Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with William Illsey Atkinson

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William Illsey Atkinson

William Illsey Atkinson is the author of Tommy: A War Novel (ECW Press). The titular character is unusual combination, possessed of both the courage of a soldier and a mathematical genius that turns out to be of great use during his tour — though even his intellect can't stem the tide of the horrors he witnesses.

Today we speak with William about Tommy's real life inspiration, the challenges of research and the importance of our Remembrance Day traditions.

Open Book:

Tell us about your book, Tommy.

William Illsey Atkinson:

It's an oddball novel, at least in its gestation. Publishers like to see a fiction manuscript whole, so they're not disappointed by a rotten ending. Nonfiction, by contrast, usually starts when an agent pitches a proposal to a publisher. If the publisher bites, the agent bows out and lets writer and publisher negotiate the unwritten book.

Tommy used the nonfiction mold. My agent, Robert Mackwood of Seventh Avenue Literary Agency in Vancouver, told me in fall 2010 that he'd found a publisher, ECW Press of Toronto, that was a good fit for me — simpatico, he said. I staggered in to see them with literally an armload of stuff: fiction and nonfiction, proposals and finished manuscripts, random thoughts and wild ideas. What they went for was a short bit of fiction, no more than a scene, that I'd written twelve years earlier when my father was still alive. I'd been talking to him about his WWII experiences, and imagined what the Battle of Okinawa must have been like for him. ECW were on it like stink on a skunk, and commissioned the novel.

OB:

Your protagonist, Tommy, is partially based on your father. How did this impact the writing process? What were some of the challenges and pleasures around writing something with a personal connection of this nature?

WIA:

Pleasures: Intense. It's been said that a writer is someone in search of a father, and this book became the archetype for that search. Unlike most searches, it had a happy ending. Things began in 1998, just after my mother died. I then lived in North Vancouver BC, Dad was in Ancaster ON, and I'd fly back and stay with him several times a year. We got talking and for the first time in our shared lives we became friends. The book is an extension of that long-delayed friendship - my tribute to an amazing man.

Challenges: Also intense. I wanted to show the whole man, not write a dreary hagiography. Nor did I want a hatchet job, the revenge of the writer whose father-quest is forever incomplete. And I nailed it. Tommy shows the whole man, but my love and admiration shine through.

OB:

How did you approach your research process for this book? Have you found the experience of researching for fiction different from researching for non-fiction projects?

WIA:

One great difficulty was the U.S. Navy. I don't think they were actively stonewalling me; they were just too disorganized. There's a law that states: Never attribute to conspiracy what can be explained by incompetence. I went through channels early in the research process, was vetted, and received full clearance to consult their experts. No Navy expert ever once got back to me. That cloud had a silver lining, however: I finally understood why Dad had such a stellar military career, yet couldn't wait to get out.

Research itself was about the same as for my popular science nonfiction, though my sources were more textual than interview. There are so few of the Great Generation left.

OB:

We're now in the season of Remembrance Day in Canada. How do you feel about the occasion? Do you think it is important for Canadians to participate in our Remembrance traditions?

WIA:

It's no coincidence that we launched Tommy on the day after Remembrance Day. As I say in my Afterword, "It was not till I researched and wrote this book that I understood the achievement of my father's generation. You and I — in fact the whole world, including the enemies they conquered and then raised up to democracy and prosperity — owe them a debt beyond calculation." I'd like everyone on the planet to know that in their bones and be forever grateful.

OB:

What are some books (fiction or non-fiction) that you consider essential reading for those interested in WWII?

WIA:

Churchill's The Second World War — see if you can get the illustrated edition issued by Life Magazine. Dan Van der Vat's The Pacific Campaign was invaluable: my father owned it, and Dan gave me his kind permission to quote from it. More recently, Ken Follett's Winter of the World gives good background in what was happening on the other side of the world. For an unparalleled description of the horrors of the Pacific ground campaign, read Norman Mailer's first and greatest book, The Naked and the Dead. He wrote that true and raw, before he became more interested in Being A Writer than in writing.

OB:

What are you working on now?

WIA:

I'm recording the Tommy audiobook. Audible Books seldom hires authors to read, but among other things I'm a professional speaker with National Speakers' Bureau, so I'm going to knock this out of the park. Listen to it and you'll see the depth of my emotional investment in Tommy.

I'm also taking an M.A. degree in science and technology studies at York University, as intensive research for some Big Idea nonfiction to come out c.2015. However, I'm not emulating the young sprogs who have the energy to do the degree in one tough year. I'm spacing it out, so I should have time for some fiction. I'm thinking of a companion novel to Tommy, a kind of bookend. A 92-year-old gentleman in our family also fought in WWII, but as a Canadian rather than an American; as an enlisted man, not as an officer; as a 25-, not a 35-year-old; and in Europe, not the Pacific. He got the Military Medal and was painted by our greatest war artist, Charles Comfort. Another amazing man. Look for Ivan in a year or two.


William Illsey Atkinson was born in Seattle and lives in Toronto. His nonfiction books have been shortlisted for the National Business Book Award, praised by Physics Today and the Wall Street Journal, and named to Executive Book Summaries’ Top 30 Books. He has contributed to the Globe and Mail since 1995.

For more information about Tommy please visit the ECW Press website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

Check out all the On Writing interviews in our archives.

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