1. What prompted you to write the Clubmobile Girls series?
I have always been drawn to WWII novels, and shortly after I attended my second RWA annual conference, I decided to write a historical romance set during the WWII years. I read Emily Yellin's excellent book Our Mother's War: American Women at Home and at the Front During World War II, which describes the many roles that women played beyond the iconic defense plant work of Rosie the Riveter. I discovered that the Red Cross deployed thousands of women overseas (all over the world, not just Europe) and that the work of these women often took them closer to the front lines than even the combat nurses. These women were also extraordinary trailblazers in that they all had a college degree, some career experience, and possessed a mix of intangible attributes such as charisma, resilience, and resourcefulness. Further, the contributions of these daring and courageous women had largely been lost to history, and I knew I wanted to tell their stories.
2. What's coming up in this series?
I plan to write at least 5 Clubmobile Girls novels. Red Cross Girls served all over the world, so I expect to set the five novels in Europe, the Pacific theater, India, the Mediterranean theater (North Africa into Italy), and China. I may also write novels or novellas set in Iran, Cuba, Iceland, Alaska and the Aleutian Islands, and Burma.
3. What is the most challenging part of writing this series?
Balancing the need to provide authenticity and a clear period feel without inundating the reader with too much historical backstory is a battle in every scene. I hope historical details and slang add color and context without overwhelming readers with too much information.
4. What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?
I adore my developmental editor, now a friend, Laura Mitchell. I am also quite pleased with my custom illustrated cover art created by Rafael Andres of Cover Kitchen. As an indie author, it's smart to invest as much as you are able in top-notch editing and quality cover art.
5. What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before writing a book?
I typically start with a few big-picture sources, and I then make notes on angles that I might want to focus on further. For each of my first two Clubmobile Girls novels, I probably spent a few months reading broadly and generally about the relevant theater of operations (Europe or the Pacific). I then read every Red Cross Girl memoir written by women who served in that locale. I spent another month or more reading and conducting online research to narrow down the military role for my hero and the various locales in which I wanted to place both my hero and heroine. People who served in the Pacific theater moved frequently -- not just the military personnel but also the Red Cross Girls, combat nurses, and Women's Army Corps as well. Once I settled on where they would be stationed, I began to request more specific research materials through interlibrary loan. I gathered an immense amount of research material during trips to the National Archives in 2017 and 2019. My research is also ongoing to a large extent. I research some details at almost every writing session, as many small questions pop up in the course of mapping out a scene.
6. How many hours a day do you write?
This is an evolving answer! Generally, I devote 2-3 hours on weekdays to writing. Weekends may yield more writing or none at all, depending on family plans.
7. How did you choose the titles for your Clubmobile Girls novels?
The titles come from the speeches and writings of first lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
Courage to be Counted
"When you have decided what you believe, what you feel must be done, have the courage to stand alone and be counted." -- Eleanor Roosevelt
This quote is always included in compilations of "greatest quotations" from Eleanor Roosevelt. Tracking down where and when she said it, and most importantly, her motivations or the context of the remark has been challenging.
It possibly is connected to Eleanor's involvement in a controversy surrounding African-American opera singer Marian Anderson. Howard University had invited Anderson to sing as part of a concert series, but they lacked a venue space large enough to accommodate the expected audience. Howard University requested permission to host the event at the DAR's Constitution Hall, but DAR policy at the time only permitted white performers. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt resigned her DAR membership. Howard University then approached the federal government to ask if the concert might be held outdoors on the National Mall. Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes arranged for Anderson to sing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and introduced her. The concert attracted an audience of at least 75,000 people and marked an important step in the struggle for civil rights. She performed at Constitution Hall at the invitation of the DAR in January 1943 and several times in the decades thereafter.
Carry a Crusading Spirit
"Human beings forget so fast, if the generation that fights today is to lay the foundations on which a peaceful world can be built, all of us who have seen the war at close range must remember what we see and carry a crusading spirit into all of our work."
Eleanor Roosevelt, "My Day" column, 30 August 1943
Eleanor Roosevelt wrote this column from Wellington, New Zealand, one of the first stops on her month-long tour of the South Pacific in 1943.
In this particular column, though she has only begun her tour, Eleanor pays tribute to the nurses and the Red Cross Girls. "There are never enough people to do the work, and yet it gets done. My hat is off to every woman working in this area."
8. What is the first book that made you cry?
Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls. If I ever needed to cry on command, I only need to recall Old Dan and Little Ann and that red fern. See, now I'm crying!
9. Have you ever gotten reader's block?
Yes! After I devoured Stephenie Meyer's debut novel, Twilight, I found myself unable to read anything else for a period of time. It lasted at least a month, and as a life-long bookworm, it was terrifying.
10. Do you expect each book in the series will be a stand-alone novel, or are you trying to build a body of work with connections between each book?
Generally speaking, each Clubmobile Girls novel can be read on its own. Several historical figures may appear in multiple novels. Curtis LeMay commanded the 305th bomb group in Chelveston, England, as depicted in my debut novel, Courage to be Counted. His career took him from India to Guam, and he does make a brief appearance in Carry a Crusading Spirit. He very well may appear in the CBI books as well.
Vivian Lambert, my heroine in Courage to be Counted, roomed with several other Red Cross Girls while she trained in Washington, D.C. in late 1942. Those roommates, though there are only passing references to them in Vivian's story, will be the heroines in later books and will likely hear from or make reference to Vivian and the other heroines.
11. Have you read anything that made you feel differently about fiction?
The French Lieutenant's Woman profoundly influenced me as both a reader and a writer. Author John Fowles inserts himself directly into the narrative, both interrupting the action to speak directly to the reader at different points and physically appearing as a character in one scene. In these authorial intrusions, Fowles essentially engaged in reader response theory. Reader response theory holds that readers are not bound to the author's interpretation or even the text itself within a work of fiction. This literary theory posits that readers are active participants in creating the novel as they read it and on equal footing with the author in its creation and individual interpretation. Fowles left the reader with three possible endings and ultimately challenged readers to consider whether any or all of these three endings were valid and cogent resolutions for the characters. Fan fiction communities thrive through adherence to reader response theory.
12. What authors do you like to read? What books have had a strong influence on you or your writing?
I've mentioned a few of them in this Q&A already, but I will always pre-order and read a new release from these authors (in no particular order): J.K. Rowling, Diana Gabaldon, Jennifer Robson, Sara Ackerman, Meg Waite Clayton, Stephenie Meyer, Caroline Leech, Kristan Higgins, Tracy Brogan, Gayle Forman, Mhairi McFarlane, Josie Silver, Rainbow Rowell, Sharon Kay Penman, John Green, Jacqueline Winspear, Kate Quinn, Ruta Sepetys, Elizabeth Wein, and Katherine Center. Some of my favorite authors are deceased, including Laura Ingalls Wilder, Noel Barber, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and Herman Wouk. I enjoy certain novels by Stephen King and Larry McMurtry. In addition to the influence of Noel Barber already mentioned, Herman Wouk's classic Winds of War and War and Remembrance were also favorites and early influences drawing me to fiction set during the WWII years.
NOTE: I realize this is exceptionally long for a blog entry - they will not all be anywhere near this long, I promise!
It was the summer before my senior year in high school, and I was working in a Waldenbooks in a local mall. So 1980s! I might have been wearing my favorite lilac Polo shirt and Guess jeans, but then again, that’s probably authorial license given the passage of time. The truth is I don’t remember what I was wearing, but I distinctly recall that while unpacking new hardback books for a display, I was immediately drawn to the cover of Noel Barber’s A Farewell to France. Waldenbooks allowed employees to borrow books, so long as they were returned in “saleable condition” (I doubt consumers would have been too excited to know this).
After devouring this novel over the course of a weekend, I realized several things. One, I would not be returning this book, but would instead pony up a hefty amount of one of my paychecks to pay for it (quite probably the first hardback book I ever bought). Two, I needed to find more books by this author. Three, somewhere inside me welled up an unexpressed desire to read more fiction like this, a desire that is now reshaping itself into a need to write novels set in the dramatic years of WWII.
So, acting on my second thought above (finding more books by this author), I searched the shelves, and miraculously, my store in fact had a single copy of Barber’s first novel. Unbeknownst to me, this novel was already difficult to find and had been released two years prior: Tanamera.
So while Tanamera wasn’t the first Noel Barber novel I read, it was my favorite. With the hindsight of decades, I can say that it significantly influenced my reading and writing in many ways. I decided an exploration of why this book has so captivated me for the decades that have passed since Irene Cara’s “Flashdance” was the Number 1 song in America was the perfect topic for my first blog.
I don’t indulge in re-reading novels too often (which begs the question why I’ve devoted such a sizeable portion of my residential living space to physical books!). Yet, I’m reasonably confident that I’ve re-read Tanamera more times than any other novel (Except Harry Potter. Because . . . Harry Potter!).
I also own 8 different copies of Tanamera. Why so many copies of this novel? Well, this will be a familiar train of thought for any bibliophile --- if something happened to my beloved first copy, I needed a backup. It was, OMG!, out of print by sometime in the late 1980s when I happily finally located my second copy in a musty old bookstore on Charing Cross Road in London. Since then, I’ve always purchased any other copy I came across in used bookstores, hence my collection of 8 copies.
So, what’s so special about Tanamera? The 1981 Kirkus review was lackluster at best, terming it not particularly dramatic or original. If you’ve read any of the recent reviews on amazon or goodreads (Barber’s books were apparently re-released as ebooks after years of being out of print), you might wonder why this particular novel holds such appeal to me when other readers have criticized Barber for being racist, homophobic, xenophobic, elitist and even misogynistic. Knowing I wanted to explore this in my first blog, it was the perfect excuse to pull the book out and re-read it yet again.
Breathing in the slightly dusty “old” smell of my original paperback edition (yes, the one whose potential loss led me to buy 7 other copies), I began to re-read with some trepidation. It has been awhile since I last re-read it, and now a writer myself, I knew I’d be reading with a more critical eye.
My initial impression is that Barber wouldn’t fare too well in today’s market. His information dumps in the first 100 pages are mammoth. I’m not convinced he started the story in the right place or needs anywhere near all the backstory that he indulges in. Because he spent decades as a journalist and wrote numerous works of non-fiction before turning to fiction, he also falls prey to including far more historical backstory than might be wise. Pacing in the first 250 pages is slower than many modern readers will withstand.
His use of foreshadowing is very clunky and often jars the reader out of the narrative. Because he employs first-person POV, readers don’t connect as fully on an emotional level with the other characters, notably Julie, the heroine. In today’s market, his editor would surely encourage Barber to rewrite in third person and alternate POV between Johnnie and Julie, to make both of them more complex and illuminate their flaws more fully.
But despite these technical and stylistic flaws, I think Tanamera holds up very well. Some of the recent reviews have criticized Barber for elitism, racism, misyogny and homophobia. No, this novel is not politically correct by today’s standards, but can we really hold older books to current standards? The authorial voice and that of the protagonist ring true for the historical context. I would find it more jarring if Johnnie had held views far ahead of his time on all these levels. He was already a bit out-of-step with the social mores of his class and position in Singapore society simply by virtue of having counted Paul Soong as his best friend, even before he fell in love with Paul’s sister Julie.
Even in 1981 (especially considering the author was born in 1909 and was therefore of Johnnie Dexter’s era), it would have been considered odd for Johnnie to have views we might expect from a hero in a current contemporary romance. So while I don’t imagine I would have agreed with Barber’s worldview or political opinions if I’d met him, I don’t think it’s fair to hold him (or Johnnie) to current standards. Further, though it’s never confirmed one way or another, Robin Chalfont may well have been homosexual, but after serving under him for years, Johnnie respects and loves Chalfont, would follow him anywhere in fact.
I can completely agree with the criticism that Julie is too perfect. She has no flaws, complexity or evident conflicts beyond the stated cultural constraints. However, much of this is possibly attributable to the novel being written from Johnnie’s first-person POV. Tanamera is Johnnie Dexter’s journey.
I’m also not certain that Barber intended his books to be shelved as romances (more likely he would have thought himself writing straight historical fiction with strong romantic elements). A modern reader, especially a romance reader, does expect the heroine to be more engaging than Julie is. I think readers are rooting for Johnnie and Julie, but probably more because Johnnie so desperately wants to marry Julie than because the reader is emotionally invested in Julie’s desires. Barber resorts primarily to telling readers what they should love about Julie, a tactic that falls flat for a modern reader.
Johnnie, on the other hand – tall, blonde, athletic, charming and intelligent (everything the perfect Hero is in my mind in other words) – is a vibrant well-rounded character. His flaws are fully exposed, and he pays dearly for them, as any Hero so often does.
Interestingly, Barber does invest his other female characters with considerably more spunk and depth than his heroine. Johnnie’s older sister Natasha, his “friends with benefits” lover Vicky Scott, his first wife Irene and to a lesser extent his mother and Julie’s mother Sonia are all fully realized characters with goals, motivations and conflicts.
Unfortunately, some of the other key players get less development than I might have liked. I recall Grandpa Jack being “larger than life,” but on this last reading, I wasn’t as drawn in. I also had conflicted feelings about the character arc for Papa Jack and Mama. They have the kneejerk reaction against Johnnie and Julie’s love affair that one might expect and rally round Johnnie in support of his proper marriage to Irene in London. While I can buy that living out the war years in London had a profound effect on Johnnie’s parents, I would have liked a more nuanced look at how this and Johnnie’s renewed relationship with Julie changed or affected his relationship with both parents. The final argument with Papa Jack seemed too pat and predictable and left Papa Jack as too much the “feeble old man” who is unwilling to embrace changing times.
As for the “bad guys,” Soong Kai-Shek is a caricature villain in every sense, but I thought Barber was particularly skillful in creating the believable complexity of Ah Tin and his relationship with Johnnie.
Barber also does an excellent job of keeping the reader turning pages (chasing his characters up a tree and throwing rocks at them), even in the more sedate beginning third of the story. By the time the war breaks out, Barber hits his stride more fully. The account of the final days before the Japanese occupied Singapore is riveting, packed with action. If he’d written in alternating third person, he wouldn’t have needed to resort to a later flashback to convey Julie’s harrowing escape experience. Further, he would have been showing the reader actively what happened to her once she boarded the ship, rather than telling us through Tony Scott’s voice.
I’ve always been fascinated by the exploits of the OSS, SOE and other special forces operating behind enemy lines and while some reviewers have scoffed that these sections ring of an overdose of James Bond, I suspect Barber, a hard-hitting journalist, likely isn’t embellishing too wildly. Without giving away too much, the high drama of the final forty pages demands to be read in one sitting.
Yes, a good bit of my own attachment to this novel is probably nostalgia. It is, and likely always will be, the literary equivalent of comfort food for me. Even with this recent more critical re-read, Tanamera still measures up on my overall satisfaction scale. Yes, it’s more flawed in a technical sense than I remembered. Yes, Julie herself is disappointingly flat for a “heroine.” Yes, if I were having dinner with Noel Barber today, I’d likely find myself disappointed with his outdated colonialist and conservative viewpoints. But the novel itself is still a rollicking good read, Johnnie Dexter is still hot (and an admirable and worthy, if flawed, Hero), and the rich historical details bring Singapore of 1934-1948 to life. Fans of WWII-era fiction will find much to appreciate in this novel, particularly if they are also romance readers.
I plan to use this blog to share upcoming news about my novels, write reviews of some of my favorite novels set during WWII (and perhaps some of the wonderful narrative non-fiction books I read as research), and the occasional personal story. I hope you'll check in here for all my news and updates.