All These Amazing Primary Sources

1 March 2020: Though I definitely did some secondary research about WWII, most of what I used in Keeping the Lights on for Ike came from primary sources handed down to me directly from my mother. I don’t remember exactly when I realized my mom had kept all the letters my dad wrote to her from overseas during the war, but I suspect it was some time after his death. Sharing them was one of her ways to remember the love of her life. As a widow myself, I now understand the desire to revisit the words of one’s spouse, lost much too soon, and I only wish my husband had occasion to write to me more often when he was alive, though I certainly wouldn’t have wished to experience a world war to make that happen.

Mom told me once that during the 1950s, some of her friends who were also military wives had seriously discussed destroying their letters. She didn’t say exactly why, but as I worked more with the letters in preparing the book, I started to suspect that there could have been a couple of different reasons. Perhaps the letters reminded the women of a terrible time in their lives that they’d rather forget, and they found the memories of wartime depressing. Or perhaps the letters were simply too intimate to be shared with their children and extended families. But Mom did tell me she was glad that she never went through with destroying them, though some of her friends apparently did so. She started sending me an occasional war letter tucked in with her own newsy correspondence when I took a job in northern New York and left the west coast for good in the early 1990s. What she never told me directly, at least not that I remember, was that she had kept so much more than just the letters from those war years.

My father had always been an avid photographer. In fact, many of the images of him in family albums were shots of him taking a photo of a plant of some kind. He loved photographing nature in all its details, both large landscapes and small closeup details of individual plants. My mom was no slouch when it came to photography, either, and the pairs of images (her photo of him bending over to photograph an interesting plant paired with his photo of the plant itself) were always fun to look at. Mom was an amateur mycologist, and among the slides was a remarkable collection of mushroom images that both of them had taken, which I eventually donated to my university’s Biology Department. After Dad’s death at age 57 in 1972, Mom started asking me to join her in looking at slide shows of his photos; they were often family photos of my childhood, but there were lots of other images as well, some of them historically significant. I eventually donated their slides of the Vanport flood of 1948 to the Oregon Historical Society. It was through this activity of looking at random slides with Mom, I also realized that among the hundreds of slides she kept in a large wooden cabinet in the dining room were many images Dad had taken during the war. Because she had kept them out of the light and only viewed them occasionally, when they finally came my way after she had to move out of her house and into assisted living, they were in remarkably good condition for their age; the wartime slides were by then over 60 years old.

The biggest surprise I discovered in packing up the contents of Mom’s house was that she had kept lots of other memorabilia from the war years in addition to the letters and the slides. In fact, I often tell people that Mom scrapbooked the war. Finding those scrapbooks in a drawer in her bedroom when I was cleaning out her house before the place was sold was like finding some kind of treasure trove of history. The scrapbooks were full of newspaper articles, photos that I presume Dad had sent to her from time to time with his letters, postcards, ration books and coupons, matchbook covers, airline tickets, and other fascinating memorabilia from those years.

Perhaps knowing her tendency to save words and images about the war, her younger sister had saved Mom’s letters home from Dad’s basic training and subsequent assignments at Fort Leonard Wood in the spring and summer of 1942, and she had given them to Mom to add to her collection at some point when they were both much older. So, in spite of the fact that Mom’s end of the correspondence when he was overseas didn’t survive, I was able to get a good sense of what she thought about their early Army life before he was shipped off to Europe in the fall of ‘42. In addition to the scrapbooks, that same bureau had another drawer full of Mom’s own writings, mostly from various creative writing classes she had taken at the local senior center when she was in her late 70s and early 80s. She had been an aspiring journalist in her youth, and the urge to write about all kinds of things never left her. Many of those stories were about her own childhood, some about the adventures of her kids (me and/or my brother), but some were also about her thoughts on the war and its impact on the lives of those who lived through it.

After I brought the slides and scrapbooks home with me and realized how many images there were and their value as visual illustrations to go with the letters in some as yet undecided way, I applied for and received generous support from my employer, St. Lawrence University, in the form of a technology grant to digitize the best of the hundreds of slides and to scan images from the scrapbooks, as well as to hire a student worker to clean up the scratches and dings on the digitized images. At this point, I wasn’t sure yet what I might do with these images and was still thinking they might become projections in some kind of theatrical presentation, but I knew for certain I wanted to use them somehow.

Next time, I’ll share the challenges of transcribing over 200 letters and how I figured out what I wanted to do with them once I finished the transcriptions. Look for that entry at the end of March.

New writer identity, new audience, new challenges

When you’re an academic author, the marketing mechanisms are built into your job: you attend regular professional conferences where you talk to colleagues from all over about your work; library journals automatically do reviews which can create book sales to many college libraries; other colleagues will review your books for our professional journals; and you can sometimes use your own books in your classroom to boost sales. But when you’re a commercial author (or should I say, non-academic author, since commercial implies sales, which don’t always come easily), things are very different. My first book (Women Stage Directors Speak: Exploring the Influence of Gender on their Work, McFarland, 1996) practically sold itself, and because no similar studies have been carried out in the nearly 25 years since its initial publication, the book remains in print. During my teaching years, I was often making presentations at national or even international conferences about issues facing women directors in live theatre, and people who had seen my conference presentations often approached me to ask me to write or speak more on the same topic, which fed the book’s sales numbers.

Because marketing the first book had been so effortless on my part, I was very naïve about marketing my second book (Keeping the Lights on for Ike: Daily Life of a Utilities Engineer at AFHQ in Europe During WWII; or, What to Say in Letters Home When You’re Not Allowed to Write about the War, Sunbury Press, 2019). I had been an administrator in the latter years of my academic career, which left me with little time for my own work, and a book so far out of my disciplinary specialty had to wait until my retirement for its completion and publication. This second book had absolutely nothing to do with my professional discipline and everything to do with my family history. But then came the great awakening: the new book wouldn’t get read automatically like my first one had, not without lots of effort on my part in getting the word out. Further, for the first eight months after the book was published, I was up to my eyeballs with volunteer work, most of it at a small professional theatre in my local area, so it wasn’t until I stepped away from that situation and turned my full attention to my own concerns that I became aware of just what a big task marketing a new book was going to be. And marketing is very important because what good is a book if no one is reading it?

My publisher (Sunbury Press, Boiling Springs, PA) is a small company with big ambitions, but they don’t have a huge marketing operation like some of the major publishers do. They send out announcements about their offerings from time to time, and they use targeted marking lists for these announcements to make them effective, but they also rely on their authors to help sell their own books, which is the least we can do, given how well they support us in the final editing and production process of getting the book to print. But it’s all quite new to me. My new book is in the publisher’s and their distributor’s catalog of new works, but there’s no automatic market for the book like there had been the first time around, even though it’s possible this book will eventually appeal to a larger market than the more specialized work did. Further, I discovered when I approached some of the local bookshops in my community asking them to carry my book, that small booksellers were happy to order books if people asked for them by name. However, if I wanted my books on the shelves of these stores, where folks who were simply browsing could come across them serendipitously, I had to provide them myself. This was because there was a significant re-stocking penalty the stores had to pay if the books they ordered didn’t sell and had to be returned to the distributor, so it was hard for independent booksellers to take chances on unproven authors and new titles. Thus began my relationship with consignment bookselling, which required that I purchase copies of my own book (at a discounted author price) and make agreements with each bookstore in turn regarding the financial arrangements when and if the books were sold. Though I had some publicity cards for the book, most small bookstores didn’t have display room for them, even if they were willing to put a couple of copies of my book on their shelves. I was also on my own to arrange author events at various locations in my local area.

I’m a theatre person by training, and as a teacher for many years, public speaking comes easily for me (most of the time), so appearing at the events themselves is not the hardest part of book promotion. The interesting new challenges have been these: 1) making an author’s website (needed lots of help with this one); 2) creating a “fan list” (who knew one would be needed?) for occasional email newsletters; 3) getting organized to book the gigs that will allow me to talk about and get people interested in my book because I can no longer rely on professional conferences for those opportunities; and 4) creating this blog for those same purposes. At the heart of these new challenges is the fact that, as my identity as a writer is changing, so is my audience. I’m going from a specialized audience, one that I knew well, to a much more general audience, one that I’m still getting acquainted with. This blog, and the conversations it generates, will be one piece of that process of getting acquainted.

Next time I post, I’ll start sharing the story of how Keeping the Lights on for Ike came to life over a period of more than a decade since the source materials (letters, slides, scrapbooks, stories, and other memorabilia) came into my possession in the fall of 2006. Look for it in mid-March.