For Tom Clavin — best-selling author of wildly popular books set in the West — a harrowing World War II survival story about an ordinary man in extraordinary times is the next frontier.
Written by Jenn Thornton
With his forthcoming effort Lightning Down (St. Martins), out this November, Tom Clavin, author of the Frontier Lawmen trilogy, chronicles the harrowing story of Joe Moser, an American fighter pilot who was captured and held in the German concentration camp in World War II. A born storyteller, Clavin began as a newspaperman, branched into magazine writing for the likes of Men’s Journal and Smithsonian, then produced a slew of best-sellers. His books The Heart of Everything That Is, Dodge City, The Last Stand of Fox Company and All Blood Runs Red are slated for screen adaptations, with an original limited series project, Crazy Horse and Custer, also in development. Here, a conversation with Clavin finds a fascinating character in his own right.
Tom, I’m curious about what drew you to writing.
It’s maybe a bit unusual. I never had a starting point where one day I said, I’d like to have a career as a writer. Thanks to my mother, I learned to write before I even walked into a classroom. There was some forays into other possibilities, but I kept coming back to writing. As a teenager I wrote letters to the editor of the newspaper just to see my byline. Then I wrote for any place that would have me, even for nothing. My path was just to write, write, write and try and get published where possible.
What compels you to write about a subject?
Every so often you can find somebody that you think is a good character, but is it a good story?
Your new book Lightning Down is an extraordinary story. How did you find Joe Moser?
In the way that I’ve come to other stories — I stumbled on it. I was doing a research for my book with Bob Drury Lucky 666, about a B-17 bomber crew in the Pacific and found an obituary in a state of Washington newspaper. It was for Joe Moser, who died at age 93. It mentioned that he was an American fighter pilot who was one of 170 Allied pilots whose plane was shot down and ended up in the concentration camp. I printed out that obituary to find out more about this story. You work on a project where it sort of has this momentum of its own. You don’t take it, it takes you.
This is definitely one of those — it’s moving and inspiring.
Almost all of it takes place in Europe but I think in a lot of ways it’s a very American story. Joe Moser felt called to serve. He fully believed in his mission. No matter how terrible his experiences were, he never wavered in his belief that America was doing the right thing. There was no gray area for Joe. While I was writing I kept thinking about the WWII films of the 1940s where young men trained for combat and it tests them terribly. Joe was tested as severely as anyone who was tested. He didn’t fight because he liked to hurt people or had a blind faith that everything he did was right. He wanted to bring peace to his country and be back with his family.
How do you write about his experience engagingly but also realistically about a time in history that we’ve come to romanticize?
That’s a big challenge in all my books. The easiest path to take is the cliched. The best way to really determine if somebody is a great figure in American history is to look at their flaws, the complications, and see how they overcome things, as opposed to just somebody who was capable of doing great things from beginning.
Complicated yet capable of overcoming — that’s a very American idea.
Yes, I think so.
John Wayne really made his share of war movies, as well. Why do you think World War II still resonates with storytellers?
First of all, the war really was a war against evil — between the forces of democracy and the forces of fascism. There wasn’t much of anything in between. It took enormous sacrifice among people working toward a higher goal for the greater good. Tom Brokaw’s book The Greatest Generation was sort of a booster shot of appreciation for the sacrifices of World War II and there’s still stories of about the war we don’t know.
Like an American fighter pilot held in a German concentration camp!
Yes, Joe Moser, a modest, humble guy who found himself in the most extraordinary circumstances. He survived, but when he came back and first talked about his experiences, he was not believed; he was accused of self-aggrandizement. So he said, okay, I’m not going to talk about it. But the man also didn’t sleep for 40 years. He was tortured by nightmares. He got married, raised his kids, went to baseball games and school band concerts. His kind of modesty and dedication to family and country is what a lot of people associate with the World War II generation.
Tom, when you’re writing about someone’s story, like Joe’s, do you carry that responsibility differently?
The best thing I could do was to not get in the way, and not embellish his story, as he was accused of doing. His story is so remarkable and affecting and emotional. I just put his voice into the book and tried not to change it in any way. It’s not a fancy, tricky, or convoluted way of saying something. He said what he felt very directly. I let him speak for himself.
Is there a question you would you have liked to ask Joe had you the chance?
That’s a tough one; his memoir answered a lot of questions. I might want to ask how, in a concentration camp, where you’re faced with the prospect of death at any moment, you persist. There was no civilization as a prisoner. So I might ask him about the fellowship. The pilots survived together by maintaining a military bearing, maintaining discipline, and looking out for each other.
What are you working on next?
My next book with Bob Drury is very different kind of World War II story about the 2nd Ranger Battalion. It’s sort of like a World War II version of Pork Chop Hill. They were called to take a hill that was just inside Germany that every other American unit, including the entire division had been unable to do. They not only took it, but held on for five German counter attacks.
Another great story.
I keep finding them.
Photographs courtesy of St. Martins Press (cover) and Gordan Grant (portrait)