Welcome to the first installment of the Sunbury Press author journey series!
In every book, there's a story. And not just the one between its pages.
Every author has a different journey for how they ended up with the incredible book that landed in our inbox. Sure, we loved the book that they sent to us--enough to publish it and share with you all--but we wanted to know what it took for them to write that book, what drove them toward publication, and to get to know them better as artists.
And instead of keeping those answers to ourselves, we thought--to hell with it, let's share it with YOU.
We are thrilled to jumpstart this new author-centric series with the uber-talented Virginia Brackett, author of the Korean War memoir In the Company of Patriots.
"The Story of a Memoir"
I didn’t exactly decide to write a memoir. As with most book-length works, this one grew as part of a process. It was born in an article about my parents titled "Uncommon Heroes" that won a contest and was published in the 1990s in a periodical now defunct.
I thought about doing more with that story from time to time, but life’s more practical demands interfered. I experienced a divorce, two career pivots, remarriage, and loss of a younger sister and my mother to cancer. Still, the desire to know my father, who was killed in military service in Korea when I was eight months old, stayed with me. You might expect this emotion to be blunted by the passage of time, especially since I was blessed by a wonderful stepfather, but circumstances did not allow that.
In my final professional transformation, I entered graduate school to earn a degree in English, ostensibly to support my constant (albeit feeble) writing attempts. I learned a great deal about writing in grad school, and it eventually drove me toward finally moving forward on a project that would focus on my father, almost 20 years after that original article.
But by then, my mother, aunt, and uncle—all of the people who best knew him—had died. Had I waited too late to begin this journey?
By the time I started, I had published many books and articles, most research-based that gave me confidence, but being an academic, I spent far too much time in anguish before I even started.
Would this book be a war history account? Maybe, but only in part; WWII and the Korean conflict could only frame the narrative. Would this book be for my family or for a broader readership? I did not know. Would I write it using history and journalistic resources, or my mother’s many artifacts, letters, and photos? I could use everything.
While I could begin by asking such questions, I knew I had to do as I admonished my students for years—just put some words on the page.
I organized my mother’s resources and compared articles she saved from the 1940s and 1950s to historical accounts, perused my father’s military records, mined his personal war correspondence, and had long conversations with siblings. I had what appeared to be interesting information, but I lacked that organizational “hook,” that nugget of appeal that all writers know any project requires.
And somehow, I found it sooner rather than later, or, instead, it found me.
When I got involved in helping veterans to write and tell their own stories, I found the truth that veterans’ voices would supply the true bedrock for this account.
I found men who had served with my father on the internet. Not only did they respond, but they invited me into their ranks through reunions and interactions that I’d never have imagined. Their energy became my energy. I realized that we would best remember such men through personal stories—that my account would best be served by my telling it as my own.
I adopted first-person point of view and decided to move back and forth in time, connecting moments from my parents’ lives to my own, weaving in voices from literature that I heard, layering in comments from the veterans I spoke with.
The intense research and writing during breaks from teaching stretched over ten years, then eleven, then twelve. My writing experience was neither predictable nor systematic. Stunning events served to change the course of my structure or add to its dimension.
For example, in a moment that I describe as worthy of a B-grade movie, a letter fell from a book I had pulled from our records. I eventually discerned it had been written to my father by the author of that same book, Dark December, an account of the Battle of the Bulge from WWII. I could tell that the author wrote the letter to respond to my father’s protests regarding the representation of his Company during the Battle of the Bulge in Dark December.
Soon after, I discovered the book’s author had been a war correspondent, a Chicago alderman, and eventually an undersecretary to President Eisenhower. That discovery led to me to tracking down my father’s original letter and being able to hold it in my hands during a visit to the University of Chicago’s special collections. I even managed to locate the lieutenant who had been among the last people to speak to my father before his death by sniper in Korea.
In the process, I also discovered something about myself as a memoir writer. With such a personal topic, I was becoming too emotional to be able to work on the book, and days and weeks might pass before I could return to it.
When I finally had an advanced draft of the book in hand, I realized how difficult finding a publisher would be because the book could not be easily categorized. Was it history? Biography? Creative nonfiction? A University Press expressed interest but, in the end, declined publication, the editor telling me he greatly enjoyed my writing style but that the book was too eclectic for his readers. I had my fair share of agent rejections too.
Then, I discovered Sunbury Press, a publisher not overly concerned about pigeon-holing the book, and In the Company of Patriots became real.
About the Author
Virginia Brackett is a retired professor of English who has written 17 books, including In the Company of Patriots, The Facts on File: Companion to 16th and 17th-Century British Poetry which was named a Booklist Editor’s Choice in 2008 and A Home in the Heart: The Story of Sandra Cisneros. You can learn more about her at VirginiaBrackett.com.
Praise for In the Company of Patriots