My guest today is Mark Ozeroff, author of Days of Smoke. Welcome, Mark. Tell us about your latest book.
DAYS OF SMOKE looks at war and Holocaust through the eyes of Hans Udet, a flyer involved from the earliest days with Hitler’s air force. Across battlefields raging over much of Europe, Hans progresses from naïve young fighter pilot to ace of increasing rank and responsibility. But unfolding events pit Hans’ love of the Fatherland against his natural compassion for humanity, after he saves a young Jewish woman from brutal assault. As growing feelings for Rachel sensitize him to the so-called “Jewish problem,” Hans is torn between his sense of duty to Germany and mounting disdain for its Nazi leadership. Rachel is the unlikely bridge between his two warring halves.
I’m pleased to announce that DAYS OF SMOKE has been awarded this year’s Gold Medal for historical fiction, by the Military Writers Society of America. The novel also earned the Golden Quill Award, from the American Authors Association.
Thanks, Susan. DAYS OF SMOKE is available in both print and e-book formats. Print copies can be purchased from Amazon or your favorite bookseller, while e-books are sold by Fictionwise (coming soon on Amazon in Kindle-compatible EPUB). Paperbacks and e-books are also available through the publisher, Asylett Press.
Mark, how did your environment/upbringing color your writing?
I was raised by parents who greatly respected the written word. We always had children’s books around, but we three boys gravitated early toward our folks’ bookshelves. In doing so, the entire world opened before our young eyes. The importance of reading was driven home to us from the start – not only are we still avid readers, we’ve all written books.
I was also exposed more directly to the lessons of history. I paid close attention to the WWII stories told by some of my parents’ friends. Our neighbor, Jack, was a Navy veteran of the Pacific theater (he inspired my older brother to join the Navy, where Dave eventually reached the rank of Captain). Jack was also a pilot, and he strongly influenced my lifelong interest in historical aircraft.
I knew another friend of my parents first as a soft-spoken haberdasher. But I later learned that Sam had seen the elephant – he turned out to be northeast Ohio’s most decorated combat veteran of the war. This tough hombre had earned practically every award short of the Medal of Honor as a forward artillery observer, one of the war’s most dangerous jobs.
I learned a valuable history lesson in temple, at the tender age of seven. I was fidgeting around in my seat when I noticed a strange thing; the woman to my left had writing on her arm. When she caught me staring, the woman eased the sleeve of her dress down to conceal the crudely-inked number. After the service ended, she caught up to us in the parking lot, asking my folks for permission to gently explain how she’d come to bear this tattoo. Thus, I got a nudge toward understanding what happened to more than eleven million Jews and gentiles at the hands of the SS.
Though I hadn’t an inkling at the time, I was already doing research when I listened to these stories. The lessons remain firmly rooted to this day.
What books came along at just the right time to influence your reading/writing?
TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD was one of the very first books I chose from my parents’ bookshelf, when I started reading adult novels at the age of twelve. Harper Lee absolutely blew me away then, and she does to this day – her novel remains the purest example of artful writing I’ve ever run across. Not least of the lessons I learned from Lee was that fiction can sometimes tell a more profound truth than history.
I also discovered THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS at a young age, which is the best flying book I’ve ever read. This aeronautical masterpiece planted images in my mind that remain to this day. No one has ever evoked the spirit of aviation better than Charles Lindbergh, a fact which struck me anew while standing below his aircraft during a recent visit to the Smithsonian.
In later years, my brother Barry (a talented novelist in his own right) recommended author Gary Jennings. Barry was right – AZTEC and RAPTOR are among the most imaginative works of fiction I’ve ever come across. Very few authors can subtly twist history with Jennings’ skill, and put the reader into such a state of excitement. More than any other writer, he inspired me to write in first person.
Where do you write? What do you have around you?
I write in a hangar – I have aeroplanes around me. I use the word aeroplane intentionally, as my serendipitous residence is almost as much museum as it is airport. My “roommate” is a 1952 Cessna 195 sporting a Jacobs radial engine – not only is she a real looker, she belts out wonderful engine song as well. All manner of aircraft call this field home, from biplanes to business jets.
Early in my time here, I was writing a scene in DAYS OF SMOKE involving a dogfight between a Russian Polikarpov and a German Messerschmitt. I was wrapped so completely up in this scene that it took me a while to realize the sounds I was hearing weren’t entirely produced by my imagination. I ran out on my balcony to see a Grumman F4F Wildcat diving on the field, making high speed passes down the runway. The hair on back of my neck stood straight up, as I beheld the final sight of many a Japanese soldier being strafed during WWII.
But it’s not just the airplanes that make this place interesting, it’s also the pilots. Many of them have had colorful flying careers, and you never know who you’ll meet. While working on the section of DAYS OF SMOKE which takes place in the Soviet Union, I stumbled across Gunther Rall, who was visiting to help publicize an art auction being held here. General Rall was Germany's third ranking ace, credited with an astonishing 275 aerial victories. He flew the same type of aircraft – over the same area of Russia – as my protagonist, and he generously shared with me the mindset and experiences of a top German ace. A writer in my position simply cannot get luckier.
How do you develop characters? Setting?
I cannot work from outlines. I develop my characters and settings while writing the first draft. These developments stem from the way characters fit together, interact with one another. For example, I originally intended Rachel to be a one-scene character. But she blossomed before my startled eyes into my protagonist’s love interest, a driving force in DAYS OF SMOKE. It’s a curious process for me to watch one of my own stories unfold – sometimes I’m as surprised as the reader later is by the way things develop.
I often use people I know as inspiration for characters. In the young adult novel I’m currently working on, I base the two eight-year-old main characters on my three nieces, using many of their individual traits and characteristics to produce two composite personalities. I was lucky enough to spend a lot of time with my nieces as they grew up, and their influence upon this novel is strong.
At times, serendipity takes a hand. I was researching Nazi mass-murders in Ukraine for a pivotal scene in DAYS OF SMOKE, when I stumbled across a brief description of the destruction of Pochep, the village from which my grandfather had emigrated in 1923. I knew I had to write about this, keeping in mind all the while that these doomed people were relatives and friends of my direct forebears. I became obsessed in the two weeks it took to create just nine pages. I awoke one night at 3:00AM after a vivid dream about an infant victim, and I fired up the computer to get it down while everything was still fresh in my mind. While this process could be disquieting at times, the result had greater impact than any writing I’ve ever done. Inspiration can come straight out of the blue – one just has to keep an open mind.
Do you think your writing has improved since your first attempt?
I’ve always been able to write pretty well, which is a good thing – otherwise I’d never have made it through grade school, let alone grad school. What really improved was my editing, largely thanks to my writers critique group, the Word Weavers. They taught me to show rather than tell, to pare my words down to the essential, to focus only upon that which drives a story forward. My first draft is always rougher’n eighty grit sandpaper, but with enough attention to detail I can smooth it down nicely. If I were to give budding writers one piece of advice, it’s to find a good writers critique group.
Sometimes, one has to hack away with a machete to find the right path. For months I endlessly reworked the first few chapters of DAYS OF SMOKE, but could not find a satisfactory voice. In frustration, I made a list of my favorite novels and began to reread them. I think I was on the first page of the first novel when I finally put two and two together – most of my favorite authors write in first person. In third person SMOKE lacked immediacy, but in first person the story had real authority. I may be slow on the uptake, but if I batter at my mind long enough, realization will get through.
What are your protagonist’s strengths? Flaws?
Hans Udet is not lacking in courage, as befits a professional soldier. He has physical attributes – coordination, eyesight, reflexes – which come together to make him an excellent combat pilot. But above all my protagonist is a moral man, intelligent and contemplative. The implications of what Hans witnesses in the middle years of the Third Reich are not lost on him.
That said, early on he is capable of being unduly influenced by his superiors – he’s occasionally and briefly swept up by the rhetoric which led the entire German nation astray. He also comes to rely too much on alcohol to relax him, after his exposure to combat. And he can be impulsive, too, a trait which lands him in trouble from time to time. I tried to make Hans believable – he’s got some undesirable personality traits which round him out as a human being.
Any current projects, Mark?
I have many back burners on my writing stove, but two take precedence above the rest. IN THE WEEDS is another story wrapped firmly around aviation. Part of the novel is set in Vietnam, where my protagonist Slats Kisov serves as a Forward Air Controller. FACs flew unarmed Cessnas at low altitude, directing fighter-bomber attacks and artillery fire in some of the war’s most dangerous missions. Slats returns to the US a changed man, one determined to “live a life of harmless banditry from the cockpit of an airplane,” using the exceptional low-and-slow flying skills honed in battle.
This novel was inspired by a quirky autobiography I read in high school, OLD SOGGY NUMBER ONE. The author was a seat-of-the-pants aviator who, among his many aerial exploits, used a biplane to smuggle liquor from Mexico into Texas during prohibition. Slats Rodgers’ book inspired me to start writing IN THE WEEDS, a novel about the modern-day equivalent. I enjoy writing about people that many folks might see as anti-heroes. But they’re not, really – they’re moral people who just also happen to be Nazis, smugglers, or poetry-spouting bulimic Cuban marijuana farmers.
THE BACK OF BEYOND is a young adult novel which, like my debut book, takes place during the middle years of the Third Reich. It looks at the burgeoning Holocaust through the innocent eyes of two little girls, one Christian and the other Jewish. In fact, one of the children is a minor character from DAYS OF SMOKE. It’s quite a challenge to write about so horrific subject for such a young audience, but I believe that lessons about hatred need to be passed on to coming generations.
Well, this has been very unique and interesing, Mark. I wish you the best with your writing.