Lucy Sanna brings World War II home in her novel “The Cherry Harvest,” about a period in Door County history when German prisoners of war helped out in the orchards.
Sanna, whose debut novel is the summer pick of the State Journal Book Club, joined readers for a live chat on Tuesday. Here, we present an edited version of that conversation.
Q: What was your inspiration for “The Cherry Harvest”?
A: When I learned that German POWs picked cherries in Door County, I saw lots of potential conflict. I saw a family with a son in Europe fighting Nazis and a pretty 17-year-old daughter, and the captured enemy just outside the door. Charlotte, my protagonist, is determined to save the orchard in spite of everyone who fights against letting the prisoners out to pick cherries.
Q: What sort of research did you do?
A: POWs in the U.S. ... well, that’s not something we learn in our seventh-grade history class! I looked on the Internet, but there wasn’t much there, and what I found was conflicting. So I went to the source. I went to Door County and spent some weeks there living in the very spot where my (fictional) family lived. I spent loads of time in the Door County library, going through microfiche. I spoke with the curators at the Door County Historical Museum, and I interviewed people who remembered. One fellow had been 14 years old, living on a cherry orchard when the POWs came.
Once I had the manuscript finished, the curators at the Door County Historical Museum were kind enough to go through it for factual accuracy. One thing they told me was incorrect was that the POWs came in 1945, not 1944, but I wanted them to be there while the war was still raging, while the son was fighting overseas. Conflict is what makes a good story.
Q: What was the sentiment toward the Germans in Door County back in 1945?
A: At that time, one third of Wisconsin’s population was German, so, for the most part, they were accepted. In fact, when it came time to send them back, some of the farmers hid them so they wouldn’t have to go. They were well treated and later had fond memories of being here.
Q: What was it like to immerse yourself in 1940s culture?
A: Very fun. I love history and I love research. Besides the research about the place and the POWs, I did extensive research about the time period. There the Internet became quite useful. When you’re writing historical fiction, you have to get the details right. Even if you make up people and places, you have to make sure they’re true to the times. They have to use the correct slang, wear the right clothes, use the tools available then. If you get just one thing wrong, the whole book can lose credibility.
Q: The teen daughter has a fun storyline, where she gets involved in the rich-kid crowd. Where did that idea come from?
A: My daughter and I stayed on Lake Michigan at the exact spot where my story takes place. In fact it was once a cherry orchard. One day we walked up the shore and came to a large house belonging to a politician. At that moment, the daughter’s story came to life. I just had to get her from the orchard to the house. I don’t want to give anything away, but that added drama as well.
Q: Were there any characters that you struggled with? Getting their voices just right?
A: The daughter, at first, because she didn’t have a story. But once she had it, she was right there with me. The most difficult character was Thomas, the father. His story is more nuanced, but I struggled with giving him a background. Until then, he was just a skeleton. It was problem for me. Having been a teenage daughter, and having had a teenage daughter, that relationship was the easiest to write.
Q: This is your first published work of fiction; how did you find the experience of inventing this story?
A: I had a ball! Actually the story came pretty quickly. With the conflict between Charlotte, my protagonist, and the town, and her son fighting overseas, that’s where it started in my mind. Having written my share of nonfiction, I can say that, for me, nonfiction is easier, but fiction is much more fun. I live with my characters, but then it’s sad to close the book when their story is over.
Q: Are you planning on writing more fiction?
A: Yes, I’ve actually begun my next novel. A number of people want me to write a sequel — Kate’s life as she comes down to UW-Madison, and what happens with her. But I don’t have a story for her, at least not yet. My next novel takes place in New England, during the same time period as “The Cherry Harvest.”
Q: Why did you decide to bring Kate to UW-Madison in “The Cherry Harvest”?
A: Her father had gone to the UW (as did one of the fellows I interviewed on a cherry orchard in Door County), and she and her father are very close. He wants her to go there, to finish what he couldn’t finish. And you can imagine how that would be a draw for a 17-year-old who wants to get away from home and away from farm life and be with people who long for a more intellectual life.
Q: What’s your writing ritual like?
A: I write in the dark and edit in the bright of day. When I started writing, I gave up a lot. I was working full time and a single parent. TV was the first thing to go. I said “no” to many social opportunities. My life was very structured — my daughter, my work, and then, when all was dark and quiet, my writing. But the writing is always in my mind, so that anything that filters in from the outside world is grist for the mill.
Q: Do you write from your life?
A: When I was younger, my fiction was thinly veiled autobiography — at least some of the main themes. The characters and situations in “The Cherry Harvest” are fiction, but, as I mentioned, I’ve been a mother and a daughter, so there may be some of me in both of those characters.
Q: What writers have influenced you the most?
A: When I was in high school, a librarian at Mabel Tainter Library in Menomonie, my home town, gave me a list of 100 books to read before I went to college. The one that blew me away was Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury.” How does he do that! I love the sensuality of Southern writers, dripping with humid emotion — Eudora Welty, Tennessee Williams, Katherine Anne Porter. And later I discovered writers of magical realism — Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Lewis Carroll, Isabel Allende.
Q: What was the most satisfying part about publishing this novel?
A: The most exciting was when I was in the shower one morning and I heard my phone ring and noticed the NY area code. I was in my place in California up in the hills and my cell phone works in one tiny spot and it happens to be right next to a window. I ran dripping to that spot, naked, and answered and the person on the other line — whom I had never met — was the agent I had sent the manuscript to and he said “I love your book!”
The most satisfying is the response from so many readers. I love to hear from readers.
Q: What do you think people are taking away from your story?
A: Many had never heard that POWs were housed in Wisconsin. It’s a reminder that whenever we’re at war, it’s felt here at home — sometimes in deep and dark ways.
Q: Any final thoughts?
A: As I said, it was sad to leave my characters. But their story is over for me. I just hope that my readers enjoy their visit as well.