Interview with Mary Cronk Farrell, author of PURE GRIT

I have a con­fes­sion to make. Nor­mal­ly I read every book before I post about it here, but–just this once–I was going to cheat. As much as I’ve been dying to read PURE GRIT by Mary Cronk Far­rell, my to-do list is huge right now: writ­ing new books (I’m cur­rent­ly work­ing on EIGHT sep­a­rate man­u­scripts and/or pro­pos­als!), pro­mot­ing BE A CHANGEMAKER, vol­un­teer projects (SCBWI West­ern Wash­ing­ton con­fer­ence any­one? There are still a few spaces!), cri­tiques (three full-length nov­els await!), fam­i­ly, pets, home… and let’s not for­get, TAXES! To top it off, I was still recov­er­ing from the flu when I came down with this most recent cold. I’m months behind on a few things, with many oth­er dead­lines loom­ing dead ahead. So, I sat down plan­ning to just skim it for the time being, write the post, and come back lat­er when I had time to set­tle in, read it in more detail, and take it all in.

PURE GRIT book cover
PURE GRIT book cover

Sev­er­al hours lat­er, I was sur­prised to notice the time! I had­n’t checked Twit­ter or Face­book or even email all day, despite the “help­ful” lit­tle alerts com­ing from my phone. I had­n’t even eat­en lunch. Instead, I’d spent the bet­ter part of the day read­ing PURE GRIT, in detail, from cov­er to cov­er. I sim­ply could. not. put. it. down. An engross­ing blend of fact and sto­ry­telling, PURE GRIT tells the har­row­ing tale of U.S. Army and Navy nurs­es who endured first bat­tle, then intern­ment in the Philip­pines dur­ing WWII. Despite increas­ing­ly deplorable con­di­tions, these female POWs con­tin­ued to help oth­ers dur­ing their years in the prison camps. Amaz­ing­ly, every sin­gle one of them even­tu­al­ly made it home alive.
I urge you all to devote an after­noon to read­ing this beau­ti­ful­ly done book ASAP, but first, I’m delight­ed to intro­duce you to the author, Mary Cronk Far­rell, who gra­cious­ly agreed to answer a few ques­tions for me.
Author Mary Cronk Farrell
PURE GRIT author, Mary Cronk Farrell

LT: Wel­come, Mary! Wow, what a pow­er­ful book. I learned some valu­able lessons and insights from read­ing it. Oth­er than the facts involved, what did you learn from the process of writ­ing this book?
MCF: This book taught me a num­ber of things. First, do not attempt a huge project like this unless you have a tremen­dous amount of pas­sion for it. Some­thing has to car­ry you through to the end and beyond. Some­thing has to keep you going when you are cry­ing at the key­board. I could not have done it had I not been so deeply inspired by the courage, com­pas­sion and resilience of these women.
MCF: I also learned how impor­tant it is to write a good pro­pos­al for a non-fic­tion book. From the begin­ning I want­ed to tell the sto­ry as sim­ply as I could because I thought it would be most pow­er­ful that way. The key was ham­mer­ing out the nar­ra­tive arc while putting togeth­er the pro­pos­al. That was very intense, but once I had that down, the rest was just a mat­ter of putting down one bit of the sto­ry after anoth­er. My first draft came in too long. My edi­tor told me to cut it in half! I think I man­aged to cut a bit more than one third.
LT: I am blown away by the amount of research you must have had to do for this book. How did you man­age it all? What kind of sys­tem do you have? Did it evolve over the course of the project?
MCF: Ha! That is a great ques­tion! I would not call it an orga­ni­za­tion­al sys­tem at all. And I wish I could say that it evolved into some­thing bet­ter over the course of the project. I can only hope that my sys­tem will evolve into some­thing bet­ter for my next book.
MCF: I used a lot of books for my research. As I read through them I attached sticky notes to the pages where I found a detail I might want to use. Some books had scores, maybe hun­dreds, sev­er­al to a page. Lat­er I went back and scratched an iden­ti­fy­ing word on some of the sticky notes so I could find sub­jects more quick­ly. Then I had pages of inter­view and research notes on my com­put­er, includ­ing a lot of links to infor­ma­tion I found online. Pages list­ing peo­ple and orga­ni­za­tions that I had talked to or hoped to talk to, or thought I prob­a­bly should talk to. Then pages of peo­ple I was try­ing to locate and what­ev­er infor­ma­tion I had found or ruled out. Then there was the file box of arti­cles from inter-library loan, pages copied from books from inter-library loan, notes in pen­cil from the Nation­al Archives, as well as pho­tos and doc­u­ments copied from the Nation­al Archives. And I must men­tion the notes scrib­bled on pieces of paper that hap­pened to be handy when the phone rang. Then there were the e‑mails…tons of e‑mails, some going back five years. I kept them all to try and remem­ber who I had talked to about what aspect of the sto­ry. Many were dead ends, but I want­ed a record of whom I had con­tact­ed and about what. Prob­a­bly the most amaz­ing thing about this book is that I man­aged to get it into any sem­blance of order from the chaos of my research!
LT: Ha! That sounds fright­en­ing­ly sim­i­lar to my process.  Did you do all the pho­to research for the book too? Can you tell me about that part of the process?
MCF: The pho­to research was like a trea­sure hunt. I want­ed to use unusu­al pho­tos which either had nev­er been pub­lished, or had only rarely been pub­lished. When­ev­er I inter­viewed some­one, one of the first ques­tions was—Do you have any pho­tos of the nurs­es? When I start­ed the project in 2007 there were a few pho­tos from this time-frame in the Philip­pines on the inter­net. Each year I found more col­lec­tions of pho­tos had been uploaded. I found a lot of pho­tos through Google image search, and many in the LIFE/Getty archives. I found oth­er pho­tos at the Nation­al Archives and many through per­son­al col­lec­tions and muse­ums such as the MacArthur Memo­r­i­al Muse­um. When I sub­mit­ted the final man­u­script, I sub­mit­ted over 300 pho­tographs, and I feared my edi­tor would have a heart attack when he got them. But then he had sug­ges­tions for oth­er pho­tos which might add to the sto­ry and even­tu­al­ly, I sub­mit­ted about 400 total. The final book fea­tures about 100, includ­ing maps.
MCF: Because PURE GRIT unfolds in the ear­ly 1940s, the most dif­fi­cult aspect of the pho­to research was find­ing pho­tos of size and res­o­lu­tion suit­able for pub­li­ca­tion. It broke my heart that one pho­to of a child the nurs­es cared for in the camp hos­pi­tal could not be used because I couldn’t get a high-res­o­lu­tion copy. One won­der­ful sur­prise came after I turned in the first draft of the man­u­script when I dis­cov­ered film of the nurs­es in cap­tiv­i­ty that had been shot by the Japan­ese. I was able to take a cou­ple still pho­tos from this film and include them in the book.
Sascha Weinzheimer, 1943
Sascha Weinzheimer, aid­ed by the nurs­es after a com­pli­cat­ed tonsillectomy

LT: What was the hard­est part of the research and/or writ­ing for you? How did you deal with that?
MCF: The hard­est part for me was immers­ing myself in the details of war and POW camp con­di­tions, the bru­tal­i­ty, the suf­fer­ing, the loss of so many, many, many lives. Some­times I broke down in tears in the mid­dle of writ­ing. What helped me get through it was my con­vic­tion to tell the sto­ry hon­est­ly, and know­ing I couldn’t do that if I were to sug­ar­coat it for myself. I called to mind some­thing I heard Lib­ba Bray say at a con­fer­ence. “Don’t be afraid to go to the dark places…a book should cost you some­thing to write.”
LT: That’s great advice, and it’s some­thing I try to remind myself while I’m writ­ing, too. 
LT: I’ve always said that I will know I’ve made it when I receive one let­ter from one child say­ing that some­thing I wrote made a pos­i­tive dif­fer­ence in his or her life. How do you define success? 
MCF: For this par­tic­u­lar project, my goal was to por­tray the POW nurs­es as hon­est­ly and accu­rate­ly as pos­si­ble and hon­or them for their ser­vice, sac­ri­fice and, well, their pure grit. And I want­ed to write their sto­ry in such a way that peo­ple would be drawn to it and want to read it.
LT: Do you feel like you’ve achieved it?
MCF: When I began hear­ing from the rel­a­tives of the nurs­es I’d inter­viewed for the book, and oth­er sources close to the top­ic, I knew I had suc­ceed­ed in my first aim. They are hap­py with the book and sup­port­ing it ful­ly. Judg­ing by the com­ments I’m get­ting from read­ers, I have suc­ceed­ed in the sec­ond as well. I’m tru­ly grate­ful for the many peo­ple who gen­er­ous­ly shared their sto­ries and their knowl­edge so that I could write PURE GRIT, and also to those fam­i­ly mem­bers and friends who sup­port­ed me through the long and ardu­ous process. I could not have done it with­out them.
LT: Well, I’d say you suc­ceed­ed. I was cer­tain­ly drawn to it! And the last sen­tence of the book, right after you explain how the nurs­es got through all of the hard­ships by sim­ply con­tin­u­ing day-to-day and help­ing oth­ers around them, will stick with me for a long time: “This may be the decep­tive­ly facile recipe for courage, and pos­si­bly it is even evi­dence that each of us car­ries the capac­i­ty for such grit, should it be demand­ed of us.”
LT: I hope it isn’t demand­ed of us, but if it is, I sin­cere­ly hope you’re right about pos­sess­ing it. Thank you so much, Mary!
Facts First! Nonfiction Monday
(This review is based on a copy I purchased at my local indie bookstore for my own home library.)

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