Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Books of Others

Alice called me during a book festival signing last Saturday and asked a rather pointed question -- "Are you bringing home more books than you took to sell?" Her concern, driven by the need for more bookshelves, neither began nor ended two weeks ago but that is a good point in time to start.
Two weeks ago Andrew Finkelstein invited me home to dinner with his wife (renewed acquaintance) and daughters (brand new for me). To not talk about law we talked about travels, ideas, interests, languages, a perfect salon in a lovely home with a gracious family. The conversation turned to Amsterdam, to the Anne Frank house and, finally, to the Resistance Museum, a museum that was life-changing for me and for Alice. At the moment, Finkelstein fille slipped away from the table and returned with the loan of The Book Thief, by Zusak, an incredible novel of a German girl whose adoptive family resists... well, I hope you will read it. I will send it back to Andrew and family any day now, I promise. As I said, it was a loan.
Denys Finch Hatton reportedly said of his books (according to Berkely Cole, telling Karen Blixen), he would not lose a friend over a borrowed book, but one of his borrowers had lost one. I say bad form. I have both a borrower and a lender been. Thus, to my friends who have lent these, I promise to finish and return them:
Marc, The Power of One, Body and Soul, and The Children's Book by Byatt (signed and unread!). To Kathie, So Great A Heritage (a swap, actually). To Patrick, Taulus, A French Autobiography. To Stewart, Inside the Sky (a swap loan, for The Book Shop). To Dan, No Better Place to Die. To Russell, Running Across Countries. To Tom, The War of Art. And to Keith, Cellini, Autobiography. And that is just over the last few weeks.
To my friends from whom a few of those were gifts, I say again, thank you. And to my friends who have my copies of A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, A Dance to the Music of Time (Volume 2), The Remains of the Day, A Farewell to Arms, twelve various volumes of the Patrick O'Brian Aubrey-Matarin novels, and The Discovery of Heaven, I say to you "Fear not -- I have no idea who you are, hope honestly that you enjoy them, and tell you frankly that I have no idea what else is missing."
So, thank you for the books, but thank you more for the friendship. The books on loan will make their way back, but the friendship I want to keep.

PS: French Letters -- the sequel: Bart Sullivan was last seen in the back seat of the green sedan. Are you wondering what became of him? Of Sheriff Hoskins? Whether Shirley will become worthy of Hoyt?
Time will tell. Soon. -- J

Sunday, September 6, 2009

In Memory of Characters

My friend Mitchell, in charge of machine guns for Colt Firearms, was the first civilian flown to Pearl Harbor, arriving late on December 8, 1941. Hours before the President announced to the country that the Japanese had attacked, the Army had hustled him under cover from Connecticut to Hawaii and straight to a smoking hangar where there was laid out an array of machine guns, their barrels disfigured from overheating. Mitchell’s job was to figure out how to keep them from melting, a problem he ultimately solved with a secret blend of ceramics added to the barrel metallurgy. I met him over forty years later. Our friendship lasted until he died.
Mitchell’s stories were rarely true and never dull, beginning with the claim that at age 14 he crawled down a drain pipe to run away from boarding school and made it all the way to El Paso, where he enlisted in the army and became a skinner for General Pershing's cavalry riding all over northern Mexico in a vain search for Pancho Villa. Mitchell also told me that he lived for years as an exporter in Venezuela, drilled for oil in the Gulf, and that his only wish was to die in the bed of another man’s wife. When I knew him he had retired from Colt’s and, along with Captain Robert Hunt of the Naval Academy, started Trident Engineering in Annapolis. I do know that their first project of consequence was an engagement by the Warren Commission to reconstruct the shooting in Dallas of President Kennedy.
Mitchell called me one day and, through a terrible connection, asked if I would come get him out of jail. He and his grandson had made it as far as Tierra del Fuego on a merchant ship before his grandson gave up and flew home. Mitchell’s wife had passed away four years earlier. He was 83 or 84 years old and alone in one of the loneliest places on Earth. "Jack, the situation is this --they say I have a choice. I can stay in jail here, or I can marry this girl. She’s pregnant. Oh, and she's 17." Mitchell always told enough of the truth that I called the embassy in Santiago. They called back to say that Mitchell was not in jail. When he called again, he just asked if I would fly on down and come back on the boat with him. We laughed about 'the girl.'
Several years later I left my son in college in Philadelphia and drove to Annapolis. We sat in Mitchell's pristine retirement apartment and talked about machine guns and the grasping attitude for profits that had made him redundant at Trident. We spoke of his grandson and of President Kennedy. His mind was very sharp as he laid before me a sheet of calculations he had prepared more than ten years earlier for powder charges to be applied Fort McHenry’s cast iron cannons that would shoot flames toward the SS Constellation, anchored across Baltimore Harbor, for the show we had attended together on July 4, 1986. He was too tired to go for lunch, and when I drove away I knew that I would not see him again.
He died two weeks later. In the photographs of his grave side service I recognize Captain Hunt and friends and colleagues from Trident Engineering. I see his daughter and grandson. There is a contingent of people whom I am told are retired faculty from the Naval Academy. And, peeking out from between them, is the unmistakably South American face of a sad, round-eyed, dark haired girl, whom I estimate to be about nineteen or twenty years old. It made me smile then, and now, to have known someone who gave so much to so many of us.
I have lost two classmates, from a very small school, in the last two weeks. It makes me smile to think of them as well, not because they fixed machine gun barrels in wartime or took tramp steamers around the tip of South America but because they and others populate my memories with things I remember them doing, small, private, kind things, giggling on a school bus, singing at church, nothing daring or risque. They were, are, special people and, like most of us, just people who became characters only because they let you get to know them privately.
They may be gone, now, but their characters are not. I'll try to keep them going.
-- Jack

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

If Superman's costume was indestructable..... did Clarke Kent's mother make his costume?
It took me over four years to write French Letters: Virginia's War. Why? It's not that long and compared to, say, War and Peace or Harry Potter, not all that complicated. Answer: Because almost every night for four years, I woke up worry about the equivalent of what to say when asked the equivalent of how someone could sew up Superman's costume from an indestructible baby blanket. It didn't matter that no one but me might read Virginia's War and question whether I had the right kind of airplanes flying from the Clovis Army Air Field (B-24's), what kind of engine would run the cotton gin (Bessemer), and how Poppy Sullivan could counterfeit red or blue ration stamps if the Tierra Times was printed only in black and white. The fear of being wrong caused author's agony, and four years of research to not make those kinds of mistakes.
Oh -- Superman's costume. The answers on my Facebook posting and emails: A secret kryptonite laser. Kryptonite needles. A Super Sewing machine. An author's license. 'Mothers are magic like that.' And, drum roll, best answer: "She unraveled the threads and rewove it."
None of those is correct, of course -- Superman is a comic book. It's crazy to think that a baby could survive a blastoff from Kryton, land on earth, become a super farmboy who tosses tractors around, ages appropriately for a while before becoming -- get this -- a reporter and man of steel, and no one catches on. But, if you accept that the whole thing is crazy and buy into the storyline, all you have to do to explain the costume is come up with something that, while not correct (since it never happened....) is nevertheless believable. The comics appear to have never told the story of how Mrs. Kent made the costume (or had the foresight to put a big 'S' on his chest years before anyone ever called him Superman) but a reader poll also said that she re-wove it from the baby blanket threads, occasionally tricking little Clarke to use his X-ray vision to burn a few in two in lieu of wasting time with scissors.
So.... it's fiction. Unless I wanted someone to point out the mistakes and the story went up in flames, I had to worry .... Was there really a State Line Bar near Clovis? Did it sell Pabst Blue Ribbon? Did people like Bart go to places like that to look for girls?

Friday, August 7, 2009

In the mid 1600's, days of quill pens and before there was a single paved road in America, France built the Canal du Midi, connecting the Atlantic and Mediterranean with a waterway that runs up and over mountain ranges and through craggy rocklands and dense forests. Canals became the fastest way to move anything anywhere until the development of railroads. They now are the fastest way to do one thing and one thing only -- recharge batteries.
Alice and I spent a week on the Canal before I flew off to Boston to begin a trial. We rented a houseboat in Castelnaudary, ate cassoulet and stocked up on cheese and plonk, then raced toward Carcassonne at 3 kilometers per hour (not counting delays to navigate the locks). A week later, after castles, street markets, boulangeries, and endless rounds of Boggle, we turned the boat in at Hompes.
The result: I slowed down enough to finish the last chapter of the sequel to Virginia's War. I am putting the last touches on Will right now, then will ask some technical readers to take a look before I send it to Vire's editor, Mindy Reed. Look for it; it's coming.
Thanks, and see you soon.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009


Where I write….
When I signed French Letters at Hastings Book Store in Amarillo a week or two ago one proud owner of a signed first edition looked at my illegible scrawl and said ‘Well, I hope you can type --you can’t write worth a damn.” I do admit that my typing is easier to decipher than my handwriting. In my defense, I say that writing should be more than typing and handwriting.
The scriptorium was the room in the monastery where monks copied text into manuscripts. By the tenth century some parts of Europe were sufficiently stable that some educated clerics sat in their scriptoriae and copied down ballads and legends. By the fourteenth century Chaucer composed fiction and did so in English rather than French or Latin.
My scriptorium is a bit different than a cold bench in a dark monastery. It is the Town Lake Hike and Bike Trail in Austin. I don’t actually handwrite or type there --most of my composition takes place at my notebook computer overlooking the pink rose bush out the back window of our piano room. Most of my research takes place on airplanes when I read source records or saved internet sites while I fly to one city or another for a trial. But there is no doubt that whatever spiritual awakening and mental clarity I get that becomes my writing comes when I am alone, jogging along Town Lake in Austin.
I have run since the mid-1970’s. I am one of the lucky ones who, while not getting faster or fitter or better looking, get a runner’s high. My runner’s high is introspective thinking, such as it is. My characters often are born there and always are developed there. A gasping sprint across the Barton Springs footbridge inspired me to imagine Sandy and Butch and the boys slipping away from Sheriff Hoskins at the quarry. A car roaring away from one of the bars on Barton Springs Road became Bart’s Ford at the State Line near Clovis. I can see these things in my mind’s eye as I run, and they become stories or characters or revisions.
Our publisher, Jen Ohlson, is the author of Every Town Needs a Trail, a classic book of photos and stories of the Trail and the people on it. My runner’s high, or trail high, is shared by Austinites you know -- Willie Nelson, Matthew Mcconaughey, the ghost of Stevie Ray Vaughan -- and by ordinary mortals like me and stroller moms and middle aged people out with their dogs. For many of us the Trail is not why we live but why we live in Austin, the place where we can let our minds work in their own way and at their own pace.
It works for me. I write there. I hope it works for you and that, someday soon, I will see you there, in my scriptorium. -- Jack

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Where there's a Will

Colleville sur Mer, France
(Photograph taken by Ian and Wendy)
The American military cemetery at Colleville is humbling, a vast, quiet, immaculate resting place for thousands of young men. Alice and I went to Colleville, to Ste. Mere Eglise, and to the Cotentin Peninsula and it changed us. I served in the Army as a Quartermaster Officer during 1970 - 1973. Between the Army and work and a sense of duty we have been to Washington DC, to New York and the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, to the Golden Gate and post-Katrina New Orleans. Nothing, absolutely nothing, makes me feel more like an American than to be in Colleville sur Mer. The stories about 'the French hate us' are absolutely hogwash; stop to chat with anyone in Ste. Mere or St. Laurent, wander through the farms of Normandy, and you will quickly learn that, as an American, you are an honored visitor.
I don't know when Ian and Wendy took the cemetery photograph but it recalls the wind rustling through the trees on the edge of a cliff that had to be scaled by young Americans in their first day of battle. It reminds me of tears leaking down my face at the base of crosses and Stars of David for men whose family names were completely unknown to me.
It made me believe that French Letters had to be written before World War II becomes World War I, a jumble of generals and battle names soon forgotten after the last widow of the last soldier has died and no one personally remembers anyone who had any involvement in it.
French Letters: Will is the sequel to French Letters: Virginia's War, and it is coming along quite nicely. I was asked in an interview (Romance Reviews Today) "What would you say is your most interesting writing quirk?" Answer: "I create maps of the scenes, then print them and use them for reference. Virginia's hometown is sitting in my manuscript, completely drawn out, as is the village and chateau in France where Will does his service."
Will is an Army doctor whose field hospital is right behind the lines as the battle moves toward St. Lo during the same weeks that things are unfolding in Tierra in Virginia's War. His story is a war story in the same way that Virginia's War is a war story, a battle within himself in the middle of something so large that he is blown about in it with no idea how to take his life back, just as happened to all the Wills and the Virginias who lived through it then, and are dying now.
It is one more story in the book of our parents and, eventually, of who we are.
Thanks for reading.

Monday, March 30, 2009

"I do want to let you know that those planes were a welcome sight to us. We watched them on their way toward Germany and later, on their way back toward England, the stragglers which obviously had been hit and were trying desperately to reach England. I want you to know that I watched those wounded planes many times and my wishes and prayers followed them as they disappeared toward the horizon."
These words came from a note written by Marguerite Knisely to an American bomber pilot who some 63 years after his service received a Flying Cross Award. Marguerite watched the flights because she was trapped inside Belgium, where since 1940 the German army had occupied Gembloux, the town where she lived with her parents. In 1945, Marguerite met Bill Knisely, an American soldier in a railroad battalion who was in Gembloux for a short period of time. Marguerite and Bill became very close, and before he left her town they decided to become married. For three hours one recent evening she showed me the V-mail letters that Bill Knisely sent home, and she shared her photograph album from the war days and afterward. More than anything, she told me the stories of living in a war zone, fleeing the German invasion into France in 1940 and living under German occupation. When she later left Belgium to marry Bill, and when she got off the boat in New York in 1947, she thought at first that there was some kind of emergency, because she had never seen so many cars on the streets and people going everywhere in a hurry.

That was the United States in January of 1947.
On to New Orleans. Maple Street Bookshop, Wednesday, 5:00 PM on.

Monday, March 23, 2009

My wife, Alice, is a graduate of Sophie Newcomb college, adjunct to Tulane University. We had plans to meet with her Newcomb and Tulane friends the Labor Day weekend of 2005 but, unfortunately, by Labor Day there was no Sophie Newcomb to go to, nor was there much else in New Orleans. Hurricane Katrina had blown the city apart, then swamped it. New Orleans is recovering bit by bit but Sophie Newcomb is gone. The trustees decided to transfer all women students to the Tulane registry and close the finest women’s college in the South.
This morning Alice and I met with Bill White, mayor of Houston, who is running for the US Senate to succeed Senator Hutchins. I was reminded that when Katrina wrecked the Gulf Coast, Mayor White put together a rescue plan both for New Orleans and for Houston, and rescued tens of thousands of refugee families. Many of them became permanent Texans and many took the helping hand and returned to help rebuild New Orleans. Out of the ashes of the FEMA shame there now is much to be proud of. Yes, we can.
We have been to New Orleans several times since Katrina, once for a belated reunion for Alice’s classmates. We have seen the Xs on doors, the mud lines at roof tops, and the thousands of trailers in yards and helped in any way we can to make it a little better place.. We are going again next week with Louis and Debbie Charalambous, British friends whom we met as classmates in St. Céré, France. We will eat at K-Pauls and Brigtsons and I will sign copies of French Letters: Virginia’s War, at Maple Street Book Shop at 5:00 on April 1. It would be nice to see you there. If you know someone in the New Orleans area, ask them to stop by and we’ll get acquainted.

Friday, February 27, 2009


She floats!

Thank you for such a wonderful launch party! Book People ran out of space for people to stand and ran out of copies for me to sign. Mindy Reed slipped out during the signing and came up with a box that was destined for Maple Street in New Orleans. By the end of the evening, Virginia's War sold more than three times the number of copies Book People had planned for. Those people you see include all but two of the blurb writers (those puffed up things written on the jacket and inside the cover) and all but three of the early readers -- they live in Canada and Europe. And, for bragging rights, former President Clinton was a few blocks away giving a speech on global initiatives -- and three of the people who can be seen in this picture are elected officials who supported him when he was President.

What's in a name?, Redux: The first play on words in the title is the name 'Virginia.' It comes from Queen Elizabeth I of England, the virgin queen, of whom they said 'Latin word is Virginia, or 'virgin for short, but not for long.' The name seemed right to me, and Virginia Sullivan she is.

Signings: New Orleans: Maple Street Book Store, April 1, 2009, 5:00 p.m.

Lakeway / Lake Travis Texas: May 13, 2009, 8:00 a.m.

Tulsa: Steve's Sundry June 6, 2009, 10:00 a.m.

Oklahoma City: June 6, 2009, 3:00 p.m.

Reviews: I could ask no more than for you to see what the independent review houses are posting on Amazon: Here is one excerpt: "On first glance, it appeared to be nice story, suitable entertainment for whiling away a rainy afternoon with a pot of tea. In reality, this piece falls into what I would term literature rather than a piece of mind-candy. This is the sort of novel one does not come across very often. "

Thank you so much. -- Jack

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Number 2: February 2009

The launch : February 13, 2009, at Book People, in Austin, Texas.
What's in a name?

All my life I have been asked about my name: "Are you related to the author?" "Are you Jack London?" When Editor Mindy reed and I began the hard choices for the pubisher, we discussed whether to publish under the name 'Jack London', 'Jack W. London,' or 'Jack Woodville London.' (I wanted to publish under the name 'Alice London's husband.' Mindy said no.) Suffice it to say, names are something I've had to think about a lot.

So, where do character names come from? Book titles? Chapter titles?
Names can be chosen to imply a character's nature just by the sound of the name: J.K. Rowling conjured up 'Malfoy' from the latin root words for evil deeds. They might come from someone the author has on his/her mind: Evelyn Waugh hated one of his professors so much that every novel he wrote included a stupid, or lazy, or mean, or pedophilic character with the same last name.
Apart from my own name, there are two plays on words in the title of French Letters: Virginia's War, both of which are core to the story. During the pre-publication stage I received a call from Stephanie Barko, the publicist, who said 'Jack -- I just talked with Jane Manaster! Do you know what French Letters means?' I said I did; I can still hear Stephanie's note of uncertainty as she said okay and hung up the telephone. About five minutes later I received a call from Jane Manaster. I had not yet met Jane, a blurb endorser who had been asked by Stephanie to read and consider endorsing the novel for readers, and I admit I was a bit flustered. She got right to it: "Do you know what French Letters means?" I said "Of course-- that's why I chose it for the series title." We both burst out laughing, and Jane went on to say 'I just got off the phone with Stephanie and she had never heard of it.' Jane grew up in England and lived through the blitz and, more recently, is the past president of the Texas Historical Society. So, if you don't know, or if you just want to hear her lovely British voice, ask her at the launch; she'll tell you.
As for the other play on words in the title, well -- I'm waiting. Send me a post and tell me what you think it is. We'll blog on it next time.

Posts: French Letters is a novel. It is not a true story. It is not based on any person, living or dead, not on my family or yours. The background events and the historical details are as accurate as I could make them but Tierra, Texas, never existed, nor did Virginia, Poppy, Will, or anyone else. Now, having said that, the story is rooted in what actually happened. The daily life of Tierra in 1944 was the daily life of you, your parents, the people they knew, as best I could write it.
The blog is just as important: I would like for everyone to remember theirs or family or friends' stories, dances at the lake, saying good bye at the train station, sending and receiving 'V-mails.'
Please post your stories on the blog and share them. Don't let them be lost to time.
First Post-publication review: Jani Brooks of Romance Reviews Today: "The prologue of VIRGINIA’S WAR grabbed my attention, and once the story is laid out for readers, it’s difficult not to read to the end! Everything comes to a head in an exciting, and somewhat surprising, conclusion. I’m looking forward to the continuation of the French Letters Trilogy. This is Mr. London’s debut novel, and it’s an excellent beginning!"

See you February 13. Make someone happy on Valentine's Day with French Letters.

Last minute update: I have been asked to do a book signing at the Maple Street Bookstore in New Orleans, April 1, 2009. (No, it's not an April Fool's joke, a book signing by Jack London.....) Tell your Crescent City friends to meet me there. -- Jack

Friday, January 2, 2009

Book Launch
February 13, 2009

Welcome to French Letters, The Novels. I hope you will enjoy reading about the books and the people who have helped to bring them to publication. This blog is for you to share those stories and to share your own, to chat about the plots and characters, and to follow along as Virginia, Will, and the people they know move through life in the last half of the twentieth century and the first few years of the twenty-first.

Book One of French Letters is entitled Virginia's War, and the subtitle is 'Tierra Texas, 1944.' It will be launched at seven in the evening on February 13, 2009, at Book People, in Austin, Texas, and we very cordially invite you to join us as we open the first box, toast the first copy, meet and greet the people who brought French Letters to publication, and maybe even have a bit of reading and signing of first editions.

A wee bit about the book:

Virginia's War is the first novel of the series. It isn't in Virginia, as in the state of, nor is it actually a war in the guns and bombs sense. Instead, it is the story of Virginia Sullivan, a young woman who in 1944, in her small town in Texas, learns from the family doctor that she is expecting a baby.

One of my lightly-cooked theories is that a war stops mattering once no one remembers anyone who was killed in it. It's hard to imagine that over one million men were killed in a space of only a couple of hundred miles over a four year period between 1914-1918, but what was then called the Great War is now all but forgotten. Until a few years ago you could still see pitiful women dressed in black who worked as concierges (more like door keepers than errand-runners) in every home in Paris, all widows of farm boys who were killed in the trenches.

One now reads of soldiers of World War II dying at the rate of one thousand per day, more than in the war itself, and realizes that it will not be long before all of the members of the Greatest Generation will be gone as well. It will not be too many years, I fear, that the war itself will be forgotten, replaced by new wars, new depressions, and new widows. The Second World War, it's separations, losses, humor, sacrifices and rationing, and uncertainty will be forgotten. French Letters will keep some of those memories alive. I think you will enjoy it.

The pitiful women dressed in black of World War II, our mothers and grandmothers, are the girls who at age 18 or 19 had to look at a boy she had known all her life, or maybe only for a few weeks, and make a decision: do I wait for him? Many couples married before he shipped off. Many waited until he got back. Some, a lot more than you'd think, didn't wait for anything.

The cover: The cover art is a World War II poster which the Library of Congress authorized for use as the cover of French Letters. The woman standing before a flag with a star is a sign that she had a husband overseas. She is reading a letter called a V-mail, a form that was used to write letters which were microfilmed, put with thousands of other letters, and sent home from the war. On arrival, the Army or Navy enlarged, printed, and sent the V-mail on to the person to whom the soldier had written to or, in reverse, sent them from the States to the soldier or sailor, thus saving the weight and space of millions of paper letters being sent across the ocean in boats that were better used to ship soldiers, sailors, guns, planes, tanks, and supplies.

Not all the V-mails that were sent back and forth were the loving cheery messages that would make everyone fight that much harder. Some of them, inevitably, contained a message that we now call the Dear John letter, an icy dagger of dismissal in which the loving girl who promised she would wait writes to say that she was no longer loving or waiting. Two facts came up during research for French Letters that should be mentioned here.

First, a lot of the soldiers who got a Dear John letter were killed or injured within a few days of getting the mail, presumably being so distraught that they turned to recklessness. It is safe to say, however, that a few of those soldiers were not all that unhappy about being turned loose; the number of babies born in England while American soldiers were stationed there was astonishing.

The second fact I kept bumping into during research for French Letters was that a lot of the mail boats were sunk on their way to the war. Suffice it to say, not all the Dear John letters headed to the front arrived and more than one or two soldiers got a surprise on his return.

The authors who have presented at Book People is an intimidating list -- from President Clinton to Sarah Vowell, from Rachel Ray to Karen Gore. Book People, Vire Press, and Pathway have put French Letters - Virginia's War, in very good company. So, join us in very good company -- please mark the date and plan to be there.

On the blog: In the future I'll talk about the novels, how characters were named, books and authors I enjoy and books and authoris you enjoy, and whatever, clean, respectful, intellectual discourse strikes my or your fancy. So, please write and share your thoughts and questions. There is a button at the bottom of the page to post your notes and subscribe and a menu on the right to let us know about you. I hope you'll do both.


Enjoy a romantic Valentine's Day this year with French Letters. Virginia's War will be waiting for you at the book launch on February 13, 2009. It will be available through bookstores, Amazon, and the Vire Press site on February 15, 2009.