An Exclusive Authorlink Interview with Bob Welch
Author of American Nightingale (Atria/Simon & Schuster, June 2004)
By Doris Booth
"The wounded do not cry," wrote Frances Slanger, in an article for Stars and Stripes magazine in 1944. Nearly sixty years later, the item and the notes she left behind inspired author and journalist Bob Welch to find out just who Frances was. Bob was to learn that Frances became the first American nurse to die in Europe after the D-Day landings at Normandy, and that she was a young woman who had comforted hundreds of broken soldiers and had brought them hope.
Once in a while a book comes along that truly reminds us of what publishing is supposed to be about. American Nightingale, The Story of Frances Slanger, Forgotten Heroine of Normandy (Atria/Simon & Schuster, June 2004) is that kind of book, a work that touches not only the mind, but the heart; one that lingers in our thoughts, reminding us of an important universal message, long after the cover is closed–that each of us, no matter how insignificant our lives may seem, can make a difference in the world, if we try.
Author Bob Welch is an award-winning general columnist at The Register-Guard newspaper in Eugene Oregon, and an adjunct professor of journalism at the University of Oregon. He has written seven books. Here, Bob talks to Authorlink about Nightingale's path to publication, and of his struggle to break through to a major publishing house.
"I spent 3 years researching, writing, and editing." Welch
AUTHORLINK: A reader of your newspaper columns drew your attention to the 1944 article that Frances Slanger wrote and asked that you write about her. When you composed your own article, a number of your 75,000 readers responded, and you were moved to write the book. In the work you talk about the notes and journals Frances left behind. How much of the book came directly from her own writings and how much from other sources?
WELCH: The bulk of the work came from extensive research including documents from her U.S. Army 45th Field Hospital Unit and from interviews of the few survivors who knew her, including her friend, Sallylou Cummings, now age 85. But Slanger's poetry, articles, photos, all added to my sense of who she was as a person. When you piece together the views of the people around her together with her own notes, you get a composite sketch.
AUTHORLINK: How many other books have you published?
WELCH: I have written six other books, but this is my first to be published in the major league. My other work has been published by small houses, mainly in Eugene, Oregon. My most recent book prior to American Nightingale, was A Father for all Seasons (Harvest House, 1998), about the seasons fathers and sons go through. But Slanger's story was quite a departure for me. The research was intensive.
AUTHORLINK: How long did it take you to write and research the book?
WELCH: I spent 3 years researching, writing, and editing. I had a first draft after about six months, but did another year's research while writing. I wound up visiting France, made and received a lot of early dawn phone calls, and thousands of e-mails. I would get up at 5 a.m. and research and write until 8 a.m. when I'd have to leave for work at the Register-Guard. I write three columns per week there. During that period I didn't have much of a life beyond the book. My wife and two grown sons will attest to that!
AUTHORLINK: How did you become a writer?
WELCH: I'm one of those people who isn't very good at anything else except writing. I wrote a poem when I was 7 years old. Out of the 14 words, ten were misspelled. But my Mom sent it to the local newspaper and they published it. By age 12, I was reporting little league baseball results for the newspaper, and at age 15 I was covering high school football. My first professional job was as a sports editor, then I began writing features and columns.
AUTHORLINK: How did you make the transition from journalism to writing Frances Slanger's biography?
WELCH: With great difficulty! Part of the challenge was to tell the story. I wasn't there, yet the story had to feel as if I had been.
AUTHORLINK: Luckily, you had some help from your sister, Linda Crew, a young adult and children's novelist with more than a dozen published books to her credit.
WELCH: Linda looked at my draft and said, "You're trying too hard. You don't have to footnote every single detail to let everybody know you're a reporter. All the attributions are getting in the way of a great story." She encouraged me to loosen up, to imagine how Frances felt when she splashed ashore on France's Normandy shore, nearly drowning on the first day there. Because I believe every author has a contract with the reader to substantiate what he or she is saying, I put my extensive source notes at the end of the book for anyone who wants them, so you don't have to read, "according to so-and-so" in every other paragraph of the story.
AUTHORLINK: You write about Frances and her family arriving in America at Ellis Island from Poland when she was a child, and of Frances' terror that she might be torn from her family and sent back to Poland because of a possible disease-related eye infection. You portray the doctors as "huddling, saying words she could not understand . . ." How did you create such a poignant scene?
WELCH: The arrival story is true. She was detained at Ellis Island for medical reasons. With the help of a cousin who told me the story, and with books about children at Ellis Island in that time period, I surmised how Frances must have felt.
AUTHORLINK: Did the story change as you gathered more information?
WELCH: Yes. As you're writing a story such as this you hope you're getting it right, but then as you discover more information, you have to modify the structure to reflect the new information. A neighbor who had lived down the street from Frances when she was a child heard about what I was doing and contacted me late in the game, but his stories were consistent with the Slanger I knew. It was gratifying to know that I was on target.
AUTHORLINK: Was it difficult to write from a female perspective?
WELCH: Not all that difficult. Women I know have helped me understand the relationship between Jewish mothers and daughters, thus between Frances and her mother. I also personally connected to things I discovered about her through reading her notes. Her poetry reminded me of myself . At one point; I liked to write poems. She had a loner spirit. I, too, have been a loner at times. Yet, we both liked people. Her inspirational verses told me what she valued. She walked to Boston's Public Gardens to see a wreath made in honor of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, and then wrote a poem about it. You get glimpses of the person she was through her actions and words. In some ways she was an anomaly and passionate about her patriotism. Slanger knew, as a Polish immigrant, the pain of not having freedom.
AUTHORLINK: What message do you most want to convey to the reader?
WELCH: There are a lot of messages in the book, but perhaps the most profound is this: It doesn't matter where you came from or what obstacles you've encountered, you CAN make a difference in this world. Nobody would ever have thought that this little girl who entered Ellis Island, without a country or an advocate of any sort, could have such a profound impact on the world. Not many people had faith in this young woman. People told her all of her life she couldn't make a difference. She shouldn't become a nurse. She shouldn't serve overseas. But she did anywayand she gave her life for her country.
We live in a culture that honors the powerful, beautiful, and rich. Yet, this obscure woman had the power to make a difference in the lives of thousands of soldiers.
And if a number of people hadn't shared the same kind of vision, we wouldn't be talking about this book today. One of my readers, Nathan Fendrich, happened to read the Stars & Stripes article. He was so touched by her words that he called me more than 50 years after Frances died, to ask me to write a piece about her in the Register-Guard. Many people along the way helped Frances Slanger's story come alive.
AUTHORLINK: Your sister is a novelist. Did that help you find an agent?
WELCH: It helped me face the flaws I had to fix before I could find an agent who would agree to represent me! Linda's agent agreed to look at the book, but said, "Sorry, it's not right for me." She did, however, offer some suggestions. As people were rejecting me, it made me see I had a flawed structure. I was trying to tell the story from cradle to grave, beginning with her splashing off the boat in Normandy, and then flashing back to Poland in 1913. People kept telling me to keep the story in the present time frame of 1944 and to stop taking forays back in time. Finally, I believed these people, and I began to cut and paste, patterning the story, to some degree, after The English Patient.
"Twenty-six agents said no, before I finally met the 27th one, who said yes." Welch
AUTHORLINK: So, how many agents turned you down? And how did you find someone to represent you?
WELCH: Twenty-six agents said no, before I finally met the 27th one, who said yes.
My sister told me I'd better get myself up to a writer's conference in Portland. There I had a ten-minute one-on-one with Ted Weinstein of Ted Weinstein Literary Management, based in San Francisco. He was willing to represent me, and within nine weeks, he had sold the book to Atria/Simon & Schuster.
AUTHORLINK: What kept you going through all those rejections?
WELCH: For one thing, I had invested so much time and money in the project by the time I began looking for an agent, I just couldn't quit. But it was Slanger who kept me going! Here I was moping around about nobody believing in me, and she had literally given her life for what she believed in. Anytime I started thinking I wasn't good enough, that I couldn't make a difference, I would remember Frances. She became my strength.
"There are so many good things I could say about Brenda. But primarily, she believed in Frances Slanger's story, and she believed in me." Welch
AUTHORLINK: Brenda Copeland is your editor at Atria. How did she help you through the publishing process, and did she require any revisions?
WELCH: There are so many good things I could say about Brenda. But primarily, she believed in Frances Slanger's story, and she believed in me. I lacked a major track record in publishing, yet Brenda saw something in this story. She wasn't just looking at dollar signs. She had Frances Slanger in mind. Unlike a lot of World War II books, Brenda realized this was a deeper story about one person. Brenda was tremendous in helping me rub the rough edges off my newspaper style. "Bob," she would say, "it's okay to have a sentence more than nine words long," or "It's okay to have a paragraph with more than two sentences." She held my hand when I needed it, and slapped it when I deserved a lesson. One of the biggest tussles we had was that I wanted the book to be released in January 2004, before the D-Day anniversary. She wanted it to come out in April or May.
In an e-mail, I wrote something like, " Having the book come out in May would be like going to a New Year's Eve party without a date and hoping to find somebody you knew well enough to kiss before midnight."
"Yes," she returned the message," but coming out in January is like showing up at the party at 9 a.m. and getting so drunk you couldn't kiss anyone."
I would like to have seen the book released a month or two before it was, but, basically, Brenda was right. It would have been a death nail to release the work in January.
Overall, it has been a good relationship, though there have been days when we wanted to strangle each other. We have a lot of mutual respect.
AUTHORLINK: Slanger seems to resonate with readers on a deep emotional level. Were you surprised about that?
WELCH: I was so wrapped up in researching and selling the book, I forgot people were actually going to read it. I'm grateful to learn that her story clearly touches many people on an emotional level. For example, a professor in Washington D.C. read the book and has now ordered it for his entire history class.
And another event has added to the emotionalism. Captain Joseph Shoham, the beetle-collecting dentist who was subjugated to mess hall duty in the story, is still alive at age 89. In our many conversations during my research he would always ask me, in his Eastern voice, to say hello to Johnny Bonzer. John is the only other surviving doctor from the story. I began to think it would be amazing if the surviving people in the story were to meet again after all these years. So I arranged for it to happen one night in June 2004, in a small hotel in Washington D.C. Forty-six people gathered to celebrate France Slanger's life. It was the same night that President Reagan's body was brought to Washington D.C. to lie in state.
There in the hotel were Frances' nieces and nephews, four surviving nurses, and three men from the 45th Field Hospital. Among them was Captain Joseph Shoham, this Jewish man from Washington, D.C. Then, into the room shuffled a small Catholic man in his 80s. It was Johnny Bonzer. The two wartime tent mates embraced each other. If I never sell another book, it was worth five years of my life to witness that moment. It was another ripple in Frances Slanger's story–but I'm convinced, not the last.
"I want to be remembered as someone who tried to champion the underdog." Welch
AUTHORLINK: Do you have any advice for writers who are struggling to break into publishing?
WELCH. I don't know. I was just in so deep I couldn't give up. I wouldn't say this is "heroic Bob, here." It's more like, "desperate Bob." I have to pay my Visa bill.
AUTHORLINK: Well, you're not dead yet, but how would you like to be remembered?
WELCH: I want to be remembered as someone who tried to champion the underdog. It's fascinating to me to see Bill Clinton's book come out at the same time as American Nightingale. How dare him (laughing)! Clinton and Slanger are polar opposites. He's handsome and rich and Frances is the deceased daughter of a fruit peddler from Poland. There is no such thing as an ordinary person. You just have to find his or her extraordinary story. This time, the story found me. I feel honored to be telling the story of Frances Slanger. Doris Booth