Monday, June 16, 2014

Nonfiction Monday: A Chat with PURE GRIT Author Mary Cronk Farrell

I recently had the pleasure of attending one of Mary Cronk Farrell's readings in support of her terrific new YA nonfiction book, Pure Grit: How American World War II Nurses Survived Battle and Prison Camp in the Pacific. It was fun to hear about her experience creating the book — and I was especially drawn to the story, which features an incredibly strong group of women who faced unspeakable hardships and dangers as combat nurses and prisoners of war. 

Pure Grit is thoroughly researched, beautifully written, and gorgeously photo-illustrated, making it a perfect title to feature on this Nonfiction Monday. Be sure to track it down in your local bookstore or library. And in the meantime, enjoy my Q&A with its author.

Welcome to my blog, Mary, and congratulations on the new book! How long have you been writing nonfiction for young readers?

For about ten years. Except for a couple magazine articles, Pure Grit is the first nonfiction book I have published for kids.

Tell us what sparked your interest in this story and why you wanted to write it for young adults.

When I first heard about the POW nurses, I was immediately drawn to the story by my curiosity about how they survived three years in the harsh conditions of prison camp, especially since many others in the camps died. It was difficult to believe, and also disappointing that I had not learned about these courageous women in school and I wanted young people to know about them. I was greatly inspired by their strength of purpose, their resilience, and their dedication to their vocation as nurses. I knew their story would inspire others, too.

From idea to final draft, how long did the research and writing take you? Were there any major stumbling blocks along the way?

It is difficult to gauge the amount of time I spent on this project. I worked on it intermittently for five years. Both the research and the writing were done in chunks of time between other projects I was working on.  I didn't have any major stumbling blocks. The research and writing were quite straightforward, but I will say that at times the material was very difficult emotionally. I remember a time or two that I was typing with tears running down my cheeks.

I’d love to hear about any particularly memorable interviews you conducted.

By far the most memorable interview was with Mildred Dalton Manning, the only one of the POW nurses still alive at the time I was writing the book. She was most gracious, and I felt honored to meet her. Another memorable interview was with Sascha Weinzheimer Jansen, who was a child in Santo Tomas Internment Camp where the Army nurses were imprisoned. She had been in the hospital for a tonsillectomy and remembered being cared for by Army Nurse Denny Williams. Her throat was not healing after the surgery, because the girl and everyone in the camp were starving and malnourished. Sascha remembers the nurse sitting with her all night when she was deathly ill.

What knowledge or message would you like readers to take away from their experience reading the Pure Grit?

I hope readers will get a strong sense of what it was like for these women to find themselves suddenly in the middle of war and then to be imprisoned for three years. I hope the book will cause questions to rise in readers' minds. I don't have specific ideas I want people to take away, other than how brave and dedicated the nurses were, but so many issues arise from the story that I think are worthy of thought and discussion.

What’s next for you as a writer? Any new children’s books in the works?

My next book, working title Fannie Never Flinched, is due out in February 2016.  It's another amazing true story about courage and dedication, this time a biography of one woman — Fannie Sellins — who was an incredible labor organizer in the early 1900s garment industry, coal fields, and steel mills. Like the POW nurses, her strength was imbued with compassion. Unfortunately, she did not survive, but died in a hail of bullets on the picket line of a Pennsylvania coal strike.

That sounds fascinating — I look forward to reading it. In the meantime, where can readers and reviewers find Pure Grit, and you?

Readers can get Pure Grit through any bookstore, on the ground or on the Internet, and I invite everyone to visit my website for more information about the POW nurses and me.

Terrific. Thanks so much for chatting with me, Mary!