An exclusive Authorlink interview with Donna Moreau
Author of Waiting Wives (Atria/Simon & Schuster, May 2005)
As the death toll rose during the Vietnam War, 7,000 military families were huddled into the old World War II Shilling Air Force Base in Salina, Kansas, waiting for their men to safely return home. The makeshift family shelter, originally built to house troops and equipment during World War II, became known as Shilling Manor: The Home of the Waiting Wives of the United States Armed Forces. Some of the women's men never came home. This little-known community serves as the backdrop for author Donna Moreau's debut nonfiction book, WAITING WIVES: THE STORY OF SHILLING MANOR, HOME FRONT TO THE VIETNAM WAR (Atria/Simon & Schuster, May 2005).
While growing up, Donna lived at Shilling Manor with her mother and two sisters for 13 months, while her father served in Vietnam. The story is part memoir, part history, and part portrait of three women Lorrayne, Bonnie, and Donna's mother, Beverly.
Moreau, a gifted newcomer writer, talked with Authorlink about her journey to becoming a first-time published author. We recommend this book to all who have waited for a loved one in war. . .and for the rest of us who care.
"These women lived
with their fears while trying
to carry on their daily lives. . ."
AUTHORLINK: Waiting Wives is the story about women waiting for their men to return from the Vietnam War. What made you want to write about their struggles?
MOREAU: I was a military brat; my family moved around a lot. We lived at Shilling Manor for only 13 months, but it made such an impression on me that it influenced the rest of my life. Years after the experiencein 1986I was watching the movie Platoon, set during the Vietnam war. In one tense scene, Charlie Sheen was waiting for the enemy to arrive. I thought, "Hm-m-m, that's what it was like every day for the wives of that warwaiting at home for their men, having no idea where their husbands and boyfriends were, or what was happening to them.
These women lived with their fears while trying to carry on their daily lives, caring for children, doing the routine shopping. Having lived on the base with all these women and children, I empathized with how they felt.
Before I began writing the book, I was living in New York City and working as a producer/director. I had written and performed wartime scenarios with 12 girlfriends. But the project came to nothing. I decided theater wasn't the thing for me to do, so I applied to graduate school at Columbia, and was accepted in 1998, though I'm not sure why. They told me I had to have a 150-page thesis before I left that place, and I decided to write about women waiting, and war.
One of my instructors, Patty O'Toole, told me the idea was wonderful. She encouraged me and helped me get started with the research and fine tuning the idea.
AUTHORLINK: So, you wrote from actual facts and events?
MOREAU: Yes. I had to do a lot of research, not just about my family, also into the lives of all the wives. It was excruciatingly difficult to locate the women who had lived at the base during the war. My mother and I hadn't stayed in touch with anyone. Then I happened upon the web site militarybrats.com, and I cross-referenced for the people who lived at Shilling Manor during the war. I wrote 142 letters to wives in search of their stories, and placed ads in the NCO Journal and several other military publications. I did numerous interviews and traveled to Salina many times to recapture the setting in my mind.
AUTHORLINK: How long did it take you to write the book?
MOREAU: From beginning to end, it took six years to complete the manuscript. For five of the six years, I was doing graduate work. I worked like a dog on both my degree and the book. I also worked as a caterer to support myself, and luckily, I made a fabulous living at it.
". . .I had to find Lorayne.
She was the one person responsible for Shilling
Manor becoming a refuge
for the families."
AUTHORLINK: Had you always intended to write a book?
MOREAU: Having been a theater person, I wrote all along. I would write scenes that I remembered from childhood. I always knew that I would write about my family's experiences at Schilling Manor, but I didn't know how I was going to integrate all the scenes into a single work. As I wrote, I found the stories and the place had a broader scope, though I had no idea how to compile it into a book.
I also knew I couldn't write about all the women at Shilling; I had to pick three or four. Besides writing about my mother Beverly, I found drama in Bonnie's story. Originally, I had wanted to include another woman's love story, but then I felt I had to find Lorayne. She was the one person responsible for Shilling Manor becoming a refuge for the families. She had become lore in Salina, but no one could remember her name and I nearly gave up trying to locate her.
Then, a radio listener who had heard me being interviewed about my research on a Salina station and had read a piece about me in the Salina Journal, sent the reporter a 1966 Milwaukee newspaper article about Shilling Manor. The reporter forwarded the article to me in New York City. Amazingly, the article named Lorayne as the woman who convinced an Air Force colonel to open the quarters to families of men deploying to Vietnam. The article also mentioned that her husband was from Fargo. I was able to reach her brother through the Fargo newspaper, who, in turn, called her in Amarillo and said, "Lorayne, somebody is looking for you." She immediately e-mailed me.
I worked really hard to find her and when I did, I visited her in Amarillo where she shared lots of details. I had no idea that she had had a problem with her younger son, Robbie, who had refused to talk or eat almost from the moment his father left for Vietnam, or her bout with cancer during her stay at Schilling. She became the godmother of Shilling Manor, and now, at age 76, she is still a warrior. Her husband is 83 and they still travel the country in a humongous RV.
AUTHORLINK: What made you decide to turn 180 degrees from theater to writing?
MOREAU: I had wanted to be in theater since I was 10 years old. When I turned age 40 that all changed. The theater was a beautiful placethe excitement and drama of being a director and producer of new works was a unique experience. But I was an interpreter of other peoples art. In my heart I knew that I had something to say. I began writing in a journal, and took a course in personal writing. I felt a great sense of joy and release writing how I felt about things. When I am writing, I have a sense of elation at being able to express myself. I wish more people would write for their own benefit, rather than worrying about whether someone will read the work.
AUTHORLINK: Did the writing come easy for you?
MOREAU: I had to work very hard to make my writing sing. I struggled. My first step was to get into good writing school, and then to fully embrace that experience. I made myself learn as much as I could.
"I was naive in the beginning.
I didn't know anything about writing a book."
AUTHORLINK: How did you find an agent?
MOREAU: At Columbia, we had thesis readings,and an agent who had heard me read expressed an interest. I hung with him for a while, but it wasn't working out. I'm a new writer, and it makes it harder to sell the work. He didn't really believe in the book and didn't know how to make the proposal stronger. When I decided to find another agent, I simply cold-called people and did queries on the Internet. I prepared one dynamite paragraph about the story, included a short bib and sent it to ten agents. Five responded that they'd like to see the book proposal. One said no, and the rest never responded.
I finally made a deal with a wonderful agent, Jenny Bent, who is based in New York City. When we first sent the story out to publishers, we got a lot of feedback from editors, but few offers. The book was turned down by many houses. They said it needed to be more like a Lifetime TV program, or Ya Ya Sisterhoodnot that these are bad things, but that style is not what I wanted for the book. I did I use the opportunity to refine the story, and when Jenny sent it to Brenda Cropland at Atria, Brenda immediately embraced the project. She instinctively knew what I wanted to say about the wives and about Schilling.
Today, it is the same story, though the writing has been refined.
AUTHORLINK: After she bought the book, did she make any changes?
MOREAU: I was naive in the beginning. I didn't know anything about writing a book. When I first turned the book in to Atria it was 600 pages long. I had overwritten it. Brenda said, "I'm not looking at this until it's down to 400 pages." I cut and cut; I rewrote and tidied. She said, "You're at your best when you just tell the story. Don't over-dramatize." I went away and fixed everything right away. Brenda was a gift to me. She's a wonderful editor. The book is much better as a result of her insights. She bought the manuscript in the summer of 2002 and worked with me through the whole process until it was published in May 2005.
"I needed to see
something positive come
out of the Vietnam War."
AUTHORLINK: What special meaning does the book have for you?
MOREAU: I needed to see something positive come out of the Vietnam War. This book offers another side people haven't heard about before. While some women were out protesting the war, here's what other women were doing. In the story we see brave women, carrying on with the raising of their children and their daily lives while living with the possibility that their husbands might be dead. I think readers need to know this side of war.
AUTHORLINK: How does your success feel?
MOREAU: I am truly fortunate. There are so many talented writers out there. I don't take success for granted. I had tried for so many years to get people to see my theater productions, with limited success. Then I began writing. Sometimes your destiny finds you!
AUTHORLINK: Do you think Waiting Wives is a story we can relate to today?
MOREAU: The story is completely relevant for today. We have modern ways of fighting war. Our technology and communications are so sophisticated. On emotional front, however, war is the same! In today's war, like in the wars of the past, we are still waiting for our loved ones to come home. There are still babies left without fathers and mothers left without sons. We are still waiting at home, and we are still saying good-bye to our young men and women.
Donna Moreau is busy working on the promotion of her first book, but has ideas for two other works, another set in Vietnam, and one set at home in America. She is single, has a 21-year-old son and a sweetheart. She lives in Massachusetts.