BE SURE TO VISIT THE AUTHOR'S WEBSITE
An Honorable German by Charles McCain is shown on the left. Click on the cover to order.
Nancy Eaton did this interview with Charles McCain on September 16, 2009.
The first five questions were provided by Cy Hilterman who reviewed An Honorable German.
Read Cy Hilterman's Review Here
What did the Germans do wrong during WWII that caused their submarines to be sunk in such huge numbers? Did they not have any attack warnings?
On the right is a Model of the Type VII U-Boat used in the movie “Das Boot” (pronounced as “boat” and not “boot.)
The Type VII U-Boat was the workhorse of the Ubootwaffe. In An Honorable German, U-114, commanded by the protagonist is depicted as a Type VII. The actual U-114 was an experimental design which was never built but was assigned a number since a contract had to been signed to build the boat. I used the number so it wouldn’t conflict with or contradict in any way the record of any commissioned U-Boats.
A U-Boat wasn’t a submarine as we think of them today. U-Boat is the abbreviation of Unter See Boot or “under sea boat” that is, a boat which could go underwater for a limited time. The type VII and Type IX boats, which made up the bulk of the U-Boat fleet, were built from a Dutch/German submarine design from the 1920s and were almost obsolete by the time the war started.
They were badly designed, not suited for the missions they were assigned, required far too many highly trained men to operate them and were a misery to serve aboard. The boats could actually not stay underwater for a long time. 24 hours was about all the men could take because the air became so foul and the CO 2 levels became unhealthy. The record is 63 hours, I think, and most of the crew had passed out from CO 2 poisoning.
Training time was continuously cut as the war went on. “Boats to the front!” was the order of the day and the men who manned the boats in the later years of the war had only a fraction of the training earlier U-Boat crewman had received nor did their officers have substantial experience or even time at sea.
These statistics give an idea of how uneven was the performance of the various U-Boats:
A handful of U-Boat Kommandants sank one third of Allied ships lost to U-Boat action in the North Atlantic. 2,450 Allied ships were sunk by U-Boats in the Atlantic.
Just 30 U-Boat commanders sank 800 of those ships, one third of the total sunk.
At first this statistic seems odd. Why weren’t more U-Boot kommandants successful? As one might imagine, Uboowaffe Command studied this over and over yet never came to an answer. The simple conclusion: some U-Boat Kommandants had a special feel for how to the do the job. Until a man became a Kommandant, no one could predict if he was going to be succussful.
A handful of U-Boat Kommandants are still alive, the only living “ace” being Reinhard Hardegen. In early to mid 1942, in two war patrols off the East Coast of the United States, Hardegen sank 19 ships. Of the top 30 U-Boat aces, he ranks 24th. Perhaps the most surprising statistic is this: the majority of German U-Boats put into commission never sank anything. 1,171 U-Boats were commissioned between 1935 and 1945. 850 U-Boats, three quarters of the fleet, never sank anything.
(source: U-Boat Commanders and Crews 1935 to 1945 by Jak Mallmann Showell)
Over 80% of men who served in the German Ubootwaffe perished, which gives a very good idea of how lopsided the battle became. The canard put about after the war that all U-Boat sailors were volunteers is flat out wrong. Many men were “volunteered” to the U-Ubootwaffe. Memoirs of various U-Boat men confirm this. I have to include this brief vignette because it so fantastic. I normally wouldn’t believe a story like this but the source is impeccable: U-Boat Operations of World War Two, vol one. Published by the US Naval Institute Press. The Luckiest Man in the Battle of the Atlantic was a crewman aboard U-223 which was damaged in a surface encounter with a Royal Navy escort ship in the North Atlantic. The commander of U-223 ordered the boat to submerge. One of the bridge lookouts thought the commander said "abandon ship" and jumped overboard. One can only imagine his state of mind as he watched his U-Boat disappear and leave him by himself in the cold water of the North Atlantic. In that situation any man would make your peace with God. Two hours later, the sailor who was hypothermic and almost unable tread water any longer for he didn't have a life vest, watched in open mouthed astonishment as U-359 surfaced a handful of yards away from him. In the vastness of the North Atlantic, U-359 surfaced by pure happenstance close by the sailor who was close to drowning. They rescued him and his shipmates from U-223 were quite surprised to see him when he returned to port.
Aircraft sank half of all German U-Boats destroyed. Ubootwaffe never anticipated how dangerous aircraft would become. Half of all U-Boats were actually sunk by aircraft. U-Boat tactical doctrine was to attack from the surface. Above water, the boats ran on their diesel engines and could make over 16 knots. Once submerged, they had to run on battery power, were very slow, and if they tried to maintain their maximum submerged speed of seven knots, they drained their batteries in just a few hours. But being on the surface exposed them to air attack against which they never developed an effective defense nor did they ever develop new tactics.
While they tripled the anti-aircraft armament on U-Boats beginning in late 42/43, it didn’t help very much. The additional weapons platform acted as a “brake”, which increased their diving time making them even more vulnerable to aircraft. The additional anti-aircraft batteries also placed more men on deck who, when the order came to ‘dive’, had to disengage their weapons then wait their turn to drop through the hatch which added seconds to the boat’s diving time.
Allied patrol bombers quickly learned respect for this new found capability of U-Boats so the bombers began to form up in groups of four and attack from each point of the compass at the same time.
They did develop radar warning devices but these never worked very well. When an RAF Coastal Command aircraft over the Bay of Biscay picked up a U-Boat on its radar screen, the crew would plot the U-Boat’s position then turn their radar off. As the war went on, there were so many Allied patrol craft in the air that the radar warning device would sound the alarm almost continuously because it was overwhelmed by hundreds of radar equipped aircraft.
They finally began to equip boats with snorkels, which operated on the same principle as snorkels we use to play in the water today. But there were a number of problems with the snorkels, not the least of which was Allied radar could pick up the snorkel head on the surface of the water. After 1943, a U-Boat without a snorkel had no chance at all of evading Allied aircraft or hunter-killer groups of escort ships.
All evidence to the contrary, Doenitz refused to believe the Allies had been able to invent a highly effective small radar set that could be mounted on ships or planes. By mid1943 almost every Allied convoy escort vessel had radar as did a large number of Allied patrol planes with all patrol aircraft being fitted with radar by mid 1944. At one point Doenitz summoned Teddy Suhren and Erich Topp, two U-Boat aces who were in charge of training new U-Boat crews. Doenitz asked them if they believed Allied warships on convoy escort duty had radar. Both men answered yes. Doenitz cursed them for a few minutes then threw them out of his office. Both men write about this incident in their memoirs.
Doenitz, knew all the details of the Nazi murder of the Jews, Russins, Poles, et al and should have be hanged at Nuremberg because he truly had been an accomplice in ‘crimes against humanity”.
Doenitz was a man of very weak character but he was certainly intelligent and a highly experienced U-Boat officer from the First World War. (His boat was sunk and he was captured by the British. For reasons never adequately explained, he apparently had some sort of nervous breakdown while in British captivity and was admitted to a psychiatric hospital in Great Britain). So Doenitz had to know deep down that the Allies had radar equipment of all types. The Luftwaffe had developed a small radar set which fit in their night fighter aircraft but never told the navy.
Even more curious, after the initial German victories including the conquest of France, Hitler ordered research on new weapons to stop. This included radar in which they Germans were ahead of the Allies in certain areas. Fortunately, it was another one of the many orders of the Fuhrer which had disastrous consequences.
U-Boat Command directed all U-boats from a central plot and this required constant radio communication with the U-Boat force. All U-Boats had to report their position and fuel status once a day. Additionally, they reported convoy sightings, weather, things of interest and they received numerous queries from Ubootwaffe Command. In short, they talked too damn much.
The Allies spent a lot of time and money creating a network of High Frequency Direction Finders mounted on ships and land stations. Each time a U-Boat broadcast a report to Ubootwaffe Command, the Allies immediately triangulated that signal and pinpointed that U-Boat to within a mile of its location. A number of U-Boats were found and sunk that way. The Germans never figured this out even though they received a constant stream of photographs of Allied convoy escort ships from German agents watching the harbor in Gibraltar. Both radar aerials and high frequency direction finding equipment were visible on almost every ship.
A friend of mine who retired from the German Navy several years ago, told me he was at an officer’s dance in the early 1980s and struck up a conversation with a retired a retired U-Boat commander. My friend asked him how he had managed
to survive and the former U-Boat commander said as soon as his boat left port, he took the transmitting key from the radioman and locked it in his desk. Therefore the boat could receive messages but not transmit.
It’s worth noting that the British, later backed up by the Americans, created a detailed U-Boat plot, assembled from all sorts of data which was constantly updated. This plot showed the guestimated position of every single commissioned U-boat in the fleet. The Germans had nothing like this to track Allied warships or merchant ships.
If you are ever in London, a “must see” are the Underground Cabinet war rooms which are buried deep under the Treasury in Whitehall and constitute several floors. This remained secret until the late 1980s and now tourists are allowed to tour this once secret complex. Next to this building, is a squat and very ugly concrete building with no windows. During the war they called it “the Citadel”. This was the location of the Royal Navy’s U-Boat plotting operation. They even had a huge photograph of Doenitz in the main plot room.
It was an amazing operation and involved assembling a constant stream of bits and pieces of intelligence, including Ultra (although they did not know where it came from), and creating their constantly updated U-Boat plot. After some months of experience, the officers who ran the operation, often correctly predicted what Doenitz, and later his deputy, would do in any given situation. The entire operation was run by Great Britain’s most brilliant attorney of the day who had a nervous breakdown from the strain in the middle of the war.
The British also had a merchant shipping plot, maintained by ten retired merchant captains, which tracked every merchant ship in the world. A German merchant ship, trying to run the blockade of the Royal Navy and get from say Brazil back to Germany, would disguise itself as a neutral steamer, say the SS Pescadero from Portugal. When spotted by a British warship, the steamer would identify itself as the neutral Portuguese ship, SS Pescadero. A quick radio check with the merchant shipping plot in London would reveal that the real SS Pescadero was at that moment tied to the wharf in Lisbon so the British would seize the imposter ship immediately. And they didn’t have computers. They did all this with index cards.
Ultra: for most of World War Two the British, later backed up by the Americans, read all secret radio traffic from every entity in the Third Reich. Each branch of the military, the railway, the Nazi Party, et al all used variations of the same encoding device, which we called the Enigma.
The Germans devoutly believed it simply could not be cracked.
It doesn’t seem very mysterious but untold effort went into crack the ciphers of this enciphering machine known as the “Enigma”. The Germans never knew the Allies even had one but we did. (On the right is a Photo from the Archive of the National Security Agency of the USA and in the public domain).
The English math genius Alan Turing, a gay man who would not be allowed to work for the U.S. military today, cracked the Enigma by inventing the computer in his head. The Turing Prize and the Turing Machine are named for him and he is thought to be the father of the modern computer age. Time Magazine included him in their list of the 100 most important people in the 20 Century.
Homosexuality was illegal in the United Kingdom and after the war, Turing was arrested from time to time and continually harassed by the British police at all levels since they knew he had a top secret clearance and was also a homosexual. In 1954, he committed suicide. Because what he had accomplished was so secret no one could tell the police or the government what he had done. In July of 2009, Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued an official apology from the British Government on how Turing was treated after the war.
The British ability to read almost all top secret German radio traffic, later enhanced by the Americans, was so secret that probably no more than eight men in the entire world knew the scope of this project.. This must be known as the “Ultra” secret, Churchill said, hence the name.
German racial arrogance also performed a role in all of this. Something that the Aryans had perfected couldn’t be cracked by anyone else although the initial work on cracking the Enigma was done by Polish mathematicians using paper and pencil. No one in the leadership of the Third Reich believed the code could be cracked although German scientists began warning their leaders as early as 1942 that there were serious security problems with the system. These reports were ignored and it isn’t known whether Hitler ever saw the reports.
So Doenitz believed the code system they used could never, ever be cracked. The only possible way for the Allies to have even temporarily decipher the code would be if they had actually captured a completely intact U-boat--- which didn’t occur to anyone since that was impossible. But in another operation kept totally secret, the Royal Navy managed to capture U-570 completely intact.
In the early 1970s, the extraordinary story of the Ultra Secret began to emerge. A group of surviving U-Boat aces prevailed upon one of the leading German naval historians of the day, Jürgen Rowher, to make an appointment with Doenitz and tell him. After being informed, Doenitz was stunned beyond measure. His Chief of U-Boat Operations, Admiral Godt, never believed it. Historians still don’t know the full scope of Ultra and much information remains classified for reasons unknown.
Do you think there were many officers such as Max in command of Germany's war? Were there officers that cared about their men and ships?
The professional officers of the Kriegsmarine were very concerned about their men and their ships much like the professional officers in the navies of most belligerent powers in World War Two. Leadership was a key quality of what in the German navy then and now are called the Offizers zur See—Sea Officers--that is those officers who are qualified to take command of the ship at sea. There was and continues to be in the German navy an immense difference in prestige between sea officers and other officers such as engineering officers, medical officers, supply officers, et al. In the US Navy sea officers are referred to as line officers or deck officers and they do not form a class apart from other officers.
It is worth noting that the enlisted men of the German navy mutinied in 1918 at the end of the First World War. This mutiny began in Kiel and quickly spread to every naval base in the country. The initial reason: the Admiral Commanding the German High Seas Fleet had decided to make a do or die attack against the British Fleet which would have resulted in the deaths of most of the men. Clearly the war was almost over. It would have been suicidal.
Additionally the men were treated harshly, had terrible rations and unhealthy and uncomfortable living quarters. German officers were keenly aware of this and substantial reforms were undertaken after World War One to make life better for the enlisted men including an order that officers and men eat the same rations.
At what point did the United Kingdom reverse the disastrous air attacks on their cities?
There are several phases to this. First is the well known “Battle of Britain” which historians define as the period between 13 August 1940 until 15 September 1940. Prime Minister Winston Churchill gave it the name in his speech of 18 June 1940 to the British Parliament. “…the Battle of France is over. I expect the Battle of Britain is about to begin.” It was during this period that massive daylight raids were made on the UK.
RAF Supermarine Spitfire, the most famous plane of the Second World War. Although instrumental in halting the German air offensive, Spitfires only comprised half of Fighter Command’s aircraft, the remainder being Hawker Hurricanes. The Spitfire was originally designed as a floatplane by the Supermarine Company hence the name.(Drawing originally under the copyright of the British Crown now released into the public domain worldwide)
The German goal in that very short time frame was to destroy RAF Fighter Command. Once that had been done, the invasion of the UK by the Germans would begin. But to transport their troops across the English Channel, the
Germans must have achieved air superiority over the English Channel and Great Britain.
The Germans came to believe their own nonesense about enemy planes destroyed and by mid September became convinced they had almost eliminated RAF Fighter Command. One more heavy attack, they believed, and they would knock Fighter Command completely out of the air and the British would have to surrender or face an invasion. While the Germans had severely wounded Fighter Command, they had hardly eliminated it.
Thinking there would be only a handful of RAF fighters to oppose them, the Germans mounted their heaviest air assault of perhaps the entire war on Great Britain in broad daylight on 15 September 1940. German aircrew were told by Luftwaffe C-in-C Goering, as foolish as he was arrogant, that the British were down to only fifty fighter aircraft.
Their intelligence about the strength of Fighter Command was miscalculated in a disastrous way because RAF Fighter Command was still able to put up hundreds of fighters. That day, 15 September 1940, is a critical day in the war. The RAF lost 26 planes. But they shot down 60 German planes, which so surprised the Germans it was as if someone had thrown cold water in their face.
It was on this day the RAF truly earned Winston’s Churchill famous line of praise: “never in the field of human conflict have so many owed so much to so few.” (RAF pilots at the time shrugged this off in true English fashion and said Churchill was referring to their bar tabs).
After their defeat on 15 September, the Germans ended their daylight attacks on Great Britain and the threat of invasion passed. But terrible days were still ahead for the British and specifically the civilian population of London.
The next phase is what we know as “the Blitz”, when German aircraft now flying only at night, bombed British cities with London the most common target, at one point hit 57 nights in a row. This period lasted until mid May of 1941 when Luftwaffe units in France began to be withdrawn and redeployed in the East for the invasion of the Soviet Union. Also, throughout the Blitz, Great Britain continually strengthened their anti-aircraft defensives. Over 43,000 British civilians were killed during “the Blitz”, half of them Londoners.
The photograph on the right shows St. Paul’s Cathedral, still intact, rising above the smoke and flame of London after a night of heavy bombing by the Luftwaffe on 29 December 1940. This iconic photograph became most of the famous of the war and came to symbolize Great Britain’s defiance of Nazi Germany. Only strong efforts by volunteer members of the parish, who threw hundreds of incendiaries off the dome, and heroic efforts by the London Fire Brigade, saved the Cathedral. Although it wasn’t particularly bombproof and hadn’t the facilities to serve as a shelter, people nearby streamed into the cathedral for protection as they would have done in the Middle Ages.
(use of this imaged protected under ‘fair use’ doctrine of U.S. Copyright law)
When the Germans began “the Blitz”, the nighttime bombing of British cities, they came up with a new tactic: dropping incendiaries mixed in with bombs. This combination set English cities aflame but the RAF took careful note and when they began heavy night bombing of German cities in mid 1942, they used this tactic, the reality of which is recounted in An Honorable German. “ Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.” (King James Version of the Bible)
Your words and descriptions made me feel as though I was there in each person’s shoes. How deep did your research take you to find the various occurrences that gave me and other readers a general feeling of how these military minds and actions actually took place? Or did you use your own thoughts, ideas, and mind to create those personal feelings?
People ask me questions like that a lot: how could you describe the bombing of Berlin so well or how could you possibly describe a terrible storm at sea when you’ve never been through one? The short answer is: “I’m not sure. I have no idea how the novelist part of me works.” I know that I can somehow place myself in a situation, like being bombed in Berlin, and describe what the character would be feeling without all the terrifying emotions I am describing being triggered off in me.
My shrink told me something interesting about this ability. He told me novelists are able to access that part of their unconscious that contains the roiling witch’s brew of our most powerful and frightening emotions: fear, terror, lust, greed, hatred, love, envy. But unlike other people, novelists can access that part of themselves without freaking out, so a novelist can draw on that part of himself to describe, say, the horror of being bombed, then put the lid back on and go out for coffee.
In terms of prep work on the subject itself, I read so much German history that I have a very good idea of what Germans of different backgrounds, class, etc. would have thought about a situation. What newspapers did different groups of people read? Which political party would different characters have belonged to? What were the circumstances of their upbringing based on their class? What would different types of Germans feel about England? France? The USA? Germans of the era had great affection for the United States and all things American from movies to cigarettes.
Through the use of interior monologue In the narrative, I have the protagonist, Max, describe how he feels about something which gives the reader a sense of how Germans of the time would have felt. A good example is the anger Germans felt over the loss of so much of their territory after the First World War. The actual nation state of Germany only came into existence in 1871. So there was great bitterness over losing parts of Germany which had been German for centuries. That Germany started World War One and thus was herself responsible for the loss of her territory, was not something Germans of the time believed. Max very much feels this sense of loss and bitterness about the Treaty of Versailles and its destructive impact on Germany and most Germans felt this way.
Because many of the scenes in the book are based on actual events, the people involved in those events often wrote letters or memoirs which expressed what they were feeling at the time. Based on those, I can get a very good sense of
what people were feeling and thinking under different circumstances. At one point I describe how one of the captured British merchant captains and Captain Langsdorff had become friends of a sort and were sitting in deck chairs in the shade of the starboard aft torpedo tubes.
There is a good book of photographs of life on the Graf Spee which was published in Uruguay. I have a copy of this book and that scene comes directly from a photograph of Captain Langsdorff and Captain Dove sitting on deck chairs in the shade of the torpedo tubes. It would be hard to make that up. Captain Dove also wrote a book, I Was Graf Spee’s Prisoner published in 1940 in which he gives a very thoughtful profile of Captain Langsdorff. Some reviewers have criticized me for the very idea of the captain of a German warship in World War Two being a man of chivalry and they assume I made this up. But Langsdorff was a polished and consummate gentleman to a fault---and that was what was said of him by men from an enemy country.
The absolute best source to get a “feel” for the time of the Third Reich are contemporaneous diaries written during the era. However mundane some of the entries are, they give a wonderful sense of what people felt and thought at that moment. Were they happy? Sad? How did they feel during an air raid? What were they doing when they weren’t working? What did they eat? Drink? There are not many contemporaneous diaries from the era but the few we have are extremely useful in recreating the mood of the time. Memoirs can be useful but they are written after the fact. What makes contemporaneous diaries so critical to re-creating the mood and feel of that time is this: the diarists have absolutely no foreknowledge of events.
For the combat scenes, I have read about practically every naval battle that ever happened during World War One and Two, including all the books on the Graf Spee, at least 50 books on U-boats, and countless memoirs of life at sea, battles at sea and bad weather at sea from the Age of Sail to the present day. I have read dozens of histories and memoirs from the Battle of the Atlantic alone. I have also read dozens of memoirs of soldiers who have been in battle and all of them comment on how unreal it seems—dream-like almost—and how long combat seems to go on yet afterward one realizes it was just a short time. I combine all that with my imagination. I can see the scene I am writing in my head sort of.
As a historical novelist, you have to learn the original story so well that you can write it by memory, and paint your characters into the actual history without changing it. And finally, 35 years ago, my writing mentor said something to me which I have always practiced: “If the action is not happening to someone, it’s not happening.” Throughout the book I constantly keep in mind and describe to readers what Max, the protagonist, smells, what he sees, hears, feels. But one
has to be judicious because you don’t want to describe lots of things at one time. You just want to give readers a hint and then they immediately figure out the rest. You don’t want to lay facts on them with a trowel.
When super ships such as the Graf Spee were built, was war already in the planning process?
A specific war was not being planned when the Graf Spee and her two sister ships were being built. The ships were being built according to a long term strategy worked out by the Naval War Staff which assumed that in another war, Great Britain would be their main enemy and the main goal for the German navy would be to disrupt overseas commerce which the British depended on for food, raw materials, et al.
That war would break out as quickly as it did came as a shock to the German Naval War Staff. In 1936 or so, Admiral Raeder, C-inC of the Kriegsmarine, told Hitler that the German Navy would not be ready for war until 1945 at the earliest.
The Naval War Staff knew when the Second World War began that they were not capable of fighting a sustained naval war. Raeder wrote in the war diary of the C-in-C of the Kriegsmarine that all the German Navy could do was to go forth and sacrifice itself with bravery and by doing so create a tradition upon which a new navy could be built at some future time.
What advice would you give to someone interested in becoming a writer?
The same advice my mentor, the late author Al Rose, gave me: writers write, he would tell me. So just write anything. Short stories. Pieces about growing up. Novels. Plays. Nonfiction, book reviews, letters, anything. Just write and keep writing and after a while it will become clear to you where you want to go. But a craftsman must be “worthy of his hire” and know his trade and his tools and that takes time.
You have to know your grammar, and you have to know words. I don’t mean you have to know lots of random words, although that is useful, I mean you must know and understand the very slight difference in shading that a word makes in a sentence. Say a character is outdoors and moving fast. Are they running, jogging, walking quickly or walking briskly? Are they limping a bit? Does that character see something that scares them and dash, dart, bound? How do their feet feel?
Understanding what you are trying to express and then doing that with just the right words is far better than writing a sentence then explaining to the reader what you mean. Anyone who seeks to be a writer should read, must read, Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style.
Next, if you want to be a writer you have to be a reader since you must learn to recognize good writing and examine it so you will understand why it is good writing. How did the writer do this or that? How did they express themselves so clearly? Where did they lose you in a paragraph? Did you have to keep flipping back the pages to figure out who a character was? When did you get bored with the book and put it down? Or why did you race through it because you had to know what happened? What was the point of view? Did it switch around? Does the author occasionally switch from the past to the present tense? And why? This can be quite effective but has to be done just right.
Read anything and everything: history, science, biographies of people you don’t care about and have never heard of, read the greats, the hacks, read trashy books, romance novels, war novels, narrative non-fiction (The Perfect Storm is, well, a perfect example of this) and as you read watch and see if you get drawn into the subject and how the writer did it. You will start to pick up what really good writing is. The definition is simple yet so hard to do: say what you want to say with the fewest words in a way that is so clear, there is no doubt about what you mean. Very few people can do this on a first draft, either.
Is there anyone, in particular, who influenced you?
First and foremost is my late mentor, Al Rose, one of the two people to whom An Honorable German is dedicated. I met Al when I was in college. He and his practically adopted me. He encouraged me constantly and to have a writer of his stature do that was a gift I can never repay. In one of the first of his books I had him sign for me he wrote, “To my good friend, Charlie McCain, who will one day sign something of his for me.” And it makes me very sad that he is not here to see that everything he wished for me as a writer finally came true.
In terms of specific writers I would say a number of them influenced me. When I was twelve, my mother gave me an old paperback copy of Mr. Midshipman Hornblower by C.S. Forester. From then on I was hooked. I’ve probably read the entire Hornblower series thirty times. I’ve read them again recently, and I can see the effect it had on me and my writing.
Another influence at the time I wrote my original drafts, which was in 1981 and 1982, was Gorky Park, by Martin Cruz Smith. Published during the Cold War, it was the first of these Soviet era murder mysteries that have become so popular. But his was the first. The author had done incredible research into the details of everyday life in the Soviet Union by interviewing Russians who had defected to the United States. It’s hard to believe now, but the Soviet Union was the most ominous society in the world for the decades of the Cold War. We knew little about it then, and I was fascinated with the details of everyday life and how that gave verisimilitude to the story.
In An Honorable German, I very much wanted to give readers a sense of everyday life in another ominous society, the Third Reich. You have to paint the details in very carefully—like watercolors on an eggshell—because you never want the history to be obvious, or to overwhelm Max, the protagonist, since the novel isn’t about the German Navy, or the Third Reich, it is about him. I always keep him on center stage and I had to color in the backdrop very carefully lest it be too bright.
Three other writers who influenced me are Hemingway, Evelyn Waugh and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Hemingway because he is the best writer of the “American” language. Blunt. To the point. All the decorative words shorn off. Evelyn Waugh because he is the best stylist of the English language in the 20th century. He writes so beautifully that sometimes I weep when I read sections of Brideshead Revisited or his Sword of Honor Trilogy.
And Fitzgerald because of the impact The Great Gatsby had on me when I was struggling to master the rudiments of novel writing. I distinctly remember reading it in 1981 and telling myself that if I could only write one sentence as wonderful, as haunting, as perfect as he did thousands of times, then it would be worth all the work. And no, I still haven’t done it.
Do you have a message you would like to give to all your readers out there?
I’m flattered by this question since it assumes I have a lot of readers. I hope I do but I still haven’t sold out the first printing of 18,000 books yet so I need a lot more!!!
First: I am keenly aware that its my name on the cover, my real name. That means a lot to me.
Second is this: people often say to me they wish they could write. And I tell them they can. They may not have the talent to write a novel but they do have the talent to write something. In this day and time, where email abounds and you can send a birthday card electronically, nothing touches people so much as receiving a hand-written note or letter wishing them a happy birthday, or offering condolences or congratulations. Or even a note telling someone why you love them. Yes, you can say if with flowers but why not take a pen and a piece of paper and say in your own words?
It doesn’t matter if your prose isn’t smooth and you misspell words. What is important is that you took the time to sit down and think about that person and then write something to send them— something about a funny experience you shared, or some prank you did in college together or that something happened that day which really made you think of them. And your friend or loved one will cherish that piece of writing. Try it.
My best writing will never be published because it wasn’t written to be published. A year ago I wrote a letter of condolence to an old family friend on the death of her husband, which turned into a 7,000 word reminiscence of everything I recalled about their family and mine, whose friendship goes back more than 50 years. This letter was a gift to my friend that money could not buy, and it demonstrated how much I cared.
A few weeks after I sent her the letter, I received a note from her that said never in her life had she been so moved by a piece of writing, and she laughed and cried as she read through it repeatedly and she would keep it always. What more could a writer ask for? I will treasure her letter for the rest of my life.
Tell the readers how you became interested in German U-Boats?
I’m not exactly sure how I became interested. One of my first books I bought about the Ubootwaffe was the first and I think, the best, of U-boat memoirs: Iron Coffins by Herbert Werner. (Who is hale and hearty and living in Florida. He has been an American citizen for decades. I don’t know him). That was in 1972 when I was a junior in high school so the interest goes back aways.
While I enjoyed reading books about U-Boats, I did all the research on U-Boats because that’s what the plot called for. I didn’t fit the plot around depicting a U-Boat. The main character spends time on a U-Boat so I had to learn everything about them but I did as much study on the Graf Spee as well and the entire German navy.
Are any of the characters in An Honorable German based on anyone you know?
A part of Max, the protagonist, is based on me, which is very hard to avoid since one knows oneself the best. This also reveals oneself in conscious and unconscious ways, which I don’t want to do but there is no avoiding it. Since I wrote the first drafts of the novel when I was 22, Max in many ways represents the kind of man I wanted to be, with the kind of father I had wanted, and the kind of courage I needed and wanted to live my life. The majority of Max, however, and the other characters, are figments of my imagination.
Dieter is the only character to be loosely based on someone I know---and obviously know well. Friends of his, whom I don’t know, have read the book and said to him, “well it’s obvious you’re Dieter.” He finds it most amusing.
Assembling the plot: I often get asked how I figure out the plot of a novel and this is this is how I explain it. I have a vague idea of something I want to write and some of these ideas might go back 35 years or more but from time to time one of them comes to the fore.
Think of a large dining room table and on that table are one thousand black and white photographs, all of which come from somewhere in my life, be it an experience I had, an impression something made on me or often from my observation of other people. To a novelist, the ability to observe others without engaging your own emotions is your stock in trade. And all one thousand of those black and white photographs have some vague connection to the vague idea I have.
I spend time, a lot of time, going through those thousand photographs because, let’s say, I need one hundred of them to make up the plot of the novel. So over time I choose the one hundred photographs that fit the best and then I have to put them in the right order to create the story. Once the one hundred black and white photographs are in the best order for the story, I carefully examine each one.
There is something in each one of the photographs I want the reader to see so the story will move along and make sense. So I figure out what it is in that photo I really want the reader to see and I color that in. If I chose just the right thing, then the reader can immediately color in the rest of the photograph in their own mind. That, to me, is what makes a compelling story. Some photographs need just the slightest brush while others have to be colored in completely. The talent of the novelist is knowing what thing in each photograph needs to be colored in and knowing which color to use.
CLICK HERE TO WATCH A TWO MINUTE VIDEO ABOUT AN HONORABLE GERMAN