RHYS: Last week we celebrated the release of my World War 2 stand-alone novel In Farleigh Field. This week my dear friend Libby Hellmann is celebrating her own WW2 novel: WAR, SPIES, AND BOBBY SOX. So I'm delighted to have her as our visitor today to tell us about the new book.
RHYS: Libby, my book is set in the English countryside but you have a very different approach to WW2. Where is yours set?
LIBBY HELLMANN: Hi, Rhys and Jungle Reds. Thanks for the opportunity to share. WS&B is set during World War Two, but it’s very different from IN FAIRLEIGH FIELDS. First, it’s a collection of stories: two novellas and a short story. All three are set in Chicago and the surrounding area. Second, my knowledge about battles and military issues is quite limited, so I knew from the start that the stories would be character driven; that is, they would be about the effect of wartime on people who stayed home while their loved ones went to war.
RHYS: What made you want to write about WW2? Has it been a subject that has fascinated you for some time?
LIBBY:Like you, I’ve always been an avid reader of WW2 fiction, because I think it’s the last time in recent history where there was such clarity between good and evil. It was a time where some people turned out to heroes while others became cowards—or worse. So, in that respect, it’s a period that is rich in potential conflict and character development. But I was intimidated at the prospect of writing about the era; so many complex, beautiful stories have already been written… I kept wondering what I could possibly add. A friend of mine, however, thought differently, and while she didn’t dare me, she did encourage me to write about the era. I guess you could say she wore me down. Still, I knew I had to choose small pieces of the “canvas.” Eventually, the stories that make up War, Spies, and Bobby Sox came to me, one at a time, and I decided to give it a shot.
RHYS: Did you have to do a lot of research? What kinds of research?
LIBBY: Yes, but research is my favorite part of the process. I could read and take notes all day every day. (I think it comes from the notion that information is power.. J)
A couple of years ago I decided to focus on espionage techniques and strategy, which have fascinated me almost as much as World War Two. After reading as much as I could, I also visited Bletchley Park in the UK (you and I have discussed this), as well as the Spy Museum in DC. Then I read even more. Eventually, I decided to try out what I’d learned in a WW2 setting, mostly because the techniques that were used then were tangible (dead drops, signposts, tailing individuals) and easy to understand. “The Incidental Spy” was the result.
Initially, I planned to write a companion piece about the women at Bletchley Park.
But as fate would have it, I was in exercise class one day (yes… there are benefits to working out) and someone mentioned a nearby location that was once a prison camp for German POWs during the war.
Huh? German POWs? Here?
I had known there were some camps in Michigan, but in Illinois? I subsequently found out there were nearly half a million German POWs incarcerated in almost every state except four between 1943-1945. It wasn’t a secret, but many people just didn’t know about them. The POWs worked on farms and factories mostly in rural areas. I’ve written more about the camps. So the companion novella turned out to be about two German POWs and their “love” triangle with a farm girl.
The third story is about an actress in the Yiddish theater in Chicago’s Lawndale and her decision to spy on the German-American Bund in 1938. Lawndale was ground zero for the riots after Martin Luther King’s death, but in the Thirties it was a thriving Jewish community. The research for that came from an unlikely source – my son. He was preparing for his Bar Mitzvah and someone gave him a wonderful book called “The Jews of Chicago.” Of course, I flipped through it, and a photo that turned out to have been shot in Lawndale during the thirties captured me. It was a shot of butchers, clearly immigrants, behind the meat counter in a deli. I don’t know why it stopped me -- it might have been the lighting…their blood-spattered aprons… or the expression in their eyes-- a mixture of pride, hope, and fatigue-- but I knew then that I had to write about people like them. So I toured Lawndale, interviewed people who had lived there (there are still a few around), and eventually wrote “The Day Miriam Hirsch Disappeared.”
And of course, I had to research the norms, habits, and culture of the era. This video trailer sums up much of what I researched:
RHYS: When I first wanted to write this book my then-agent told me that nobody was interested in WW2. Now I sense a great fascination with this war. Why do you think this is?
LIBBY: I’ve noticed the same thing. Again, I think it’s the notion of clarity between good and evil. In the current era of government surveillance, 24-hour news cycles, drone strikes, and Trump, there are no simple heroes or villains any more. We have grown cynical, we know our leaders lie to us, and we have lost faith in our institutions. We are all living in “The Age of Gray” (and I don’t mean our age). So the idea that there was something worth believing in, something that united us all, despite our circumstances, is very appealing.
When you add to that the almost simultaneous releases of All The Light You Cannot See, Nightingale, Jody Picoult’s The Storyteller, Unbroken by Laura Hillebrand, and more, it does seem that a new sub-genre of literature has materialized. I’m thrilled we both have joined it.
RHYS: Are you doing some events for this book? Where can readers find you?
(and for my readers, I'll be at Murder By the Book tonight and at The Woodlands, TX library tomorrow)
LIBBY: I’m going to be in Florida for 10 days starting next week (March 14-21). You can find me in Tampa, Ft Myers, Sanibel, and Boca Grande. Check my event schedule at my website.
And here's Libby's description of the book:
WAR, SPIES AND BOBBY SOX
And here's Libby's description of the book:
WAR, SPIES AND BOBBY SOX
As World War II rages across Europe and the Pacific, its impact ripples through communities in the heartland of America. A farm girl is locked in a dangerous love triangle with two Germans soldiers held in an Illinois POW camp ... Another German, a war refugee, is forced to risk her life spying on the developing Manhattan Project in Chicago ... And espionage surrounds the disappearance of an actress from the thriving Jewish community of Chicago’s Lawndale. In this trio of tales, acclaimed thriller author Libby Fischer Hellmann beautifully depicts the tumultuous effect of war on the home front and illustrates how the action, terror, and tragedy of World War II was not confined to the front lines.
Thanks so much, Rhys!