Inside Books: Questions for Writing Team Elizabeth Norman and Michael Norman on their WWII Book, Tears in the Darkness

The writing team of Elizabeth Norman, a professor in NYU’s Steinhardt School, and Michael Norman, a journalism professor in NYU’s Graduate School of Arts and Science, has collaborated on Tears in the Darkness: The story of the Bataan Death March and Its Aftermath (FSG, 2009). At a Glance interviewed them about their new book.

What prompted you to write this book?

Beth: I had finished We Band of Angels, a book about the nurses who served with the men on Bataan. Michael edited the manuscript and told me that there was still another half of the story — about the men — to tell. We talked about writing a book and decided that we did not want to write the story of Bataan from just the American viewpoint. We wanted to include the Filipino experience and those of the former Imperial Japanese soldiers if we could find them. In the end, that’s what we did: We interviewed hundreds of Americans former POWs, dozens of former Philippine Army and Philippine Scouts (a unit attached to the US Army), and twenty-two for Imperial Japanese soldiers. We felt that by speaking to and writing about all sides in the battle, we could begin to understand what happens and why in war.

Michael: I’d been writing about war on and off for 40 years, and in all of those pages, I felt that I never really got at the truth of war. The truth of war that I learned on the battlefield in Vietnam as a combat Marine in 1968, the bloodiest year of the Vietnam War, was that war is not about victory and war is not about defeat, war is about loss and the worse things that men can do to one another. When I heard of the story of Bataan and the Death March and I began to read and research that story, I said to myself, “This is the worst that men can do to one another.” And I really wanted to tell that story because I thought that it had in it, the truth about war in general.

How do you do your research? Tell us who writes, who researches, conducts interviews, etc.

Beth: We began the project with Michael conducting the interviews and me doing the archival research. However, as the work advanced I began to interview and Michael became very adept at archival work so we each did both. And on our overseas trips to Japan and the Philippines, we worked all the time, together.

During the writing phase, I wrote the initial memos, Michael wrote the first draft, I edited and then he did the final edits. Interestingly, we never sat down and said, “you do this, you do that…” It just evolved. Really!

Michael: In terms of reading and searching for documents, vetting sources, collecting statistics, authenticating and verifying all of the information we gathered in 400 interview, we worked together.   In terms of the interviews, it made sense for me to talk to some people alone and for Beth to talk with others alone on the first interview. Often, we’d switch and get a second point of view because the interviewee was talking to a different person. Most important, Beth and I studied and analyzed every interview together and that really helped in pulling together into a coherent story all the individual narrative we were hearing from the people we’d interviewed.

What are some of the advantages/disadvantages of working together?

Beth: A book of this size and scope benefited from having two people involved. There was never a moment when one of us was waiting for the other to finish something. There was too much to do. Another advantage was that we knew each other’s strengths and weaknesses, so there was no trial and error or testing period. We just got to work. It was wonderful to have someone to listen and someone to bounce off ideas. We work on different floors of our home, we had the privacy and quiet of our offices, yet whatever material or copy pages we needed, it was a few steps away.

The disadvantages are that you could work all the time. When our sons lived home, we tried not to talk about the book at the dinner table, but Joshua and Ben learned more about the Philippines and the Bataan campaign than other people their age. And I had to learn not to carry over the day’s book frustrations or challenges with Michael into our private life. Fortunately, we had very few disagreements so it wasn’t much of an issue.

Michael: The advantages are easy. Two set of eyes are always going to see more than one set of eyes. And two minds trained in different ways will always be able to analyze and evaluated material much more intelligently and with a lot more perspective than one mind. In other words, to put it in a phrase, we were were able to vet each other in everything we did, and that eliminated hundred of mistakes.

The disadvantages weren’t many. We disagreed mostly on matters of historical emphasis. General Douglas Mac Arthur is a good example. I felt that Beth’s view of MacArthur was more balance than my view and I think that her view won out n the book.

Where there any great suprises you found in doing your research?

Beth: The cultural differences about the war. Americans call it “the Pacific Theater” or “World War II.” The Filipinos refer to the “First War” (the fall of the Philippines in 1942) or the “Second War” (The liberation of the islands in 1945). The Japanese call it “The Great East Asia War.” I was amazed at the candor of the Japanese veterans. They spoke the fear in combat, their sadness and anger when a friend died, their joy to see their families. Several spoke openly about murdering POWs. One of the men who did told us, “It is time for the world to know.” General Masahara Homma’s son, Misahiko, initially was formal and restrained in our interview, but he warmed to the questions and shared his father’s photo album and other mementoes and helped us create a three dimensional portrait of General Homma that we hope encourage readers to question military commission trials.

Michael: For me the great surprise came in the interviews with the Filipinos and the Japanese. The Filipinos gave the book a poignancy I never expected. The Japanese gave the book a point of view I never thought we’d get. In the end, if you strip away all of the culture, all the propaganda and all of the government agitprop, the individual Japanese infantrymen and the individual America and Filipino infantrymen had more in common than not.

It is often said that the writer doesn’t pick his/her subject, but the subject picks the writer. Is that the case for you in studying WWII? Why is this such a compelling subject for you?

Beth: World War II was a conflict involving hundreds of millions of people, at least 50 million people across the planet died. With a scope like that, it is inevitable you will find stories of cowardice, heroism, love, hate and other emotions that are the bedrock of good non-fiction.

Michael: All war stories well told are about the most basic of human emotions and reveal the most basic elements of the human condition; we felt we could really tell this story well.