Ideas for books jump out when you least expect them. As writers, we’ve learned to pay attention to those opportunities. One afternoon several years ago, Réanne was outside a local store and noticed a car with WWII vanity plates parked next to hers. At the time, she was working on The Shelburne Escape Line, a book of first-account stories about Allied airmen rescued by the French Resistance that she’d collected from her many trips to Grenoble, France. She struck up a conversation with the driver of the car, a WWII vet, who gave her a book he thought she might be interested in. The book was neither for sale in bookstores, nor on Amazon. Originally published by Rebecca Pratt, the book was a collection of her father’s diaries written when he was a prisoner of war in Germany. The Cigarette Diaries: A Personal History of life in a WWII Prison Camp was meant as a gift to her father, Frank Pratt, family members, and friends.
Compelling autobiographies and memoirs often hit the bestseller list, but finding a loved one’s diaries that reveal a never-before-told story is like discovering a literary treasure. Réanne recognized The Cigarette Diaries as such a treasure, one that deserved being shared with a wider audience.
But Frank Pratt had passed away, and finding his daughter proved a bit of a challenge. After a few unreturned phone calls and unanswered letters, Cave Art Press writer and researcher, Lisa Wright, discovered a series of video interviews produced by Newsweek magazine, featuring Frank Pratt discussing his diaries and his time in prison camp. We were able to locate Rebecca, who divides her time between New York City and her family home in Blanchard, Washington. Within a couple of weeks, she was in our office discussing expansion and reissuance of her father’s book. Rebecca had not even known of the diaries existence until 1994, after her father had been invited by the Polish government to its embassy in Washington, DC, where he was honored for his war efforts.
Seeing the homemade diaries of cigarette packages stitched together between pieces of cardboard lying on our table made us feel like we’d found the Holy Grail of documented POW existence.
Being hungry is strange. I imagine most of it is psychological, but there is still a lot of it that “isn’t”. The funny thing is that everybody’s thoughts seem to be of something to eat, and we punish ourselves by sitting around in the dark and talking about choice dishes we used to like, and what we’d pay to be able to eat some of those now. To me it becomes almost unbearable at times, and I was never much of an eater. I can’t imagine what hunger must do to a gourmet?—Frank Pratt, POW
Soon after the meeting, our editor and writer, Arlene Cook, set about the task of reorganizing the material and adding details of war events that occurred during the time the diaries were written. This book now includes Frank Pratt’s complete diaries and his wartime photos, as well as the photos of the actual cigarette packages on which the diaries were written.
The Cigarette Diaries: A Personal History of Life in a WWII Prison Camp, by Frank Pratt, has just been released. You can purchase copies directly from our website, from you local bookstore, or on Amazon.
If you were asked which writers wrote with a unique voice, you’d have no trouble naming several. My list includes F. Scott Fitzgerald, Karen Blixen, Raymond Chandler, Jane Austen, Harper Lee, Stephen King, John Irving, and Ann Rice. But if you were asked to define “voice” in writing, perhaps your task would be harder.
I recently attended a writers’ conference and listened to a publisher explain her definition of voice. Her definition true and clear, so I decided to share my thoughts on this element of writing that is often a challenge to define.
When I began studying the craft of writing, my focus was mainly on plot, because I hadn’t a clue how to construct one. I hadn’t given much thought to voice until I picked up a novel by an author I’d never read before. It was his fourth book and it had landed on the bestseller list. I’d heard so much about the book, I feared I wouldn’t like it. But I did. At first, I thought it was the characters that grabbed and whirled me along for the more than four hundred pages. When I finished the book, I rushed out and bought his first three. My fear materialized as I struggled through each one, and finished reading them only because I was curious to learn how he developed his craft. Then I realized it was his voice that captured my interest in novel number four. It was also clear to me that I couldn’t hear that voice in his first three novels. Maybe he was still struggling to find it. Who knows? Since then, I’ve read everything the author has written and he’s now one of my favorite contemporary writers.
What I gleaned from that writer’s conference was that voice is the emotional thread that connects the writer to the reader. It’s the writer’s unique style of expression that adds a personal element to the story, which character, plot, and setting can’t do alone or together. Consider F. Scott Fitzgerald’s, The Great Gatsby. It’s an extraordinary story of love, loss, hope, and betrayal, with these opening lines: “In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. ‘Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in the world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.’ ” Narrator Nick Carraway is telling a story as naturally as if you were sitting in a room with him and chatting over a cup of coffee. The natural ease draws readers in and keeps them turning the pages.
Or how about To Kill a Mockingbird? Harper Lee tells a story of social injustice through the eyes of a child that is so powerful because Scout (Jean Louise) Finch is experiencing prejudice for the first time. Readers connect with her struggle to understand the condemnation of an innocent man. Who doesn’t relate to some sort of inflicted injustice? Who hasn’t felt that pain and learned from it? And in Mockingbird, it’s conveyed through the voice of an observant, articulate child. Voice is a strong emotional thread that connects readers to the story. Scout’s voice speaks to us, asking, “How can this happen?”
Every book that has earned its place on my bookshelf has connected with me on a deep level. Sometimes it’s the ideas that resonate with me, sometimes the voice, sometimes both. But absent that connection, even if I finished and enjoyed the story, that book usually ends up in my giveaway box.