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How 3 authors came together to tell the stories of WWII nurses

Author Susan Meissner, who co-wrote "When We Had Wings."
Author Susan Meissner, who co-wrote “When We Had Wings.”
(Courtesy photo by Stephanie Carbajal)

Former local Susan Meissner teams up with two other best-selling authors — Ariel Lawhon and Kristina McMorris — for collaborative WWII epic

Writing a book is, more often than not, something of a solitary experience. And while it’s not that uncommon for two authors to collaborate, especially in nonfiction, three authors collaborating on a novel is certainly a rarity, if not an entirely ambitious undertaking.

“That’s a good word for it — ambitious,” says Susan Meissner, a best-selling local author who recently moved to the Pacific Northwest. “I’ve never written anything with three people. It was a challenge, but all three of us were eager to pick it up and give it a try.”

What they picked up, tried and ultimately succeeded in crafting is “When We Had Wings,” a sweeping historical epic that follows the lives of three nurses serving in the Philippines during World War II. Along with co-authors Ariel Lawhon and Kristina McMorris, themselves best-selling novelists, Meissner says the collaboration began when their shared literary agent reached out to them with a “collaborative request.” Admirers of each other’s work, the three authors immediately expressed interest in the project, but Meissner recalls they initially weren’t sure what they could do when their publisher requested the book be set during WWII.

“We knew we wanted it to be a story that hadn’t been told yet, and we knew we wanted it to have female heroines, but that was it at first,” Meissner recalls.

Meissner had recently read a story online about nurses stationed in the Philippines. One of the books she ran across in the early stages of the process was “We Band of Angels: The Untold Story of American Nurses Trapped on Bataan by the Japanese,” a 1999 nonfiction account of nurses (later dubbed the “Angels of Bataan”) who were captured during the war.

“There were plenty of female spy stories and even female pilot stories, but we didn’t think female nurses stories had been told too much, at least in fiction,” Meissner says. “Not only did they survive, but they survived while also helping people. That’s why they were called the ‘angels,’ because they helped people, and they helped keep their eyes trained on hope and not to despair. They were really remarkable people.”

She further researched the Angels of Bataan and says she was “amazed” at what the women had to go through, especially while they were incarcerated as Japanese prisoners of war. This included sexual assaults, physical and mental abuse, and even what came to be called the Bataan Death March, where the Japanese imperial army forced thousands of prisoners of war to walk over 69 miles, inflicting all sorts of abuse along the way. Meissner says that she, Lawhon and McMorris never had any intention of sugarcoating anything.

‘Everything our characters experience was experienced by real women in that war,” says Meissner, adding that many nurses were asked by the U.S. government not to speak about their experiences upon returning home. “I feel like we looked at as many resources as were available and crafted something that is as true to the real experience.”

Fortuitously, Meissner says there were three types of nurses that were stationed in the Philippines at the time of the war: U.S. Army nurses, Navy nurses and Filipina nationals working for the U.S. military. So when it came time to delegate the writing, each of the authors could tackle a character from a distinct perspective.

“It was almost like it was an idea made for us, like it was made for three writers,” Meissner says.

Being from a Navy city, and someone who has a son in the Navy, Meissner says it seemed “only natural” that she took on the character of Eleanor Lindstrom, a small-town Minnesota woman and the daughter of a dairy farmer, who joins the Navy after having her heart broken only to find herself.

“For her, I knew she had to have a reason to go that far away from home,” says Meissner, who lived in Minnesota herself for 13 years. “So I gave her a wound — that she had fallen in love with someone who she thought loved her too, and she had no idea he was already engaged to be married. So she gets her heart broken and decides she needs some distance.”

Still, in the early planning stages of the book, Meissner admits the three authors were initially “unsure on how to attack” the project. Meissner offered to write her chapters on Eleanor first. Once those were completed, Lawhon wrote her chapters next, then McMorris, and then the three brainstormed on edits and on how to seamlessly weave the three respective narratives together into a cohesive whole.

“We knew that for the majority of their time during the war they would be separated, so I didn’t have to worry too much about how Ariel and Kristina would fit their characters in,” Meissner says.

But for the part of the book where the three main characters interact with one another,, Meissner would leave parts of the dialogue blank. She says it was important to all three authors that, if their respective character was speaking, it should be from the voice the author had in mind for that character.

“When the women were together in the book, we would be working together on those chapters,” Meissner says. “Working on a Google doc together so that Eleanor’s dialogue came from me. I had a very distinct idea of her and how she sounded, so if she was in someone else’s chapter, I would help write that.”

Messiner recently moved to Washington state to be closer to her grandchildren (“I’m going to miss good tacos,” she jokes at one point) and says she’s looking forward to the release of her own new historical novel, “Only the Beautiful,” which deals in the troubling history of eugenics and will be released in April of next year. For now, she says she’s very proud of what she and her co-authors accomplished in “When We Had Wings.”

“I feel like the world needs to hear about these brave women and not enough people know about their story,” Meissner says. “They were people of valor who deserve to be remembered and, when they are, that inspires us to live to that level if we’re ever called to do the same.”

“When We Had Wings” by Ariel Lawhon, Kristina McMorris and Susan Meissner (Harper Muse, 2022; 432 pages)

Warwick’s presents Ariel Lawhon, Kristina McMorris and Susan Meissner

When: 7:30 p.m. Monday

Where: Warwick’s, 7812 Girard Ave., La Jolla

Tickets: Free

Online: warwicks.com

Combs is a freelance writer.


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