“Anyone who has lived in a small town, particularly one in Texas, will recognize the trappings of existing in such a fishbowl in the lives and characters of Jack Woodville London’s Tierra, Texas, in the first book of his French Letters trilogy, Virginia’s War: Tierra, Texas 1944.
Just like those of everyone else in America, the lives of Tierra residents were wrapped up in World War II during the early 1940s. While sons and husbands fought on battlefronts overseas, Americans at home were involved in their own war efforts: rationing, victory gardens, writing to soldiers and waiting for letters in return, raising war babies and, in some cases, avoiding military service and operating a black market for ration stamps and scarce goods. All these things, and a little mystery as well, are played out in the microcosm of Tierra.
London introduces us to teenager Sandy Clayton, who views the war through the romantic eyes of a boy trying to become a man, and Virginia Sullivan, a beautiful girl who has kept one of the town’s favorite sons, Will Hastings, on a line for seven years without a commitment to wait for him while he serves in the war. After Will leaves for Europe, Virginia discovers she is pregnant with his child, and her father Poppy — the nonmafia equivalent of the town’s godfather — publishes a story in his newspaper announcing she eloped with Will before he shipped out for war. Will knows nothing about the “marriage,” and Virginia’s vindictive, draft-dodging brother Bart, the town’s postmaster, holds Will’s letters from her, leaving her in the dark about his fate and how to contact him.
There are also side stories: a childish feud between Virginia and her former best friend, Shirley Fleming, over Will’s affections; a lucrative black market controlled by Poppy and a crooked sheriff; a spoiled son’s misguided notion that he is above the law; and a mystery over a fire that destroyed the town’s major economic engine, the cotton gin.
London, a relative of Jack London of The Call of the Wild, White Fang and The Sea Wolf fame, discusses his book during an appearance at Maple Street Book Shop (7523 Maple St.) from 5:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. Wednesday. He took a few minutes to talk with me on the telephone last week about the French Letters trilogy and the first installment.
Kandace Power Graves: I noticed on Amazon.com that there is only one of your books left. How have sales been?
Jack Woodville London: We won’t know until the end of the quarter what the (Internet sales) number is. The sales in Austin (Texas) have been spectacular. It was the No. 1 fiction seller in Austin through February. It actually became available online Feb. 1. The launch (in stores) was Feb. 13.
KPG: How did you decide to do a trilogy instead of a longer story about the lives of these characters?
JWL: It falls neatly in my head into three specific stories. The sequel is very definitely nearing the point where I can release it to the early specialist readers — someone who has some technical knowledge of the subject and will catch screw-ups. Book two is the mirror (of Virginia’s War). It is the story of Will, Virginia’s boyfriend, who has no idea he is married and is an Army doctor in France at the same time (covered by the first book). I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that the things that are going haywire in Virginia’s world are going haywire in Will’s world. All this time Will thinks he’s been dumped by Virginia, and he may well be. The third story is the one sort of laid out in the prologue (of Virginia’s War): the children of the good war — what happens 30 to 40 years down the stream to Virginia’s and Will’s story.
KPG: Having lived in a very small West Texas farm town, I think you hit the character of the people and their interactions on the nose. Are you from a small Texas town or were your characters all developed through research?
JWL: I was from Groom, Texas. It had 679 people in urban Groom. (The Handbook of Texas Online placed the population at 587 in 2000.) We lived in a village that was 35 miles southeast of the Amarillo runways. It was a football town and I had a football injury early on that left me playing basketball. I graduated (high school) in 1965 and finished undergraduate school in ’69 and law school in ’71. I had gotten commissioned in the Army after I got my law degree. My dad was a town doctor; unbeknownst to us, he funded scholarships for two of my friends, who became doctors. We had 22 kids in my high school class. Of the 22, five were boys, and 17 have college degrees.
KPG: Did you perceive that your readers would develop a compassion or identify closely with Virginia? She seemed kind of spoiled and manipulative at first.
JWL: Somewhere after catastrophe hit, Virginia started taking responsibility for her decisions. When she was reading those letters (from Will on the battlefront), she came to realize that her world had gone splat.
The iterations I had to go to to get this book into print — mostly to make sure it matched what was going on in France — I had to get into book two, then go back to Virginia’s story just to make sure the stories lined up. What (a writer) wants to do is make it disarmingly easy, so you don’t see how hard it really was.
KPG: Did your mother’s experiences during World War II give you a lot of insight into what life was like during waiting for soldiers and dealing with rationing? Where else did you get a sense of that?
JWL: My father was a town doctor. They lived in Seagraves (Texas) before moving to Groom. He had a broken back and was the only doctor in the county. He tried to sign up after Pearl Harbor, but they wouldn’t take him. He lived to his mid-60s. After he died, she spent some time mourning then went back to college … and became a playwright. She and my aunt, Helen Witt, were respected writers.
The research is me. I dug out the hard research. My undergraduate training was that all my life I’ve been an historian, but you can’t make a living being an historian. I’ve always been fascinated with not what general was where, but what was happening in peoples’ lives. Years ago I read this fascinating book about the inherent conflict of thousands of American GIs being in London and being “overpaid, oversexed and over here.” They were paid much better than the British guys; rationing hit (the British) really hard. Then you start reading what happens when they were overpaid, oversexed and over here. You start seeing the number of babies born in England; the numbers far outnumber the number of marriages.
The U.S. military made it very clear they did not want (American) soldiers over there getting married. They couldn’t outlaw it, but they put a great amount of pressure on the soldiers not to get married because they didn’t want the obligations of taking care of families on different continents — and made it clear they would not take care of them.
There were a lot of U-boats and a lot of merchant ships in the North Atlantic. V-mails (letters sent from Americans to U.S. soldiers) got sunk. Some of those were “Dear John” letters. A common notion is that all the girls at home were wonderful women waiting for their men, but a lot of them were writing Dear John letters. Some of these Dear John letters were not getting through, and some of those soldiers were coming home and getting surprised.
The number of children born to white women who came of childbearing age from 1940 to 1950 rose to 7.3 per thousand born outside of marriage in the United States.
They were ordinary people living in extraordinary times whose lives were altered. Virginia’s life was not altered because we dropped a bomb on Hiroshima but because she was of an age when she needed companionship and to start a family.
KPG: So in the second and third books, will we find that characters get what’s coming to them?
JWL: You’re going to just come apart at the seams when you read the prologue to book two. (My wife) Alice and I were in Belgium or France and were reading the paper one morning about this poor Belgian farmer who was standing in his barn and doing his chores … and suddenly one of his cows explodes, just is blown to smithereens. The cow had stepped on an artillery warhead that had lain just below the surface of the dirt since World War I. They are unearthing those things all the time. Peter (Virginia’s child) is kind of like that. He’s the thing that was a bomb that was dropped back in 1944 and may not go off until years later. That is what book three is all about. We are wildly uncertain about the things that happened in the 1940s that have shaped our lives. You know men who were in the war. When you ask them about it, they don’t want to talk about it, but no one asks the women what they were doing.
KPG: When can I and others read the second installment of the trilogy, and the third?
JWL: The publisher says when they have enough sales that they can see it will be a viable book project, they are ready (to publish the second book). If everything is in order, Will’s book (the second in the trilogy) would arrive in early 2010. I’ve written it through three drafts; I’m working on the fourth draft. I need some special readers who know how a military doctor works and people knowledgeable about the French countryside to read it. Once they’re through with it, it will be cleaned up, and I’ll send it to early readers. Then it will be cleaned up and can go into galleys.
KPG: Tell me about your law practice and what kind of cases you handle.
JWL: The vast majority of my career has been as an aviation lawyer. I reconstruct helicopter accidents. I reconstruct aircraft accidents that happen in bad weather and/or near airports. I write articles for the legal press about air traffic control mistakes, instrument mistakes. I am currently a member of a steering committee for a defective pharmaceutical product.
KPG: With a name like Jack London and all the writers in your family, are you afraid of what people expect of you? Do you hear a lot of comparisons?
JWL: I was more concerned that people would be dismissive. I think the finest fiction writer in the 20th century was Evelyn Waugh. They were dismissive of him because they thought he was glomming onto his father, Arthur, who was a terrible writer but a good publisher. His brother Alec and Evelyn’s son Auberon have had a terrible time being accepted on their own right for being glommers onto Evelyn Waugh.
I’m not so concerned that people rush out and buy the book. I’m really eager for people to read it. I’ve yet to hear someone say they really didn’t like the book. There was a guy in Ropesville and Whiteface, west of Lubbock and east of Clovis (Texas). He wrote me an email (about how the book took him back to his earlier life in a small Texas town). That meant as much to me as any book review, that anyone who lived that time and thought the book conveyed the history and moral character of that time.”