There are milestones in life that often seem more momentous to you than to anyone in the outside world. A writer encounters a lot of these: often the completion of a writing project is incredibly meaningful to them, but passes generally unnoticed by others. This is because, I think, writing is at its core a solitary activity. The world sees a writer pecking away at a typewriter or hunched over a computer. The great pain, anguish, anxiety, effort, elation and accomplishment that goes into finishing a book is never visible to the outside, and only ever becomes visible to the few who, for whatever reason, decide to read the book itself when it comes out.
This is especially true of my latest project, Eyes of War, which was co-written by me and World War II historian Lucas Erickson. After working more than a year on the book, from conception to final edits, we completed the last revisions on Tuesday, June 14, 2016. I haven’t said much about this book on my blog and my references to it on Twitter have largely been cryptic. But now you know the book exists, and I hope very much we can find a publisher for it (an agent first, most likely) so it can see the light of day. In our view it’s quite an important book, and one that may have the potential to change how readers view the war and its aftermath. It’s the most intense, emotional, wrenching and personal writing experience I’ve ever had. It’s also the first book I’ve written that has nothing to do with time travel, zombies, ghosts, aliens, or anything along those lines; it’s purely realistic.
Lucas Erickson (at right) and me toast the completion of Eyes of War with a rather middling champagne.
Eyes of War concerns a rather grisly aspect of World War II which few know anything about: the practice, quite widespread in the Pacific, of Americans taking the pieces of corpses of dead Japanese–especially skulls and teeth–as trophies and souvenirs from the battle front. Far from being the activity of “a few bad apples,” Lucas Erickson’s research has revealed that it was far more common than anyone wants to admit. The trophies of the war had a life that lasted far after the ferocious island combat ended in 1945. Many veterans and their families still have skulls and bones of Japanese soldiers secreted in boxes in the back of dusty closets, now more than 70 years later. Trying to understand why this bizarre activity occurred, and how the skull of a long-dead stranger can stir up so many unresolved questions of the war even decades later, is the subject of the book.
Eyes of War is, quite simply, the story of one of these “trophy skulls”: who took it, under what circumstances, what it means, and most importantly who it was. The novel involves the Battle of Okinawa, the single bloodiest battle of World War II, seen through two sets of eyes: one a U.S. Marine, the naive and gentle Tommy, and the other a Japanese woman, Matsu, a rural midwife who’s just trying to survive the battle that has come to her homeland. Eyes of War took an incredible amount of research, much of it utterly wrenching and soul-crushing to expose ourselves to. Far from being another glowing rose-colored “Greatest Generation” celebration of World War II veterans, it’s as realistic, unbiased and objective a view of the war as we can possibly make it.
This stack of books is just a small sampling of the research material we consulted in order to give Eyes of War as much historical accuracy as we could possibly cram into it. It wasn’t easy!
Back in October I wrote a blog aimed at fiction authors about how to write realistic stories about the war. This is the result of my efforts. It’s been an utterly harrowing and terrible slog to get to the end, but I think we’ve got a book that offers something very new to the cultural portrayal of the world’s worst catastrophe. I’m very proud of it and I hope we can interest a publisher in it.
My co-author, Lucas Erickson, has been a delight to work with. I thank him and his family for all their sacrifices and support in making this book a reality. Some of you reading this blog know the amount of work that has gone into Eyes of War, and a choice few of you have actually read the manuscript; thanks so much for your contributions as well.
As the publication process continues–it’s likely to last a long time–I will post further updates. In the meantime, wish us luck, and I hope you can eventually read Eyes of War.