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Between the Covers with James R. Benn

posted by: September 3, 2015 - 12:17pm

Cover art for The White GhostJames. R. Benn’s successful Billy Boyle mystery series has captivated readers with its historical accuracy and intriguing plots. Now, Billy returns for his 10th outing in The White Ghost. Get to know James, his research and writing habits, his past as a librarian (including a connection to BCPL!) and enjoy a sneak peek at where Billy’s headed next.

 

Between the Covers: The Billy Boyle series is set during World War II. Was this a historical time period that always interested you? What is it about this war that remains a historical touchstone for so many? Do you hear from veterans and/or their families?

James R. Benn: When I was growing up, nearly every kid in the neighborhood had a dad who was in the war. It was part of the fabric of life. My father served in the China-India-Burma Theater and I was mesmerized by his stories and the souvenirs he brought home. When I finally started writing, the choice was based somewhat on that history, but also on a study of the historical mystery genre. I discovered it was the fastest growing fiction genre, and noted that the Second World War was not well represented. It was then a natural choice.

 

World War II was a turning point for America; we went into it a somewhat isolated, disparate nation. It was this war that truly created the famous melting pot of America. Men and women from all walks of life and regions were thrown together and sent all over the world. Nothing like that had ever happened, and I think there’s a yearning for that kind of commonality. And clear-cut power, as well.

 

I frequently hear from the families of veterans. I have interviewed several vets at the invitation of family members, who say that their father, uncle or grandfather has never talked about the war. It often begins with reluctance, and then a stream of stories, mostly about their buddies. Finally, they may talk about combat. Once, a D-Day veteran signaled me to come close as his family chatted on the far side of the room. “They always ask me if I killed anyone,” he whispered. “I tell ’em no. But I did.”

 

BTC: Billy was a secondary character in your first book. Why did that character stay with you and compel you to flesh him out more fully? As the war progresses, it becomes more complex and morally murky. How have these complications and sometimes harsh realities changed Billy?
JRB: He just plain wouldn’t go away. I liked his attitude, and thought there might be something to his Eisenhower connection which would allow me to visit a wide variety of situations. After completing research for the first book, I sat down to begin writing. I’d planned on using the third person, being somewhat intimidated by first-person narratives. Then I typed the first line:

 

I wanted to die.Jim Benn credit D. Mandel (fall 2014)

 

That stunned me, but I stayed with it. I guess Billy lives somewhere in my subconscious.

 

After the first book, I understood that the war had to take an emotional toll for Billy. I received terrific advice from the novelist Rachel Basch, who told me “remember, the story has to move down as well as forward.” Billy is constantly confronted by terrible choices, navigating the lesser of multiple evils in a horribly evil war. It is taking a toll.

 

BTC: In The White Ghost, Billy goes back in time to the Pacific where he gets involved with the Kennedy family. Why was it important to you to set Billy in the Pacific? How critical was it that you share the story of John F. Kennedy and PT-109?
JRB: I was surprised at how many readers asked for a book set in the Pacific; perhaps a lot of them had family who served there. I was stumped at how to do that in a way that made sense. Then I thought the Boston Irish connection with Jack Kennedy would be interesting. But, in the timeline of Billy’s world, it was May 1944. By then, JFK was back in the States and out of the service for medical reasons.

 

In a flash of unplanned genius, I noticed a gap between the third and fourth books; several months which fit exactly into the events surrounding the sinking of PT-109. So…now, the story can be told.

 

As a baby boomer, I grew up in awe of JFK. I had no idea what a very strange family he came from. The Kennedy children were brought up in a highly competitive and emotionally traumatizing environment. The war was the best thing that ever happened to Jack Kennedy; it got him out from under the thumb of his overbearing father and showed him what regular folks were like. He really had no idea.

 

BTC: Billy has travelled all over, beginning in England and including Norway, the Mediterranean and Ireland. Is travelling to these locations part of your research? What is your most memorable trip?
JRB: Yes; my wife and I have traveled to England, Sicily, Italy and Ireland for research. Sicily was quite special; we approached a farmer about looking at some bunkers on his land where a battle took place. It turned out to be Easter Monday, which is a big family gathering day in Sicily. We were taken in and treated as honored guests among the 30 or so family members. No one spoke English and we didn’t speak Italian. With the aid of a pocket dictionary and the German I and one of the men spoke, we talked all day. And ate and drank. We left that night loaded with flowers and fruit. It was a wonderful experience, and a perfect example of Sicilian hospitality. They’ve survived centuries of conquest by absorbing newcomers.

 

BTC: Other than travelling, do you have any research or writing routines?
JRB: My research is built around reading widely about the subject and geographical area I want to explore. I try to immerse myself in the time and place, through contemporary fiction and nonfiction. My goal is not to simply understand the facts of what happened, but how people in the 1940s would have perceived what was happening to them.

 

BTC: You pay homage to Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie in two of the books. Who are your biggest influences as a mystery writer?
JRB: The Sherlock Holmes stories were the first mysteries I ever read, so it was hard to resist a ride down Baker Street. While I also enjoy Agatha Christie, it was the proximity of her home (used as a naval headquarters) to the Slapton Sands tragedy that led me to give her a walk-on in The Rest Is Silence.

 

BTC: You had a long career as a librarian! Did that influence your writing in any way? What is the thing you miss most about working in a library?
JRB: My first job at age 14 was as a library page. I became a librarian out of an unabashed old-school love of books and reading. I wandered around the library field quite a bit, even getting to know Charlie Robinson at BCPL when I worked for a library automation company. That career wanderlust was probably due to the fact I knew there was something else I wanted to do with my life. It was my wife who steered me in the right direction on my 50th birthday, but that’s another story. Right now what I like best about libraries is inter-library loan, the mainstay of my research!

 

BTC: Do you have a finite number of books planned for the series? Can you give us a preview of Billy’s next adventure?
JRB: Billy and I have not grown tired of each other yet. I’m about to turn in the manuscript for the 2016 release, The Blue Madonna. That book will bring us to D-Day, with Billy and Kaz behind enemy lines in a strange chateau with ghosts, mysterious tunnels, downed airmen and a certain SOE operative who Billy knows very well. And oh yes, murders.

 

I also have a vague idea for a book involving USO entertainers at some point. Billy needs to see a good show, don’t you think?

 


 
 

Revised: November 18, 2015