JAMES W. URE, a former staff writer at The Salt Lake Tribune, is the author of Seized by the Sun: The Life and Disappearance of World War II Pilot Gertrude Tompkins, which will be published in July 2017 by Chicago Review Press. He lives in Salt Lake City.
1. What inspired you to write this book?
I had known about the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) for years, but when the story of Gertrude Tompkins was presented to me by her grandniece in 2000, it was a story that had to be told. Born to a well-off New Jersey family, Gertrude was handicapped by a psychologically constricting stutter. She fell in love with an American flying for the Royal Air Force. His death in combat compelled her to take up flying and join the WASPs. It is an uplifting story of perseverance in the face of difficult odds by a woman who was determined to fly P-51 Mustangs. It is also a mystery—of the 38 WASPs killed during World War II, she is the only one still missing.
2. How did you become interested in military history?
My early life and attitudes were shaped by World War II. That interest never faded. I was born in 1939, and my earliest memory is of being with family around our big console radio the day Pearl Harbor was bombed. I didn’t understand what exactly was happening, but I was aware of the electrified fear that passed between my parents. I can still sense my feelings of relief when the war seemed to turn. It happened when my mother said, “Italy has surrendered.” War was everywhere: in magazines, on the radio, in conversations. Everyone was engulfed in the war, including me. When a family friend and B-26 pilot returned on leave it was one of the highlights of my young life.
3. What is your favorite time period to write about?
The 1930s and ’40s are of most interest to me, although I like history in general. The inexorable rise of Adolf Hitler and the muscular expansion of Imperial Japan fascinate me. So does America’s isolationism. Airplanes like P-51 Mustangs, P-38 Lightnings, and P-47 Thunderbolts were in the sky over my home daily when the war came, and the sound of their engines filled me with dreams. The sidewalks of my hometown were alive with uniforms. Arching over everything was a feeling of solidarity among all people, a feeling of community and unity against a common foe. It’s been lost in America.
4. Does writing energize you or exhaust you?
Writing energizes me. I am compelled to write and there are some days when it’s dawn-to-dusk at the computer. That’s not to say I write every day. I do not. There are times when I have to digest an idea or concept and allow it to settle into context. Thinking about ideas that are forming for my writing helps me fall asleep at night.
5. What kind of research do you do, and how much research is necessary before you begin writing?
Research does not always come first, even though it should. I may lay down the bed of an idea, thinking I already know the subject. This is dangerous. Researching to confirm it may turn up some other dimensions or new facts. It’s one of the perils any writer faces when they think they know their subject really well. Rechecking and rewriting are what makes a work both accurate and readable. I try to double- and triple-check my facts. I use other readers. The internet is a wonderful tool, but beware some of that information it presents. I get what I’ll call “research rapture” and become enthralled in what I’m learning and where my research leads me.
6. What drew you to writing this book?
In 2000 I was grappling with a novel in which a woman pilot, lost during World War II, was found in her plane on the shrinking Lincoln Glacier in Glacier National Park. I sent queries to a WASP user group on the internet to see if anyone had any ideas about it. Laura Whittall-Scherfee and her husband Ken responded and asked if I’d be interested in the story of Laura’s grand-aunt, Gertrude Tompkins. The more I talked to the surviving family, the still-living WASPs, and to the men and women still searching for Gertrude, the more certain I became it was a story I wanted to write. Sixteen years later the work was finished, but Gertrude is still missing. MHQ