Last week I reached out of the neighborhood to include an interview of a children’s book author who is in my writing group. This week, I share an interview with Sandra Warren, a neighbor who wrote a historical book with a phenomenal background that should interest all Patriots.
Sandra, you have a long history of writing experience with children’s books, biographies, and now a historical account that is an inspiration to future generations, We Bought a WWII Bomber. How did you come to realize this story was yours to write?
In 2012, at my high school reunion, I gave a presentation about the history of the school, which included the story of the Class of 1943’s participation in the “Buy a Bomber” program. The story ended with a newspaper article about another South High school alum who, with the help of former President Gerald R. Ford, found the bomber had been used for training and was dismantled in Columbus, Ohio.
While researching for my presentation, I became fascinated with what the Class of 1943 had accomplished. I decided the story would make a great middle-grade novel since it was instigated by an 8th grader. But first, I had to finish a novel I’d been working on for years.
In 2013, one of my high school classmates decided to find the training log for the bomber. Instead, he found the bomber listed on a 1944 report of stateside military plane crashes. The report said the bomber had crashed in Meadows of Dan, Virginia. My classmate ordered copies of that report and sent one to me.
When you found out the South High plane had crashed, were you tempted to give up the project?
Absolutely not! That’s the very thing that prompted more curiosity. Crashing tells a very different story than merely being dismantled. I needed to know what? where? when? and why? Then, as the investigation unfolded, things got more intriguing. How could a whole community forget that a WWII bomber crashed in their county? And since the field where the bomber came down had been sold to the Blue Ridge Parkway a few years after the crash, why weren’t national park historians made aware of this?
When I discovered that I live less than three hours from Meadows of Dan, Virginia, where the last flight of the bomber purchased by students from my high school ended, it was like a big sign flashing, “You’ve got to write this story!”
You must have interviewed many people for this project. How did you make contacts? Was that process different than writing your two biographical books?
The process for writing my latest book was completely different than writing the biographical books which were about two female Army Reserve nurses who served in the Persian Gulf War. In each biography I had a primary character that was still alive. I interviewed them, and they gave me easy access to their colleagues, friends and family members.
In my latest book, however, many of the key players were elderly or had already passed on. Interviewing older citizens has it’s challenges particularly when dealing with facts. Memories can fade over the years. For the Michigan high school side of the story, I was able to tap into a well-organized alumni association. Key folks in that association put me in contact with class members who were willing to share their memories.
Things got more complicated, however, when I started in on the Virginia side of the story. The biggest obstacle was that, no one, even members of the Patrick County Historical Society, seemed to remember anything about the military crash of a B-17 bomber that had occurred in their county on Oct. 1, 1944. I had to call the local radio stations and ask to be interviewed. I also sent letters to surrounding cities’ newspapers, giving a brief synopsis of the story and asked folks to please contact me if they had any memories to share. The people came out of the woodwork. Most were interviewed via the telephone. With permission, I recorded the conversations for future reference.
Was it difficult to organize your facts to make your time line chronological?
No! It was essential that this story be told as it happened, one thing after the other. The only chapters that really gave me pause were the ones dealing with the landing of the pilots after they bailed out of the bomber. The challenge was figuring out how to tell six different experiences all happening within the same timeframe and not be confusing.
I especially liked the details you included about life and times in that era, when everyone was affected by rationing. Because there were many campaigns to fund the war effort, your long list of contributors to the “Buy a Bomber” campaign was impressive.
Since publication last year, has your focus on this story encouraged discussion and more recollections from South High graduates and service members?
Everywhere I go and after every presentation folks share their most wonderful WWII memories. I’ve heard from South High alumni who participated in the program, and many remember selling the bonds and stamps and being at the dedication ceremony at the Kent County Airport. One gentleman proudly pointed out that he was one of the trombone players standing under the wing in the photos. A Virginia woman remembered seeing two of the pilots embrace after being reunited after the crash. It was the first time she’d seen grown men cry. Another Virginia woman insisted that I visit her home so she could show me where her father rescued the Captain. The stories go on and on. I’m collecting these stories to put on my website linked to an “After The Book” button.
Have the alumni of South High supported your efforts?
Oh my goodness YES! Right from the beginning, alumni got behind this project. One alum took up a collection at her place of business to help fund the photos and production costs. She raised over $1000 on behalf of the book. Alumni have also supported me by buying books and inviting me to give presentations. All this from alumni of a school that closed in 1968! The “Spirit” of South High is quite remarkable.
What was your most difficult challenge in writing this story?
Perhaps my most difficult challenge was getting it done in eight months. I started researching the story in mid-January 2015 and wanted a book in hand by September 9th, the Saturday after Labor Day. To meet that deadline, the book would have to be finished and headed to the printer by mid-July at the latest. I had made the decision to self-publish the book because I had been asked to speak at the South High School All-school Open House & Tour the week of Labor Day. I didn’t want to make that presentation without a book to share. A traditional publisher would not have been able to produce it that quickly.
Let me also say that I’ve never had so much fun writing anything in my life, and I can’t imagine another project that will give me as much joy.
Currently, I’m working on presentations and scheduling for the bomber book as well as trying to keep up with social media. Gone are the days when all a writer has to do is write.
With regards to writing, the middle-grade version of the bomber story is mulling around in my brain. When I figure out the angle I should be able to write it in a couple of days. In addition, the novel I mentioned finishing earlier still hasn’t found a publisher. I need to go through it one more time and get it out!
Thanks Sandra for sharing your busy time on this blog. Sandra will be autographing her books at two events this month: April 16 at Burke Country Library and April 22 & 23 at Blue Ridge Bookfest. (See notices at top on right column.) For more information about Sandra Warren: www.arliebooks.com For Presentations: firstname.lastname@example.org
POSTSCRIPT FROM SANDRA on April 20:
I’m so excited! I was just informed that my book, We Bought A WWII Bomber: The Untold Story of a Michigan High School, a B-17 Bomber & The Blue Ridge Parkway is a finalist in the 2016 Next Generation Indie Book Awards! YAY!