I am a huge Deborah Heiligman fan. In fact, we “met” when I sent her a fan letter after reading Charles and Emma, a book that completely enchanted and educated me. We are now warm friends, catching up in person whenever we can (which is not often enough). One of the many things I admire about Deborah’s work is that she brings a fresh perspective to topics we think we know; case in point, her biography of Vincent van Gogh which focuses on his being a brother. I am so pleased she has stopped by today to share the beautiful and poignant story of writing her newest book, Torpedoed: The True Story of the WWII Sinking of “The Children’s Ship,” (Holt Books for Young Readers).
I was having lunch with my editor after turning in my first full draft of Vincent and Theo. What did I want to do next? she asked. (I was thinking I’d eat lots of chocolate, but OK…) I’d written about a husband and wife (Charles and Emma), the van Gogh brothers, what about a mother and daughter, or two friends, or sisters…? But any idea I suggested, she kindly shook her head, no.
Then she pulled out her phone and showed me a photograph she’d taken years earlier of a child-sized, bright red, custom-made, silk life jacket from an exhibit about children in war at the Imperial War Museum in London. This lifejacket belonged to Colin Ryder Richardson, one of a hundred children on board a ship that set sail from Liverpool in September, 1940 as the Blitz raged. She suggested I might want to look into the story.
The S.S. City of Benares was sailing to Canada. Ninety of the children were in a government program established to get poorer kids away from Hitler’s bombs; the others were with family; Colin was essentially alone, on his way to family friends in New York. On September 17, at 10:00 pm, in a raging storm, a German U-boat torpedoed the Benares. It sank within half an hour. By the time rescue arrived, most of the children died.
I was hooked, tragedy though it was. But it didn’t seem quite like my story. I like to go up close and personal, paint an intimate picture. This was the story of an event. How would I make it mine? Tom Wolfe said every writer has a theme. Mine is “only connect.” How would I connect with an event?
I did enough research to write a proposal, and discovered there were great primary sources, a must for me. I wrote: “The story of the City of Benares is one that encompasses it all: adventure and suspense; friendship and compassion; courage and comedy; sacrifice and heroism; fear and grief; and above all triumph over disaster. It is a story that stars children. It is a story that is barely known here in the US, but is rich in resources, including many taped interviews with survivors. This story is a gift.”
Proposals are a certain amount of b.s. You don’t really know what the book is going to be until you write it. And you say things you have no idea how you will pull off: “The book will be a page-turner, and I will accomplish that by moving from one character to another, leaving one in a suspenseful moment, and going to another. The suspense will build until the first are rescued.” Easy peasy!
I worked really hard on the pacing and suspense; I think I succeeded. But two things happened that made it, finally, my book.
I’d written in the proposal, “I will touch on some deaths in the book (siblings of survivors, and some adults), enough to make the situation and the tragedy real, but not enough to make the book too tragic for children to read.” I was thinking in particular of one family who sent five of their ten children on the ship, and all of those five died. There was no way I was going to include them. I could barely read about them. But after about a year, I realized that I was avoiding something I shouldn’t. I had to include the Grimmonds; it would be a dishonor not to. And when I re-discovered great primary source material from them that could frame the first part of the book, I went from not including them to focusing on them. By facing their story, and getting close to it, I became wholly invested emotionally. Connected.
And as I worked on it, I became connected to more people. I was able to listen to interviews with survivors, read letters and memoirs, spend days with a suitcase full of memorabilia about one of the heroes, talk with relatives of people on the ship, and finally meet and spend a lot of time with the two remaining survivors. Torpedoed became an intimate book, after all. A book about people. It became mine.
Deborah Heiligman is the author of 32 books, most of them nonfiction. Her latest, Torpedoed: The True Story of the World War II Sinking of “The Children’s Ship” published on October 8, 2019. Her previous book, VINCENT AND THEO: THE VAN GOGH BROTHERS, won the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for nonfiction, the SCBWI Golden Kite Award for nonfiction, the ALA YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Award, and an ALA Printz Honor. Please visit www.DeborahHeiligman.com or find her on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook @Dheiligman.