When I set out to become a novelist, I didn’t realize the corners it would make me turn, the things it would teach me: how to weld a ship together, live aboard an aircraft carrier – even butcher a chicken. It’s not so surprising that in the process of writing an historical novel I’d learn a few facts. What I didn’t expect at all was that the same process would challenge and guide me through my own explorations of some of the questions my characters encounter: how (and whether) to tame or feed or foster your most outrageous dreams; how to accept unacceptable loss; how to know when it’s time to let go, and then how to do it.
My new novel, I Gave My Heart to Know This, is the story of three women who work as welders at a shipyard during World War II and the tragedy that binds them, even as it divides them. Years later, a great-granddaughter, caring for the family home, pieces together the friends’ long-buried secrets, and learns the difficulties – and the possibilities – of forgiveness.
I began by poring over shipyard newsletters, photographs, blueprints. I interviewed some old-timers who told me “the way it really was.” I read about everything from naval battles to copper mining to photography to rheumatic fever, explored the engine room of a great ship, stood under the spire of a church. I spent a lot of time in archives. One of the best sources I found was a twenty-page, handwritten account of shipyard work by a woman who was a welder. I borrowed several incidents from her amazing descriptions, including an incident when she was standing in a rowboat welding on the side of a ship and leaned too far forward in her heavy welding garb. Her foreman grabbed her, saving her life; if she’d fallen in the water, she’d have sunk straight to the bottom. (The dangers of the job were many, and, to us in the modern OSHA-regulated world, almost inconceivable.)
Then came my favorite part: translating what I’d gleaned into the experience of fiction. How would it feel to make an overhead weld, sparks raining down, in a space so narrow the smoke chokes you? To fall in love with someone you’d “met” only in a letter? To carry an undeniable sense of patriotic and familial duty, alongside your dream of a different life? And then, to try to understand how your best efforts to save precious things might instead have been complicit in their loss.
Next, I developed a mystery. Time passes; things which are broken and missing long to be fixed and found. And there’s an old house with a seeming incontrovertible will of its own that holds the clues, and maybe the answers – if only someone will look.
Pinned to the wall of the attic of this house is a map of the world, with a red X marking “home.” Early on, the children play a pirate game, searching for buried treasure – and perhaps, it comes to seem, the treasure is their home – problematically. I thought a great deal about that map as I wrote: not only the meanings it has for my characters, but how comforting it would be if only I had such a map to write by. Instead, I learned that journeys are best guided by curiosity and desire and a willingness to be taken far – and that the best discoveries are often the things you didn’t know you were seeking.