An Interview with Pamela Norsworthy

The debut novelist and daughter of a World War II POW talks about the importance of resilience on the page and in life.

An Interview with Pamela Norsworthy

In her debut novel, War Bonds, Northern Virginia journalist-turned-author Pamela Norsworthy takes readers on a gut-wrenching journey through love and loss in World War II Europe. She tells the sweeping epic through the eyes of British and American POWs, a foster child forced to mature beyond his years, a Nazi commandant and his wife, and others. The story made me sob as I contemplated fidelity to spouse and country, moral boundaries loosening in the face of war, personal and patriotic sacrifice, evil, grace, and the drive to find beauty in an often-ugly world.

You come from a journalism background that included working for CNN Headline News. Why did you choose to write a novel about World War II instead of a nonfiction account?

I do love narrative history like Jay Winik’s April 1865 — what a powerful recounting of Lincoln’s last days, with insight into both the wider context and why Lincoln made the decisions he did. On my website, you’ll find a long list of nonfiction books I studied as I wrote this book. But I wanted the running room that fiction allows to explore how people in vastly different circumstances coped in World War II. War Bonds opens with the evacuation of children from British cities as Germany invades Poland, prompting England to declare war and brace for Hitler’s assault. We learned about this moment in history class. But imagine how this felt — how wrenching it was for these families! Would American parents have consented to ship their kids from DC to the Shenandoah Valley? I wanted the latitude to put myself in the shoes of people forced to summon the reserves required when lives are upended.

I was struck by how detailed your descriptions of POW life were. Did your dad’s experiences serve as a resource for the book?

My late father, Col. Floyd H. Mason, was a wing commander with the Bloody 100th, stationed at Thorpe-Abbotts — the bomb group the new Apple TV+ series “Masters of the Air” focuses on. He was shot down on his 33rd mission and interned at Stalag-Luft 3 in Sagan, Poland. As the Red Army neared months later, he and his [fellow prisoners] were marched hundreds of kilometers — in a blizzard — to another camp in Germany. Many didn’t survive the march, but Dad did, and he was liberated by Patton’s army in the last weeks of the war. Dad shared many anecdotes of his captivity with me — how the POWs assembled a radio that allowed them to follow the Allies’ progress across Europe. They knew when Roosevelt died before their guards did. They were resourceful and determined, doing whatever it took to survive into the next day. But they also suffered terrible deprivation, especially as German losses mounted. They were always hungry, usually cold, and fought hard to maintain their morale.

You wrote from the omniscient point of view — getting into multiple characters’ heads. What were the keys to pulling that off?

This is how these characters insisted on telling their stories! They all wanted to be at the center of things, but this was a world war with multiple battlefronts. The best I could do was give them each their moments. Omniscient POV allowed me to settle in and really think what would be most important to these characters, what they would want understood about them. Characters begin, for me anyway, as ideas to trigger plot points and action in the narrative — an evacuated child, a conscripted soldier. As they confront situations, the nature of their character — their integrity or lack of it — emerges. Are they courageous or self-serving? Generous or self-interested? Their relationships offer clues, and the choices they make help fill out the reader’s understanding of who they are. Yes, characters change their minds and take new directions. But the pressures that cause this have to be calibrated and shaped in a way that makes such change, given what we already know about the character, feel authentic and believable.

How did you approach the challenge of showing intensely human experiences in a global war with all of its geopolitical machinations?

That was really the central exploration of the book: How do people — shopkeepers and nurses and architects and little kids just going about their lives — respond to unthinkable demands that are utterly out of their control? Each of these people dealt with immense crises all because the world hadn’t properly restrained a mad dictator. The fallout was widespread and devastating. I hope we’ve learned that lesson.

Without sharing any spoilers, did you find you’d learned anything about life by the last page that you didn’t know on the first?

Our blemishes and scars are proof of lessons learned — not things to hide because they reveal how imperfect we are. People generally do the best they can and still cause others pain and miss the mark. What the characters in War Bonds manage to do is to come to terms with all that loss and imperfection, finding life meaningful and rich even when it’s not at all what they planned or expected.

You received 104 rejections from agents and publishers before you got a “yes.” What was it about this book that kept you going?

My story is not unique. My opening pages drew interest from agents very early on. There were lots of requests for the full manuscript and lots of back-and-forth conversation that seemed to be going somewhere. Until it didn’t. I learned we’re in a climate where there’s a bit of a template for what sells: celebrity memoir, fantasy and space opera, magical realism, multi-part series an author can churn out, guaranteeing future sales. War Bonds is not this! But my world is populated by a lot of discerning readers: poets and writers who told me this was a good story. So, I didn’t give up on it and ultimately found a wonderful indie publisher who finally said yes.

Christopher Lancette is a Maryland-based freelance writer focused on nature, the environment, and books. Read more of his work at Muck Rack and follow him on X at @chrislancette.

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