First, let me thank author Andy Kutler for taking the time to share with us today. This is Andy’s first novel and I am always delighted to be part of a new novelist’s debut and I hope HFA readers will support Andy by visiting his website and purchasing his novel, The Other Side of Life.
Before we dive into the questions about your new novel, I think we would like to know you a little better.
Tell us a little about yourself – who you are, where did you grow up, and a bit about your family.
I grew up in Madison, Wisconsin, the youngest of four kids. My father taught American History at the University of Wisconsin, and was a best-selling author on the non-fiction side. My dad is where I got my love of history from, and while I’m a good writer, I’ll never be in his class. I’ve been married for 13 years, and have a daughter and son. We live in Northern Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C.
What author’s have inspired you?
I love Jeff Shaara’s books. He writes war fiction, mostly Civil War-era but also everything from the Revolutionary War to WWII. It’s his writing style, which he adopted from his father, that I appreciate so much, telling a story of a well-known historical event through the eyes of different (and adversarial) participants. On the contemporary side, I enjoy the Jack Reacher series by Lee Child. My dad called his books “popcorn fiction” – fun, easy-to-read with fast-paced action. Joseph Finder is another favorite.
Coffee or Tea? Never had a cup of either one. Team Diet Coke here.
Ha!Ha! My son would love that. He is a Coke-addict. If there’s a case of coke in the house, you can bet he will drink it empty.
What is your favorite dessert? From the low-brow – CostCo chocolate chunk cookies – to the high-brow – the Sticky Toffee Pudding at Gordon Ramsey Steak in Las Vegas.
What are 4 things you never leave home without (apart from keys, money and phone)? These are all things that I keep in my car. (1) A favorite old book that I’ve read a million times and could read a million more, because you never know when you might need a book. (2) Every forty-something’s sidekick — reading glasses. (3) My softball glove, because my daughter plays and I always seem to need it. And (4) earbuds, because sometimes you just need to plug in and tune out (not while driving!).
Laptop or desktop for writing? Desktop. Believe it or not, I’m a (fast) two-finger typist, a method that is not laptop-friendly.
Then you and my husband have a lot in common when it comes to typing!
What does your writing space look like? A small corner in our basement spare bedroom. There are smear-marks on the walls from the centipedes I tried to early on before conceding defeat, and for some reason, I can’t get the temperature above freezing. I also really need to talk to my wife about finding a new home for our cat’s litter box.
It takes some serious commitment to your writing project to work when you must share your space with some bugs and a cat. 🙂 Doesn’t make the kitchen table seem so bad now.
Tell us about your writing routine. Very simple. Kids go to bed, I start to write. Usually from 8-11pm every night. It’s a small window, but without a minute to waste, it forces efficiency and focus.
Are you a “pants” writer or do you outline and plan your novels? Little bit of both. I definitely started with an outline, but made numerous course corrections once the writing got underway.
What novel from your childhood/teen years was your favorite? “My Brother Sam is Dead” (Christopher Collier and James Lincoln Collier) is a special book for me. We read it in school when I was about 12 or 13; it’s a story of the American Revolution told through the eyes of a young boy whose family loyalty is divided between the American colonists and the English-favoring “Tories.” I didn’t know it at the time, but the first book I loved was historical fiction! I was also a huge fan of “Where the Red Fern Grows,” (Wilson Rawls) and I’m pretty sure if I read it again, I would still cry my eyes out at the end. And let’s be honest – who didn’t love Judy Blume books? I must have read “Then Again, Maybe I Won’t” fifty times.
One of your favourite quotes “You can’t steal second base with one foot on first.” It really sums up my life philosophy about doing everything with passion, commitment and determination.
Here’s the part most of HFA readers will be curious to know- all the details that went behind writing your debut novel, The Other Side of Life.
You write both for the Huffington Post and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, what prompted you to write a long narrative and specifically a historical fiction novel? I wrote columns for the HuffPost and MJS, addressing everything from politics to travel to sports. While I really appreciate and treasure that opportunity, I really wanted to take the next step, and try my hand at storytelling. And of course, I love history so much, especially those events and individuals that don’t get the attention they deserve. Historical fiction was a natural fit for me.
I see you dedicated this novel to Jeff, was he and his story the inspiration for the story and the way in which you decided to tell the story?
Jeff is my oldest brother who I lost in 2010. For some time, I struggled with the notion that I would never see him again. I just couldn’t process that, and started asking myself some very philosophical and spiritual questions – questions that I imagined many others have also asked themselves after losing a loved one. And that was when the idea for this novel was born; I wanted to explore those questions in a fictional story.
I am very sorry to hear about your loss. I lost my brother in 2009 and to this day his death is difficult to process. It is beautiful that your tragedy and sorrow was then focused on such a positive thing, one you can now share it with so many.
The Other Side of Life is set in both the Second World War and in the Civil War, why did you choose these particular era’s for your story? The best piece of writing advice I have received is to write about those things which you are passionate about. I love American history as a whole, but WWII and the Civil War have always been special to me. There were so many extraordinary episodes and stories that came out of those periods, not to mention the remarkable individuals who played such pivotal roles in the outcome of each of those conflicts. But while most of the story takes place during the Civil War, that is only a backdrop. I would not characterize this as a Civil War novel, or war fiction.
Tell us about the research that went into writing a novel set in two different war periods. For the story of the USS Nevada, I actually went through the after-action report filed by her officers following the attack. It was incredibly detailed, and provided exhaustive information about the bomb and torpedo hits the ship sustained, how and when the ship got underway, and the performance of the crew. I also found some first-person accounts from crew members, and I even used the citations for medals and commendations awarded to the crew to get a better feel for the events that day. As for the Civil War, there is quite a bit of source material out there. I also drove up to Fairfield, Pennsylvania, site of the cavalry skirmish that is a central part of the book. I wanted to see and walk the terrain; it really gave me a stronger sense of the strategic importance of that area, as well as the tactical fighting that occurred that day in 1863.
Wow! to actually have read the action reports and some of the first-person accounts must have been incredible. I can see why this would have given you a strong sense of the events, people’s actions and reactions.
Your main protagonist is given the choice to remain in 1941 or to start a new life, free of his old memories and heartache, as completely new person in the past. If you were given the chance to start a new life, in a different time, would you choose it? If so, why and what era would you choose to go back to? Kelsey made his choice because he had been through so much tragedy and believed there was nothing left for him in 1941. If I was in his shoes, I probably would have made the same choice. But I have too many good things in my life – beginning and ending with my wife and kids – to even entertain the notion of willingly leaving it! Nor can I fathom a life without my iPhone, Diet Coke, or my morning bagel.
Is Commander Kelsey based off any real life person? No. The USS Nevada was indeed captained by junior officers during the Pearl Harbor attack, but everything else about Kelsey is completely fictional.
What was the most challenging aspect of writing a HF novel? Historical accuracy. Look, this is fiction, and I believe that gives a writer considerable license. But I would never willingly alter historical events. And even though it is fiction, I think readers have some expectation that the events they are reading about really happened, even if the characters are fictional and the dialogue never occurred. I did everything I could, including consulting with a leading Civil War historian and two retired naval officers, to make those chapters as accurate as possible.
What was your favourite chapter (or part) to write and why? The Pearl Harbor chapter. Easily. The story of the USS Nevada, for me, is so extraordinary, and I’m not sure it has ever been dramatized in fiction the way I did it. As I was writing, I was actually excited to be telling that story. One reader, a historian I greatly respect, told me after reading the chapter that he could “smell the smoke.” I could not have received a better compliment.
I, personally, loved the Pearl Harbor Chapter. As I wrote in my review it had an almost movie-like feel. It was very vivid and chalked full of action!
This is your first historical fiction novel, what are you most proud about in this HF novel?
The complexity of my characters. I didn’t want any of my characters to be clichés, and hence my protagonist isn’t a particularly friendly man and my “villain” is actually a pretty good soldier. I also wanted to show how virtually no one can come through a war unscathed, no matter what their views are, which side are they on, or what their roles are. I think/hope I accomplished that. Each of the central characters in the story is fundamentally changed by their wartime experiences, in very different ways. And I think that is very true to life.
Is there a message in your novel you want readers to grasp? Very much so, but I don’t want to verbalize it. I want readers to draw their own conclusions. It’s pretty clear based on the feedback I have received from early readers that people are finding different messages in this story. I love that, and none of those messages are wrong. I think I clearly hit a nerve for many readers.
Do you have any advice for other writers seeking publication? Be unemotional and relentless. There will be rejection and you will be frustrated by a lack of or delay in response, but all it takes is for you to make a connection with one key person out there. That’s what happened to me.
Thank you for these words of encouragement. I think many HFA writers can feel like it will never happen. But, perseverance seems to be the key…and finding that connection with that one key person.
Are you working on a new project you can tell us about? Very much still sketching it out on a cocktail napkin. But stay tuned!
Napkin Outlining? I think you may start something Andy. 🙂 Although Hemingway used a napkin to pen his 6-Word memoir so perhaps you are just carrying on his tradition.
Thanks again Andy for sharing with us today. I look forward to your next book and wish you much success in your debut novel, The Other Side of Life.
Please visit Andy at his website Andy Kutler
To buy a copy of his novel click The Other Side of Life