Tricia Goyer shares with Rachel how she first connected with WWII veterans, some of the surprising things she’s learned from those she’s interviewed, and wonderful true life story of a WWII medic.
Rachel: I can imagine that authors of historical fiction face different challenges to those writing contemporary novels when they choose to write about characters involved in the military. I know that you’ve been fortunate enough to have the opportunity to interview several war veterans during your research for your WWII novels. How did you get connected with these veterans?
Tricia: In 2000, when I went to Europe with two friends, I heard about the soldiers from the 11th Armored Division and their liberation of the Mauthausen Concentration camp. When I returned home, I emailed the division wondering if any of the men were still alive. There were, and I was invited to their reunion. That was the first of many reunions that I went to. I’m so thankful for all the face-to-face time I had with the veterans. I met some amazing men and women through the years!
Rachel: What are some of the most interesting or surprising things you’ve learned from the experiences of these men and women?
Tricia: Wow, what a great question! I learned that these men and women were honored to share their experiences, and though it was a hard part of their lives, they’d choose to do it again if given a chance. I learned that they were disheartened by how history was forgotten, and in some instances, changed. I learned that the greatest way to honor veterans is to take time to listen to their stories and understand the sacrifices they made. I learned that ordinary people can do extraordinary things.
Rachel: In what ways are your novels influenced by the life stories of the veterans you have interviewed? Can you share with us a true story that, though altered, has made its way into your one of your books?
Tricia: All my World War II novels are inspired by true stories. I took the real experiences and combined them and fictionalized them as best I could.
There are so many stories that I can share, but LeRoy “Pete” Petersohn’s story about the liberation of the Gusen and Mauthausen concentration camps in Austria is the one that stands out. Twenty-three American soldiers came upon the camp. They didn’t even know the camps were there. The German soldiers surrendered and the Americans opened the camp gates. The prisoners were weak and dying. Some prisoners barely made it outside the gates before falling dead. They gave the last of their strength just to walk to freedom. Pete was a medic, and he began caring for everyone as best he could. I talked to him numerous times, and he told me that he would never forgot the horror of the condition of the prisoners nor their joy over being finally free after all those years.
This true story became the basis for two of my novels From Dust and Ashes and Night Song. But the amazing part of the true story didn’t stop there. Another element of that story Pete told me was about a baby he’d rescued inside the camp walls. The newborn baby was close to dead, and he nursed her to health by lancing and cleaning the sores that covered her body. He found milk for her and cared for her mother. Pete told me he always wondered what had happened to her.
Well, after the publication of those novels a woman contacted me, and she asked if I had interviewed any medics. She was trying to find the medic who saved her life. It turns out that she was the baby, now grown! She and Pete were reunited, and they corresponded until his death. I love how God worked. The seed of that story became my novel, Remembering You.
Rachel: In addition to your WWII novels, you’ve also written the Chronicles of the Spanish Civil War series. While WWII is a popular setting for historical fiction, the Spanish Civil War has not been so widely written about. What drew you to this war in particular?
Tricia: I was drawn to The Spanish Civil War after one of the veterans told me he had fought in it. When he told me, I had no idea what he was talking about, so I had to go look it up! It turns out it really was the precursor to World War II. The first fights between dictatorship and democracy took place in Spain. The Germans even provided men and plans to bomb the country. Many people don’t realize that as early as 1936 the Germans were doing their part to see their allies had the power they needed to support them. The fight began on Spanish soil.
Rachel: I imagine that many authors begin researching a particular period of history with an image of it in their mind, and that this image may change during the course of their investigations. Has your historical research changed the way you view the men and women who fought to defend their countries?
Tricia: My point-of-view has changed. The more I researched, the more I realized that the men and women who fought the war were just KIDS. Many were 17, 18, and 19-years-old. Some had never left their county before the war and then found themselves on the other side of the world.
I also understand the German people more. This understanding came from interviewing people who lived just outside the concentration camps. I interviewed one man who was just a boy when the camps came in. He and his family tried to sneak food in to the prisoners and their lives were threatened. Those who tried to speak out against the camps went “missing” and were never seen again. It made me understand that not everyone in Germany and Austria supported Hitler and many on the “inside” saw him as an enemy, too.
It’s amazing how much you can learn beyond the history books.
Rachel: Love Finds You in Victory Heights, Washington focuses on the women of WWII, particularly those who worked in factories, as epitomized by the iconic Rosie the Riveter. It’s very easy to focus on the soldiers who served their countries and forget about women like Rosaline in LFY in Victory Heights who worked hard on the home front, often facing danger from explosions in factories or air raids. Are there any other areas that women served in during wartime that you read about during your research?
Tricia: Yes! For my novel Arms of Deliverance, I researched female war correspondents. During WWII women reporters and photographers were allowed on the front lines for the first time. In Songbird Under a German Moon I wrote about performers who held USO events to entertain the troops. I also wrote about nurses in When Treetops Glisten and about WASP pilots in Dawn of a Thousand Nights. Females were used to train male pilots and to transport aircraft across the country. Finally, in The Swiss Courier and Chasing Mona Lisa I also wrote about female spies. Women did a lot in the war! I loved talking to so many women and hearing their stories.
Rachel: Do you have any family members who have served in the military? If so, have they influenced your writing in any way?
Tricia: My grandfather served in the South Pacific during WWII, but sadly I don’t know much about his experiences. He passed away before I could ask too many questions. He was stationed in Australia and Papua New Guinea. I honored him by tying a WWII veteran, who served in New Guinea, into my upcoming novel Mason Jar Mayhem, which I wrote with Cara Putman.
Rachel: What are some ways that non-writers can become connected with war veterans and support them?
Tricia: Great question! First, if you know a veteran, ask if you can interview him or her. Send a thank you card to a veteran you know. Visit nursing homes and spend time with the veterans there.
Finally, call up your local VA hospital or VA organization and ask if there is a way your family can volunteer for the day. Who knows, you might just want to make it a regular occurrence.
Rachel: Thank you so much for answering all of our questions!
Tricia: You’re welcome!