Message From The Author

Author's Message

SUSAN WIGGS NARROWS THE GAP OF THE OCEAN BETWEEN US

There is sometimes a single defining moment that launches a book, like the spark beneath a firecracker. In the case of my new novel, The Ocean Between Us, it was a moment few of us ever experience or even witness.

I had been working on an idea about an ordinary woman, a wife and mother, who discovers in the middle of her life that she has misplaced herself. This happens to women all the time. We get so caught up in running a household, managing kids and money and helping our husbands that one day we wake up and wonder: What about me? What about the dreams I put on the shelf all those years ago?

So this was a story about a woman and her marriage—a good marriage, as it happens. Novels about bad marriages abound, and I wanted this one to be about two good people who love each other, but who, over the course of their long relationship, have lost each other. Writing about a good marriage isn't easy; by definition, a functional marriage lacks the high level of drama needed to power a novel. And until this book, all my novels have ended with marriage, or at least with a commitment in that direction. In several ways, this was something new for me.

I liked the general idea, but that was also a problem: It was too general. In the novel, I wanted to dramatize the journey of one woman—but who was she? Where did she live? Who was she married to? What were her kids like?

Then the magic—that elusive, defining moment—happened. Real life intersected with fiction, and the spark ignited. Nearly three years ago, I watched my good friend and fellow writer Geri Krotow fix a command pin on her husband's chest at a Change
of Command ceremony. This was an elaborate event, attended
by family, friends, dignitaries and a brass band, during which Commander Steve Krotow took command of a squadron of P-3s
at Whidbey Naval Air Station in Washington State.

I thought it was significant that Geri, an Annapolis grad and former Navy intelligence officer, was the one to make the most dramatic gesture of the day. She made it not as a Navy official but as a wife. While her children looked on, she made the ultimate gesture of sacrifice, both to her husband and to her country—entrusting him with his command, even knowing it could take him far away from her, into danger. On beautiful Whidbey Island, in Puget Sound, we all felt far removed from war and turmoil,
but we weren't. In the wake of 9/11, people in the military understood that war was imminent, and no one was safe. So Geri wasn't just enacting a symbolic ritual; she was willingly giving her blessing to her husband, knowing he'd be gone for months at a time. She was sending him to face dangers no civilian can imagine, from which he would perhaps come back unalterably changed—or not at all. This family's bravery touched my heart, and that was when I finally figured out what I wanted this book to be.

The Ocean Between Us was shaped by the lives and loves of families in the military. They are a special class of women and men who respond instantly to the call of duty, who can pack up and move an entire household halfway around the world at a moment's notice, only to do it again every couple of years. I was privileged to meet a number of Navy wives, and I came to admire their sturdy spirit, sense of commitment, take-charge attitude and unabashed patriotism. Women who have known each other only a short time bond quickly and deeply, to help each other through rough times and celebrate the good. I watched Navy wives support one another, snipe at one another and show the steeliest backbones I've ever seen in a group of women. There is a sense that this is a secret sisterhood, a sorority. I read the phenomenally successful E-mail to the Front by Alesia Holliday, who fearlessly and hilariously documents the ups and downs of a military marriage. When Geri and her family were about to move to Italy, her farewell party featured a life-size cutout of Fabio, among other things. Yet I know there were dark times as well, even desperate times for some families.

Because there's a horrific mishap (the military term for accident) aboard an aircraft carrier in The Ocean Between Us, I had to research the military side of the book, which proved much harder than simply watching reruns of JAG. In the first place, Navy people don't use plain English. They are a breed apart, and they speak in code. Sometimes my e-mail exchanges with carrier-based pilots and sailors needed translation. From a Prowler pilot: "I tell the SDO to shtcan the REO Speedwagon for the Event 1 Case 3 Launch.…Time to kick the tires, light the fires.…Don't boresight, check six, bingo to mom.…" In some of my action scenes, I used jargon without quite knowing what I was saying, but my sources say it checks out to an "OK grade for Wire 3." This pilot asked not to be named for reasons of national security. His wife told me it was for reasons of
not wanting to be perceived as a romance reader.

Still, the heart of this novel is Grace Bennett, an ordinary woman who is a lot like me, a lot like many women—except that she's a Navy wife. She's helping her husband, Steve, on his climb to the top of the ranks, all the while managing three active kids and
a frenetic lifestyle. It's a juggling act complicated by the periodic and prolonged absences of her husband.
A hairline crack in their marriage becomes a gaping wound when he goes away to sea. As the book unfolds, Grace learns to see herself in new ways, to reopen a dream she used to have and to craft a new future for herself.

All my books feature a grand and passionate romance, something I've been criticized for (by critics, never by readers). In this case, there's a subplot involving a brash young Navy pilot and a shy widow. Their sweep-you-away romance is the stuff of dreams and fantasy, and the subplot contrasts with the mature marriage of Grace and Steve. As I wrote of one family's triumphs and tragedies, I gained a deep understanding of military life, and I feel a profound gratitude for their sacrifice.

To read an excerpt, visit www.susanwiggs.com.


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