Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Keeper of History

Among the multitude of places where I conducted research for my World War I novel, Flower of Iowa, one location stands above the rest: the Imperial War Museum in London.

The building sits imposingly in a park on the south side of the Thames, its tall central dome echoing St. Paul’s on the north side. When I first visited the IWM (as it’s universally known) in the early days of writing Flower, I could not have imagined the welcome I would receive. As an American nobody walking in off the street, I was cordially ushered, via an old elevator and even older flights of stairs, up into the circular reading room just beneath the top of the dome that had formerly housed the chapel of the hospital known as Bedlam.

Yes, in a weirdly poetic twist, this museum dedicated to remembering the madness of war is housed on the former site of perhaps the most infamous insane asylum in the world.  (Think of Alastair Sim as Scrooge in the 1951 movie version of A Christmas Carol, shaking his head as he says, “I’ll retire to Bedlam.”)
This nefarious history notwithstanding, the IWM is a place of magic. Its incomparable collections are tended by the kindest and most earnest of staff, which treated my requests as if I were a world-renowned historian.  From original(!) trench maps to a soldier’s diary that had been creased by a bullet (the diary saved his life), I gained access to The Great War at the IWM in an immediate way as I did no other place, not even the battlefields and cemeteries of France and Belgium.

The IWM closed last year in anticipation of the WWI centenary. But it will reopen on July 19 to unveil its totally renovated First World War Galleries. While I am excited about visiting again, I hope that the renewed IWM still retains the ineffable flavor of that amazing researcher’s sanctuary just under the top of the dome.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Incident at Cantigny

If I had a dime for every time someone mistakenly said “World War II” in reference to my book, Flower of Iowa, I could have published it in print, and much sooner.  

One of the earlier First World War events I attended while writing my novel was in the summer of 1993 at Cantigny, the former estate of Colonel Robert McCormick of Chicago Tribune fame. It is located in Wheaton, Illinois, 30 miles west of Chicago. 

Cantigny is named for the very first World War I offensive by American soldiers, in late May 1918. The estate had been chosen in 1993 to hold America’s official commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the end of The Great War. The ceremony was moved to a hot August day in suburban Chicago, rather than a cold November one – a climatologic move made in deference to the 70-odd surviving former Doughboys in attendance, all in their 90s. (The last Doughboy, Frank Buckles, died three years ago at age 110; like Tommy Flowers, he had lied about his age to enlist.  The last Tommy or British soldier, Harry Patch, died in 2009.)

Back to the Cantigny reception. In 1993, Bill Clinton’s new administration was already regarded with suspicion by the military. The new Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Jesse Brown, was the keynote speaker at this event. Partway through his speech, the Secretary accidentally referenced “World War Two,” prompting an outburst from the crowd, including veterans and their progeny (and me, for that matter): “One!,” we yelled in unison.

Completely unintentional though I am sure the gaffe was, to many in attendance it seemed emblematic of the lack of respect among Americans for remembering the veterans of the First World War, and indeed the war itself. Other than Snoopy and the Red Baron, at that point the only echo of the war in American pop culture was a commercial famous for the tagline “It’s the economy” where an elderly veteran in a Doughboy uniform was the target of gentle ridicule in a small-town parade. Flower of Iowa is my own modest, but heartfelt, attempt to redress that situation.

Monday, May 19, 2014

What a Week

On Tuesday, about 40 friends, most of them of many decades’ duration, gathered at the Hill & Dale in New York City’s suddenly tony Lower East Side to celebrate the publication of Flower of Iowa, which proceeded to take place officially two days later.  

Having launch parties in both the Hudson Valley and New York City might seem like nothing more than a good PR move (or just plain overkill, if you’re a real cynic), but in fact, it was quite appropriate. Even though by the time I finished the first draft of Flower Chuck and I were living in the Hudson Valley, I conceived of the idea for the novel, and began researching and writing it, while we were living in New York – Brooklyn, to be exact, our home for 17 years. Indeed, it was at the big, beautiful, old-style Brooklyn Public Central Library on Grand Army Plaza where I did my first serious research. I needed to go no further than my own borough – not to Illinois, nor to London, nor to France – to realize that Tommy had to be in the 33rd Division, because the plot of the book wouldn’t allow him to be with any other. 

And that was all in the pre-Internet age. When I started researching and writing, the idea that something called an eBook would allow for publication someday was just somebody’s preposterous fantasy. And yet, here we are...

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Bring Flower of Iowa to the Beach

We are delighted to announce that Flower of Iowa has been selected as an ideal summer beach reading choice by Kenneth Walsh in the "Summer Beach Reads 2014" list on his very cool go-to culture blog Kenneth in the 212.

Flower of Iowa NYC Reception

Longtime friends came to the tony bar Hill & Dale on Manhattan's Lower East Side yesterday evening to congratulate Lance Ringel on his new book, the World War I novel Flower of Iowa. Guests enjoyed hors d'oeuvre and punch and were treated to a reading by the author. 

Flower of Iowa will be available by eBook on May 15, 2014 via Smashwords, and other retailers. Please click on the "Purchase" page for more information.

Friday, May 9, 2014

The Questions Amazed Me the Most

It was the questions that amazed me the most.

On Wednesday we had our first launch party for Flower of Iowa, at Vassar College. Some 50 people were in attendance, about half from Vassar, where I have worked for 14 years, and about half from the greater Hudson Valley, which I have called home for 19 years. The show of support was truly heartening, and it was great to see Minnie Cho’s wonderful book cover design on posterboards around the reception rooms.

But it was the questions that amazed me the most after I did my two readings! 

What was particularly gratifying to me was how many reflected a general fascination with World War I – which perhaps had been rekindled a bit after hearing me read from Flower

What about the use of gas as a weapon? (Surprisingly ineffective, but fearsome when it did work.) Was the Christmas Truce anywhere in the book? (Yes, it plays a glancing but poignant role.) Is there any historical evidence of gay soldiers in the Great War? (There is, but you need to know where to look.) 

There were other good questions about other subjects, notably how I put the book together, but I was particularly happy with these. I wrote Flower of Iowa because soldiers like Tommy and David have a story that needs to be told – but equally, I wrote it because Americans know far too little about the war in which they fought. If the novel can help change that lack of awareness just a little, it will have achieved one of its aims.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Vassar College Reception

The first official book launch party for Flower of Iowa took place on Wednesday, May 7th at Vassar College, author Lance Ringel's employer for 14 years. 

In addition to food, drink and congratulations from friends and colleagues, Lance read two pieces from his World War One novel. 

Flower of Iowa concerns an American and British soldier who unwittingly fall in love during during the final months of battle in the summer of 1918.

Here are pictures from the event:

Monday, May 5, 2014

A Question of Character

My decision to publish the eBook Flower of Iowa is about them – that is, the novel’s characters. Since the centennial of the Great War begins this August, now is the perfect time to introduce these characters to a world that is profoundly affected by the events of a hundred years ago, yet remains largely oblivious to that fact. 

Tommy Flowers, David Pearson, Jamie Colbeck, Nicole Lacroix, Billy Sand, Sister Jean Anderson – these are fictional people who became vividly real for me in the course of writing Flower of Iowa, more so than many actual people with whom I have crossed paths.  When you’ve created characters like these, when you’ve seen their stories through to whatever fate awaits them, it can be tempting to say, “My work here is done.” I’m a writer, after all, not a publisher or a publicist.

But it finally became apparent that if I waited for somebody else to give me the chance to share my characters’ stories, the opportunity might never materialize. I had a responsibility to do better by them, and the convergence of the 100th anniversary observances with the rise of electronic publishing created an ideal opportunity to pay proper tribute to these fictional characters – as well as to their real-life counterparts. 

So here we are, less than two weeks from the publication date. During the long incubation period of this project, friends and acquaintances reported that this novel moved them in powerful ways. Now I want to make room for the possibility that the book could have a similar impact on total strangers – those with a special affinity for the World War I era and, more importantly, those who need to know about this great conflict and the valiant people who fought it, lived through it, died in it.  

Maybe it will happen; maybe it won’t.  But at least I’ll have given my characters a fighting chance.  No irony in that phrase, huh?