Think Out Loud

Love on the front lines

By Sage Van Wing (OPB)
March 15, 2024 5:55 p.m.

Broadcast: Monday, March 18

Even in the midst of great suffering, humans continue to live and love. Two new books from Louis Alberto Urrea and Alice Winn focus on the human relationships that take place in the midst of War. Winn’s novel, “In Memoriam,” tells the story of two gay British soldiers coming to terms with their relationship during the brutal trench warfare of WWI. Urrea’s book, “Goodnight, Irene,” chronicles the life of a woman serving on the front lines of WWII as a “Donut Dolly.” These heroic Red Cross volunteers served coffee and donuts to American soldiers to keep up their morale. OPB’s Geoff Norcross talked to Urrea and Winn at the 2023 Portland Book Festival.


The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. We’re going to bring you two stories of wartime today; of life and love, persevering even in the midst of great suffering. The novelists, Alice Winn and Louis Alberto Urrea, wrote books about these themes recently. Winn’s novel focused on two gay British soldiers in the trenches of WWI. Urrea’s novel is about a so-called “Donut Dolly,’’  a Red Cross volunteer in WWII. Winn and Urrea attended the 2023 Portland Book Festival where they talked to OPB’s Geoff Norcross.

Geoff Norcross: Alice Winn’s novel, “In Memoriam,” tells the story of two gay British soldiers coming to terms with their relationship during the brutal trench warfare of WWI. Louis’ book, “Good Night, Irene,” chronicles the life of a woman serving on the front lines of WWII, as a so-called “Donut Dolly,” and these heroic Red Cross volunteers serve coffee and donuts to American soldiers to keep up their morale. This is a story that Louis learned after going through his mother’s foot locker. We’ll get into that in just a moment.

It’s my pleasure to speak with Louis, who is a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for his landmark work of nonfiction, “The Devil’s Highway,” now in its 30th paperback printing. He is also the author of numerous other works of nonfiction, poetry and fiction, including the national bestsellers, “The Hummingbird’s Daughter” and “The House of Broken Angels,” which was a National Book Critics’ Circle Award finalist. He lives outside of Chicago. He teaches at the University of Illinois, Chicago, and his new novel is “Good Night, Irene.”

Alice grew up in Paris and was educated in the UK. She has a degree in English literature from Oxford. She lives in Brooklyn now. And her debut novel is “In Memoriam,’’ which won the 2023 Waterstone’s Debut Fiction prize. Please welcome Louis Alberto Urrea and Alice Winn to the Portland Book Festival.

[Audience applause]

So just to set the scene here – both of these books are war stories. They are bloody, they are brutal, visceral and very sad, but they’re also intimate portraits of love and friendship. And I want to hear from both of you why it was important to show these very human things and these connections that people make in the midst of war.

Louis Alberto Urrea: You know, it was time to tell my mother’s story. I didn’t really have a thought about war necessarily, but the residue of war. And we were talking backstage about this, that the two women in the book, Irene and Dorothy, are based on my mother and her best friend during the war, Jill. All the events in the book that happened to Irene are chronologically what happened to my mother, but I thought that fiction was a way to universalize it. I could have written a memoir about my mom, but I thought, this is everyone’s mom, on a really important level, and that we needed to look at these histories and understand how and why they were completely erased.

And I wanna, because we’re here, just say that I also always have a drive in what I write because I was discovered by Ursula.

Norcross: Ursula K. Le Guin.

Urrea: Darn right! [laughter and applause] Yeah, let’s just applaud Ursula for a while. She took me under her wing at a really terrible time, and published my first story. But then she took over my existence and she used to call me “Louisito.” She’s the one who told me, early on, she said, “It’s time for you to become a feminist.”

Norcross:  I can think of no better teacher.

Urrea: There’s no better teacher. And I remember asking her, “Well, what do I do?” And she said, “From now on, we take women’s literature classes. That’s where we begin.” And the whole time I was thinking about Ursula and our years of joy.

Norcross: What did she teach you, aside from the importance of being a feminist?

Urrea: Everything man. She was transformative in so many ways and generous, hilarious. Our correspondence sometimes consisted entirely of cartoons. We had a similar interest in drawing and we would send each other...She invented a fake Mexican restaurant she called Bogo Mex, which was in the shape of a Mexican hat. It was astonishing to me, the insights and the depth and the generosity of that soul, and she resonates still. I think she’s one of the filters I see the world through.

Norcross: Wow. This whole book thing started when you found your mother’s foot locker.

Urrea: Well, yeah, I found my mother’s foot locker when I was a kid. We were in a terrible Southeast San Diego Barrio apartment that she would have hated. She was the only American in my family. Certainly the only New Yorker. Certainly the only highfalutin “blue blood” in the entire family. And it’s a sad symptom, I think, of especially womens’ PTSD as we’ve learned, my wife and I, researching so much. But isolation…just backing away from things. She came back wounded from the war to her beloved New York City and could not bear it. And the only thing she said to me was, “Dear boy, New York simply wasn’t New York anymore.”

But I realized later that her family didn’t believe her about the Holocaust. And when she was carrying on about what she had seen, they said she was being dramatic. So she cut herself free and moved to California. And then she cut herself free from California and went to Mexico with my dad and became the only American, so it was this withdrawal into isolation.

She had her footlocker that the army had given her in the war, and I had strict orders not to look in it. And you agree, “Mom, I’m not gonna look in it,” until she goes to work one day. And then, you know, I got in it. I was in fourth grade and I was digging through it and there was all kinds of fantastic stuff, pictures of bombers and jackets and all that sort of thing. And at the bottom were the photographs of Buchenwald and I was utterly unprepared for that. I carefully put it all back to hide my sin. Closed it back up and she came home.

I’ve been on tour since May and I tell everybody as a warning to my brothers in the audience, “Women are psychic, don’t forget, brothers.”  She walked in and she said, “We went into mother’s case, didn’t we?” “No!” And she said, “Did you find photographs?” And I said, “Yeah’” and she sat me down. I’ll never forget this conversation. She said, “I had my camera with me that day, and I started taking pictures of all the victims until I was ashamed of myself.” And she said, “For the rest of my life, I’ve been ashamed that I stopped taking pictures.” I still have them. I don’t know what to do with them.

Norcross: The center of this story is this amazing friendship that Irene, who is actually your mom – we’ll get into that – has with another “Donut Dolly” named Dorothy. And it’s an amazing friendship.

Alice, this gives me an opportunity to ask you kind of the same question, which is, because you explore World War I through the friendship and the eventual romance of two British soldiers, I’m wondering why it was important to you to explore the war through that connection that they had?

Alice Winn: I sort of wrote this book by accident. I decided I had written three novels and had had no success with them, hadn’t been able to find an agent, I said to myself I was wasting my time. And I decided to focus on screenwriting and I was being very diligent in not writing. And then I was procrastinating on something and I decided I had been reading Robert Graves “Good-Bye to All That,” and in it he talks a lot about Siegfried Sassoon, the war poet. Siegfried Sassoon went to my boarding school, so in true procrastinating fashion, I thought, oh, I wonder if he wrote any poetry for the school paper while he was there.

So, I went on…this is what you do when you really don’t want to do what you’re supposed to be doing. I was deep in my Googling, and I found that my old school had put up all the school papers from the early part of the last century and this included all the student papers from WWI. So I read every single paper from 1913 to 1919, all in one go.

Yes, that is not work being done. That is absolutely typical. But in the beginning when I started reading them, these papers were written by the students for the students. So they are written by these teenage boys who are sort of arrogant and entitled and smug and also charming and funny and irreverent. And they have every reason to believe they’re going to inherit the world. And they’re writing these witty short stories and poems and write-ups of debating society and cricket matches and you kind of get to know them, because of the kind of personality of the people writing. And then the war breaks out, and they are so excited, they can’t wait.

They all signed up immediately, everyone started signing up; the font changes. It goes from this old-fashioned gothic font to this serious, we’re at war now. And they start writing poems about how we’re going to bravely kill all the Germans. And they start enlisting and writing letters back to the school, which I actually find poignant in and of itself because it shows how young these boys are, because they have two worlds. They have their home world and they have their school world and that’s the entire world and that’s who they write to.

So they write these letters back and the letters to begin with were very much like, “It’s great at the front. No one’s making me wash.” And then they start to change, they start to die. And you get these lists of the dead and it falls to the teenage boys at the school to write the obituaries, the “In Memoriams” of their older friends and their older brothers. These also changed at the beginning of the war.

It’s a lot like, “We envy him for his gallant death. Which one of us would not give our lives so nobly for England?”  Then you get these battles that happen, where the lists of the dead are just so long, and the numbers of obituaries, they can’t even actually print all the obituaries for all the people who have been killed. And the letters start changing as well.

I remember, there’s a letter in 1915 where it’s this guy and he writes back and he says something like, “The 16th was an awfully sad day. I had not realized what it would mean to see all of your friends lying dead and dying around you.” And they felt really raw in a way.

I had read a lot of war literature before because in the UK, it’s a very active scar. I think in some ways they think about WWI the way people in America I often hear talking about the Civil War. It feels still alive, and these memorials are all over the country. So I had read a lot of war literature, but most of the war literature written about WWI is written a solid 10 years after the war. 1927, 1928, 1929. Those were these blockbuster years when these massive books came out that everyone read.

But those books are books that were written by someone who had been through a trauma and then spent 10 years processing it. And then written it in this kind of clear-eyed way in an effort to make someone who was not there understand what it had been like to be there. So there’s this layer of distance and authorial intent that was completely absent from these newspaper articles, which were written by people in a tragedy for other people in the tragedy with them. There’s nothing else like it. It was voyeuristic. It was really emotional to read because it wasn’t necessarily good writing. It was just upset writing, and they were trying to be brave. And something that struck me as well was how much they when someone would die, the thing they would comfort themselves by saying was “no one shall ever forget his death.” And I just thought, no, they have completely. I mean, I know that’s inevitable. We can’t remember every person who’s ever died.

But, the first thing I did when I found these newspapers, when I got so involved in them, was I just opened a word document and I started typing out the things that were most poignant and I mocked up my own newspapers that were concisely what struck me most about these papers. I was living in LA and I was going to parties and people would be like, “what have you been up to?” And I’d be like, “the war is very sad.” And people would be like, “all right.” And I just wanted to talk about the war and no one wanted to talk about the war with me. And honestly, I felt very isolated in this grief, because I was really in it. And I was waking up in the night and having nightmares about it and it was just completely all-consuming.

Then, I wrote the book in two weeks, most of it. I just sat down and wrote the book, and it just came out. And often people ask me about, was my intent to do blah, blah, blah? And I’m like, well, I didn’t really have any intent, it was just too fast. I then spent a year and a half editing it. So don’t worry, it’s not slapdash, I promise.

But the other element to the book, of course, is a huge amount about this microcosm. I think by shrinking the war, I mean, Stalin allegedly said something about how one death is a tragedy, 1,000 deaths is a statistic. And I do think that when you hear 60,000 casualties on the first day in the British army at the Battle of the Somme, it’s like, all right, it sounds like a lot. And by shrinking the tragedy down to a school, I felt as if there was a way to reawaken that so that you can understand, it’s not 60,000 casualties, it’s 30 names and you know those names.

Norcross: I found myself looking at your mock-ups of school papers for the names of your characters, the people you had gotten me to know and love, and looking for their names, in the same way that I mentioned those school boys would in 1950.

Winn: Well, thank you, I wanted to recreate that feeling of your scanning and scanning and scanning and looking for a name. The other element that I think went into this was that I’ve been reading Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon. They had this very complex friendship – and I’m not saying they were in love with each other or anything like that, they were not. But they were both queer and there was a heavy sexual tension between them, which you can see in their letters.

So the first thing I wrote was this letter and exchange between two people who were neither Gaunt and Ellwood nor Robert Graves and Sassoon. But these two young men who had just come out of a battle and they were writing to each other and there was a lot of tension beneath the surface. And then, the next thing I did was write the book, because it just fell into place.

Very obviously, these are two friends. They don’t know that they both feel the same way about each other and they are going to go to war and the war is going to strip away all the pretense they have in their friendship and reveal their real feelings for each other. That’s the basic way that I got to…

Norcross: You set me up beautifully for the central relationship in this book. And that is between Gaunt and Ellwood. Can you tell us more about them?

Winn: Yes. Gaunt, he’s not terribly popular and he’s sort of fringe. He has slightly socialist opinions and he’s half-German and he is hopelessly in love with his closest friend, Sidney Ellwood, who is ethnically Jewish, but culturally Christian, and very charming and rich and arrogant, and really excited about the war. He loves romantic poetry. He loves Tennyson. He thinks it’s going to be great fun. And Gaunt is much less persuaded by this. And it’s a tension in their friendship.

One of the things that I already knew was that in British boarding schools in this time period, there was a degree of licentiousness, kind of unspoken rules around homosexuality. And I knew this because I had read Robert Graves and I had read Ian Forrester, and they mentioned that, and they touched on it. But I obviously wanted to find out more. So I read this book by Evelyn Waugh’s older brother Alec, called “The Loom of Youth,” which he wrote when he was 17, right after he had been kicked out of Sherborne for homosexual activities. You have to read between the lines, but between reading that and a couple of other things that I found, what I found was that in these all-boys boarding schools there was this unspoken understanding that as long as it’s obscure and in the dark and no one knows about it and it’s just for now and it’s just for fun and afterwards you’re going to go and marry a nice normal girl, you can do what you want – especially if you are popular and good at sport, then you’ve got the go-ahead.

So, Ellwood,  he’s really good at cricket. He’s incredibly popular. So he feels he can do what he wants and he’s very comfortable experimenting sexually, although he is completely planning on marrying a woman later. One of the other tensions in the book is that when he then goes to the front, the rules are different there. If you are caught at school you’ll get expelled. If you’re caught at the front, you’ll be killed. And for Gaunt, who’s more fearful, that’s very clear to him. But for Ellwood, he has always gotten away with everything and he’s 17, so he just doesn’t understand the state.

Norcross: Well, it is a love story. And it has a happy ending and I’m not gonna spoil it here, but you’ll be glad to know.

Louis, your mom was a part of this force called the American Red Cross Clubmobiles. I had never heard of this before. Can you describe this program and what it did?

Urrea: The overlying belief in war buffs is that these women were always in the rear and never in danger, which is wrong. One of the gentlemen from the Red Cross got this idea: What if we made them mobile, what if we put the club on wheels and sent them out with the troops, where they’re needed? Eisenhower liked it and of course, Patton liked the idea. So they built clubs on the back of GMC, 2.5 ton trucks, six-wheel drive, a whole galley in the back. It had two giant coffee makers, water tanks, a donut-making machine, a deep fryer, serving platforms, all these amazing things – china cups. But they also carried ledgers so the GI’s could check and see where their friends were, or leave messages. They delivered mail.

Their favorite feature, and frankly mine too, is that each clubmobile had a record player in the back and they’d pull it down and turn on the electric speakers and then play all the hits, ‘78′s for the soldiers. They’d have little impromptu dances and whatever. And there was one subset of this, known as the Cinemamobile, and those were a couple of trucks that just drove around with movie stuff, and they would get to an airbase or a camp, back up to a screen and show them probably the same Clark Gable movie over and over. But, they were sent into combat.

Norcross: They were on the front lines, make no mistake about that.


Urrea: Oh, they were definitely on the front lines. My mother and Jill - Irene and Dorothy in the fictional world - were caught in the siege of Bastogne. They were caught in the breakthrough with the Battle of the Bulge. They were cited as the most forward women in combat during WWII. They and their truck mate followed Patton, they landed on Utah Beach, for God’s sake. They followed Patton across Western Europe. Before Bastogne, they took part in the liberation of Paris, Brussels. They went on to Weimar, they set up a club and Patton appeared, to everyone’s terror, and told them “We’re going up on the mountain to liberate a camp and I need you.” And, “Of course, anything you want, sir,” and they went up there and it was Buchenwald.

Thereafter, Jill went home, but my mother went forward and was nearly killed at the end, in an injury. So these women were astonishing heroes. There were, at any one time, about 120 in the field. And one of the weirdnesses is that the records building for the Red Cross burned down, so all official records of them are gone. And the only way that their story survived was amongst the women themselves – my mom’s stories, and then Jill’s stories, when we got to know Jill.

They did a little of everything. They were mostly trained to bring a taste of home. The women had to be of a certain age, 26 or so, to have education. I wish Ursula were here, because I’ve always wondered what she’d think of this: in their training, they were taught things. They were taught how to shoot a pistol, how to wear a gas mask, all that stuff, how to make donuts. My mom was a disaster at making donuts. But they were also taught things like games. They had to learn all the current card games that were in favor and whatever board games they had in 1940-something. But they were trained to lose, or to make believe you’d lost, so the soldier felt good about himself.


I know. That’s interesting, isn’t it?

Norcross: Boys will be boys.

Urrea: But they were there to support. None of them, as far as we found out, ever saw themselves as heroes.

Then, I mentioned the army. They each got an army foot locker but they were given provisions for things that the US government thought the women might need in combat: girdles, that was a big thing. Nylon stockings. Eve Arden designed a certain shade of lipstick that they were allowed to wear. That wasn’t seductive, just handsome. Weird stuff like that.

Norcross: I’ll tell you, the military industrial complex has lots of things in it you didn’t even realize…lipstick.

Urrea: [Laughter] Yeah. And, again, I learned a lot from my mom. But both my wife and I did this traveling and research together, [and] I learned a lot from Miss Jill, because her memories were ordered and neat and stashed away. She still had the actual map she had used to drive all over Europe, and had all of her notes of where she turned and where she’d gone, which was mind boggling.

My mother had scattered and strange memories, and this might put into perspective what it was like growing up in the reign of Phyllis. She woke me up one morning and said, “Dear boy, we’re going to the movies today.” I said, “What are we seeing?”  “Patton!”  And I thought, “Oh, great. Really?” We had to take a bus, and we went downtown to the California Theater in San Diego. “Patton.” And yeah, it was cool, you know, whatever, but she kept talking to me. “Oh, those pistols. We all knew those pistols very well.” You know, those very famous pistols, I thought, “Yeah. OK. Whatever.”

She was very upset in the scene in the film, if you’ve seen it, when Patton smacks a soldier with battle fatigue, and every time we saw it, because we spent the entire day watching Patton; every time that scene happened, she would say “He shouldn’t have done that. That was a mistake. He didn’t understand what was wrong with that boy.” And I thought, OK, mom, great. We did nine hours with Patton.

Norcross: Can you watch that movie now?

Urrea: Oh, I watch it because it means a whole different thing now. But you notice they’re not in the movie, the women were right there with him. This is the thing dealing with my mother and why it was delightful and baffling at the same time. And I’ve often told this story on the road, but we’re on the bus heading home. It’s now dark. I’m thinking, thank you Jesus, I’m out of that. And my mother says, “You know, Georgie Patton was a very naughty boy.” [laughter] I was like, “Mom? What?” I was always left with these little announcements that I had to then parse out and try to figure out, what did that mean?

Miller [narrating]: At one point, Geoff asked Urrea to read from his book, “Good Night, Irene,” which tells a story of so-called “Donut Dollies” in WWII.

Urrea [reading excerpt]: “They did their duty while maintaining strict hilarity. The flight crews and pilots and gunners and ground crew members were the happiest men they had ever met. Officers were distracted and too busy to banter, and most of them avoided donuts to keep their trim physiques, but they were hell-bent on coffee. Ball turret gunners were smaller men, big on chewing gum. They ate more donuts than the pilots. Irene started to believe some of them were hoping to get too fat to fit inside those death trap metal blisters dangling off the bellies of the bombers. ‘How do you fellows pee up there?,’ Dorothy asked one of them. ‘We carry a bottle.’ ‘Sorry I asked.’

“Rose, the British Red Cross lass from the lunch club, joined them to assist with things like fetching water, translating any odd UK accents, hauling the bags of sugar and flour and baking soda and jugs of water to the mixers. Irene was greatly relieved that the bus had futuristic automatic donut-cooking machines, rather than the frustrating manual dough-crankers of her training days.

“They slowly adopted the vocabulary of the ARC Corps. Of course, donuts were ‘sinkers,’ cans of carnation milk were ‘steel cows.’ The serving window had shutters that seasoned dollies who were hip to the jive called ‘flaps.’ The layout of the galley was tight. Irene and Dorothy learned the steps of the dance quickly. The flaps were on the starboard side of the bus where the counter was, coffee makers fore and aft. A working sink behind them, shelves and racks in every available corner and under every counter. They were hooked to a generator so they didn’t burn petrol running the machines.

“99% of the clients were American boys, with a few Brit mechanics and drivers thrown in. Dorothy dictated that the crews line up aft of the counter to keep the flow moving. She couldn’t abide chaos or a human traffic jam. The bomber crews were the stars, even the grungiest gunner from Canarsie or Sheboygan was a hero, and they all knew the Clubmobile ladies might be the last woman they ever saw, which made them pause for long chats that the ladies didn’t have time for.

“The bomber crews call themselves ‘The Fireball Squadron,’ not as Dorothy and Irene first assumed, due to their combat prowess, but because the unofficial base cocktail was a fireball: that weirdly delicious mixture of low octane whiskey and cinnamon oil. The mechanics had them, the Aero Club sold them and the runway managers hid bottles of fireball in their desks. Irene and Dorothy both accepted shot after shot, until they were bouncing off each other and cursing like the mechanics and cooking oblong mutant-batter crustaceans rather than pastries. But after enough toasts, nobody seemed to notice.

“The hours went quickly because it was never a moment without work. And when that moment did roll around, hi-jinks broke out. The base had a camera crew that snapped promotional shots constantly. These were for Stars and Stripes, the military newspaper, and for the newspapers back home. Scores of them went to parents and grandparents and buddies and wives. The camera crew was abetted by Hollywood film crews that shot miles of film for the newsreels in the stateside movie houses. More often than not, when a camera was in sight, the boys wanted to pose with the ladies because they were such an unusual treat.

“Irene sat on a hundred laps in the Aero Club’s makeshift portrait studio. Dorothy grumbled. ‘They’re like kids wanting to pose with Santa Claus.’ So many boys snuck a kiss. She never kissed them back, no matter how they begged.”

[Audience applause]

Norcross: It’s obvious that this program was so important to the war effort, and you mentioned earlier that we don’t have a record of it because of the fire at the records building. But there are memories, and it just blows me away that it’s not better known. You could have written the definitive history of the Clubmobile program, but yet you decided to write a novel instead. Why did you decide to go that route?

Urrea: To me, the novel is the thing I always aspired to. It was certainly my mother’s favorite thing, the novel. And there are old roots to this, but there was a little war in my family between Mexico and my mother’s New York. And I had a very strong Tijuana accent the whole time when I was a little kid, I talk like this all the time. And she did not like that. And so, the war broke out in my family, the living room was Mexico, the kitchen was the United States.

And my mother decided that she would win the war wisely with books. She began with Dickens. She would read me Dickens when I was six and seven years old at bedtime. I had no idea what she was saying. And then she would take on a fake English accent as well. She thought she was a character in the book. But I do remember, and perhaps this is an answer, in a roundabout way to your question, that I would go to sleep every night, seeing waves come to a beach and the waves had letters in them. I still see it. White waves with letters. I think she realized that I didn’t have the deep enthusiasm for David Copperfield or the Artful Dodger that she did, so she switched over to Mark Twain and Mark Twain was my first author.

That blew my mind. I could not believe it. If you’ve been raised in San Diego, something like the Mississippi River is alien beyond belief. It’s the weirdest thing I’d ever heard of, a giant river, what? We had little streams, we called the San Diego River or the Tijuana River, which is, let’s face it, effluent. But there was that. And then there was this guy, who had apparently been dead a few 100 years, I didn’t know. He was ancient, but he was speaking to me as though he were there, through my mother. Then Becky Thatcher, my first imaginary girlfriend! And my mom knew she had hooked me and so she set the hook with Rudyard Kipling, because what mom doesn’t know their boy, and Jungle Book…forget about it. I was there, and at that point I had gone mad.

My father, on the other hand, was learning English by memorizing the dictionary, five pages a week. He worked hard for his English, and I have a half-brother who was learning it by reading science fiction. So added to my little panoply of authors, old Ray Bradbury paperbacks started coming. So, I’ve always been fascinated by the novel, and my mom had heroes that she would not abandon: Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, especially Ernest Hemingway. She came from a world where she was around those people. So when it was time to tell the story, first of all, it was really difficult to try to get authoritative documentation, but we had so much peripheral, observational or experiential stories, and then my mother’s story and then Jill’s story, and then the other stories that I could, anyway, blend into these viewpoint characters’ experience to give you an overall picture of what it was like. I just had to write it as a novel.

Norcross: You mentioned Kipling. Kiplingesque is a word that came to mind when I was thinking about your school boys, Alice.

Winn: They love Kipling.

Norcross: They do, and the duty and honor that surrounds the choice that they made to join the war effort. Or maybe it wasn’t a choice. Maybe you can talk about the expectations surrounding them in going to the service.

Winn: It’s funny you mentioned Kipling, because one of the reasons I think I had an entry point into this book is that I also grew up reading a lot of the books that I think these young men would have read. I feel as if, when I read WWI accounts, I’m shocked by how willingly these people lay their head on the block. And a big theme in the book is that Sidney Ellwood’s favorite, favorite author is Tennyson and he particularly loves “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” which if you haven’t read it, it’s this poem about a group of soldiers, this real thing that happened where a bunch of the cavalry were told to go and charge at some guns. And it was obviously a stupid, bad idea that was going to get them all killed and not benefit anyone. But due to some kind of miscommunication, they did it anyway and were all killed, pretty much. A few of them came back and this poem about that and how they all nobly died.

Norcross: Theirs was “not to reason why,” theirs was “to do and die.”

Urrea: Yes, exactly. And Ellwood finds this incredibly romantic at the beginning of the book, and it’s completely alien to us. I taught “The Charge of the Light Brigade” to some teenagers in Los Angeles, and they were just like “That’s dumb. Why would they go, if they know it’s going to kill them? I don’t understand.” And I really wanted to get across that these boys aren’t dumb, they’re not stupid. They just have been exposed to a completely different set of media and culture from us. And something that happens to Ellwood throughout the book is that his relationship with Tennyson in particular is complicated, because he had looked at Tennyson as a blueprint for how he should live, because Tennyson, one of his most famous poems is a long series of poems written in grief upon the death of his best friend. And Ellwood, I don’t think there’s any evidence that Tennyson was gay, but Ellwood, he thinks he’s seeing something there.

And so he really, really maps himself onto Tennyson and thinks that Tennyson has a key to life, and then he gets to the front and realizes that Tennyson never fought in a battle and does not have the answer, and it is just ruined for him. And the poetry became meaningless to him. The poetry was his life so it is like his own life becomes meaningless to him when he realizes how completely wrong he was about what war was and what it meant to be glorious.

Norcross: And the central relationship in this book is of two men who are schoolboys, who are gay, who are alive in 1914. And you’re none of those things. I’m wondering if you ever felt any concern about getting them right in your writing?

Winn: So, at the moment there’s been this wonderful movement of OwnVoices, and I think it’s really exciting and encouraging; that we are really trying to create more space for people to come on and tell their exact stories. And I think one of the things that is so exciting about this, apart from the fact that there are more books to read that have more points of view, is that I think it it challenges writers to be better when they are writing outside their own experience, and to be more careful and to really do their due diligence.

Something I was really grateful for when I was writing this, is my male friends, who gave me a lot of advice and read and reread, and different friends. I had a lot of feedback from them. I felt really confident by the time it was published, I had had so much feedback and so much guidance. I really took what people said to heart, because it’s true. I have never had that experience exactly. And I was very grateful to them. But I also felt confident doing it because I myself have felt so seen and so represented by women written by men.

Louis, I think your book is a very good example of that. I think the women in your book feel real and they feel like you know what you’re talking about. And I was saying to you that, for me, one of the best depictions of a sexual assault is Dickens’ “Nicholas Nickleby.” There’s a scene in there with Kate Nickleby that made me feel so seen. So for me, it was like I knew it was possible. The question wasn’t whether or not it was possible. The question was whether or not I was good enough and I can’t speak to that. I hope I succeeded.

Norcross: Last question, and I’d like you both to talk to us about this. At the moment, America is not at war, but countries that we are allied with, and people that we care about, are. I’m wondering how writing these novels changed the way you see war and what it does to those who fight them?

Urrea: Obviously, this is a horrifying moment in our history.  You know, working on this book for so long, and digging into the secrets of people’s experience has been really interesting. And I think that we don’t always think beyond our strategies and our dominations and our political machinations.

This is a very personal response to what you’re asking, but Cindy and I work out at a gym that we like very much. It’s a really wonderful community, and there was a gentleman there who was an Afghanistan veteran, Marine, had the tats all over his arms, sweet man. A realtor, and he was really excited about this book. He hadn’t seen it, but he was excited about it. And he kept saying to me. “So, you know, what do you want out of this book, man?” And I said, “Well, gotta buy Cindy a lake house!” and he’s the realtor, and he said, “I got you. I got you. We’re gonna find her the best beach house, man.” I said, “OK, up, Lake Michigan north somewhere.” And, out of the blue, he shot himself. And you realize all of a sudden that all the joyous, all the activity, all the hard workouts, all the collegiality, those things were not healing the wound that was killing him. He loved nothing more than his children, yet he left his children. Do you know what I mean?

And I think we don’t understand - or if we do understand, we don’t give it the credence that it’s due - that all war beats all participants. My mother was destroyed by her war experience. Jill was not, but she had this iron grip on herself. And I will tell you the most haunting thing to me working on this book is, when we would hang out with her, she lost her brother. She was a twin. And one of the reasons she went into combat was to be near her brother, and he was killed north of the siege of Bastogne, the day after they went to visit him and give him a birthday. And when you would talk to Jill about all these things, she was very “Dorothy,” until she was upset. And it was the most haunting thing. She would say, “I’m going to be sad now,” and then after a moment, she’d put her head down and keep talking. I never saw anything like that.

But you realize the depth of the 100-year-old woman who’s worked her whole life to have a grip on this stuff because it was the right thing to do and they did it and I’m not gonna whine about it because somebody suffered. But you can see that it would overwhelm her so much. But that moment I will never forget, ever, that. It was the most haunting strange thing.

Norcross: Alice, how did writing your book change your impressions of war and the people who were in it?

Winn: Well, when I wrote it was 2019 and we didn’t have some of the same things going on as we do now. And so, oddly, it feels as if it’s actually more relevant now than it was when I was writing it, which makes me uncomfortable. I think that in many ways, I know WWII is kind of the more popular war. But I have always related more to WWI, because I think we are more like those Edwardians. They had just had a century of peace, essentially. A peace that is very similar to the peace that we currently are in, where, obviously there have been conflicts and there have been wars that we are involved in, but there has not been total war in our country since WWII. And for them, it had been since the Napoleonic Wars. So they had this feeling, very British quotes from Daniel Deronda. And there’s this quote from Daniel Deronda about how, sometimes the newspapers come into your own life, and you think that history happens in the history books and news happens in the newspapers, and suddenly it happens to you.

I wrote this, even before the pandemic, mostly. And so, I really related to that feeling of shock and awe. And then, what was funny is during the pandemic, I remember that a lot of the things people were describing were things I remember reading in WWI accounts, where people would be like, it’s kind of cool. Like, it’s a little bit exciting, but it feels like we’re in a film or something, and that’s something that you see in these WWI accounts.

Something else that I find disturbing about our similarity to these people is I think that that amount of peace can make you take it for granted. There was this wonderful, wonderful journalist called Charles Edward Montague who wrote these think-piece articles about his experience in WWI after the fact, and he talked about how, prior to WWI, he was like, “We were like boys playing on the ice, thinking it was so solid that it would never break beneath us. And the venerable old earth had this ancient crust that would never break down.” I think that that’s something we feel now. We feel as if we are so stable that it cannot be broken and I guess it can always be broken. That’s very bleak. But I relate to their experience of it.

Norcross: Alice Winn and Louis Urrea, you’ve written beautiful books and beautiful love stories, and it was a pleasure to talk to you both. Thank you so much and thank you for being at the Portland Book Festival.

[Audience applause]

Miller: That was Geoff Norcross in conversation with Alice Winn and Louis Alberto Urrea at the 2023 Portland Book Festival.

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