A Writer's Surprise
Sometimes, What You Thought You Wrote, Is Not What You Did
Every so often, I like to re-read my own books.
Maybe it’s an exercise in hubris. Actually, there’s no maybe about it.
I believe in my stuff, even if I see precious little evidence so far that anyone else does. I couldn’t write if I didn’t. It’s that simple.
So, every so often, I sit down and revisit books I’d written a year or two ago, and I see how they make me feel. These are books that, when I was writing them, occupied the majority of my waking hours. Inevitably, when I finish them, I step back.
There is so much to be done after the creation process is complete. Editing, formatting, art design, publicity, etc. Even if you count the accelerated pace I work at today, each book is an investment of six months of my life.
After all that, one is tempted to say, “That was quite enough,” and walk away.
But coming home, coming back to your kids, is an essential part of being a writer. Books are a writer’s kids. He cannot abandon them, certainly not after publishing them first. So, eventually, particularly after a year or two of neglect and obsession with other projects, the writer will return, and revisit his children.
I have written and published nine novels. I have completed and not published; one novel, one non-fiction memoir, three novellas, and one short-story collection. I have a lot of ground to cover when I’m feeling nostalgic. But, I’m a businessman too, and sometimes my nostalgia is motivated, in part, by sales figures.
I cannot help but notice, for instance, that my 2019 novel Bomber’s Moon has been doing rather well, at least by my pathetic standards, in the UK. Next to Slowly, The World Burns, While I Help to Fan the Flames, it’s my best-seller lately.
No, don’t look for me in the supermarket checkout aisle anytime soon. It’s a relative success, let me stress that.
When I picked up Bomber’s Moon this time, however, I was treated to a surprise. I found that the book I wrote was not the book I expected to write, nor even the book I thought that I wrote in retrospect.
This may sound a little funny, like something that happens to my brainwashed and tormented Major Mowbray in Slowly, The World Burns, While I Help to Fan the Flames, but it does actually happen. Particularly, I find, in periods when a writer is particularly productive.
I started writing Bomber’s Moon in 2018, my first full year of retirement. I had little or nothing else to do. As such, I embarked on a frenzy of productivity, one I am unlikely ever to repeat. In one year, I completed five novels and two novellas. To say it was “all a blur” is like saying, “My, that Space Shuttle does go at a fair clip.”
I started to write a very serious, historically and technically accurate, sepia-tinged tribute to the men who, like my great-uncles, climbed into giant four-engine bombers night after night, taking the war to Hitler when there were precious few other ways of doing so. As my inside title page mentions, more than 55,000 of these men, including one of my great uncles, died as a result. Their odds were, to put it mildly, godawful.
My great-uncle, Sandy Patterson, a gunnery officer in the Royal Canadian Air Force, holder of the Distinguished Flying Cross, and confirmed slayer of at least two Luftwaffe night fighters on one terrible night over Hamburg, is the inspiration for the main character, David “Gnat” Royce. As such, the book is dedicated to him, a fearless survivor of more than 50 missions, bon vivant, post-war success, ladies’ man, and subsequent friend to former foes, including General Adolf Galland, Hitler’s General of Fighters.
Next to my Mountie dad, it’s safe to say that Sandy was my hero as a boy. He had a cabin on a lake, as I recall, the walls covered with aviation paintings, and autographed photos of knights of the air from both sides. He used to take me out on a dinghy on the lake to catch frogs and fish. His fridge was stocked with all manner of enticements, and I specifically recall being encouraged by Sandy to drink as many Cokes as I could, resulting in prodigious belches, which Sandy did his best to match.
He was the coolest. When he died in the early 80’s of cancer, I was devastated. For the first time, somebody I really gave a shit about had died.
This was the inspiration for Bomber’s Moon. The lead character narrates the book from a hospital bed in an Ottawa cancer ward. He bears the first name of my father, and the last name of my grandmother. He comes from my father’s hometown, a place divided much like Ulster, between Prod and Cath.
I do not write about my country’s history without telling some of my family’s history. We’ve been here since 1816. There’s a lot to tell.
My first Canadian WWII novel, When Yer Number’s Up, is similarly rooted in family history, if more loosely. The protagonist, Beau Ross, is a native of Kelowna, BC, my mother’s hometown.
But When Yer Number’s Up, when I read it, is not surprising to me. I am proud of it, let me say that. But it is the book I set out to write. It is an elegy to the dead, and to the living and scarred.
Over the past few days, reading Bomber’s Moon, I’ve come to a very different conclusion. Who wrote this fucking book?
My inspiration, besides the personal, for Bomber’s Moon, was the work of Len Deighton. His 1969 novel Bomber dissected the fictional night of June 31, 1943 and told in detail the story of one RAF Bomber Command squadron’s disastrous raid against the wrong German town.
Bomber was loaded with sexy and dead accurate technical detail. It was also full of fashionable late ‘60s pacifist sentiment. I decided to keep the detail, and the banter, but eject the pacifism. This was something few Bomber Command vets, my great uncles included, seemed to share.
Another influence lurking behind the scenes was, of course, Joseph Heller’s 1962 classic Catch-22. I did not set out to ape its style or perspective; it is one of the 20th Century’s great novels, and I knew I could never replicate its tone. What am I, a fucking Xerox?
But, over time, here’s what happened: Heller’s sarcastic and dark hilarity infected my somber tribute to the Bomber Command vets. As I wrote the book, I was obsessed with four images, ones that kept reproducing themselves in my mind’s eye:
1. Hulking bombers, roaring to life on peri-tracks, laden with fuel and bombs. The power of technology, aimed at the destruction of human life.
2. Those same bombers, breaking open in the sky, men spilling out of them, as they spiralled towards a burning city. The vulnerability of the gods.
3. The transfixing fires, the curvature of the earth, the awe of it all. The beauty of destruction to young men.
4. The locker room banter, lifted from my career in law enforcement. The conscious attempt to drive away fear with bravado.
Now, as I read Bomber’s Moon, it comes across as a story of men who cannot do other than what they are ordered to do, and in fact, would probably choose not to. To the obscene and stupid, their reaction is laughter. They resent their fearsome C in C, “Butcher” Harris, yet they reflexively love him all the same. He may be a bastard, but he is their bastard.
They pray that they will make it, know they probably won’t, and laugh as their only defense.
Now, when I read this book, I am as proud of it as I am of anything I have written. I have written a novel of the 1940s, not from a modern perspective, but from a perspective built on the voices of my great uncles. The prevailing attitude is “Let’s get this bullshit over with.” It is neither a pointless waste of life, nor a heroic crusade. It is a dirty job that needed to be done, because we wouldn’t listen to Churchill and do it sooner.
But most of all, when I read my own book, I laugh. A bomber crewman’s life and death; these are absurd, crazy things. As Heller showed us, his story cannot be told without laughter.
I set out to write a tragedy, and I wrote a comedy instead. But maybe Heller did, too. And he was actually there.
I wish I could get Sandy’s opinion. I bet he’d laugh too.
Grant Patterson is the author of nine published novels, including Bomber's Moon. His work can be found on https://www.amazon.ca/Kindle-Store-Grant-Patterson/s?rh=n%3A2972705011%2Cp_27%3AGrant+Patterson
Also, check out his website, at www.grantpattersonbooks.com