A Letter from Pearl Harbor: Anna Stuart Interview

Anna Stuart

The novelist talks female aviators, Pearl Harbor and the research that went into her latest novel.
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How did you find the research for A Letter from Pearl Harbor in comparison to your other novels: The Berlin Zookeeper or The Secret Diary? Following on from that, do you have a set research and writing approach to a novel in general?

Perhaps the big feature of my research for A Letter from Pearl Harbor was just how much material was available to me. I was lucky with The Berlin Zookeeper that one excellent Dutch historian, Kevin Prenger, had written (and very kindly translated into English) a book called War Zone Zoo that gave me so much of what I needed to know for the intimate story of the novel. I obviously had to research Berlin and the Battle of Berlin more widely but a lot of my core narrative details were provided in one book. Similarly for The Secret Diary, there were just a few books on the ATS girls working the anti-aircraft guns and one main website for RAF Langham so again, although I read around the subject, the immediate details were quite concisely provided to me. When it came to Pearl Harbor, however, there was so much I could have read.

General Patrick Bellinger, who notified the world of the Pearl Harbor attack.

Clearly the attack was a hugely significant event and also a very complex one. I was absolutely fascinated reading about the build-up to it and all the minutiae of political and military decisions that left the Americans as sitting ducks on that terrible morning. In reality, they’d had plenty of hints that it might happen – including a report drafted by their own General Bellinger (who features in the novel) mapping out how such an attack might work in exact detail. I was amazed by it all and keen to include as much as I could but, at the end of the day, I was telling Ginny, Jack and Lili’s story so had to focus on what was directly relevant to them. I therefore had to take a deep breath and omit some elements, or only mention them in passing and even then more had to be taken out when editing as it was cluttering the actual story I was trying to tell.

I confess that I love research – it’s where all my ideas really come from. I tend to start wide, reading headline books that cover the general history of the period and area and then slowly narrow in as I find elements that catch my attention. With Pearl Harbor, this was the details of Cornelia Fort, the first person to see the Japanese planes arriving and a female flight instructor. Researching her led me to the female pilots in both American and Britain and that was when I knew I had an important story to tell.

You mention in the historical notes that Jacqueline Cochran could have a novel written about her in her own right. Do you think that may be another novel of yours in the future?

Ooh – maybe! She was certainly a fascinating woman, who dragged herself out of extreme poverty to be hugely successful. She must have had an innately strong personality as even aged nine she was appointed as a supervisor in her work in the timber mills in the Florida panhandle and she never stopped fighting for her own right to achieve her potential and that of other women. Watch this space…!

The attack on Pearl Harbor was a terrible shock for the Americans in Hawaii, as well as the rest of the country. During the course of your research were you able to appreciate what it was like just before, during and in the aftermath of the attack?

I guess it’s the shock element that’s so inherently fascinating about the attack and I worked hard to show how great life on the island was even just twelve hours before the Japanese planes when everyone was enjoying a happy Saturday night out. The island was full because of a lot of families coming over for the festive period and I was really struck by how close to Christmas it was when I read that Santa was going to be in the newspaper offices the next morning. I knew I had to find a way to get that into the novel as there’s something very poignant about the thought of kids getting up early to go and visit Santa only to have bombs landing instead. And of course that emphasises the fact, too, that although there were huge military installations at Pearl Harbor, there were also a lot of families out there and, of course, the natives too.

All were drawn into the tragic events of December 7th and although only around 65 civilians were killed that’s still a sad number and many others were wounded and, of course, suffered losses of family and friends, as well as the utter devastation of knowing that your peaceful island was now under threat. That 1 ½ hour attack on the island of Oahu turned Hawaiian life upside down and I hope that the central chapters of the novel go some way to conveying what that was like for those who had the misfortune to be involved.

Jacqueline Cochran, an early pioneer and female aviator.

How do manage to make your stories exciting, even though we know what happened during WW2, and during the Pearl Harbor attack.

Good question and I was always very aware, when writing this novel, that readers would have their own perceptions of the attack. There was inevitably going to be a certain dramatic irony in the characters having a happy time in the build-up to the attack, totally unaware of what’s going to happen whilst the reader – and indeed, the modern-day protagonists – are all too aware of it. I hope I made the most of that without overdoing it. I guess, though, that a lot of people, perhaps especially in Britain, have only a very headline idea of that terrible morning and I hope that delving into individual experiences helps to bring it to life. I always remind myself that I’m writing story, not history, so hopefully immersing the reader in Ginny’s direct experience of the attack is what makes it gripping for them.

We’ve seen a large number of books written more recently about the female experience of WW2, and this is your third. Are there any non-fiction authors that you’ve used for research?

Many! I’m always hugely indebted to the wonderful historians that write such full and fascinating books on so many aspects of the war. One that was particularly useful to me for writing A Letter from Pearl Harbor was The Women with Silver Wings by Katherine Sharp Landdeck – a wonderfully full and insightful look into female pilots in America in World War II. It was from this book that I got many of the fascinating and incredible details about the conditions Jacqueline Cochran and her trainees had to put up with in the early days -including the fact they were driven around in a bus that used to belong to a Tyrolean orchestra, so had edelweiss painted on the side! These are the sorts of gifts that historians can offer a novelist and I can’t thank Ms Landdeck enough for her research.

The character Ginny is fictitious but loosely based on Cornelia Fort. Ginny is such a vivacious and strong-willed character, was this true of Cornelia Fort as well or was Ginny’s zest for life based on someone else?

Cornelia Fort certainly seems to have been both vivacious and strong-willed. Sadly she was the first WASP pilot to die in active service in March 1943 in an accident in which she was flying in too close formation with other – male – pilots and one of them, misjudging the distance, clipped her wing and sent her into a fatal spin. In many ways it was that sad story that gave birth to Ginny’s own secret guilt, though I chose to take it in a slightly different direction for my novel.

After that, I think Ginny was partly inspired by my own grandmothers, who were both formidable women. She’s everything I’d like to be – strong and outspoken and impetuous – but of course that can come with its own problems as I hope the book shows.

Do you have any tips for budding historical fiction writers?

It’s hard enough trying to make it as a writer and some might say that trying to write historical fiction is giving yourself an additional challenge as it can be hard to get the feel of the period right. However I find history totally inspiring and would urge anyone starting out to do lots of research, to find the details that fascinate them and then follow them down ‘research rabbit holes’ to really uncover a story. At times, to me, it then feels as if you are more letting the story come out than creating it, and that, I hope, is what makes for believable historical fiction.

Do you have anything in particular that you’re working on at the moment that you could share?

It’s all a bit hush-hush at the moment but I can say that it’s still a WW2 novel, that it’s going to be all historical, rather than dual timeline, and that there will be babies involved…! Watch this space.

Anna Stuart is a bestselling novelist, and author of A Letter from Pearl Harborwhich is out now and published by Bookouture.