From the desk of Laurel Ann Nattress:
Since watching the 1943 movie, So Proudly We Hail, I have always been interested in the story of military nurses in the Pacific during WWII. There are so many movies and books based on the Battle of the Philippines (1941-1942) from the male perspective that I was thrilled to discover, When We Had Wings, a new collaborative novel co-authored by three bestselling authors: Ariel Lawhon, Kristina McMorris, & Susan Meissner. I was curious about the inspiration for the novel, the research involved, and writing process with three authors. They kindly agreed to an interview to share their experiences and insights.
Please help me welcome Ariel, Kristina, and Susan today, who have collectively replied to my questions.
Collaborative novels are unique and a challenge to coordinate. What was the initial spark for When We Had Wings, and how were the co-authors selected?
The idea of this collaboration came our way via an invitation from publisher, Harper Muse: would the three of us consider teaming up to co-write a WWII novel for them? Other than this desired historical backdrop we would have control of what specific premise to propose. The three of us have been friends for a long while, having crossed paths at book events over the years and in the marketplace. And we already loved each other’s work, so it wasn’t too difficult to say yes once we gauged our own solo projects and figured out if we could make the time framework.
The invitation also arrived during a rather strange time for us all—at the beginning of the pandemic when nobody was going anywhere and most of us were in lockdown at home. Creating something totally different was appealing for that reason, too. We knew we wanted to feature a WWII event that hadn’t already been covered in many other novels, and we also wanted to showcase women who’d had a significant role in that event. It was on a Google deep dive that Susan came across a documentary on the WWII military nurses nicknamed the “Angels of Bataan.” Once we all watched that documentary, we knew we had the backdrop we wanted and the story we wanted to tell.
The Pacific Theater is underrepresented in historical fiction and I was excited to discover that When We Had Wings is set in the Philippines during WWII. Can you share your research process for the story?
We relied heavily on a wonderful nonfiction book, entitled We Band of Angels by Elizabeth M. Norman. This book was first published in hardcover in 1999 when twenty-one of the Angels were still with us. Dr. Norman is a college professor and a nurse herself, and her research on these remarkable women was impeccable. Sadly, the last Angel, Navy 1st Lt. Minnie Dalton Manning, died in 2013, which meant we would need to rely solely on already published works to get a feel for what these women experienced. We also could not consider a trip to the Philippines as part of our research because we wrote this book during the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, when international travel was a major challenge. Thankfully we found video recordings as well as several memoirs and biographical works that allowed us to immerse ourselves into the complex world of these nurses.
How does the story in When We Had Wings unfold from the point of view of the three nurses: Eleanor Lindstrom, Penny Franklin, and Lita Capel? Did each of you claim a character to write?
One of the things we liked most about this idea, other than that we wanted to shine a huge light on what these women accomplished, was that there were three kinds of nurses who were imprisoned when the Philippine islands fell to the Japanese forces: Army nurses, Navy nurses, and Filipina nurses working for the US Army.
Our choices for who would write which character were easy. Kristina, being half Japanese, was the perfect person to write the story of Lita, a half-Filipina, half-American RN. And Susan was the right person to write Eleanor as her father-in-law was a career Naval officer, her son was in the Navy, and she is a native of San Diego, a Navy town. Ariel was ideal to create the character of Penny, the Army nurse from Texas, particularly given Ariel’s longtime Southern residence, her family’s deep ties to that state, and the fact that both her father and grandfather served in the US Army.
The book is constructed in alternating chapters, largely rotating among the three nurses, although there were times due to actual historical events when we had to adjust the structure slightly. We let the story, the real story of what happened to these women, dictate how the novel unfolded.
What is the biggest challenge in writing a novel with three authors?
Every partnership of authors likely has a different answer to this question! We came into this knowing that each one of us has her own way of writing a book, and all of those ways work—our solo novels prove that. We also started with the belief that the story would always be preeminent. Any hard decisions that had to be made would be for the good of the story, and sometimes, for example, that meant one of us cutting a chapter already written or suddenly having to rewrite one.
For us, the biggest challenge was that each of us has our own solo writing career on top of this, and we were all working on individual books at the same time. There were plenty of days when it seemed like we all had too many irons in the fire! Plus, we were writing in 2020 and 2021, which were arguably difficult times creatively. Of course, ultimately, all the challenges were eclipsed by our immense joy of producing a book we are all so very proud of.
What did you discover about your fellow writers or yourself during the process?
One of the tough things about writing solo is that you don’t usually have someone alongside you every step of the way helping you shape your work, unless of course you have a writing partner. We found that working together from page one allowed us to make a lot of minor and major improvements before we even began the revision process with our editor. That was an unexpected bonus.
Is there another collaborative novel in the works from the team?
Perhaps! Right now, we’ve got solo books that are clamoring for our attention!
Can you each share your next individual writing project to be published?
Ariel: my next solo novel, The Frozen River, will publish on November 7th, 2023. It’s inspired by the life and diary of a woman named Martha Ballard who was a renowned midwife in late 1700’s Maine. This story is set over the course of one long, hard winter and follows Martha as she solves a shocking murder that unravels her small community.
Kristina: My latest solo novel, The Ways We Hide, was just released on September 6th, so I’ve been busy with a whirlwind book tour around the country! Inspired by incredible true accounts, the story features a female American illusionist whose obsession with escape traces back to a shocking childhood tragedy known as the Italian Hall Disaster in Michigan’s Copper Country. During WWII, her unique skills lead to her recruitment by MI9, or what I like to call the “go-go-gadget team” of British Intelligence. By designing escape-and-evade devices that are smuggled into seemingly innocuous items such as Monopoly boards, she assists Allied POWs escape Nazi capture – and is pulled far deeper into the war than she ever expects.
Susan: On April 18, 2023, my next solo work, Only the Beautiful, will be published by Berkley. It is the story of two women impacted by the eugenics movement of the early 20th century: one, a young woman working on a California vineyard in the 1930s and the other an American expat working as a nanny in Nazi-occupied Vienna. The eugenics movement has fallen from modern remembrance, but it is one of those events in human history that shouldn’t be forgotten. Most know what the Nazis’ idea of “only perfect people” looked like, but many are unaware that eugenic thinking was alive and well here in the United States long before Adolf Hitler rose to power. I crafted a story that I hope will keep the lessons learned from this time in history from disappearing.
Ariel Lawhon is a critically acclaimed, New York Times bestselling author of historical fiction. She is the author of The Wife the Maid and the Mistress (2014), Flight of Dreams (2016), I Was Anastasia (2018), and Code Name Hélène (2020).
Her books have been translated into numerous languages and have been Library Reads, One Book One County, Indie Next, Costco, Amazon Spotlight, and Book of the Month Club selections. She lives in the rolling hills outside Nashville, Tennessee, with her husband and four sons. Ariel splits her time between the grocery store and the baseball field.
WEBSITE | TWITTER | INSTAGRAM | FACEBOOK | GOODREADS
Kristina McMorris is a New York Times bestselling author of two novellas and six novels, including the runaway bestseller Sold on a Monday. Initially inspired by her grandparents’ WWII courtship letters, her works of fiction have garnered more than twenty national literary awards. Prior to her writing career, she owned a wedding-and-event planning company until she had far surpassed her limit of YMCA and chicken dances. She also worked as a weekly TV-show host for Warner Bros. and an ABC affiliate, beginning at age nine with an Emmy Award-winning program. A graduate of Pepperdine University, she lives near Portland, Oregon, where (ironically) she’s entirely deficient of a green thumb and doesn’t own a single umbrella.
WEBSITE | TWITTER | INSTAGRAM | FACEBOOK | GOODREADS
Susan Meissner is a USA Today bestselling author of historical fiction with more than three-quarters of a million books in readers’ hands and translations in eighteen languages. She is an author, speaker and writing workshop leader with a background in community journalism. Her novels include The Nature of Fragile Things, which earned a starred review in Publishers Weekly; The Last Year of the War, named to Real Simple magazine’s list of best books for 2019; As Bright as Heaven, which earned a starred review in Library Journal; Secrets of Charmed Life, a Goodreads finalist for Best Historical Fiction 2015; and A Fall of Marigolds, named to Booklist’s Top Ten Women’s Fiction titles for 2014.
Susan attended Point Loma Nazarene University in California and makes her home with her husband and yellow Lab in the Pacific Northwest.
WEBSITE | TWITTER | INSTAGRAM | FACEBOOK | GOODREADS
From three bestselling authors comes an interwoven tale about a trio of World War II nurses stationed in the South Pacific who wage their own battle for freedom and survival.
The Philippines, 1941. When U.S. Navy nurse Eleanor Lindstrom, U.S. Army nurse Penny Franklin, and Filipina nurse Lita Capel forge a friendship at the Army Navy Club in Manila, they believe they’re living a paradise assignment. All three are seeking a way to escape their pasts, but soon the beauty and promise of their surroundings give way to the heavy mantle of war.
Caught in the crosshairs of a fight between the U.S. military and the Imperial Japanese Army for control of the Philippine Islands, the nurses are forced to serve under combat conditions and, ultimately, endure captivity as the first female prisoners of the Second World War. As their resiliency is tested in the face of squalid living arrangements, food shortages, and the enemy’s blatant disregard for the articles of the Geneva Convention, the women strive to keep their hope— and their fellow inmates—alive, though not without great cost.
In this sweeping story based on the true experiences of nurses dubbed “the Angels of Bataan,” three women shift in and out of each other’s lives through the darkest days of the war, buoyed by their unwavering friendship and distant dreams of liberation.
- “Lawhon (Code Name Helene), McMorris (The Edge of Lost), and Meissner (The Nature of Fragile Things) team up for an illuminating story of the nurses stationed in the Philippines during WWII . . . With this fine tale, the authors succeed at bringing to readers’ minds the courage and sacrifice of those who inspired it.”— Publishers Weekly
- “Three superstars of historical fiction team up to tell the story of the Angels of Bataan, nurses in and around the armed forces in the Philippines during WWII . . .a novel rich in historical detail that immerses readers in the dangers and deprivation WWII nurses suffered in the Pacific, wrapped up with a hopeful ending.”— Booklist
- “Three of the biggest powerhouses in historical fiction come together to pen this breathtaking story of three nurses serving in the Philippines during the Second World War.”— Pam Jenoff, New York Times bestselling author of The Woman with the Blue Star
- When We Had Wings, by Ariel Lawhon, Kristina McMorris, & Susan Meissner
- Harper Muse (October 18, 2022)
- Hardcover, eBook, & audiobook (432) pages
- ISBN: 978-0785253341
- Genre: Historical Fiction, WWII Fiction
ADDITIONAL INFO | ADD TO GOODREADS
Cover image courtesy of Harper Muse © 2022; text Ariel Lawhon, Kristina McMorris, Susan Meissner, & Laurel Ann Nattress © 2022, austenprose.com is an Amazon Affiliate.
Please join in and have your share of the conversation!