Nashvillian Gary Slaughter combines personal memory with extensive research in the creation of his Cottonwood novels, which are based on his own childhood during World War II. Slaughter grew up in Owosso, Mich., near a German prisoner-of-war camp, and his novels begin with this little-remembered facet of American life during the war years. The final book in the series, Cottonwood Summer ’45, brings the novel’s young protagonists, Jase and Danny, to Nashville as they continue their adventures.
As the president of Gary Slaughter Corp., Slaughter is a lecturer and corporate consultant in information technology. As an author, he has received many independent-publishing awards, including the ForeWord Book of the Year Award. He answered questions from Chapter 16 via email just before the launch of the book.
In Cottonwood Summer ’45, for the first time in the series, your young protagonists, Jase and Danny, travel to Nashville. What led you to set part of this novel in Nashville?
Cottonwood Spring, the fourth novel in the series, was to have been the last. I hadn’t planned to write a fifth installment. But when disappointed fans pointed out that World War II continued through the summer of 1945, I changed my mind.
Since moving here in 1998, my wife Joanne and I have savored life in Nashville. So I wanted to this novel to acquaint readers broadly with the desirable attributes of this city, especially during the war years. Fortunately, in Cottonwood Spring, I introduced JB, a new character who had moved to Riverton, Mich., from Nashville and become a friend of Jase and Danny. I used JB’s return to Nashville during the summer of 1945 as a literary mechanism to bring the three boys together for home-front adventures set in Tennessee.
In 2007, when I was interviewed by John Seigenthaler on his public television show, A Word on Words, he related that during the war he had worked for his father’s construction company, building the VA hospital on White Bridge Road. His fellow workers were German POWs. With John’s encouragement, I used my poetic license to arrange for Jase and Danny to visit the construction site and meet young John Seigenthaler.
Your Cottonwood novels are semiautobiographical. Did you have a childhood friendship that inspired the relationship of the two boys?
My novels have been described as a “thinly veiled autobiography.” Jase Addison, the now-adult narrator, is a fictionalized version of me. The character Danny Tucker is based on my oldest and very best boyhood friend, Billy Curtis. Cottonwood fans of all ages simply adore Danny. He’s precocious, eccentric, clairvoyant, and extremely funny. Danny is particularly adept at tweaking the noses of pompous and patronizing adults, a quality greatly admired by his younger fans.
Jase and Danny vanquish villains by the score as they protect and defend their neighborhood, their hometown, and their country from enemies both at home and abroad. In fact, John Seigenthaler referred to these characters as “this generation’s Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn.”
A dozen years ago, Billy Curtis had no idea that I was writing a book based on our boyhood adventures. When he read Cottonwood Summer and discovered he was the star, Billy became Danny. There was only one small problem. Most of Danny’s triumphs are pure fiction. But Billy refused to acknowledge the difference between fact and fiction, and I too refused to tell. Our collusion has caused considerable angst among Billy’s friends and family. Cottonwood Summer ’45 is dedicated to “Billy Curtis, the only man I have ever known to be loved by every person he met.”
Are there particular resources, books or workshops that have been helpful to you as a developing writer? What advice do you give those who ask you how to begin the process?
Other than high school and college English composition classes, I’ve never had any formal training in writing. It’s all been on-the-job training. After a six-year stint as a naval officer, I became a corporate information-technology consultant. This profession required me to publish or perish.
When I began writing fiction, I had no difficulty making the transition, for a number of reasons. First, I have read an enormous amount of good fiction. I also have an active imagination. And fortunately I was born into a family of storytellers who were superb role models. I’ve taught writing workshops for prospective fiction writers. My first piece of advice is this: If you don’t like to read and haven’t read much during your life, you should consider another outlet for your creative energies. Writing a novel may not be a good investment of your time and energy.
As you note on your website, garyslaughter.com, many Americans today don’t remember the hundreds of thousands of German prisoners of war who worked in American fields and factories throughout the war. Can you describe a specific memory of the German POWs in your hometown?
During the war, there were over 426,000 POWs interned in American prison camps. There are two reasons why so few people today know about them. First, by 1946, every POW was repatriated. Most Americans who were old enough to experience and remember the POWs are no longer living. Second, when they were repatriated, all records associated with their internment were sent to their home countries with them, denying historians access to these records. Thus there is little written on the subject.
My obsession with POWs began in June of 1944 when two prisoners escaped from Camp Owosso with the assistance of two young Owosso women who worked with the Germans at the canning factory in my neighborhood. A fictionalized version of this escape, the resultant treason charges, and dramatic trial of the women is a major Cottonwood Summer storyline. I also witnessed POWs rescue a neighborhood woman and her newborn baby. The POWs dashed into her blazing house and carried the woman and baby out to the street. The grateful family and neighbors cheered and slapped the POWs on the back.
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