Interviews from the world of literature!

Michael Haskew – Star Struck

By:  Michael D. McClellan  |  Michael Haskew is on to something.  His book, West Point 1915:  Eisenhower, Bradley, and the Class the Stars Fell On (released by Zenith Press in 2014),  tells the story of West Point’s most decorated and celebrated class, headlined by future president Dwight D. Eisenhower and Omar Bradley, the man who would later become General of the Army and also serve as the first Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  While those men are the most celebrated, a whopping 59 of its 164 graduates attained the rank of general, the most of any class in the history of the United States Military Academy at West Point.  Haskew seizes on this narrative and dares to be different, spending plenty of time on the Big Two while having them share the stage with their lesser-known classmates, men who, along with Eisenhower and Bradley, played key roles in two world wars and exerted tremendous influence on the shaping of modern America, which remains substantial to this day.  The result is an absolute gem.  There have been other tomes that dive headlong into specific aspects of that 1915 star class, but Haskew’s is the first to consider it in its entirety.  That he’s able to do so in 208 crisply-written pages is the genius of West Point 1915.  It blankets the reader in extraordinary stories, some of them well-known and others obscure, taking us from World War I to the formation of NATO and beyond, all of it anchored by an institution unlike any other in our nation’s history.

“As a writer, I’m always looking for an interesting topic,” Haskew says from his home base in Chattanooga.  “Through the years I’d heard about the West Point Class of 1915 and its nickname, ‘The Class the Stars Fell On,’ and I began to think about other books that had been written about various West Point classes.  A couple came to mind immediately, but then I realized that nothing had been done on the class that stood head and shoulders above the others.”

That epiphany sparked Haskew, who has been writing and researching military history subjects for over twenty years.  The more he dug the more he learned about these remarkable men and their achievements, which remain unsurpassed in over two hundred years of academy history, and he simply couldn’t fathom why something hadn’t been written sooner.

“It surprised me that a book like this wasn’t out there,” he says quickly.  “When you look at the achievements of that class – the number of general rank officers it produced, and the sheer number of individuals who had a tremendous impact on the future of the United States from early in the twentieth century to this very day – I just couldn’t believe that someone hadn’t tried to write about West Point’s Class of 1915.”

 

Michael Haskew

The author and his book: Michael E. Haskew covers the West Point 1915 star class unlike anyone before. Published by Zenith Press, West Point 1915 – Eisenhower, Bradley, and the Class the Stars Fell On is a must read for anyone interested in U.S. military history and the leaders who played pivotal roles in shaping the United States into a world power.

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To call Haskew a history buff is to pay him a compliment and sell him short, because he’s a brilliant writer who just happens to love history.  He’s the editor of WWII History, the author of the critically-acclaimed Appomattox, and the driving force behind works like Tank: 100 Years of the World’s Most Important Armored Military Vehicle, and Aircraft Carriers: The Illustrated History of the World’s Most Important Warships.

“It sounds cliché, but I’ve been interested in military history pretty much my whole life,” Haskew says.  “Living here in Chattanooga, we are surrounded by Civil War history.  I grew up on the side of Missionary Ridge, which is just minutes away from the battlefield where the Battle of Chickamauga was fought.  I remember as a young boy, my father took us on a vacation to see the battleship Alabama in Mobile Bay, which had been converted into a floating museum. The submarine USS Drum was also there at the time, so we toured that, too.  I remember going to Fort Morgan on that trip, which is a very famous Civil War site – in fact, that’s where David Glasgow Farragut famously shouted, ‘Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!’  But what really got me started was one afternoon the doorbell rang and the mailman brought a book called the Reader’s Digest Illustrated Story of World War II.  My mother handed me that book and I was hooked.  From that point on, I had a tremendous fascination with history.”

A history major in college, Haskew attended the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, and didn’t start writing about historical topics until the mid-1980s.  Before that, he was just a kid trying to get his foot in the door at the Chattanooga News-Free Press.

“I started working there in the summer of 1981,” he says.  “Roy Exum was the sports editor and a true gentleman, and he hired me during the summer of my freshman year in college.  When fall came around it was time for high school and college football to start, and he asked me if I wanted to stay around and cover some games.  Before long I was working full time and going to school full time.  I’m very grateful for the opportunity that Roy Exum gave a 19-year-old kid who was really looking for a part-time job.”

Cutting his teeth on jayvee football, Haskew dreamed of one day writing military history.  In West Point 1915 he comes full circle, writing about great military leaders, some of whom turned out to be fantastic athletes, guys like Louis Merrilat, Jr., who was a two-time first-team All-American and later played in the National Football League for the Canton Bulldogs.  Wounded in battle during World War I, Merrilat was also a professional basketball player and soldier of fortune following his career in the U.S. Army.  It was just one of countless stories that Haskew uncovered when taking on the challenge of West Point’s most decorated class.

“The scope of the book was a daunting task,” Haskew says.  “When you consider that this class had 164 graduates, there were initially more questions than answers:  How do you separate one from another?  How do you decide what to include and what not to include?  How do you cover the breadth of that many people?  How do you focus on the individuals without losing the identity of the class?

 

“The scope of the book was a daunting task.  When you consider that this class had 164 graduates, there were initially more questions than answers:  How do you separate one from another?  How do you decide what to include and what not to include?  How do you cover the breadth of that many people?  How do you focus on the individuals without losing the identity of the class?”  – Michael Haskew

 

“One of the toughest things about the book was its length – the publisher wanted it to be 75,000 words. Well, you could go on and on about the members of this class and their incredible stories, and you could easily double or triple that word count.  To do it in 75,000 words, and to do it in a way that resonates, is something that I take great pride in.  I’ve actually received emails from descendants of the class, who’ve shared their memories of these men, and that has been gratifying.  They’ll write and say, ‘My father or my grandfather was a part of this and that.’  That tells me that we’ve reached some people with this book, and I think there has been a positive impact and a great appreciation for it, which is very gratifying.  And I think we’ve filled a niche, because nothing of this magnitude on West Point’s Class of 1915 had been done before – there’s nothing else on this class as a group that comes close.”

 

Other books by Michael Haskew:

Other books by Michael Haskew: Tank: 100 Years of the World’s Most Important Armored Military Vehicle, and Aircraft Carriers: The Illustrated History of the World’s Most Important Warships.

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For Haskew, the scope and structure of the book was just the tip of the iceberg.  Getting it to press would prove equally daunting.

“It was a journey,” he says with a laugh.  “Fortunately, it was a project that I felt strongly about.  There were some obvious things about it that intrigued me, so I started doing a little bit of research, and every time I turned over a rock, there was something under it that was just incredible. As I kept researching, I realized that this had the makings of a really interesting book, and that’s when I went to a publisher with a short proposal.  Fortunately, they accepted it…but it turned out that they were in transition, and in the process of selling to a university press at a major university, so it immediately got lost in the shuffle.  A year later, nothing had happened, so I asked them to allow me to have a release from the contract, which they did.

“I went to Zenith Press and asked them about their interest, because the editor that I’d originally pitched my book idea to had moved to Zenith, and she was very familiar with the project.  I explained that I was free to market the proposal to Zenith, and she was gracious enough to give this project an opportunity.  The journey from concept to print took about three-and-a-half years.  The folks at Zenith are tremendous, and it has been a really great ride.”

Haskew smartly anchors the myriad stories of West Point’s star class to the academy itself, each tethered to one of the most hallowed institutions this country has to offer.  Founded in 1802 by President Thomas Jefferson – on George Washington’s earlier recommendation – and tucked in the hills overlooking the Hudson River in upstate New York, the United States Military Academy has produced top-tier leaders, such as General George S. Patton and the 34th President of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower.  In West Point 1915, we quickly learn that it was Sylvanus Thayer whom Jefferson granted an appointment to West Point, the same Sylvanus Thayer tapped by President Monroe to serve as an early superintendent.  Thayer added the study of war to the school’s curriculum, while also stressing mathematics, analytical thought, decision making, attention to detail and — most of all — discipline.

“Sylvanus Thayer is known as ‘The Father of West Point’,” Haskew explains.  “It was largely through his efforts that it became one of the premier engineering schools in the United States.  He also instituted discipline, although most cadets probably considered it torture – especially the first-year plebes who were tormented so unmercifully that many deserted, or broke down mentally and were dismissed.  Looking back, it was Thayer who laid down an array of traditions and policies which are still in use at West Point today.”

Indeed.

During his tenure at West Point, Thayer accomplished sweeping reforms, setting new standards for admission, establishing minimum levels of academic proficiency, and creating a system to measure cadet progress. The academy would continue to evolve in the decades following Thayer’s appointment, but on a visceral, emotional level, it was still very much his house when that historic class set foot on hallowed ground.

“West Point had an extremely high academic reputation by the time this class arrived in 1911,” Haskew says.  “It was known for its engineering, as well as for its technical background and curriculum.  It also carried a certain military panache, and it was in the tradition of Thayer that many of these cadets existed and evolved.”

 

“West Point had an extremely high academic reputation by the time this class arrived in 1911.  It was known for its engineering, as well as for its technical background and curriculum.  It also carried a certain military panache, and it was in the tradition of Thayer that many of these cadets existed and evolved.” – Michael Haskew

 

The Point, circa 1911, may have been steeped in Thayer’s traditions, but the grounds were undergoing a much-needed fashion makeover.

“There was a great campaign underway to build new buildings on the grounds,” Haskew says.  “Some of the existing structures were more than a century old, so there was a boom in construction.  The old, dilapidated barracks that the men were housed in, as well as several other large structures – including the great riding hall – were being redone.  There were also some new academic halls under construction, so it was an exciting time for these cadets to enter West Point.”

 

A construction boom was underway when the new cadets arrived in 1911. The spirit of that era is alive and well today.

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Tactically, much of the training at The Point was also being overhauled.

“When the 1911 incoming class arrived, there was still a heavy emphasis on horse-based Calvary tactics, which was a holdover from the Civil War period.  This is understandable, since the last major war that the Army had been involved in was the Spanish-American War at the turn of the 20th century.  West Point’s cadre of teachers had experience during the mobilization of that short war with Spain, but, in 1911, there was some transition going on with a world war brewing.  By the time this class graduated, World Word I in Europe was well underway.

“There were all sorts of new weaponry emerging during World War I, technology that didn’t exist before, and the devastating potential was just being realized when these guys graduated.  In response to that, the tactics that had been effective in the Napoleonic era, for example, were no longer going to be viable in the face of machine-guns and modern, heavy-concentrated artillery fire.  Aircraft over the battlefield was another new development, as was the advent of the submarine as a weapon.  Because of these things, it was a very interesting time in the history of the United States, as well as at the Academy.  This made the Class of 1915 a class on the cusp in a lot of respects, a bridge between the old ways of doing things and the new.  They appreciated an institution that was steeped in tradition, and were very much a part of that tradition, and yet they saw new technology advancing.”

Haskew goes on to explain that the technological advancements came with an interesting byproduct; introducing military opportunities that hadn’t existed before.

“A number of these guys entered the aviation section of the Signal Corps when they graduated,” Haskew explains.  “The Army bought its first aircraft right around the time these guys were graduating from West Point, so this class produced some of the first US airmen in the military.  Others, like Eisenhower, were instrumental in the development of the tank and armored warfare in the U.S. Army.  Eisenhower, as a matter of fact, was one of the early instructors in the Army Tank Corps, and was a big advocate of the tank, side-by-side with George Patton.”

The early years of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s service in the Army are less well known than his service in World War II and the years following the war, but those early years in the Army laid the foundation for his rise to high command and leadership in World War II.  Even less well known are the years preceding Ike’s arrival at West Point.  Haskew takes the reader on the future president’s journey from the farmlands to the front line and beyond, honing in on his time spent at the USMA.  Eisenhower didn’t rise from a position of money, or power, or influence.  His talent and ambition lay in stark contrast to his humble upbringing.

“Eisenhower came from a very middle-class, hard-working family,” Haskew says.  “He was born in Denison, Texas, and the family moved to Abilene, Kansas, when he was a young boy.  He and his younger brother, Edgar, created a pact with one another – one would stay and work in their uncle’s Bell Springs Creamery and the other would try to go to college.  Then, the one that was working would send money to the other, and when the college-bound son graduated, he would reciprocate and the other brother would follow.”

 

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Despite his humble beginnings, Dwight D. Eisenhower would go from the farmlands, to five-star general, to 34th President of the United States.

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In West Point 1915, we learn that it was Edgar who went first, while Ike worked the creamery and pulled double duty as a fireman.  That Eisenhower easily handled the workload is hardly surprising, considering the deceptive physical strength that he carried with him all the way to the White House.  Dwight was a two-sport star at Abilene High School, lettering in both baseball and football.  His nickname?  The ‘Kansas Cyclone’.

“Eisenhower was a very good athlete,” Haskew says, “but he wasn’t very big for a football player.  When he arrived at West Point in 1911, he weighed 152 pounds and stood 5’11” tall.  He would add muscle as a cadet and make the team, but he looked like anything but a football player when he entered the academy.”

 

“Eisenhower was a very good athlete, but he wasn’t very big for a football player.  When he arrived at West Point in 1911, he weighed 152 pounds and stood 5’11” tall.  He would add muscle as a cadet and make the team, but he looked like anything but a football player when he entered the academy.” – Michael Haskew

 

Despite his physical limitations, a young Dwight Eisenhower made no bones about being a football junkie, and would remain passionate about the sport his entire life.  Years after he stopped playing, Ike wrote:  “It would be difficult to overemphasize the importance I attached to participation in sports.  I so loved the fierce bodily contact of football that I suppose my enthusiasm made up somewhat for my lack of size.”

While West Point 1915 shines light on Eisenhower’s passion for football, it also touches on the athletic achievements of his talented classmates, including one who stands out above the others.

“Louis Merrilat was the best-known of any members of the class when he left the Academy,” Haskew says.  “He was an outstanding athlete – he was a first-team All-American football player in 1913 and 1914.  Merrilat was wounded in battle while serving in France during World War I, but he overcame his injuries and went on to play one season for the Canton Bulldogs in the National Football League.  He spent time in Florida during World War II, running the Army post in Miami.  He later became a soldier of fortune, training Iran’s Persian Guard, working with the Chinese Army in the 1930s, and serving in the French Foreign Legion.  Because of the exposure that he had had in the newspapers, and his reputation as a great football player, Merrilat was probably the best-known of all of the cadets at the time of graduation.”

Unlike Merrilat, Eisenhower didn’t initially set his sights on attending West Point or playing college football, yet he eventually did both, competing against the legendary Jim Thorpe in 1912 before shredding his knee two weeks later against Tufts University.  Unable to stay away, he turned in his pads after the injury and became a cheerleader.  That a healthy Eisenhower was even able to earn a spot on the Army roster speaks volumes about his drive, and provides a glimpse into what delivered him from Abilene to the banks of the Hudson River.

 

Eisenhower, an average football player at best, played briefly for Army until injuring his knee

Eisenhower, an average football player at best, played briefly for Army until injuring his knee in a game against Tufts University.

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“Edgar had already headed off to the University of Michigan,” Haskew recalls.  “Luckily for Eisenhower, he had developed a friendship with a guy named Edward E. ‘Swede’ Hazlett, Jr., who was getting ready to apply to the United States Military Academy.  Swede would drop by the creamery at night and the two of them would talk about their future, and what they wanted to do with their lives.  Swede encouraged Eisenhower to apply along with him, and so Eisenhower became convinced that the academies were a desirable path forward.

“Eisenhower had to take a test in order to be considered for either of the academies, and he had to go to the Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis in order to do that.  He applied, got no response, and then wrote persistently to his congressman until he was accepted.  Eisenhower scored high – number four for consideration to the Naval Academy in Annapolis, and number two for consideration to the Military Academy at West Point, behind a cadet by the name of George Pulsifer, Jr.  It was the congressman’s responsibility to choose the candidate for West Point, but he ended up passing the exam results off to a friend, who flipped Eisenhower and Pulsifer in the order. It eventually worked out for both men, because George Pulsifer also wound up at the Academy – in the same class as Eisenhower – with an at-large appointment.  Pulsifer’s story takes a sad turn years later, and those events are included in the book.”

It would be a stretch to dub Eisenhower the bad boy of West Point’s star class, but, as Haskew’s book makes clear, the future president was hardly averse to bending the rules and, as a result, racked up his fair share of demerits.

“Eisenhower had an amazing sense of humor,” says Haskew.  “It wasn’t really a disdain, but more of a willingness to push the envelope with authority.  He was something of a rogue…a guy who would sneak out for sandwiches, smoke and play cards.  He was a mischievous kind of guy in that way, but I think that just adds to the appeal.  Those who study Eisenhower learn that he began to appreciate the discipline more and more later in life.  He’s often quoted as saying that the discipline he learned at West Point shaped his military career, and also played a huge part in him becoming president.”

 

“Eisenhower had an amazing sense of humor.  It wasn’t really a disdain, but more of a willingness to push the envelope with authority.  He was something of a rogue…a guy who would sneak out for sandwiches, smoke and play cards.  He was a mischievous kind of guy in that way, but I think that just adds to the appeal.  Those who study Eisenhower learn that he began to appreciate the discipline more and more later in life.  He’s often quoted as saying that the discipline he learned at West Point shaped his military career, and also played a huge part in him becoming president.” – Michael Haskew

 

Like Eisenhower, Bradley’s road to West Point was anything but the product of privilege, power, or politics.

“Omar Bradley found out about his opportunity through his Sunday School teacher at Central Christian Church in Moberly, Missouri,” Haskew says.  “His father died when Bradley was a very young man.  His mother had a house foreclosed upon, so Bradley had a tough existence. He worked in the locomotive shop, for the Wabash Railroad.  The Sunday School teacher encouraged him to take the entrance exam, so he went to Jefferson Barracks, where he scored second overall.

“The interesting thing is that Bradley experienced a case of brain freeze during the math portion of the exam.  Completely flustered, he stood up to turn his papers in, resigned to the fact that he was going to fail that section.  At that moment, he noticed that the soldier who was proctoring the exam was immersed in a book, so Bradley, rather than disturb him, went back and sat down.  He later said that, as if almost by magic, he started to remember the theorems.  He managed to complete the math portion of the exam, which allowed him to stay there for the rest of the battery of tests.  He finished as an alternate behind a student that had been preparing for over a year, but the student – Dempsey Anderson – eventually failed his physical.  That’s how Bradley got the appointment.  Fate, it seems, played a hand in the future of both Eisenhower and Bradley.”

Haskew’s book drives home a salient point:  The two biggest names in the class – one of them a future President of the United States, the other the last five-star general in the US military – ascended to greatness without any previous connections to the academy.

“There were a number of legacies in the class of 1915,” Haskew says.  “There were sixteen second-generation cadets, and three third-generation members of that class.  Some of the ancestry is pretty impressive:  One of their classmates – James Basevi Ord – was the grandson of a union general who was instrumental in the final campaign that defeated Robert E Lee.  So there were some definite ties in these military aristocratic families, but neither Eisenhower nor Bradley had a background like that.  They were hardscrabble guys from the heartland, which kind of set them apart.”

Haskew’s book also touches on other common bonds between the two men.  Like Eisenhower, Bradley was a distinguished athlete, and we learn that his devotion to sports prevented him from excelling academically at West Point.

“While Eisenhower favored football, Bradley excelled in baseball,” Haskew says.  “He was a baseball star, and often played on semi-pro teams for no remuneration, which was to ensure his eligibility to represent the academy.  In fact, he was considered one of the most outstanding college players in the nation during his junior and senior seasons at West Point.  He was noted as both a power hitter and an outfielder with one of the best arms in his day.”

 

Before the stars: Members of the

Before the stars: Members of the 1915 Army baseball team, including future generals Omar Bradley, Leland S. Hobbs, and Vernon Prichard.

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Eisenhower and Bradley admired each other on many levels.  Prior to graduation, Ike wrote a brief portrait of Bradley in West Point’s yearbook, Howitzer.  Ever prescient, even at this early age, Eisenhower opined that Bradley’s most “promising characteristic is ‘getting there,’ and if he keeps up the clip he’s started, some of us will someday be bragging to our grandchildren that, ‘Sure, General Bradley was a classmate of mine.’”

Later, Bradley would go on to become Eisenhower’s most trusted an indispensible lieutenant – which is saying something, given that George S. Patton, Jr. and Mark Clark were also under Eisenhower’s charge and vying for his affection.  Summing up his assessment of Bradley, Ike later stated that although Bradley lacked some of the extraordinary and ruthless driving power that Patton could exert at critical moments, he still had ‘such force and determination that even in this characteristic, he was among our best…he is a jewel to have around.’

“Eisenhower had a tremendous amount of respect for Omar Bradley,” Haskew says.  “Patton was a friend and a favorite, and so was Mark Clark, but Bradley was the most consistent over time.  He didn’t have the failings of a Clark or a Patton, and Eisenhower respected this greatly.”

 

“Eisenhower had a tremendous amount of respect for Omar Bradley.  Patton was a friend and a favorite, and so was Mark Clark, but Bradley was the most consistent over time.  He didn’t have the failings of a Clark or a Patton, and Eisenhower respected this greatly.” – Michael Haskew

 

Clearly, both men were destined for greatness.  What made them so special?

Haskew:  “First of all, I think they had an ability to maintain their cool.  Eisenhower had a volcanic temper, but he learned to rein it in.  He learned the virtue of patience, and also of a little bit of decorum and tact.  To see someone who would just as soon get in a fistfight as a young boy, because he was as rough-and-tumble as anybody else, develop into the greatest leader of coalition warfare in our nation’s history, is a pretty remarkable thing.  The evolution is what separates him from someone like Patton, who was an incredible leader in his own right.  Eisenhower began to develop that ability to lead by more of a consensus than by a strong arm – although he was able to do that when needed – and he made many difficult decisions in his career.  He was a consensus builder among Allied commanders when that’s what it took for that coalition to stay together.

“I think Bradley was more of a soft-spoken, more willful person to begin with.  He kept his head down and he worked hard, but he never lost touch with the common soldier, and that’s one of the things that he was so well known for – his concern for the individual soldier.”

 

Omar Bradley, the United States' ninth (and last) 5-star general.

Omar Bradley, the United States’ ninth (and last) 5-star general.

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Haskew’s book brilliantly walks a journalistic tightrope, telling the story of these two giants without selling everyone else short.  No easy task, considering the accomplishments and character of the men involved.

“I think their very difficult upbringings, and the challenges that they faced, Bradley in particular, began that process of forging greatness, and then West Point refined it,” Haskew says.  “I think both men developed and even temperament at West Point that served each of them well.  The fact of the matter is, when you’re in a situation like they were in many times, you really don’t get a do over.  You’ve got to do the best you can do at the time that the situation presents itself.  I think West Point played a big part in their preparation to lead in some very difficult circumstances.

“The remarkable thing about Eisenhower, that I think towers above everything else, is that he never put himself or his career above the mission at hand.  He was disappointed that he didn’t go overseas in World War I, but when the time came, he was willing to step up and take on the responsibility.  He wrote that stirring note that he didn’t have to read to the media on the eve of D-Day, taking full responsibility in the event of a failure.  I think there’s a sharp contrast between that quality in Eisenhower, and someone like Mark Clark, which I learned about when researching for this book.  Clark served as deputy theatre commander in North Africa during World War II, and after the defeat at Kasserine, when Eisenhower asked Clark to take second corps, he viewed it as a demotion and refused.  In that moment, Clark put himself above the mission.  Eisenhower would have never done that.  And when Clark had the opportunity to cut off all of the Germans in southern Italy, or turn left and take Rome, we all know what Clark did – Clark took Rome, and thousands of Germans escaped to the north and continued to fight.”

Another fascinating element to Haskew’s book is the way it sheds light on how these friendships played a part in shaping both military careers and American history.

“Eisenhower and Clark were friends until the end,” Haskew says, “and if it hadn’t been for Clark, Eisenhower might not have ever come to George Marshall’s attention the way that he did.  When Marshall asked Clark – who was a rising star and two years behind Eisenhower at the academy – for ten names to head up the World War II war plans, Clark said, ‘I will give you Ike Eisenhower and nine sets of ditto marks.’  So, if it hadn’t been for Clark, Eisenhower may not have risen the way that he did.  And the respect between the two men was mutual; when Eisenhower went to England on a fact-finding mission – to see how the infrastructure buildup was going for the impending D-Day invasion, Marshall instructed Eisenhower to take someone with him.  When Marshall asked for a name, Eisenhower said one word: Clark.”

Marshall, of course, was a towering American statesman and soldier, famous for his leadership roles during World War II and the Cold War.  He would serve as Chief of Staff of the United States Army under two presidents, and also served as Secretary of State.  His ability to mentor, coach, and grow subordinates is legendary.  Even as he ascended to the most senior positions of leadership, his ability to bring out the best in those he led and to influence those around him remains nonpareil.  Communications with senior commanders require tact, diplomacy, and the ability to convey clear meaning, and Marshall’s personal relationship with then-General Eisenhower was particularly telling in this regard.  Having served together before World War II, they maintained a close relationship throughout the conflict.  Marshall never interceded in trying to influence Eisenhower to take a particular line of action, but instead communicated on a daily basis during the war and only offered food for thought in the decision-making process.  The final decision was Eisenhower’s to make, and Marshall backed it.  It was a lesson Eisenhower learned well, and one that shaped his relationship with Mark Clark.

“When Eisenhower and Clark reach North Africa, there’s a diversion in the way the two men see the world,” Haskew says.  “I think that Eisenhower clearly presents a distinction, in that he does not put himself above the mission.  He always considered himself nothing more than a part of the process.  I don’t think the same can be said for Mark Clark.  Or for someone like General Douglas McArthur, who had a towering ego – in fact, Eisenhower was fond of saying that he studied dramatics under McArthur for twelve years [laughs].”

Despite the failings of Clark, the two remained lifelong friends.

 

Eisenhower, immortalized with a statue on the grounds at West Point.

Eisenhower, immortalized with a statue on the grounds at West Point.

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“In his last days, Eisenhower had a frequent visitor in Mark Clark.  After Eisenhower had passed away, Clark said that, whenever the two men were together, Eisenhower always wanted to talk about their time at West Point.  I wonder why he didn’t want to talk about North Africa, or Italy?  Because that’s where Clark let him down.  Eisenhower wanted to focus on the good times, when the two men became friends at the Academy, because those were the great days.”

In West Point 1915, we learn that Bradley’s inauspicious start differed from Eisenhower’s in that he was a long-shot ‘Augustine’ – a cadet who enters in August and who misses the hell of June at Beast Barracks – because of a special late congressional appointment.  It’s an unexpected element of the book that shines.

“The Augustines were the latecomers,” Haskew says, “and Bradley was among that group.  There was a certain stigma attached to it, because those who have came to West Point in June experienced Beast Barracks and were part of what fraternity initiates call ‘Hell Week’.  There was great deal of importance associated with being part of Hell Week – which actually lasted longer than one week – because it was thought that the process helped to prepare cadets for what they were about to become.  If you came to West Point with a big head – maybe you were the top guy in your class, or the best athlete in your town – you were going to quickly learn that you were among the best students and athletes from other towns.  You’re going to be among guys who were used to being successful in whatever their endeavors were up to that point.

“In order to empty the vessel, so to speak, some people who had been through Hell Week felt that there was value in the hazing process.  It’s like this; in order to put up a new drywall, you’ve got to strip and tear down everything right down to the studs.  So, in a way, that’s what the process of Hell Week was all about.  If you could withstand Beast Barracks, you’re going strip away any over-inflated ego.  You’re  going to find yourself.  You’re going to learn what your weaknesses are – which may not be that readily apparent to you when enter West Point.  You’re also going to be more malleable when it comes to acclimating to Academy life, and more receptive to understanding what it means to be a part of something greater than yourself.

“There was a methodology or a mindset that we might not necessarily support today, but back then that was a big part of cadet life.  So, if you came in August, there was always that stigma that followed you that you hadn’t gone through that process, and that you might not be necessarily ‘worthy’, or as much a part of the brotherhood of the corps because you had not had that experience, because it was not a shared experience for that group that had come in August.  Bradley made no bones about it.  He felt like part of the reason why he didn’t have as successful a cadet career has he had hoped, was because he was in Augustine. He understood how the system worked, and he knew that it was a blemish that would stay with him for awhile.  Obviously, he overcame that, but certainly there were some differences, and those that came through Beast Barracks looked down on the Augustines during most of the time that they were there.”

In addition to Eisenhower and Bradley, the Class of 1915 produced another pair of heavy hitters:  Four-star generals Joseph T. McNarney, who later commanded US Forces in Europe (1945–1947), and James Van Fleet, the commander of US 8th Army during the Korean War from 1951 to 1953.  Haskew spends plenty of time on both.

“McNarney was the guy who reorganized the War Department for Marshall.  He streamlined it to the extent that Marshall was able to execute what he needed to execute during World War II.  McNarney was a tough guy and a hatchet man, and perfect for the job that needed to be done.  As I was researching him, the folks at the George C. Marshall Foundation in Lexington, Virginia, helped me tremendously.  I also found a transcript of the notes that Forrest C. Pogue, the Marshall biographer, had composed during an interview with McNarney for his multi-volume Marshall biography.  In it, McNarney talked about his clandestine flight out of Portugal, in the last Pan American clipper plane to the United States before the government interned all of the diplomats from the warring nations, holding them  there in Portugal.  There were also notes on how McNarney went before the Roberts Commission, which was created to investigate the Pearl Harbor attack.  In my opinion, McNarney may have saved Marshall’s reputation by being Marshall’s representative on the Roberts Commission, because Marshall had a lot at stake in the wake of Pearl Harbor.  There was plenty of criticism and a lot of questions after the attack…like, how well did Marshall and McNarney communicate with Walter Short and Husband E. Kimmel, the Army and Navy commanders in Hawaii?  How much information did they withhold from them?  Was Marshall largely responsible for lack of preparedness around the surprise attack on December 7, 1941?  McNarney was Marshall’s man on the Roberts Commission, and I think he protected Marshall and had his back, so to speak.  And without that, I think there may have been a change at the highest level.  Marshall went on to achieve great things, not only militarily, but diplomatically. He became Secretary of State, and was the architect of the Marshall Plan, which was the initiative to aid the rebuilding of Western Europe after the end of World War II.”

It’s refreshing to hear the passion in Haskew’s voice as he talks about the labor pains that come with researching a book of this magnitude.  His enthusiasm is apparent in his writing, which injects adrenaline into the stories that he’s uncovered while researching West Point’s star class.  Which begs the question:  Does he have any favorites?

“I like them all,” he offers quickly, “but there was one that struck me as particularly poignant.  In Bradley’s book, A General’s Life, he talks about when he and Mary, his first wife, got married and took a honeymoon trip out to the West Coast. They were on their way to the Los Angeles area to visit some of her relatives, when, along the way, they decided to stop and visit one of Bradley’s classmates. The classmate was Jo Hunt Reaney, who was stationed in Texas at the time.  Reaney showed them a good time; they went to a ballgame on the post there, had a nice lunch, and Reaney gave the newlyweds an authentic, handcrafted Navajo rug, which Mary thought was beautiful.

“Well, that got me to thinking – ‘What happened to Jo Reaney?  So I started digging, and I learned that Jo Reaney served in France during World War I and was killed in action.  One of his fellow company commanders later writes a letter to Reaney’s mother, and in it recounts how he was blown into a shallow hole, and how he took off his heavy coat and covered the body of the soldier that was in the shallow hole with him – which, it turned out, was Jo Hunt Reaney.  Reaney was 26 years old when he died.  He never made general like a lot of the others in his class, and he wasn’t famous like Louis Merrilat, but that kind of story just resonates across time.

“Pulsifer is another interesting and tragic story – and not only because of the part he played in Eisenhower being selected to West Point.  Pulsifer went into the aviation section of the US Army Signal Corps, flying for the troops on the Mexican Border, before being sent overseas where a freak accident cost him his military career.  He flew many missions over Germany, but, after returning to his base from one of these flights, was shot by an American sentry posted at a crossroad from the air field to the chateau that housed the flyers.  When Pulsifer flew out on his last mission, a sentry wasn’t stationed there.  In the dark, George, along with other pilots who rode in the car, passed up the sentry without stopping, and the sentry fired and hit George as he slept in the car.  The bullet lodged in his liver after hitting his spine, paralyzing him below the waist.”

West Point 1915 also has its fair share of drama and intrigue, as is the case with demoted major general Henry J.F. Miller.

“Miller was one of the best mechanics in the U.S. Army air forces,” Haskew says.  “He was at a dinner party at London’s famed Claridge Hotel.  Cocktails were flowing.  All those present, including three or four women, were in uniform.  Miller was talking about the tough time he was having to get certain crucial supplies, when someone said, ‘Oh, it’s going to be okay.’  And Miller said something to the effect that it wasn’t going to be in time for the D-Day invasion, because the invasion was going to happen before June 15.

Michael Haskew

The West Point class of 1915 graduation photo of Henry J. F. Miller, who would achieve major general rank and serve with the U.S. Ninth Air Force prior to D-Day. His classmate, Dwight Eisenhower, sent Miller home to the States at reduced rank following an April 1944 security violation at Claridge’s hotel in London. (29th Infantry Division Archives)

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“Two weeks after the landings, Time magazine published an account of what happened.  Miller denied it but the damage was done.  His close relationship with Eisenhower disintegrated, thousands of lives were put at risk, and all because Miller had a couple of drinks under his belt and had a slip of the tongue.  That breach of national security was his undoing.  Eisenhower, his own classmate at West Point, wrote a scathing letter to him, and he was demoted from the rank of major general.  He ended up as lieutenant colonel and was shipped home in disgrace.  Well, that got me to thinking about the rest of his story.  I learned that, before he died, he was actually promoted back to the rank of brigadier general…he was no longer in the military, so this was a promotion on the retired list, which was only symbolic at that point.”

In West Point 1915, Haskew also uncovers stories that inspire.

“Louis Estevez was born of foreign parentage, and became the first appointee and first graduate from Puerto Rico.  He tutored Eisenhower in Spanish, because all of the cadets were required to learn a second language and Eisenhower needed help learning it.  The interesting part about Estevez’s story is that, at the time he was about ready to graduate, there was some question as to whether or not he was eligible for commission in the U.S. Army.  When Estevez was ready to graduate, Puerto Rican nationals were not United States citizens, and therefore were technically not eligible for commissions in the U.S. Army.  Someone actually researched to see if there had been any type of precedent established.  Lo and behold, there had been a precedent set during the Revolutionary War period, when people like Baron von Steuben had actually received commissions in the Continental Army.  So, there was a precedent set, and that’s how Estevez was able to obtain his commission.”

Haskew’s book is filled with rich narratives just like that, making it a must read not only for war buffs and history fiends alike, but also for anyone who wants a glimpse into one of the world’s most storied institutions, and the lives of the men that it has shaped.

 

The West Point 1915 star class.

The West Point 1915 star class.

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“I’ve met a number West Point graduates, and I’ve gotten to see what an impact and influence the cadet experience has had on their lives.  In every case, you immediately sense a presence that tells you that they are people of accomplishment. That doesn’t mean that they are bombastic or egotistical people whatsoever.  What it means is that you just see that bearing, and I think a lot of that comes from their West Point experience and the character that it has undoubtedly built in them.”

“I’m on the outside looking in,” Haskew continues, “but, in my opinion, West Point is as good as it gets.  It’s not perfect:  Through the years, it has withstood difficult times and intense scrutiny, perhaps on a grander scale, than many other institutions, and it’s had its own fair share of scandals and misadventure.  But very few institutions in the world carries the same prestige or commands the same respect as the United States Military Academy.  I think West Point is a great molder and shaper of men and women today, and I think that those who aspire to military careers and take on the challenge of a West Point and succeed, are to be commended and looked up to as the best that our country has to offer.  The tradition speaks for itself.  The way it prepares young people to lead other people in life and death combat situations is second to none.  It’s one thing to prepare for life in the business world, but it’s quite another to prepare for life on the battlefield.  West Point is one of the few institutions in the world that shapes leaders for any situation – whether that is the boardroom, the battlefield, or the Oval Office.”

Julie Sarkissian – Spellbound

By:  Michael D. McClellan | There is something so refreshingly different about both Julie Sarkissian and her 2013 debut novel, Dear Lucy, that it’s easy to lose yourself in the world of the title character from the very first sentence.  The awkwardness of the grammar immediately sweeps you up, beautifully conveying the voice of this tender, innocent, and developmentally challenged teenage girl, creating an emotional bond with Lucy that draws you in and keeps you turning pages.  Hers is a voice of wonder, one that can’t fully comprehend the dark, weighty issues that underpin the story’s fable-like structure.  It’s also a voice that illuminates Lucy’s desperate need for acceptance, and one that fuels a fierce loyalty borne in no small part from her unique disability.  Layer in Lucy’s keen eye for detail – Sarkissian deftly leverages the character’s compromised IQ – which provides you with a skewed glimpse into her life gathering eggs on the chicken farm, and augment that detail with first-person narration by central characters Samantha and Missus, and this mysterious fictional world brims with possibility from the get-go.

Time out…

Hold everything.

Before we turn this into another blasé book review let’s pump the brakes, take a step back and gain a little perspective.  We’ll dive into the captivating, poetic pages of Dear Lucy soon enough.  Sitting down with Sarkissian, I’m struck by her charming nature and overall well-roundedness.  She’s an author with serious writing chops, that much is readily evident from the moment you meet her, but she’s also equally adept at discussing her Ivy League education or debating the hip-hop holy war between Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls.  And she doesn’t take herself too seriously, a mild surprise considering most other writers praised by the legendary Joyce Carol Oates might opt to go the self-absorbed, pretentious and unapproachable route.

Not Julie Sarkissian.

That’s not how she rolls.

Lively and engaging, Sarkissian’s journey from rural Southern California to a Simon & Schuster book deal begins in the tiny community of Modjeska, where she was raised in a way that feels oddly out of touch with today’s digitally connected world.

“I grew up in a tiny community called Modjeska Canyon in Southern California,” Sarkissian says.  “It was very rural, which might surprise you since it was located in Orange County.  There was an interesting mix of people – you had the conservative cowboy and rancher types who had their horses and raised animals, and then you had people who were much more liberal, intellectual, and eccentric.  It was so rural that I grew up with a sense of being isolated from what was normal.  If our little canyon was in Vermont, I don’t think I would have felt that way – I think it would have felt more like common culture.  But Orange County is known for its gated communities and affluent population, where the focus is predominantly materialistic and superficial.  And in the middle of all this materialism was our little canyon with our small, modest ranch-style house that my parents built themselves.  I grew up without a television.  I was potty trained in an outhouse.  My parents grew all our own fruits and vegetables – they actually had an award-winning garden.  Because of these types of things, I was really cognizant of how different we were, and I don’t mean that in a negative way at all.  It was more a sense of otherness.

“I think this sense of otherness that came from growing up in the canyon had an influence on the book, and in fantastic ways.  But it wasn’t until I was asked about where I grew up, and whether my childhood had anything to do with the book, that I even gave it a thought.  That’s when I realized that there was a connection between my upbringing and the character of Lucy and her sense of being different.  I could see some of myself in her being different, and wanting to relate but not knowing how.”

 

Dear Lucy - by Julie Sarkassian

Dear Lucy – by Julie Sarkassian

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Sarkissian’s upbringing may have been unconventional, especially within the me-centric framework that is California’s Orange County, but it played a significant role in shaping her academic future.  She excelled in the classroom from a young age, graduating high school with honors, but the real education of Julie Sarkissian came during those backpacking trips in the Sierra Mountains, and in the canyon community void of sidewalks and street lights and home to just a single business – a country store called Danny’s that sold the candy all of the children worshipped and spent all week stealing change to buy.  It was here, in this day-to-day rhythm of life that Sarkissian developed her ear for prose.  But the insular world of the canyon would soon give way to the academic nirvana of Princeton University.

“For me, the biggest culture shock that I experienced was going from Orange County and Modjeska Canyon to Princeton,” Sarkissian says.  “It wasn’t so much the bigness of the campus, but rather the fact that the environment was so  privileged, elite and cloistered.  And while the people were mostly warmhearted – I made good friends, and I married someone from Princeton – I just felt out of place, like I’d fallen asleep on my bed in Orange County and had awakened on Mars [laughs].

 

“For me, the biggest culture shock that I experienced was going from Orange County and Modjeska Canyon to Princeton.  It wasn’t so much the bigness of the campus, but rather the fact that the environment was so  privileged, elite and cloistered.  And while the people were mostly warmhearted – I made good friends, and I married someone from Princeton – I just felt out of place, like I’d fallen asleep on my bed in Orange County and had awakened on Mars [laughs].” – Julie Sarkissian

 

“I hate to say anything disparaging at all against Princeton University because it’s an amazing institution, and it was such an honor going there, but I like to say that I love being a graduate of Princeton.  I just didn’t like being a student there.  I think a lot of students who go to public schools and then go to Princeton feel somewhat the same way.  It’s nothing against the school per se; I went from being a big fish in a small pond – I wasn’t the valedictorian in high school, but I was a straight A student and the class president.  You think that carries weight, and then you go to Princeton and that’s everyone’s story.  You quickly realize that there are suddenly way more people who’ve accomplished much more than you’ve accomplished.  It seemed like a lot of the students came from prep schools, or New York private schools, and most of them were much more prepared for the Princeton experience.  They were coming from elite, high-achieving environments.  So that was a large part of my feeling out of place.”

Sarkissian’s academic journey continued in New York, where she earned an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School, the prestigious institution founded in 1919 by John Dewey and dedicated to the intellectual and artistic freedom of its students.

 

The New School, NYC

The New School, NYC

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When I decided to move to New York, everything clicked,” Sarkissian says.  “I was looking for a cultural diversity at Princeton, but in many respects it was very East Coast, and very affluent.  In New York there was a funkiness, an edginess that didn’t exist at Princeton.  I was drawn to that.  I think it relates back somehow to my parents, and them being these sort of hippie liberals who brought their own bags with them to the grocery store years before anyone else thought about cutting down on plastic and reducing the carbon footprint.  So, for me, I instantly felt more at home in New York than I ever did during the time that I spent in college.”

Like many aspiring artists, Sarkissian worked odd jobs to make ends meet.  One job in particular stuck, with lasting influence.

“I waited tables at Princeton as a part-time job, which was super uncommon,” Sarkissian says.  “And when I got to New York, I started waiting tables at Edwards Restaurant in Tribeca.  I was twenty when I started working there, which was during the summer of my junior year of college.  Sometimes I’d make as little as fifty dollars working a four hour shift.  But I met some of the coolest people, most of them aspiring artists or at least aspiring at something.  I related to these people because they were educated, artistic, and sacrificing for non-traditional careers.  I loved that about them.  It was a great summer, low stakes, just writing and hanging out with my friends from the restaurant and chilling with my friends from college.

 

Edwards Restaurant - Tribeca

Edwards Restaurant – Tribeca

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“Flash forward a year.  I’m graduating from Princeton and getting ready to go to The New School.  Edward Youkilis calls me, and asks me what my plans are for next year.  I let him know that I’m moving to New York full-time, and then he asks me to come back to his restaurant.  I was flattered, because I’d only worked there two months during the summer, and I was the low person on the totem pole, but he still remembered me.  So I went back to work there, and it immediately became an integral part of my life in New York.  I was at Edwards five nights a week, and during the day I wrote and attended graduate school.  It was special.  To this day I still work a shift there.”

Has her time at Edwards Restaurant influenced her writing?

“It’s hard for me to speak to the influences on my writing,” she says quickly.  “The connection between the rural nature of where I grew up and the rural setting of Dear Lucy seems honest and true, even though I wasn’t fully aware of the connection when I was writing it.  Waitressing at Edwards allowed me the intellectual and creative freedom to be able to write.  I chose a job that wasn’t intellectually taxing, and it really worked for me as a writer.  It allowed me the mental energy to devote to writing.

 

“It’s hard for me to speak to the influences on my writing.  The connection between the rural nature of where I grew up and the rural setting of Dear Lucy seems honest and true, even though I wasn’t fully aware of the connection when I was writing it.  Waitressing at Edwards allowed me the intellectual and creative freedom to be able to write.  I chose a job that wasn’t intellectually taxing, and it really worked for me as a writer.  It allowed me the mental energy to devote to writing.” – Julie Sarkissian

 

“I recently authored a piece for the New York Observer about how, when customers find out that I went to Princeton, or find out that I’ve written a book, they’re surprised that I’m waiting tables.  Some of them fall into the stereotype trap and assume that I’m not brainy, until they find out some of these details about me.  But I’ve never felt too good for my job, or too good to be a waitress.”

As we continue to talk, it’s clear that stereotypes don’t apply when it comes to Julie Sarkissian.  She’s a natural extrovert, and completely comfortable providing unfettered access into her world as a writer.  Like the process of finding an agent and getting published.

“I think my experience was pretty standard,” she says.  “I put together the manuscript for Dear Lucy at the end of 2008 – it was essentially a version of my MFA thesis at The New School – and that’s when a lot of fear set in.  I was really terrified to take that step from my panel advisor reading it, and my best friend reading it, to turning it over professionally and then experiencing real, crushing rejection.  It was overwhelming.

“I wasn’t sure how to proceed, other than I knew the next step was to get an agent.  Turns out my friend at Edwards had an editor friend who worked at Simon and Schuster, and one day everything came together at the restaurant and I was introduced to her.  She could tell that I was really uncomfortable, but it turns out she was my guardian angel in a lot of respects. She told me that, even though I wasn’t ready then, that I’d be ready at some point, so she gave me her email address and said she’d be happy to help me find an agent.  From her standpoint it probably seemed like such a small gesture, but for me it meant everything.  I think it really speaks to the strong power of weak connections, because if you can use an editor’s name like that in a query letter, it really increases the chances of an agent reading your manuscript.

“And that’s what happened.  I went with Judy Heiblum at Sterling Lord Literistic, and we edited the book together for about a year and a half.  It was pretty grueling work.  We eventually were able to sell it to Simon & Schuster, and that led to another year and a half worth of edits.  It was mentally and emotionally exhausting at times, but I think it was pretty much the standard path that most authors travel on the journey to publication.”

For Sarkissian, the publication of Dear Lucy marked a major milestone in her life.  After years of hard work, it was time to blow off a little steam – and what better way than with a launch party?

“It was so much fun,” Sarkissian says, smiling.  “Since moving to New York, my dream had always been to host a book launch at my favorite bookstore, BookCourt in Brooklyn.  That’s what we did.  My family and friends were so incredibly supportive.  Heather Robb of the band The Spring Standards, and Peter Lalish of the band Lucius were there to play live music.  It was an amazing time – they played book-themed songs like Paperback Writer by the Beatles and Everyday I Write The Book by Elvis Costello.  It was very emotional.  I remember thinking that, if this is all that came out of writing this book – that I was able to have this moment with the people that I care about the most – that it would all be worth it, even if we only sold the copies at the launch party.  Of course you think differently later – you want to sell as many books as possible.  But the book launch was a definitely highlight in my life.  I cried during my thank you speech.  There were lots of cupcakes, lots of wine, and most importantly, lots of love involved.”

 

BookCourt, Brooklyn NY

BookCourt, Brooklyn NY

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Which brings us to Dear Lucy.

The title character is a young girl with special needs sent to live on a farm away from her selfish mother who can’t manage her daughter’s issues.  It’s here that Lucy makes her first real friend, a pregnant teenager named Samantha, and it’s here that we get our first glimpse into a fractured world that isn’t exactly what it seems on the surface.  Lucy finds herself on the Farm as the novel opens, under the care of an elderly couple while her overwhelmed mother carries on with her life in the City.  Sarkissian’s decision to be intentionally vague with setting and period gives the book a certain timeless quality, and the reader is left to construct their own version of Lucy’s world.

“The decision to keep the elements of time and place ambiguous also happened on an unconscious level,” Sarkissian says, reflecting on the book’s structure.  “I was intrigued by the way terms like ‘the farm’ and ‘the city’ sounded.  It played into Lucy’s childlike sensibilities and the simplicity of her worldview.”

What did Sarkissian see in her mind’s eye when writing the book?

“That’s hard for me to say,” she replies quickly.  “I believe I write from the ear rather than the eye, which may sound somewhat strange.  With Dear Lucy I didn’t see a real place. But I did hear the character’s voices.  I’ve said this before, but the landscape the characters inhabited looked and felt like a bare-bones stage production, with only the most necessary props available to fill in the gaps.”

 

“I believe I write from the ear rather than the eye, which may sound somewhat strange.  With Dear Lucy I didn’t see a real place. But I did hear the character’s voices.  I’ve said this before, but the landscape the characters inhabited looked and felt like a bare-bones stage production, with only the most necessary props available to fill in the gaps.” – Julie Sarkissian

 

Another interesting and distinctive aspect of Dear Lucy is the poetic way in which it’s written.  The book is mostly narrated through the innocent and lyrical perspective of the title character, with additional layering coming from the narratives of Missus and Samantha.  It fits together beautifully, and Sarkissian weaves it all with a naturally poetic ear.

“I love poetry,” she says.  “I love reading the works of great poets like TS Eliot and Robert Frost, among others.  Poetry was a big part of my life very early on, and it certainly had an influence on how Dear Lucy was constructed.  A major decision was made to cut down on the lyrical expressions at the end of the chapters, and that’s where I leaned on the experience of my editor.  And those were the right choices, because it helped to achieve a workable balance between beauty of the prose and the pace of the story itself.

“The decision to have multiple narrators was crucial in conveying information to the reader that otherwise would have been lost if told entirely from Lucy’s point of view.  Missus was the second character to have a voice, after Lucy.  There was a certain suffering with this character that brought with it a degree of sympathy, despite the dark undertones of what she brings with her to the story.  She pleads her case to the reader through her narration, and through it we see her humanity, however immoral or repulsive that might be.”

And then there’s the language itself.  Sarkissian offers up Lucy’s unique inner dialogue from the very first pages, giving the reader an anchor point on which everything else builds. While intellectually limited, Lucy’s other characteristics – the mischievousness, the naiveté, the blind loyalty – give her a depth that instantly draws you in, wanting more.

“Lucy came to me as a voice,” Sarkissian says. “I had this image of her gathering the eggs, and the narration just took over.  Her voice was so poignant – it was her essence and it never changed.  I fell in love with her, and in many ways I found myself working my way backwards to unlock who she might be.  It was really all about her leading me and guiding me along the journey.  Her voice was the foundation of the whole manuscript.”

 

“Lucy came to me as a voice,” Sarkissian.  I had this image of her gathering the eggs, and the narration just took over.  Her voice was so poignant – it was her essence and it never changed.  I fell in love with her, and in many ways I found myself working my way backwards to unlock who she might be.  It was really all about her leading me and guiding me along the journey.  Her voice was the foundation of the whole manuscript.” – Juilie Sarkissian

 

The twisting plot, as told by Lucy, Missus and Samantha, reads alternately like a classic fable and a seductively dark thriller.  Mister and Missus run the chicken farm, and we quickly learn that the pregnant Samantha has agreed to give up her baby to them.  But all of that changes after the birth, when she learns the dark truth about the couple’s original daughter.  Enter Lucy, who is determined to help Samantha at all costs, and the stage is set for an addictively interesting journey.

“The challenge was in bringing each of the other characters alive, and being able to have them stand on their own.  I didn’t want them simply serving as vehicles to fill in gaps created by Lucy’s limited intellect.  The voices of Missus and Samantha were conscious decisions made on my part, because I was at a loss on how to move the plot forward in Lucy’s voice.  I didn’t know how I was going to build suspense or create nuance without these other voices.”

 

A playful moment with author Julie Sarkissian

A playful moment with author Julie Sarkissian

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I’m tempted to ask Sarkissian what comes next, but I pull back – she’s likely heard the question dozens of times, and it has to get a tad bit stale after the umpteenth query, not unlike newlyweds who start getting the inevitable baby question thrown their way.  Instead, I want to go in a different direction, shake things up, and before long we’re talking about her past and present, East Coast / West Coast, Pac and Biggie.

If she could go to a Hollywood premiere or a Broadway premiere, which would she choose?

“That’s a good question,” she says, playfully contemplating the possibilities.  “That’s tough, but I’d have be loyal to my current situation and say Broadway.  I think I’d have a greater chance of sneaking in and quickly introducing myself to one of the actors.  But I would happily attend both, if someone wants to extend me an invitation [laughs].”

Yankees or Dodgers?

“Dodgers,” she says quickly, “that way I can have the best of both worlds, because they were originally from Brooklyn.”

Pac or Biggie?

“Oh my gosh, that’s a really tough one!  Since I’m from Southern California, I’m going to stick with my West Coast roots.  Tupac!”

We move from Tupac to Joyce Carol Oates – yes, that Joyce Carol Oates, the National Book Award winner – who calls Dear Lucy “a boldly lyrical, suspenseful, and mysterious fictional world.” Best-selling author Ann Hood says that “Dear Lucy is one of those rare delights that you cannot put down, and once you do, you can’t forget.”  High praise indeed, which begs the question:  Who are some of the authors that captivate Julie Sarkissian?

“I credit [William] Faulkner as my biggest influence and inspiration,” she says quickly.  “Joyce Carol Oates, obviously – it was such an honor to have her speak about my work.  Nathaniel West, Flannery O Connor, and Eudora Welty are others who have inspired me.  But I’m also inspired my author friends, and I’m very thankful to know people like Julia Fierro, who started Sackett Street Writer’s Workshop where I work.  She wrote her first book, Cutting Teeth, while running Sackett Street and being a mom of two small kids. I think that’s an amazing accomplishment.”

As we prepare to close, Sarkissian reveals that she’s in the very nascent stages of a project based on the West Coast.  But she gives few details, and makes it clear that there are no plans for a timetable – and for good reason.

“I’m about three weeks away from having my first child,” she says, smiling, “so that may change everything for me.  So at this point my focus is on having the baby and starting our family.  I’m actually a little bit terrified of being a parent and being the disciplinarian, but it’s an extremely exciting time and I’m really looking forward to the future.”