A companion blog to my memoir, "Sting of the Heat Bug"
Welcome, Ernie Barker! We’ve known each other for about 20 years, and I’ve always been intrigued by your various literary projects, all based on U.S. history. You’ve compiled Civil War letters into two books (Fred and Jennie: a Civil War Love Story and Dear Mother from Your Dutiful Son), both based on real people in your ancestry. Now you’ve written a novel about some local people, setting them 100 years in the past, in World War I. How did you come to write Sumner: with Girls, Guns and Airoplanes?
Happy to be part of your blog. I consider the first two books as joint efforts, as Fred [Lucas, Civil War ancestor] did so much writing. I added the history that he did not. Dear Mother was a “letters” book to which I added very little. This new novel is my work; to fly or crash by itself. These characters were Mendon, MA, residents for the most part; some distant relatives of my mother-in-law. They could be anything I wanted them to be.
As a visual artist, sculptor, painter, etc., I seem to need some object to connect with to stimulate the writing. These photos from a long-forgotten album seemed worth saving four or five years ago.
They certainly make for interesting storytelling. Tell me a little about your writing process. I know, even though you’re retired from teaching art at the Gilbert School in Winsted, that you and your wife Lori both actively create art and display it and other people’s art at your gallery, The Artists’ Path, in Bantam. So how do you find the time to write?
The idea was that tending the gallery would allow me time to write… in-between sales! Somehow that does not work, as there are too many interruptions: smell of baked goods coming out of the oven, pretty girls walking through, etc.
So when do I write? There are some days when I sit at the computer in the early morning and, except for a trip to the gym, write away most of the day. Some days, between gallery days, I poke through old town history books and other historical books, gathering bits and pieces. Not the best “research techniques” but I get “it” together. Wish I was disciplined to do X each day.
What is the best part about writing?
The freedom to take a bit or piece of life and re-work it into something else. Not necessarily better; just to my liking.
What is the worst?
The worst part is plodding along not knowing if it is really coming together as a whole. After reading it seventeen times, one wonders, “Why did I write this? Will anyone really care?”
Well, you’ve woven a pretty interesting story, so I think people will care. But first they have to know about it. In the past, you promoted your Civil War books by dressing up as Fred Lucas, the main character, and doing readings and attending re-enactments. In promoting Sumner, I hope you’re not planning on flying around in a biplane made of spare parts, are you?
Flying around in a bi-plane… excellent idea! Wonder if my neighbor up the road still has the red one? Anyone have a WW1 flyer’s uniform cheap?
Ernie, you just may get a few phone calls about that after this blog post goes live! Quick question: Sumner makes mention of several local people, including one Hiram Griswold, who you write owned Warrenton Mill in Torrington. Was he a real person? If so, how did you learn about him? If not real, what was the inspiration for him?
Now I’ll have to go back to my notes to see where Hiram came from! I may have found him in Torrington’s history or in a search of Torrington’s woolen mills on the Internet.
I’m also interested in your ability to create visual art as well as literary art. I recently interviewed another artist who is also a writer (Jerome Walford), and I plan to interview several other such people for this blog. As a visual artist, how does that talent play into the creative writing aspect? Is your visual memory an asset in writing descriptions of people, places, faces, etc.?
I keep saying that I need something tactile to build off of in my writing. The first books were based on Civil War letters; this one from photographs. I am hoping the next will still find the photos enough to respond to … or maybe I will not be so dependent on these “things” and write simply from ideas and an outline.
So … is the visual memory an asset? Or has it been the spiritual energy from those who handled or owned the objects before me? I do feel there is an energy that stays with an object from each who handled that object. I’m beginning to sound like my wife and her Reiki friends! I think that is what drives any description of the characters or story for me.
I’m really wondering if I can write something without that kind of connection. We’ll see soon enough!
Will there be a sequel (or prequel) to Sumner? What about other writing projects?
First of all, I found old Hiram Griswold. A Goshen, boy actually; found him in a history of Goshen. Hiram George Griswold: son of Thomas, “Giles,” Zaccheus, Zaccheeus, Griswolds; born: 1797; married Harriet, daughter of Giles Whiting of Torrington. Now you know … as do I.
And I have started on that sequel. I’ve been both criticized and encouraged for leaving the ending of Sumner so open. Will Sumner manage to put all the past in order as he started to do at the end? “I was heading for Italy.” [Sumner’s final words in the book.] Will he re-connect with his family and his army pals in London? Move back to Boston and legitimize Ester’s boy? Move forward with Zeta? Move into post-war Italian industry? Form an international wool cartel with his father? Was there such?
Your chapters about flying in Sopwiths and Nieuports, etc., during World War I have a definite ring of truth. I know you’re not old enough to remember the war that raged 100 years ago, so how did you come by your extensive knowledge of the aircraft, the battles, the towns in France and England, and all that great detail?
I only feel like I have lived that long!
I am somewhat old-fashioned in doing research: I read books! Yes, I do some Internet searching also. In doing the research and prelim work for Sumner, I came upon some very good books. One in particular is Horses Don’t Fly, a memoir by Frederick Libby. He was a Colorado cowboy and ended up fighting the Red Baron’s squadron over France. He downed 24 confirmed enemy; retired as a captain to California. His memoir is a great source.
Another is Terror of the Autumn Skies: The True Story of Frank Luke, America’s Rogue Ace of World War I, by Blaine Pardoe. Frank died in a revolver shoot-out with some Germans after crashing his plane and being surrounded.
For general history and “feel” for the war, I waded through Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s August 1914. Not sure why!
I also found various air museums fun and informative. The New England Air Museum in Windsor, The Owl Head in Maine and the Glen Curtiss in New York state were very interested in my project. I flew in a WWI-period bi-wing out of Rhinebeck over the Hudson River one afternoon! The gentlemen there were really interested and spent a good deal of time with me and my photos.
The Internet supplied information about various battles and towns affected by the war. Blend Libby’s, Luke’s and the Internet info and one can get an informed picture.
What are some of your ideas for a future plot line?
Colleen, one of the maids, lands in Boston with a rich Englishman. He dies and she hoards his money away, invests that money in a “house of delights” in greater Boston and becomes the leading Madam of eastern Massachusetts?
So many possible turns!
How can readers find your books?
Readers can find me and my book at The Artists’ Path in Bantam, CT; also at The Hickory Stick Bookshop in Washington; The Bank Street Book Nook in New Milford; and then there is Amazon books where they are also on Kindle.
Thanks for chatting, Ernie. Good luck with your writing and your art. Now, let’s pin down a date for pizza and beer!