we?”
“Well, you know me, Shirley. I never do things the easy way.”
Virginia also knew that Shirley knew that in Thanksgiving, before he shipped out, Will had asked Virginia one more time. Shirley had been there at the bus stop when Will and his brother left on the bus. The routine had not changed: Will had been polite to Shirley, waved goodbye to whomever was there, and humped his barracks bag into the baggage well of the bus. He then had embraced Virginia and asked her to ‘wait for him.’ Virginia had smiled, given him a brief kiss and a hug, promised nothing, and waved goodbye as the bus pulled away, leaving him hanging, just as she always had done. The bus disappeared, as it always did. To Shirley, Virginia had appeared to suffer no more pains of separation from Will than she usually did and was quietly relieved that she still had a chance. Shirley had suffered in silence. As she always did.
It didn’t take a third grade teacher to wonder in April why in November the last words from someone who had just eloped would be ‘will you wait for me?’ Shirley smelled the rat.
“And what does Will say? I can just imagine our little married soldier – waking up to find out that he’s in the army and has a wife back home. My, my.”
“Will is fine, as cold and wet and as miserable as everybody else. Married or single.”
“Well, I sure hope he’s looking out for himself. There’s no telling what kind of trouble he might find himself in.” She paused for a moment to let the effect sink in, then equivocated. ‘This field surgeon business.”
Virginia wondered whether Shirley might be holding out an olive branch now that Will was hopelessly beyond her reach. She wasn’t.
“And Will’s brother? Peter?” She continued. “What do you hear from Peter?”
Virginia had to catch her breath. She had been as surprised as anyone when Will told her he had a brother and that he had invited him home for Thanksgiving before Will was to ship out. “I told him I wanted him to meet my girl and see my town,” Will had told her.
He was something. Rather than looking a year or two older, Peter was so much like Will that he could have been his twin, except Peter was loudly infectious where Will was quiet, quick where Will was thoughtful. Peter dared to sneak a drop of cheer after the parents went to bed, then took them out to swing dance in the street to the music of a car radio. He told outrageous stories of glider planes flying through open hangars and of buddies extracted from barracks windows to go jitterbug at the Aviatrix Club a hundred yards from the air base gate. Will loved him without limit or question, and it was easy to do.
Shirley had tagged along everywhere, to dinner, to dance, to drink weak coffee at Nona’s and listen to army stories. Peter had gotten on the bus with Will. Shirley couldn’t be trusted with the church silver but maybe, just maybe she had given up on Will. Maybe Shirley had an eye for Peter. Virginia’s better instincts took charge.
“Peter? I haven’t heard a word. Not lately. Will hasn’t said a thing,” a true answer as far as it went.
“Well, bless your heart, Virginia, I’m sure you’ll make Will–.” Miserable, she thought. She let the phrase hang in the air, then stepped around the newlywed bride and walked away.
I have attached an excerpt, A Bit of News, from FreThe Amazon link to my books is: https://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=Jack+Woodville+London
My web site is http://jwlbooks.com It has separate pages that list what I’m scheduled to do such as my speaking engagements, my books, my articles, my short stories, a page called “On The Nightstand” where I publish reviews of books I read (based on watts, the more watts for books that keep me awake at night); reviews of my books, book trailers, and a surprise….
First Draft, my semi-monthly newsletter, is available at http://jwlbooks.com/books/first-draft/