Friday, August 14, 2015

James Benn, Billy Boyle, JFK, and THE WHITE GHOST

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: Reds and lovely readers, I'm delighted to introduce James R. Benn — Jim — author of the Billy Boyle series, set during World War II. I loved this series from the debut and eagerly await each new novel. In number ten, THE WHITE GHOST, the series moves to the Pacific Theater and pairs Boston Irish cop Billy Boyle with another Boston Irish boy — maybe you've heard of him? — John F. Kennedy. 

Susan Elia MacNeal:  Jim, your tenth book in the Billy Boyle series leaves the familiar ground of Europe in World War II for the Pacific Theater. What brings Billy to the South Pacific?

James R. Benn: It’s been a reader request for some time. I struggled with how to approach the notion, and finally came up with the idea of pairing two Boston Irish boys: Billy and John F. Kennedy. But when I started looking into how their timelines could intersect, I found that by May 1944, the date of the last book, JFK was already back in the States and discharged from the navy. I thought that idea was a no-go until I happened to notice a gap between the third and fourth books, several unexplained months which accorded nicely with the aftermath of the sinking of PT-109. Here’s how it’s explained in the forward to The White Ghost:

Now, the story of how Billy Boyle came to journey to the South Pacific in 1943 can finally be told.
     Astute readers may have noted Billy’s absence between the invasion of Sicily (Blood Alone), which occurred in July, 1943, and his appearance in Jerusalem in November 1943, before being sent on assignment to Northern Ireland, as recounted in Evil For Evil.
     He was not idle during those months.
     With the governmental veil of secrecy lifted, the events of 1943 immediately following Billy’s Sicilian assignment are chronicled here for the first time.

SEM:    So Billy and Jack are both from Boston, both Irish boys. Are they good friends?

JRB:     They once were; but one thing I learned about the Kennedy family is that friends were often viewed in light of what they could do for the Kennedys. Quite often, it was a one-way street. Jack Kennedy often treated his life-long friend Lem Billings terribly, and their interactions provided the backstory for Billy’s relationship with Jack. Billy’s family is working class Boston Irish; the Kennedys were what was called “lace curtain” Irish, meaning that they were working their way up the social ladder, leaving the shanty Irish behind.

SEM:    There have been many stories about JFK’s father Joseph Kennedy Senior. For instance, that he was a rum-runner during Prohibition, and openly dated movie stars while married to his wife Rosemary. Did you find any of that to be true?

JRB:     Whatever you’ve heard about Joe Senior – the truth is worse than that. The one thing that was never proven was that he made money smuggling alcohol into the US during Prohibition. He did own distilleries in Canada, and I can’t imagine a man like him passing up that sort of money-making opportunity. One thing is for certain; when his Harvard class reunion was held during the 1930s, he was tapped to provide the booze. He had his daughter Rosemary lobotomized, basically in an effort to control her unruly behavior. He did so without consulting his wife or discussing it with the family. This was in 1941, when the operation was still new and untested. Dr. James Watts and Dr. Walter Freeman performed the lobotomy. Watts used an instrument that looked like a butter knife, cutting brain tissue through a frontal incision. As Watts cut, Freeman put questions to Rosemary, asking her to recite the Lord’s Prayer or God Bless America. When she began to become incoherent, they stopped. She spent the rest of her life in a nursing home. Her mother did not visit her for twenty years. Her father never did, and never spoke of her again. That was the kind of environment in which Jack Kennedy grew up.

SEM:    Are there other historical characters in this book? It seems like the Kennedys might well take center stage.

JRB:     There were too many interesting characters in the Solomon Islands for that to happen. One was Merle Farland, a nursing sister who worked at a Methodist mission on Vella Lavella in the Solomons. When the Japanese invaded, most nurses were evacuated. She stayed on, working with Coastwatchers to give advance notice of Japanese raids. She was finally brought out with a B-17 crew she’d rescued, along with a group of Japanese prisoners. When she arrived at Tulagi, across the strait from Guadalcanal, her presence sparked a rumor that Amelia Earhart had been found. Having taken some fictional liberties with her story, the character’s name is Deanna Pendleton, for a young woman who won a character naming at a charity event.

SEM:    I’m curious if the experience of researching and delving into the Kennedy family history has soured you at all on the Kennedy “mystique”?

JRB:     I grew up with JFK on television, and felt the promise of all he had to offer. I think I do understand the character of John F. Kennedy better, and how in the crucible of war he found something deep and meaningful. It was a sobering and widening experience for this man of youthful privilege, and he did take what he learned to heart. I think I am more cynical about the entire family history, and see it as the political machine it always was. But JFK seemed to rise above much of that, and perhaps it was that wartime experience that brought out what could have been greatness.

Oddly enough, I did recently have an encounter with the Kennedy mystique. I was testifying at a Connecticut General Assembly hearing about public library funding, when a State Senator came to the podium to speak. It was Ted Kennedy Junior, who is currently serving in the state senate. He’s tall, good-looking, with that shock of Kennedy hair, and he spoke with passion.

He had me at “My name is Ted Kennedy Junior.”

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: Jim, thank you so much for joining us to talk about Billy Boyle, the publication of THE WHITE GHOST, and JFK. Reds and lovely readers, what are your thoughts on history and fiction intersecting in novels? What questions do you have for Jim about the Kennedys and their legacy?


  1. I think it must be a delicate balancing act to weave history into a fictional story, especially when it concerns well-known people or events. But if it is done well, I think the authenticity really adds a great deal to the story.
    John and I both enjoy reading the Billy Boyle stories and we're looking forward to reading "The White Ghost."

  2. I've enjoyed several books in this series and always find the melding of 'real' and fictional characters very well done. Looking forward to this book for the Pacific setting. My father was a WWII vet and he landed in the Philippines and New Guinea. He never talked about his war experience much. He was so young at the time, only 19. The Kennedy angle is interesting. And the more I've read about the senior Kennedy, the more I am dismayed. I also love the inclusion of some of the women who were part of the Pacific experience. I think sometimes, the women get left out. Can't wait to read The White Ghost!

  3. Hi, Jim - I'm a huge fan. Billy Boyle is a great character, terrific voice...would make a great TV series.

    Ah, the Kennedy men. Don't you think they had a particular brand of testosterone that made them think they could DO (aka get away with) anything. Joe was an early player in the movie business (supposedly he skipped his own father's funeral to be with Gloria Swanson.) So no surprise Jack's enchantment with Marilyn. Do you get into any of their connections with the movie business?

  4. I think combining history and fiction can be done, but it gets trickier the more well-known the historical figures are. The Kennedys are almost America's Royal family. How did you handle fictionalizing JFK or is most of it "true to life" given your characters?

  5. One of the (many) interesting things about World War II is that so many people unlikely to meet in "regular" life were thrown together by chance. Jim, congratulations — this book is top of the pile for when my manuscript is handed in!

  6. Hallie, JFK also dated Gene Tierney for a time during the late 1940's. The more I read about Joe, the more I dislike him, although I have a fondness for his sons. Thanks so much for this blog post. I wasn't familiar with the Billy Boyle series but now I'm curious to read them. My dad fought in WWII in both Europe and the Pacific, he was sent to Okinawa after the war in Europe was over.

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  8. Hi, Jim! LOVE love love your books, and so great to see you here. xoxo

    As a 21-22 year old, I worked on Capitol Hill for a couple of years as an aide in the US Senate--on a subcommittee chaired by Senator Kennedy. So I've dealt with a lot of the family--as closely as an underling could. Pretty interesting! Caroline Kennedy was my intern (and SHE was lovely!) And I remember thinking--her father is on our currency. Yow.

    Anyway-we should *definitely* talk. :-) Cannot wait to read this book! It sounds amazing.

  9. Great interview and great answers about a series I like a lot. Must get caught up! Thanks to Susan and Jim. Yes, the more I've read about the Kennedy parents, the less admirable they become. And the men of JFK's generation are a puzzle, such a mixture. And Ted, certainly the moral lightweight of them all, became a man of substance eventually. Lots to write about.

  10. Hi Jim! I LOVE the Billy Boyle books! Can't wait to read this one--like Susan, it will go in my post ms. pile:-)

    I've learned so many fascinating things from reading the Billy books, and I don't know much about the Pacific front so am really looking forward to experiencing it with Billy.

  11. Hallie - No, I didn't mention the Gloria Swanson angle - the research into the Kennedy family, circa 1930s, could have overwhelmed the backstory. There is just so much material there. I think Joe Senior was pathologically self-centered, and his wife Rose a social climber more interested in status than nurturing her children. Jack was near death several times as a youth, and was given last rites at the Mayo clinic. His mother never even visited him. With a mother like that and a father who openly paraded his affairs in front of the family and the world, it's no wonder Jack grew up in an isolated bubble. It wasn't until the war that the actually associated with working class guys. And when two of his crew were killed in the PT 109 sinking, he finally began to develop a sense of responsibility and maturity. The war made JFK into the man we remember, but much of that is legend and perception. The Kennedy family was very good at manufacturing images, even to the point of claiming Rosemary was teaching retarded children when in fact she was institutionalized with the IQ of a two-year old.

  12. Mary: The young Jack Kennedy in this book is as true to life as I could make him, using character traits uncovered in my research. For instance, he was sick all his life, but was quite stoic about it, not wanting anyone to see him as weak. I try to capture this in his recovery while in the Tulagi hospital. He and Billy have a backstory, largely borrowed from events which occurred between Kennedy and his lifelong friend Lem Billings, whom he both used callously and stood by at the same time - showing much of the mysterious dual nature of the Kennedys. The most apt description of my characterization came from a reviewer who said the book showed a "young Jack Kennedy slouching towards maturity."

  13. Billy and I have some catching up to do--and this book will certainly be worth a visit!

    Joe Kennedy's treatment of his daughter Rosemary reminds me of the Magdalene women--girls who were often sent away because they were simply young women--not necessarily sexually active, not pregnant--just because someone thought they might get out of hand. I hope there's a special place in Purgatory for the doctors who operated on Rosemary--they had to know that there was nothing medically wrong with her--and did it anyway.

  14. Jim do you remember the first moment you "met" Billy?

  15. Jim, I thoroughly enjoyed your interview and learning about the Billy Boyle series. I'm not sure how this series has escaped my attention, but I'm excited to now have it in my sights. I love historical mysteries, and WWII is one of my favorite time periods (Susan's Maggie Hope series has completely captivated me). I thought your comment that the Kennedy research could have overwhelmed the backstory was spot on. I can imagine that it was a fine balancing act in just how much to include, so I'm looking forward to reading that aspect of it.

    I know that Joe Kennedy was tyrannical ass, but I didn't realize that Rose was so cold. Not visiting your children in the hospital or in an institution? Don't understand that. I'm sure she had her own problems, what with Joe being such a rat bastard, but to leave her children without comfort is quite unnatural to me. I agree with FChurch on the fate of the doctors who operated on Rosemary. There are so many horror stories about how women were institutionalized for the slightest of reasons. It's mind boggling to us today.

  16. Hi Jim! Always glad to have you visiting here. It's puzzling that folks like the elder Kennedys as you described them, rise to such high ranks in politics and society. They must have been very very good at covering things up and presenting a front. I so admire that you can keep a long running series set in a limited timeframe so interesting and nonrepetitive. Do you and Billy ever get tired of each other?

    My dad was a World War II get and I know he would have enjoyed your series.

  17. I found the Billy Boyle series at the library not long ago, and thoroughly enjoyed the first book, and am reading the second book now.

    My father was stationed in England with the Air Force during WWII, so it's very interesting reading about England at that time.

    He also never talked about the war, and his time as a POW in Germany. The war ended a year and a half after he was captured, and thankfully he made it home safe and sound.

    Looking forward to reading my way to your newest book in the series.

  18. Jim, thanks for those insights. Yikes. Rose is sometimes portrayed as such a saint.


  19. Great interview and insights. Thanks Jim and Susan! I've love the Billy Boyle books since the first one, and I look forward to reading the new one. Cheers!

  20. Thanks to all for your comments and interest!
    Hank - I don't remember the exact moment when Billy first introduced himself to me, but I have a vivid memory of sitting down to write the first line of the first book. It was going to me in the third person. Something overcame me and I found myself typing "I wanted to die." From that point on, Billy was in charge.

  21. And no, Lucy Burdette - we're not tired of each other yet. There are so many fascinating situations for him to explore; he's a good time travel pal!

  22. Oh, Jim, that's goosebump-inducing. And inspirational. Thank you! xooo