Debut novelists hold a special place in my heart. I love the thrill of discovering new talent and also have experienced the struggles of writing your first book. The process of idea to publishing was so much harder than I had anticipated and I love bringing these new talents in front of you for those very reasons. I received a copy of Under a Dark Summer Sky from NetGalley and it was one of my favorite reads this summer (you can read my review here). I just know that this will be a favorite for you too especially if you love historical fiction.
If you have been waiting for the next The Help, friends, this is it. I really want to get this book on your radar because the story is so beautifully told and it is about something that happened in history that I was never aware of. Under a Dark Summer Sky is a perfect balance of fact and fiction. I have no doubt, you will get swept away in the storm that hits Heron Key in 1935.
It is hard to believe that this was a debut novel- it was so perfectly executed. I love when I am transported into time in a historical fiction novel and learn something I have never known before and that was the case in this one. This well-researched book perfectly combines fact and fiction into an incredible story about a hurricane that ripped through the Florida Keys. The racial tensions of the people combined with a camp of misplaced disturbed war veterans creates an incredible conflict within the town when all of their safety is at risk as a hurricane approaches. I just know you will fall in love with this perfectly woven story (and learn a lot about the 1930’s in the process!
Grab your cup of coffee and let’s learn more about the real-life hurricane that inspired this incredible book today!
I would consider your book to be the next The Help, tackling a time of racial tension and segregation between blacks and whites, but creating this perfect storm of emotion and disaster within the pages to play on these issues. It feels like you can cut the tension with a knife from the first chapter until you close the last page. What was it about this era that appealed to you and why did you decide to set the book up in Florida around a natural disaster?
I’m delighted with comparisons to The Help, as it’s one of my favorites. I didn’t choose the era or the setting, the story chose me! I often say that this is the book that almost wasn’t. I stumbled on it at a low point in my life, after I had cancer the first time and had failed to get 2 novels of women’s fiction published. By pure accident, I discovered the story of the veterans and the hurricane, and it captured my imagination. I felt compelled to dramatize it although I had not written historical fiction before. I was appalled that the events have been forgotten, even by people living in Florida. The veterans changed the course of US history, and I was consumed by the challenge of bringing that story to life. I never expected to write a book set in Florida. It turned into a big nostalgia trip, almost like a love letter to my home state.
As a reader, you really capture the hurricane so well that I felt like I was there witnessing it all. What type of research did you do to set up this pivotal moment in this community? Have you experienced any major hurricanes yourself?
Growing up in FL, hurricanes were a regular summer feature, but I never experienced a bad one. When I discovered the story, I read some excellent factual accounts, which are referenced in the book. I watched videos of survivor stories, also referenced in the book. But when it came to write the storm scenes, I set myself the task of making the reader feel like they had been through a washing machine. It was a huge challenge, using only words on a page, and harrowing to write those scenes, sometimes overwhelming. So it’s good hear that you think it comes across.
The most surprising thing for me, as a reader, were how these World War I veterans were placed into these communities on projects after the war, and the havoc that it creates in these towns (both for the soldiers themselves and for the community members). Misplaced, homeless, and without work, these men were thrown into these racially divided communities nursing a lot of issues from being in the war. How did you learn about this occurring and why do you think it makes your story more compelling?
The story of the veterans in the hurricane led me to explore their experiences during and after the war, which is where I learned about the Bonus Marchers and their treatment by the government. I found it incredible that these dispossessed, desperate men helped to bring down one President and damage his successor, yet they have disappeared from history. Writing about a southern state in 1935, I could not ignore the issue of segregation at that time, which led me to study the treatment of African-American soldiers in particular. Most of the veterans in the camps in the Keys were white. I chose to focus on a black minority because of the links to the other characters that I wanted to portray.
I always have a favorite character in each story I read and there was just something about Henry that had me rooting for him from the beginning until the end. I loved how you developed him, particularly his experience from serving as a black soldier to his struggles to fit into a segregated community of unacceptance. Was there one character in particular that you had a fondness for and were there any in the story that you related to the most personally?
Henry is also my favorite. I admire him so much. His experiences should have made him bad or crazy, but basic his goodness has survived. I have a fondness for people who refuse to let life beat them down. Henry is certainly damaged, but he’s not beaten, despite everything. I relate most personally to Hilda – although I hasten to add that I was never a beauty queen! I wrote her first scene when I had gained a lot of weight after cancer treatment and felt very bad about myself. I couldn’t fit into my clothes. I poured all of that into Hilda’s character, which was quite therapeutic.
This book was published in the UK first under the title of Summertime. I am always curious about title switches when books come to the US. Why did you change the title?
Debut authors don’t have much say in these decisions! The publishers know what will work in their market. We get consulted, but ultimately it’s a decision for the professionals. The book has a different title in each country where it is being published: Norway, France, Italy, Germany, and Holland. Norway is ‘Sommerstorm’, France is ‘In the Heat of Summer’, Italy is the equivalent of ‘Summertime’, and I’m looking forward to seeing the others soon!
I have a special fondness for debut novelist and this book does not read like a debut novel to me, but a seasoned veteran in the field of writing. How long did it take you to research and write this story? What has been the most surprising thing to you about the process from story to publishing?
It’s great to hear that you’re fond of us debutantes, because it’s a big old hill to climb, for sure. It took me 2 years to research and write – but I was working 2 jobs at the time as well! I don’t have kids, which is what made it possible, I guess. And I was very highly motivated to get the story out. I really wanted it to be published during the centenary of WWI (2014-18)! The most surprising thing about the process has been working with bloggers like you. Before I had this experience, I had no knowledge of book bloggers, or their importance to the whole publishing industry. I worked for 30 years in academic publishing, which is very different, and has nothing to compare. So I was astounded to learn of how many bloggers are out there, how much time and energy they devote, and just how much influence they have over readers. It’s been a revelation. You guys have transformed fiction publishing.
If you could tell anyone to read one book (other than your own) what would that book be (read ALL the recommendations over the year HERE)?
It’s actually 3 books: The Regeneration Trilogy, by Pat Barker. Is that allowed? These books were among the first, along with Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks, which opened my eyes to the history of WWI. Before that, like most Americans, I was ignorant of this period, but it’s a huge deal here in England. I finally understood what the veterans had sacrificed in that awful, stupid war.