Author interview

How did you and the Conner story “meet?”

In the spring of 2011 in my post-Beachside-Writers recovery week in Yachats, I read Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken. Wonderful book. And one that reignited by interest in perhaps writing a third World War II book. But despite all the research on Nightingale and Easy Company Soldier, no new ideas had surfaced. Once at home, however, I arrived to discover an e-mail from my agent, Greg Johnson, of Colorado Springs, Colo. Four brothers in Indiana wanted a book written about their late father, who had eluded the Bataan Death March in 1942 and survived for 34 months in the jungles of the Philippines. Was I interested?

And were you?

Definitely interested. Even more interested midway through a phone conversation with one of the sons, Jim Conner, of Indianapolis. I asked him what kind of information was available.

“Are you at your computer?” he said.

“I am.”

“I’m sending you some files.”

In five minutes, I was sent far more information about his father’s WWII experience than I could gather in nearly two years of research on Frances Slanger. So, any success with the book Resolve is directly attributable to the subject of my book, Clay Conner Jr., who kept detailed accounts of his WWII exploits, and to his four sons who, two decades after his death, had the foresight to organize that information in a way that was amazingly accessible.

Conner died in 1983. Did he leave much information?

He kept a journal, much of which Filipino friends of his buried inside bamboo “pipe” and sent him after the war. He wrote extensively about his experiences after the war and saved everything: records, photos, newspaper clippings and, most importantly, letters. His mother and father never gave up hope that he was alive, even though they went nearly three years without hearing from him and the Army continually listed him as “missing.”

In terms of research, what was the Resolve experience like?

The research required was far less difficult because Clay had provided so much information, albeit information without much context. But at least I had the pieces of the puzzle; I just needed to figure out how they fit together. The more difficult challenge was writing it so fast. In March 2012, when Penguin first showed interest they were talking about me having a manuscript to them in June 2012—fifteen months. But when they made the offer, they do so only if I could have words to them by February. That wouldn’t have been difficult for many writers. But I had to do it beyond a full-time columnist job and having two other books in the works. I have no idea how I made that deadline.

This is your third war book. What intrigues you about that genre?

The weird thing is I don’t think it’s war that intrigues me about these stories. It’s people whose stories happen to play out amidst war. As I look back over my career, I realize that I love obscure stories about people who rise above obstacles in honorable ways. Clay Conner did this. Resolve is a book about perseverance. About people rising above their own backgrounds; Conner was a Duke cheerleader who’d never camped out overnight, but managed to stay alive in a jungle full of Japanese soldiers, disease and snakes as thick as his legs. I also am intrigued by relationships. And this is a abook about relationships on three levels: between a young officer and his mother back in the states who refuses to believe he’s dead; about Clay and the men under his command; and about Clay and the Filipinos and pygmy Negritos he befriends.

Author Mike Yorkey calls Resolve “Unbroken meets Robinson Crusoe.” Fair?

Hey, anytime a book of mine is mentioned in the same room — much less the same sentence — as Laura Hillenbrand’s, I’ll take it. And there is this Cruso-esque link between the stories. Part of it is humorous — soldiers trained in the ways of neat uniforms and letter-of-the-law protocol wearing loin cloths and, in the Negrito tradition, eating horse head soup. And part of it is quite serious, this idea that when you’ve been separated from the culture you once knew for so long, you must either assimilate or die. In the end, that assimilation — in particular Conner becoming something of an adjunct chief of a Negrito tribe — is the key to him and his men surviving.