Sunday, July 1, 2012

Meet David Watts, Jr. Author of Hope in Hungnam

Today I am pleased to interview the author of Hope in Hungnam, David Watts, Jr. For the book review, you can go here.

David, can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you got into writing?

Well, I live in East Texas with my wife, three children and various dogs and cats.  By day I work as technology consultant and project manager.  By night, I write.  Often, my work has me traveling each week back and forth across the country.

My dad was a preacher, and perhaps that influenced me at a young age to take an interest in writing. I always saw him writing: writing sermons, articles, bulletins, etc. I think that I realized at a young age that writing was a very important way to reach people. Of course, I also did a lot of reading as a kid and I think when you love good stories, you start wanting to write good stories.

How old were you when you started writing?

I was in the sixth grade or so when I first tried to write a novel. It was science fiction and was undoubtedly horrible. I never finished it, but the notion was in my head. About 13 years ago I wrote several short stories while I was traveling all over the country on business and have just finally published these as a small collection.

Is historical fiction your favorite genre?

In short, I love the power of telling stories. But I've especially grown to love the power of historical fiction. As a kid in school I hated history. It was boring and stuffy. But through powerful historical fiction we can bring these stories to life and put the reader in the story. Good historical fiction is a time machine!

What caused you to take an interest in this particular story from the Korean War?

I remember watching a special on TV about US Korean War vets that go back to South Korea and meet up with their South Korean counterparts.  It was interesting of course to see their reunion, and to see them visit sites near the DMZ(demilitarized zone).  But in the middle of this special, there was about a 10 minute focus on the story of the evacuation from Hungnam and in particular, the work done by the Captain and crew of the SS Meredith Victory.  I was completely amazed that virtually no one had heard of this story.

And what was it in particular that caused you to take an interest in the story of the evacuation?

I think it was really the fact that no one has heard of it. I remember the narrator saying that if this event had happened during World War II, there would have been movies made about it by now. I also remember a comment making a comparison between Oskar Schindler and Leonard P. LaRue, the Captain of theMeredith Victory.

 The comment in particular was that Schindler saved a thousand or so while LaRue saved 14,000, yet while everyone knows the name Schindler, no one has heard of Captain LaRue. At that moment, I knew I had to write something of the story of the evacuation and the Meredith Victory. Of course, none of this comparison detracts from the remarkable work done by Oskar Schindler to save so many Jews from slaughter during World War II. Rather, it makes me want to tell the story of the Meredith Victory and Captain LaRue.

You mentioned that the Meredith Victory saved 14,000 refugees? That’s an incredible number of people. Was this in one voyage?

Yes, it’s one of the incredible aspects of the story. This was one voyage, one ship, and not a particularly large ship at that. I’ve toured one of the few remaining Victory class ships, the SS American Victory.  It was berthed next to one of the modern cruise ships.  In comparison, it was absolutely tiny.  I imagined it carrying 14,000 while the much larger and much more modern cruise ship might carry two or three thousand.  Today, the Meredith Victory still holds the Guinness World Record for the gretaest number of persons evacuated on a single ship.

So tell us more about how you wrote this story. This is historical fiction, so what parts are true and what parts are fiction?

You’re right, Hope in Hungnam is written as historical fiction. The underlying details are all true. The Battle at Chosin Reservoir, the evacuation down to Hungnam, the escape from Hungnam, the role and actions of the officers and crew of the Meredith Victory. The technical details are as accurate as I have been able to make them. 

Since I first learned of this story about six years ago, I’ve been researching and reading as much as possible. I have been privileged to have access to many newspaper articles, stories and clippings which were published when the news of the Meredith Victory’s accomplishments were first reported. 

I've also been able to meet with, or in some cases correspond with, surviving officers and crew from the voyage. I’ve even been able to talk with one of the 14,000 refugees that was on board the Meredith Victory. So, hopefully, I’ve been able to get the heart of the story accurate.

What about the hero and heroine?

The part about the American soldier and the Korean woman is fiction.  When you try to wrestle with the reality of 100,000 civilians rescued from North Korea-it really is staggering.  So I thought I would try to really humanize the story by zooming in on what the rescue of just three people (Tae-bok and her children) meant.  How did even that small thing change the world?  And of course, if just the rescue of those three changed the world (even in a small way), how much more so the rescue of 100,00?

Although they are fictitious, I am convinced this sort of story has played out many times in reality. Even in the shadow of death, folks will find ways to bridge the cultural divides between them and fall in love.

You’ve spoken with surviving crew members and one of the actual refugees that was onboard the ship?

Indeed, it has been a real thrill to get their first hand accounts. As far as I know, there are only three of the original forty-six man crew still living. I’ve been able to talk with all three of them. One of the men served on board the ship in an administrative function. One served as part of the bridge crew. One served in the engine room. So it has been great to get a very full perspective.

And the refugee?

Yes, he was fourteen years old at the time of the evacuation. He left his home in North Korea with his father and was rescued by the Meredith Victory. It has been absolutely great to get his perspective. And I’m thrilled that his portion of the story has been woven into Hope in Hungnam.

You mentioned that it was said that if this event had occurred in World War II, there would have been movies made about it by now. Should we expect a Hope in Hungnam movie some day?

I’m content just to get the story published and to make sure this important part of history is more widely known. But, I think this story has everything to make a great movie: War, combat, love, hatred, racism, reconciliation, drama on the high seas, and perhaps most importantly: hope.

Is hope a key theme in your book?

Yes, I believe hope is certainly a key theme running through the book. I’ve tried to paint an accurate picture of US Military forces during the darkest days of the Korean War – desperate for survival, desperate for meaning, and with very little hope. But the same was also true for many of the civilians fleeing from Communism. Yet the whole story drives inexorably toward Hungnam and in the darkest moments of the war, hope refuses to be vanquished. As long as there is life, there is hope.

And now some questions for all of us writers:  

How did you get published?

I decided to publish independently with (a) Createspace for the paperback format and (b) Kindle Direct for the Kindle version. I chose to go exclusive with Amazon for at least the first 90 days in order to participate in their lending program. Since I'm in their program, it allows those who are Amazon Prime to borrow the book for free, and yet I still get some royalty on each borrow.

Did you not consider traditional publishing, sending query letters to agents etc.?

I did try to find an agent, but I was concerned about the fact that many of this generation are passing from us quickly. I just could not justify holding the story for six months, or a year, or perhaps longer. This was very poignant for me as I wanted the four men that were there (Burly Smith, Merl Smith, J. Robert Lunney and DH Won) to have access to this story. I just hated the notion of waiting any longer. This issue has been made very real to me as my father-in-law's brother served in Korea. He has begun to slip into the ravages of Alzheimers. Sadly, It seems I was not quite fast enough for him.

Any writing advice?  
My best advice to is hire a good editor. I know its expensive, but if the story is important and needs to be told - hire an editor to make it all that it can be. For me, I felt it was my duty to put everything I had into the story. After all, these men risked their lives to take 100,000 to freedom. All I had to do was risk a relatively small amount of money. And, nobody was shooting at me!

Can you recommend any good books on writing?
I did buy and study several books on writing and such to try to improve my craft. I'm a little torn about them. I think it is possible to spend endless time reading about writing, and thus you end up never writing. I know we  need some education on the craft of writing, but I'm wary of spending too much time talking about the craft and too little time practicing the craft.

David, thanks for the interview and God's blessings on your book and future writing endeavors!

For more information:

Youtube Hope in Hungnam

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  1. What a fascinating interview! I enjoyed learning more about this author and the research he did for this book. I think his advice is so important- about hiring a good editor. Thanks for sharing.

    1. You're welcome. Thanks for visiting my blog.


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