Front Porch: Love stories drive effort to publish

THURSDAY, MAY 12, 2011

Writing a book is a lot like giving birth, except it takes a lot longer than nine months and nobody offers you an anesthetic.

For the past 18 months, in between newspaper deadlines and family responsibilities, I’ve been writing my first book, “War Bonds: Love Stories From the Greatest Generation.” The book is a collection of stories about couples who married during or shortly after World War II – many of them featured in my Love Stories series in The Spokesman-Review.

Just like the birth of my four sons, this endeavor is all my husband’s fault – or at least his idea.

One morning, Derek asked, out of all the articles I’ve written over the years, which ones attracted the most reader feedback? That was easy for me to answer – the Love Stories, especially those featuring couples who’ve been married 60-plus years.

 And no wonder. With the divorce rate at 50 percent, readers say they’re inspired by couples who’ve found a way to make marriage work – often despite the hardship and separation of the war years. “You should compile those and put them in a book,” Derek said. “I bet it would sell like crazy.”

I scoffed as I ran through a mental checklist: carpool, columns, cleaning, cat care. “When would I have time to write a book?”

But the idea germinated and grew into a plan when I researched the subject. While there are many books about World War II in print, and even one collection of love stories, none of them featured interviews with both partners.

So, I began. By last spring I’d interviewed 20 couples and constructed the book’s framework. Then award-winning photojournalist Ralph Bartholdt offered to shoot the photos. Each chapter opens with a picture of the couple at the time they married and concludes with a current photo.

And soon the time came to write a book proposal – a document agents and editors require before considering a nonfiction book for publication. The process is similar to writing a doctoral thesis and about as much fun.

With my rambunctious family, I couldn’t find the quiet nor the space needed to craft such a demanding document. Thankfully, some friends in North Idaho offered me their home as my own private writer’s retreat.

Last month, with the book proposal finished and the manuscript beyond the halfway point, the labor pains began in earnest as I launched the soul-searing quest for an agent.

A literary agent represents an author to publishing houses, and most major publishers don’t accept unagented submissions, so finding the right person to represent you is crucial.

I turned to local authors for referrals and recommendations. Like a woman who’s told she looks beautiful in the late stages of pregnancy, I was surprised by the affirmation I received. Best-selling author Patrick F. McManus read my book proposal and pronounced it the “best book proposal he’d ever read.” He even wrote a glowing introductory letter.

Award-winning author Jess Walter said, “ ’War Bonds’ sounds like a terrific idea and could make for a very marketable book.”

But while these commendations encourage me to press on and breathe through the birth pains, they haven’t caused any big-time New York agents to hurl themselves at my door. In fact, I might as well tell them my mother thinks I’m a good writer!

Evidently, agents go to a special school to learn how to say “no thanks” in a lot of different ways. Some are heartbreakingly encouraging. One wrote, “Thanks for your query. Unfortunately, I don’t feel that I could be the best advocate for your work. Please keep in mind that mine is a subjective business, and an idea or story to which one agent does not respond may well be met with great enthusiasm by another. I encourage you to continue writing to agents, and hope you will find someone who will get behind you and your work with the conviction necessary in the current market.”

Others write shorter, less-sweet missives like this one: “I am not interested in this project.”

I feel like I’m in middle school passing around a note that says, “Do you like Cindy Hval? Circle yes, no or maybe so.”

But this is still the early stages of labor and I was recently reminded of why this book was conceived. I attended a luncheon with best-selling author Elizabeth Berg. She asked about “War Bonds” and I found myself telling her the story of Jerry Gleesing. When Gleesing was shot down behind enemy lines during World War II, he refused to remove his wedding ring while being processed into the POW camp. Though the guard threatened him at gunpoint, Gleesing said, “I vowed to never take it off and I’m not taking it off.”

I didn’t feel so bad that I always tear up when I tell this story because Berg’s eyes filled as she told me about her parents’ enduring marriage and asked if I’d include their story in my book.

“War Bonds” has truly become a labor of love. Approximately 1,000 World War II veterans die each day and Jerry Gleesing, who died last April, was one of them. Time is running out to share their stories.

Contact Cindy Hval at dchval@juno.com.

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