As should be clear if you have listened to my interviews for New Books in Historical Fiction, people come to fiction writing by many different paths. Most of us start out with a love of reading; some begin penning stories as children; others—including me—have always considered ourselves writers but never intended to extend our repertoire beyond nonfiction until that one inescapable tale forced itself into our consciousness demanding to be told.
In the case of John Richard Bell, my most recent interview guest, the impetus came from family stories, told and retold for decades, and the push to write them down before they vanished into history with the father-in-law who had lived them. As Bell explains in the interview, his self-reeducation from CEO to novelist took a long time, not only to learn the ropes of writing a novel but to trim and fine-tune that original draft into a taut and compelling story that honors the essence of those family tales while conveying, through a set of fictional characters and events, the larger themes of a little-known aspect of a very well-known conflict: World War II.
Much of the cutting and fine-tuning was painful, as it always is for writers forced to jettison their cherished prose. But the result makes the pain worthwhile, because The Circumstantial Enemy does not only reveal the effects of the war on Croatia, including its contributions to the rise of Josip Broz Tito and the postwar unification of the no longer unified Yugoslavia. It also confronts a powerful but—in fiction, at least—often disregarded truth: that fighters, whether on our own side or the enemy’s, are not necessarily zealots for the cause. Sometimes, indeed, they end up on one side or the other because circumstances put them in the wrong place at the wrong time.
As always, the rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction:
We all imagine that, when put to the test, we will end up on the right side of history, however we define it. Nowhere is that statement more true than in reference to World War II. But sometimes people end up on the wrong side for reasons outside their control—even on a side they don’t believe in. Such is the fate that confronts Tony Babic, the hero of John Richard Bell’s debut novel, The Circumstantial Enemy, based on the true story of his father-in-law’s life during the war.
Tony, when we meet him, is a young pilot flying for the Croatian Air Force. His experience of causing one death and witnessing another—that of his commander—has left him eager to find a more peaceful way to exercise his talents. But his country, in an effort to escape both Serbian control and Nazi conquest, has chosen to ally with Germany in return for nominal independence as a puppet state. Tony has little choice but to fly for the Luftwaffe and is soon taking part in the Siege of Leningrad. Meanwhile, his best friend and the woman they both love (the daughter of Tony’s dead commander) become ever more deeply involved in a different epic battle: Josip Broz Tito’s campaign to unify all the Southern Slavic states under a single communist banner.
Tony eventually escapes his service to the Germans only to fall into the hands of the Americans. Soon he’s on his way to a POW camp in Illinois. But circumstances conspire to make him an enemy even there, not least in the eyes of the people he has left behind.