The Eleventh Man Background Notes
Ivan has said that The Eleventh Man is not only about World War but about how people's lives get utterly changed through no fault of their own. Ultimately, he said, it's "about trying to hold onto your life when war has stacked the deck against you."
He discussed the art of blending history and fiction with Robin Lindley, in an interview for Real Change, a Seattle publication.
Was your main character, Army reporter Ben Reinking, based on a real soldier?
Ben is my own fictional creation, as my characters always are. No prototype there.
Ben wants to fly but he's assigned to write stories for the Threshhold Press War Project. Was there a TPWP unit during World War II?
There was not a unit like TPWP or "Tepee Weepy." I made that up as well, although the Office of War Information was a big operation that did a lot of domestic propaganda. Tepee Weepy is an invention of my own for plot purposes. It's somewhat an exaggeration of so-called military public information, which is something of an oxymoron.
|The author in the research cockpit|
You were a pre-school boy during World War II, but did your childhood bear on the novel?
Two of my mother’s brothers were in the war. One was on a destroyer in the South Pacific and the other was in the Montana National Guard and was called up early on, and he spent much of the war in Australia in a unit that was sent to New Guinea in the terrible fighting there.
I was always aware within the family and in the ranch crews that my dad would hire in the bars of White Sulfur Springs, there were a lot of people who had been in the war. That stuck with me.
When I was working on the book about my mother's life, Heart Earth, I got to researching this. Meagher County in the 1940 census had a population of 2237, and 273 people served in the war. It was a high percentage. Montana in both World Wars took an inordinate proportion of the death toll. That came in part from ranch guys who knew how to use a weapon and do chores, so they were looked on as good, ready-made soldiers, and often put into harm's way promptly. So that did bear on me as a kid.
Football is prominent in the novel. Did you play football in Montana?
'Yes, I did play football. I was the 150-pound fullback on my high school team.
That's a small fullback.
Yes. A small fullback for a small team. I was the biggest man in the backfield. I had enough high-school football to hint at what Ben and the TSU team might have done.
Did you draw on your military experience in the Air Force in the book?
I certainly did, particularly the active duty during the Cuban missile crisis. I think some of the book's inflections of life in uniform are drawn from my own watching and waiting. B-52 bombers regularly roared off from our Texas airbase. We all knew we were within range of those Russian missiles in Cuba. During my six years of reserve duty, I did put in some time in public information.
Were you on "high alert" during the Cuban missile crisis?
Yes. It was high alert on the worst day of the Cuban missile crisis, October 27, 1962, the day a U2 plane was shot down over Cuba and another U2 plane strayed deep into Russia, and the US Navy was depth-charging Soviet submarines in the Caribbean, and Russian troops in Cuba were maneuvering tactical nuclear missiles toward Guantanamo. All this is going on, and I'm at Lackland Air Force Base outside San Antonio writing home to my folks in Montana. I report our sergeants are telling us, "We are now in condition three. Defcon three." Condition four is normal, condition three is a serious threat, condition two is war, and condition one was every man for himself. (I think that was apocryphal.) The Kennedy Administration was not going to back down easily, and fingers were on triggers on the American side. In retrospect, I was inescapably right to recognize this was a life and death situation for all of us.
Did the war in Iraq and Afghanistan affect your decision to write the book?
No. I was drawn to the story originally because of a football team being lost in the war, and it was the impulse to tell the story.
Did you follow any of the stories of the actual team members in creating your characters?
No, I decided not to do that. I simply wanted my own characters in chosen parts of the war, and have the plot develop from there. Out of that came episodes like the Coast Guardsman with a dog. Twenty-five years ago or more, a guy told me he had done that.
Was there evidence that Japanese came ashore?
There were submarines off the coast. One surfaced and shelled a beach in Oregon, and some shipping was sunk. Coast Guardsmen were also on watch for invasion. It turned out to be not at all likely, but Pearl Harbor got everyone's attention.
I appreciate the little-known details you bring in such as lives of the conscientious objectors, the WASP's--the women pilots, the National Guard in New Guinea, and other obscure aspects of the war.
I got to researching on the Marines for the character of "Animal" Angelides and there's a terrific book, With the Old Breed, by a Marine. There's the story in there about the invasion of Peleliu, one of the bloodiest invasions, and a total waste. No strategic value.
I researched the Montana National Guard through the newsletter of the 41st Division Association, which had a diligent editor. Up through the seventies, he got reminiscences of guys who had been in on various actions during the war like Biak, the Philippines, and New Guinea.
The story of the women pilots is very compelling, and I don't think many people now are aware of their role in the war. What sparked you interest in the WASPs?
In my research in Montana, I learned about the Lend-Lease Program to the Soviet Union, and somewhere in there the WASPs contribution to that was mentioned. They were based in Great Falls, and that gave me a chance to include a hotshot woman fighter pilot.
And their job was to ferry planes around the US to airbases where they were needed?
Yes. Actually, women were not allowed to fly beyond the US, so they flew from factories to northern tier bases in the U.S.