The Allies break for lunch during Operation Dogstorn
Colin talks to author and historian Tim Brady about what separates fact from fiction and made up names for preexisting military operations.
CGB: 12 Desperate Miles, though based on facts surrounding the November 1942, first American invasion of North Africa, has been likened to a novel for its adrenalized, edge of your seat sense of direction, its inconspicuous foreshadowing of an equally book-worthy beach invasion, and your exposition and development of "characters," like German U-boat admiral, Karl Dönitz. No doubt a lot of readers would like to know just how an author pulls that kind of fact to fiction-esque writing off. I'm curious, however, how far one might go. Did you consider splicing harmless, made up details in about what the nefarious Dönitz shouted to his crewmen, for example, prior to attack, or have to stop yourself from writing what the moon was like that night?
TB: I began my career as a fiction writer and failed at it, in part, because I took forever getting to the point---describing the moon when my readers simply wanted to find out what happened next. History itself is so dense with material that I find that it drives the narrative of its own accord, which relieves me of the burden of making things up. My job is to steer the semi, which can be difficult enough. I don't have to add any weight to the trailer.
Aside from villains, the story of the SS Contessa features heroes, such as the french-born seaman Rene Malevergne, who piloted the New Orleans banana boat up the Sebou, and whose private diary, The Exfiltration of René Malevergne you researched and drew from. Did you come across any licentious or mundane entries, entirely unrelated to the events of the story? For example:
October 3, 1942 "Yesterday, I walked into town to buy three watermelons, but the vendor had a deal: 'Buy three, get one free!' So, I purchased four. I had no idea how quickly ripe fruit spoils. Shouldn't someone tell you that? I mean, when you're alone and buying four?"
Rene Malevergne was a very forthright and upstanding man; I couldn't detect a hint of licentiousness in his character. As far as mundane details are concerned, there were quite a few and I wish there had been more. When a person is writing a book about war, and using the words and thoughts of others to put it together, mundane details can help make a character and circumstances come alive, and offer a realism that makes a story come alive. I was grateful, for instance, when interviewing the grandson of the Contessa's captain, William John, that he remembered, not just that his grandfather smoked heavily on the bridge, but the brand of cigarettes---Winston's.
Back for just a minute to the harmless, made up details thing. The name of this particular U.S. invasion was "Operation Torch," which is unassailably cool, but, to my mind, doesn't instantly conjure the ins and outs of yielding a large boat up a small river. Just for laughs, let's each make up one alternative, more-or-less dubious name. Mine's Operation Dogstorm! What's yours?
The Saturday Evening Post writer who first told the story of the Contessa back in 1943 said that the ship crossed the sandbar at the entrance to the shallow Moroccan River Sebou "with all the grace of a hog going over a mud bank." What followed was twelve miles of achingly slow travel up the river to Port Lyautey, with the Contessa's bottom dredging river-bottom sand the whole way. How does Operation Hog Slog sound to you?