Sweeping historical fiction from Sara Ackerman; how setting is its own character, growing up in Hawaii, & her emotional response to Pearl Harbor


By Leslie Lindsay

Set against the backdrop of WWII and the attack at Pearl Harbor, THE LIEUTENANT’S NURSE is richly detailed, emotional, and compellingly transportive historical fiction. 

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I fell in love with Sara Ackerman’s debut, THE ISLAND OF SWEET PIES AND SOLDIERS (2018), and was excited to learn she was working on more historical fiction set in Hawaii against the backdrop of homeland WWII –which I think gives this time period and somewhat more refreshing perspective.

Still, THE LIEUTENANT’S NURSE can be grisly at times. It’s November 1941 and everyone is caught off guard when the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor. Eva Cassidy is en route on the Lurline, traveling as a nurse to Hawaii with the Army Corps of NursesShe’s leaving behind a sister and some deeper secrets back in Michigan…but what?

Combing mystery and intrigue with romance, (war) scandal, medicine, and even an adorable dog, THE LIEUTENANT’S NURSE is compelling historical fiction told with much love, tenderness, and courage. I loved the cinematic aspects if Ackerman’s writing–it’s richly detailed and evocative of the tropics (she’s born and raised in Hawaii and the authenticity shows)…I could taste that salty sea air, see the mist on the green mountains, and almost had that feeling of dipping my toes into the turquoise waters. And–oh, Ackerman’s research is evident because the information on the war, medicine and nursing really come to life.

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Please join me in welcoming Sara back to the author interview series.

Leslie Lindsay:

Sara, I am blown away with THE LIEUTENANT’S NURSE! First of all, I think it might actually be better than your first book and that’s saying a lot. There are a lot of rumors and misconceptions in the writing world that the second book is ‘harder.’ Do you agree? Can you talk about that, please?

Sara Ackerman:  

What an amazing compliment, especially coming from you! You have no idea how happy I am to hear this because it is terrifying when you first send your book out into the world.

I may or may not be the norm here because my first book was actually the fourth novel that I wrote. The others are (as of yet) unpublished. After ISLAND OF SWEET PIES AND SOLDIERS, my publisher wanted more historical fiction so I had to come up with new ideas. My first three are contemporary, though one has a 1945 thread woven through. So, I at least felt confident that I could write another novel and by then had established a process. But every time I write a novel, I am plagued by doubt and have no idea if people are going to like it or not or if it will be any good. It’s impossible to be objective with your own work, but I feel like when I cry a lot when I’m writing, it’s a good sign. And trust me, I cried a lot with this one! I also had a hard time imagining how to wrap up the ending so I worried about that. Having a great editor helps. For the first time, too, I had a deadline and so I just sat myself down in the chair and wrote most days. The most challenging part was that my father was dying as I wrote this book and he was living with us, so there were definitely days where I did not feel inspired, to say the least. I wish he could have lived long enough read it!

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Photo by Mohamed Sarim on Pexels.com

Leslie Lindsay:

I suppose we ought to back up—what was haunting you when you started out on THE LIEUTENANT’S NURSE? Was it a character, a scene, a time period, or something else? My editor tells me that all stories begin with a question. Was this the case for you? And did you find an answer?

Sara Ackerman:  

As with the last one, this book arose from my grandmother’s stories. She had come over to Hawaii on the Lurline in the 1930s to meet up with my grandfather, and on the crossing, she met a military officer and fell for him. But my grandfather was waiting on the dock in Honolulu and proposed. She hardly knew him but ended up saying yes. Over the years, she never forgot about this man and spoke about him often. I guess you could say that I wanted to create a story around that. Little did I know until I began my research, that the Lurline actually docked several days before the attack on Pearl Harbor and was on its way back to California on December 7. I wasn’t really sure what the heart of the novel was going to be about until I discovered that one piece of information. And that led me down the path to my story. I love the magic in that!

I think I found an answer in that I had to place myself in Hawaii during the attack as best I could, and recreate it. I now have a much deeper understanding happened. But of course I still have questions about how all the signs (there were many) were missed and how a huge fleet of ships could manage crossing the ocean undetected and sneaking up on our islands. It’s mind blowing.

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Photo by Vincent Liew on Pexels.com

Leslie Lindsay:

Your research just breathes on the page. I’m a former RN and so I found myself nodding with much of the medical stuff, even the way nurses were (are?) treated. It’s historical fiction, and so I’d like to believe things have changed…but also your dive into Pearl Harbor and WWII research. Can you talk a bit about your research, please?

Sara Ackerman:

I’m so glad you approved! It’s always scary to write about something that you aren’t an expert in. I found several amazing books that were essential to my writing, and they are listed in the back in the Author’s Note. Before I started writing, I read all of them and took copious notes. One was a book by a doctor all about the war in the Pacific, and I could not have written the medical part without it. Another was a lovely picture book about the five day crossing on the Maston Steamship Lurline. I loved that book! It made me so envious of those who got to travel back then in such flair and style. And another amazing book on Joe Rochefort, the main codebreaker at Pearl Harbor who was instrumental in outsmarting the Japanese. It was a biography but also had impeccable research about everything involving Pearl Harbor. I also read several other Pearl Harbor books and a book about nurses in the war, as well as lots of internet research. And of course, I returned to Pearl Harbor, which is always a very emotional experience no matter how many times you’ve been.

My father was a young boy during the attack and someone in his class assembled accounts of all his classmates on that fateful day. Those firsthand recollections were quite astounding. Living through something like this is so beyond most of our comprehension. On the day before my father’s memorial last year (2018), we had the Ballistic Missile Warning here in Hawaii that later turned out to be false. But for 40 minutes, those words THIS IS NOT A DRILL were running through my mind. It was surreal and scary as we tried to figure out what to do. It was the same line that the people in Hawaii heard on the radio during the attack on Pearl Harbor. And it gave me a tiny glimpse of their fear. Only, their’s was for real.

I grew up on Pearl Harbor stories, but it wasn’t until I wrote the book that it all came to life for me. I have so many questions I wish I could ask my grandparents now.

Leslie Lindsay:

I was recently in Hawaii—Oahu—where THE LIEUTENANT’S NURSE is set—and oh my! You totally nailed the setting! It was terrific fun to relive my trip through your words. You live in Hawaii, and so that’s a huge credit to you. Can you talk about how your location has influenced and informed your writing?

Sara Ackerman:

I love Hawaii! We live in such a special place. My parents were big on taking us on adventures and we grew up mostly outdoors, so I developed a great appreciation for the natural beauty of the islands and our delicate ecosystem. (I secretly wish I was a biologist or an ornithologist). My first novel is actually a bit of an adventure novel that deals with believed-to-be-extinct native birds, and my others are very nature oriented. Another one of my unpublished novels has many underwater scenes, which were fun to write.

Also, it’s often when I’m out on a hike or a paddle or exploring that I get ideas for books. And I have so many cool experiences to draw from. I hope that comes across in my writing. I am very attuned to my own environment (where I live and work and play) so I think setting is very important to me in general. I have heard that setting is its own character and I fully believe that. I love reading books set in other places that transport me there and I aspire to do the same in mine. I feel like there are so many untold stories here, I hope I get to keep sharing them. 

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Photo by Sabel Blanco on Pexels.com

Leslie Lindsay:

Can you tell us what a perfect writing day is like for you?

Sara Ackerman:  

The perfect day of writing is waking up and writing for an hour or two (in bed or at the table) with no one disturbing me. Weirdly, I don’t drink coffee but I have water with lemon or if it’s cold (I live in Waimea which is at 2700 ft elevation and is chilly for Hawaii) I have hot chocolate or a decaf soy mocha. I am not someone who can write all day, so I then go for a hike or paddle or swim, eat a yummy brunch of frittatta or french toast, and then settle down for another writing session. I aim for 750-1000 words a day. Also, I always leave off mid scene, so that the next time I sit down to write, I have a jumping off point. This saves me. It’s not always easy and some days I feel like I’m writing crap, but I keep at it. I love when the unexpected happens and catches me off guard. New characters or something in the plot that I had not foreseen.

These are my dream days, but as of now, I still teach, which I enjoy and it also gets me out of the house. Writing is so solitary, it’s nice to have the mix.

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Photo by Belle Co on Pexels.com

Leslie Lindsay:

How do you challenge yourself to grow as a writer?

Sara Ackerman:

I go to writers conferences and I also study books I love. I went to the Kauai Writers Conference last November because Alice Hoffman was there and I took a master class with her, Christina Baker Kline and Kristin Hannah. Alice is an idol of mine and she did not disappoint. My most recent favorite book is Where The Crawdad’s Sing (I’m not alone here) and I am dissecting her pages and how she [Delia Owens] does it. I came down with a severe case of author envy while reading that book. It is brilliant!

Leslie Lindsay:

Can you talk about what’s next for you?

Sara Ackerman:

I just finished a third novel with MIRA. They wanted yet another WWII historical, so this one is set at Volcano and the Kilauea Military Camp (fascinating history) at the outbreak of the war. It centers around an unlikely cast of characters thrust together in a rainforest hideaway as they await the anticipated Japanese invasion. It’s a story about unexpected love and how family is where you find it. There is also a thin thread of magical realism woven through.

As an example of how Hawaii inspires my writing, I came upon this old house one day while hiking at Volcano and was immediately intrigued. It was out in the boonies and beautiful, with huge windows and trellised vines. When I looked into the history of the house, I knew that I would write about it someday. So when my editor asked if I had another historical novel in me, I immediately thought about this place. I tied this story in with another one about two young German girls who are left alone after their parents are taken away by the FBI and held in internment camps for a year and a half.

I love the book, though it still needs a lot of work, and I hope others will too!

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Leslie Lindsay:

Sara, it’s been wonderful—as usual. Is there anything I forgot to ask, but should have? Like…what’s obsessing you or where your last hike took you, or anything else?

Sara Ackerman:

Right now, I’m excited about what I’ll write next. We will soon be pitching a contemporary novel that I completed after Sweet Pies (also set at the Volcano), so I need to do some revisions on that. Then, if all goes well, I can’t wait to get started on a book set along the Kohala Coast in the 1960s. I’m also looking forward to summer (I teach high school part time) and going on a road trip and possibly a book tour along the West Coast. Being on a tiny island in the middle of the Pacific has its disadvantages when it comes to book tours and events.

Thank you so much for having me! I love to talk writing and books.

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Photo by Archie Binamira on Pexels.com

For more information, to connnect with the auythor via social media, or to purchase a copy of THE LIEUTENANT’S NURSE, please visit: 

Order Links: 

SaraAckermanWebABOUT THE AUTHOR: Sara writes books about love and life, and all of their messy and beautiful imperfections. She believes that the light is just as important as the dark, and that the world is in need of uplifting and heartwarming stories. Born and raised in Hawaii, she studied journalism and later earned graduate degrees in psychology and Chinese medicine. Prior to practicing acupuncture, she worked as a high school counselor and teacher on the famed north shore of Oahu. She is the author of historical novels Island of Sweet Pies and Soldiers and The Lieutenant’s Nurse, with several more in the works

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites: 

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[Cover and author image courtesy of author and used with permission. Images of Pear Harbor from L.Lindsay’s personal archives. Artistic cover image designed and photographed by L.Lindsay. Follow on Instagram for more like this: @LeslieLindsay1]

 

 

 

 

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