Sarah Sundin Author Interview
Inspirational author Sarah Sundin sits down with RT reviewer Linda Mae Baldwin to share an insider’s look at her latest novel, Blue Skies Tomorrow, how she researched her WWII-era characters and what’s coming next from the pen of this popular writer!
Linda Mae Baldwin: How did you end up writing fiction, especially Christian fiction? Does your pharmacy background affect your writing?
Sarah Sundin: I never considered a writing career. Instead I chose a career in pharmacy and chose to work on-call and stay home with our three children. Then in 2000, I had a dream with such intriguing characters that I felt compelled to write their story. That first novel will never be published, nor should it, but it got me started. I knew I had to write Christian fiction—God infuses my view of life, and I can’t imagine not having Him a part of my characters’ lives.
My pharmacy background has definitely helped me write this series. For one thing, I keep hurting my characters and putting them in the hospital. Also the heroine in the second novel, A Memory Between Us, is a nurse. And when I had to decipher technical manuals, I found my scientific training helpful.
LMB: What inspired you to write Blue Skies Tomorrow?
SS: Blue Skies Tomorrow arose from my need for happy endings. In my first novel, A Distant Melody, one of the side characters, Helen Carlisle, is widowed at only twenty-one, and the hero’s oldest brother, Ray Novak, is dumped by his fiancée. I mentally introduced them, the mutual attraction was strong, and I had to write their story. This novel also allows me to complete the story of the US Eighth Air Force to victory in Europe.
LMB: What draws you to the World War II era?
SS: Besides the cute clothes and men in uniform? First of all, there are so many dramatic stories and settings—a novelist’s dream. This was a time when ordinary men had to do extraordinary things, and when women first explored non-traditional roles—while remaining ladies. Plus, I’ve always been fond of that generation, my grandparents’ generation. As a pharmacy resident at a VA hospital, I had the honor of caring for many of these men. As a rule, they were cheerful, kind, and chivalrous, with the solid strength of someone who has been tested—and passed. What more could you want in a hero?
LMB: What kind of research did you do to write this book?
SS: Way too much. I have over two hundred books and websites in my bibliography. Yes, that’s sick. For example, for home front information, I’ve used Top Ten lists, fashion style guides, and the Time Capsule series with extracts from Time Magazine. I also pored over microfilm of the Antioch Ledger for everything from the price of a dress, to rationing updates, to the weather. Plus fun little trivia, like how the PTA met at Mrs. So-and-So’s house on D Street where they knit socks for soldiers.
LMB: What was the most surprising thing you learned while researching this book?
SS: In Blue Skies Tomorrow, the heroine experiences the Port Chicago Explosion, where 320 black sailors were killed in the largest US Home Front disaster in the war. I thought I understood the explosion and the mutiny trial that followed (it happened in my home county), but my research changed my mind. I knew racism and discrimination ran rampant at the time, but the details of this disaster brought it home to me.
LMB: All three heroes in the Wings of Glory Series fly B-17 bombers. How did you research this?
SS: Since I’ve never flown a plane, first I read a “How to Fly a Plane” book to get the basics. Then I purchased copies of the actual B-17 pilot’s manual and the training film (pure gold!), and ran the flying scenes past a pilot friend. I read everything I could about B-17s and the US Eighth Air Force.
LMB: When researching this series how did you develop the characters and understand the life of a WWII pilot?
SS: I found oral histories to be a wonderful resource for understanding what the men experienced both in combat and on the base. The 94th Bombardment Group (where I inserted Ray) published a book, The Big Square A, which was invaluable.
LMB: Have you been inside a B-17?
SS: Yes, I have. The Collings Foundation and the Experimental Aircraft Association tour the country with beautifully restored B-17s, which you can walk through. Wow! When you crawl through the narrow passageways, duck through the doorways, and poke your head into the top turret—then imagine doing it with heavy high-altitude flying gear in subzero temperatures under fighter attack—you appreciate what the airmen went through.
This May I had the honor of flying in EAA’s Aluminum Overcast. It was an absolutely amazing experience—rollicking, loud, and completely wonderful. The video is on my blog and on YouTube.
LMB: How did you choose the main characters of Helen Carlisle and Lt. Raymond Novak?
SS: They were side characters in my earlier novels—Helen is a childhood friend of the Novak boys.
LMB: Were they based on people or experiences from your life?
SS: Helen is based on the “superwomen” we’ve all met—the PTA president who coaches soccer, runs the soup kitchen, and organizes the band fundraiser. You’ve met her, haven’t you? She’s always baffled me, so it was fun to get inside her head—plus, she was a great fit for World War II, when Home Front volunteering escalated. Ray isn’t really inspired by anyone. He is who he is—a quiet, thoughtful soul who feels inadequate for the role he finds himself in.
LMB: When you write, do you picture ‘famous’ people as characters? If so, who would play Helen and Raymond?
SS: I don’t. I drive my cover designers batty. I see the characters in my head, but I rarely find people who look like them. The one exception—I don’t know how they did it, but the model who “plays” Ray on the book cover is exactly as I pictured him. I simply described him as “good-looking, broad-shouldered, gray eyes, straight black hair, clean-shaven.” And somehow they found the man in my head. Uncanny.
LMB: Did you have a lot of interaction with WWII vets? Aren’t they an amazing group of folks? What is the number one lesson you learned from them?
SS: They are the most amazing people. I love listening to their stories. The primary lesson I’ve learned is to keep forging on. Most of them were scared and felt inadequate, but they found strength and did what had to be done.
LMB: If you had a theme song for Blue Skies Tomorrow, what would it be?
SS: “Long Ago and Far Away” from the 1944 movie Cover Girl describes the emotions Ray and Helen feel when they’re separated. Also Ray and Helen see Cover Girl—you’ll notice the title on the marquee on the book cover.
LMB: What kind of takeaway value do you hope your readers will get from your book?
SS: I never write a novel with a message in mind, but I do hope my readers will learn from my characters’ experiences. Fear can cripple you and keep you from the life God intends for you. I hope readers will see how they can find courage in the Lord and the strength to face whatever life throws at them.
LMB: What is your daily writing process like? Where do you write? Where do you get inspired?
SS: After I drop the kids off at school, I check emails, have my quiet time, then get to work. I can usually work up to the dinner hour, currently about thirty hours a week. Granted, I get to write my stories for only half that time. The rest goes to blogging, publicity, and other necessities.
This past year we remodeled the den so I have my own space—a big L-shaped desk with lots of drawers and cupboards and a tackboard, and I have an extra bookcase for my writing and research books. Everything I need—right there. Oh, it’s heavenly.
My most common time for inspiration is when I’m trying to fall asleep. Insomnia has benefits. I keep a notepad in the bathroom and scurry in there to scribble down ideas.
Linda Mae Baldwin: Blue Skies Tomorrow is the last book in the Wings of Glory Series. What’s coming next?
Sarah Sundin: I recently signed another three-book contract with Revell. The next series is tentatively titled Wings of the Nightingale, and it follows three World War II flight nurses as they discover friendship, love, and peril in the skies and on the shores of the Mediterranean. I just finished the first book, which will come out Fall 2012.
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