September's Author of the Month - Christopher Russell
Back in March, Innovative Editing began its “Author of the Month” program to highlight engaging writers. These authors deserve to stand out for their skills and/or messages as presented in fiction or non-fiction. And they can be self-published or traditionally published.
If you'd like to be considered for an upcoming Author of the Month spot – or if you have a story idea burning a hole in your brain – I’d love to hear from you! Just shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org with details about you and your book.
September’s Author of the Month: Christopher Russell
Featured Title: The Battle of Turkey Thicket
Genre: Historical Non-Fiction
Age Appropriate: Age 15+
Bio: After writing reams of energy-business material, Christopher Russell now applies his writing chops to historical non-fiction. The Battle of Turkey Thicket, his latest book, is the true story of the life and journeys of a teenaged American orphan killed in the Korean War. There's more work in the pipeline, including the biography of a would-be fighter pilot who opines on faith-driven leadership styles. Russell also has a treasure trove of vintage photos and documents that are the foundation for a future book about a Minnesota man's adventures in World War I.
A vagabond musician and do-it-yourself home renovator, Russell is an American in the truest sense of the word: One of his parents is an immigrant while the other has roots tracing back before the first U.S. census of 1790.
Jeannette: Christopher, thank you so much for stopping by to discuss your latest book, The Battle of Turkey Thicket. I had the privilege of editing one of your manuscript drafts, so I obviously know what it’s about. But I think it’s well worth a second read due to all the historical, societal and individual insights it holds. With that said, I want Innovative Editing readers to hear it in your words.
How would you describe this book, and what is it about?
Christopher: Some books refuse to be categorized. And so it is with The Battle of Turkey Thicket. To say it’s “a Korean War history” ignores the fascinating true story of Philip Hughes and the journeys he undertook in 1948-49. For starters, this kid was an orphan, which adds a whole new level of detail and drive to his journey.
Essentially, Turkey Thicket provides a time-capsule view of the Washington, D.C., community that he came from and sought to escape. The Korean War was just one of many episodes from his travels.
Jeannette: You’ll get no disagreements from me on that explanation. What inspired you to write such an eye-opening account in the first place?
Christopher: This book would not exist were it not for an obscure, little engraved plaque mounted inside St. Edmond’s Church in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. It’s a very simple memorial to a young Army soldier killed in Korea.
It caught my eye, and I was curious. Who was this kid? How did he end up in a war? What was his combat experience, and what happened to him exactly?
Jeannette: Every author, whether fiction or non-fiction, has a premise that inspires them into starting their manuscript. But a single obscure plaque is so little to work off of! Particularly considering the detailed history you managed to record.
I imagine the battle details were easy – or at least not exceptionally frustrating – to discover. But how difficult was it tracking down details about the life of a single, specific, fallen soldier?
Christopher: The internet definitely enabled this book. I first noticed the plaque back in 1995 or so. But since then, the volume of searchable online data has grown steadily. Databases, military association websites, memoirs, censuses – all of it helped.
The big breakthrough was connecting with Philip Hughes’s “kid brother,” his sole surviving relative. Frank Hughes is in his advanced years now, but he was gracious enough to allow me to interview him and to get his feedback on the book’s draft. The internet provided the outline of Philip’s life, but Frank’s personal recollections gave color to the story.
Admittedly, it took time, patience and a lot of reflection to assemble The Battle of Turkey Thicket. You really have to enjoy this kind of undertaking to see it through.
Jeannette: Completely agreed. I would simply add that it probably takes a special kind of scholar to delve as deeply into research as you did for this book. I know I love my three-month historical explorations before I start a new historical fiction manuscript. But I’m reading books by people like you who did all the heavy lifting, not putting in the hard work myself.
Speaking of historical fiction verses historical non-fiction, I’ll admit that before reading Turkey Thicket, I knew embarrassingly little about the Korean War. The conflict was a debacle in many ways, communism was involved, and the outcome was convoluted: That was pretty much all I could say about it. That’s pretty sad. Yet maybe worse still is how I don’t think I’m alone in my ignorance here. Why do you think Americans know so little about this part of our past?
Christopher: You’re not alone in being unfamiliar with the Korean War, which took place in 1950-1953. It left very little imprint on America’s cultural psyche.
In 1950, the country was still collecting itself emotionally from the aftermath of World War II. Citizens were focused on building the economy, making babies and buying stuff. Their primary worry was the Cold War with Russia, with Korea being a mere gritty little sideshow compared to the risk of nuclear confrontation.
Summed up, Korea was the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time. It was fought by soldiers who were initially unprepared and woefully equipped. They got clobbered, only to see the war end in a stalemate – while its impact on the home front was negligible.
To put it in perspective, and with all due respect to those others who gave their lives in defense of freedom, the Korean War claimed an average of 45 American military lives per day. That compares to 11 per day in Vietnam (1961-75) and two per day in the Iraq/Afghanistan Wars (2001-2014).
Jeannette: Well, I feel both better and worse now, since on the one hand, it seems that no one paid or pays much attention to that conflict. Yet those soldiers’ lives and deaths clearly mattered, including Philip Hughes. You definitely do a great job of making readers care about him.
In fact, I have to say that Turkey Thicket was simply fascinating from start to finish. Your opening Prologue paragraphs alone are attention-grabbing, as quoted below:
Seventeen thousand American veterans of World War 1 converged on Washington, D.C., during the spring of 1932 at the height of the Great Depression. Traveling by car, freight train, or thumbed rides, the once victorious doughboys of the American Expeditionary Force were now in their 30s and 40s. Their singular goal was for Congress to immediately redeem the $1,000 certificates awarded to each veteran in 1924 as promissory notes intended for redemption in 1945.
Clever newspapermen dubbed these veterans the “Bonus Expeditionary Force,” or for short, the “Bonus Army.”…
What made you decide to start the story there of all places?
Christopher: The Bonus Army is featured in the prologue because it coincided in so many ways with parameters of Philip Hughes' life. For one, Philip was born in Washington, D.C., in August 1932, the same time and place where the Bonus Army’s big confrontation took place.
Remember, these were World War I veterans seeking benefits at the height of the Great Depression, an event that may or may not explain why Philip was put up for adoption in the first place. Plus, Philip would later opt to serve in the military, just as these men once did.
Finally, General Douglas MacArthur was the top commander leading the government's crackdown on the Bonus Army – and then the top leader of U.S. forces in Korea, including Philip, in 1950.
There were simply too many coincidences to ignore.
Jeannette: It’s always fascinating to see those kinds of connections throughout history. It makes me think of at least a dozen different other cases like that off the top of my head, but that’s beside the point. The point right now is to focus on the fascinating facts you uncovered and the stellar finished product you put together from them.
During this whole exploratory adventure, what was the most rewarding aspect of your efforts?
Christopher: Philip Hughes and his story were very nearly lost to oblivion. That’s no longer the case now.
In tracing his life, we discover compelling stories about his family and the community where he lived. Philip’s landmarks include Washington, D.C.’s Irish-Catholic community, Rehoboth Beach, a Canadian boarding school, Chicago’s Skid Row, and post-World War II Japan. Honestly, I was astounded by what I discovered. So for me, the most satisfying outcome was “rescuing” Philip’s identity for his family and anyone else who cares to notice.
His sacrifice had a very specific meaning to his surviving brother – something that readers can discover in the closing chapters.
Jeannette: You used the word “discover” several times there, and I think that’s both telling and appropriate. Because you’re right – Turkey Thicket offers so many lessons for intrepid readers to seek out.
How are you going about enticing those readers as a self-published author? I’m probably going to turn this into a double-pronged question, but I saw in your published copy that you have a number of reviews inside your book cover. What did you do to secure them?
Christopher: I’m new to self-publishing, so promotion is a work in progress. The internet is central to it all: a website, a blog, a YouTube video, an Amazon author page, and so on. I also have some speaking engagements on the calendar, and I entered the book in the Independent Book Publishers Association annual award contest.
And, of course, as you know, editorial and reader reviews are quite valuable. The reviews inside the front cover were simply the result of asking some people I know to react to the drafts I sent them.
Jeannette: Well, it’s an impressive list of professionals and professional opinions you’ve got backing you, each one of them well-deserved.
Thank you again for all the time and effort you put into telling this historical adventure, Christopher. And as for the Innovative Editing community reading this, I can’t stress enough how much I enjoyed The Battle of Turkey Thicket.
This is a book I highly recommend!