MO- I gravitated early toward my parents’ bookshelves, where the world opened wide before my young eyes. But I was inspired more directly by the lessons of history, listening to the WWII stories told by my parents’ friends. Our neighbor was a Navy veteran and pilot, who strongly influenced my interest in flying. Another family friend was my hometown’s most decorated combat vet of the war, a tough hombre who’d earned every medal up to Silver Star as a forward artillery observer. One of my most valuable history lessons came along when I was seven. I happened to sit next to a woman in temple who bore a crudely-inked number on her arm. After the service ended, she gave me a gentle nudge toward understanding what happened to more than eleven million Jews and gentiles at the hands of the Nazis. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, I was already doing research when I listened to these stories.
ED- The Eerie Digest loves to explore all the avenues of writing. One of our favorites is Historical Fiction. History plays an important part in many writers’ lives, whether we use it as a point of reference, a time period for the development of a story, or a factual account of real events. Author Mark Ozeroff is such a writer. Mark what inspired you most to become a writer?
ED- How has history enabled you to become accurate in basing a time period for your novel, ‘Days of Smoke’?
MO- My love of history and aircraft melded in the writing of Days of Smoke. I was lucky to interview Germany’s number three ace, Gunther Rall, who shot down an incredible 275 aircraft. General Rall flew the same type of aircraft – over the same area of Russia – as my protagonist, and he generously shared with me many details that found their way into my novel. But it was US combat veterans who taught me the true extent of Hitler’s threat. The most influential was George Moore, who participated in an intense firefight near the village of Gardelegen. The following day, George’s patrol ran across a burned barn containing the bodies of a thousand inmates from Nordhausen concentration camp. This atrocity struck more deeply into George’s soul even than watching his best friend die next to him in combat. I cannot overestimate the value of doing eyewitness research. Not only do you stand to learn facts from a unique perspective, you might also find yourself a good friend, as I did in George. Family history provided my most intense inspiration. While researching Nazi mass-murders for a pivotal scene, I stumbled across a brief description of the annihilation of Pochep, the Ukrainian village from which my grandfather had emigrated. I became obsessed in the two weeks it took to write ten pages based on this action. I woke up one night at 3:00 AM after a vivid dream about an infant victim, and I had to record it immediately while still fresh in my mind. The resulting scene had greater impact than any writing I’ve ever done.
ED- Please tell us the theme behind your novel.
MO- Days of Smoke looks at war and Holocaust through the eyes of Hans Udet, a flyer involved from the earliest days with Hitler’s air force. Across battlefields raging over much of Europe, Hans progresses from naïve young fighter pilot to ace of increasing rank and responsibility. But unfolding events pit Hans’ love of the Fatherland against his natural compassion for humanity, after he saves a young Jewish woman from brutal assault. As growing feelings for Rachel sensitize him to the so-called “Jewish problem,” Hans finds himself torn between his sense of duty to Germany and mounting disdain for its Nazi leadership. I believe that fiction can sometimes tell a more profound truth than history. I’m going to put myself in highfaluting company by comparing my book with a true classic. To Kill a Mockingbird, on the surface a charming novel about 1930s life in a small Southern town, is at heart really about institutionalized intolerance. Similarly, Days of Smoke examines those who implemented intolerance in Germany, and more importantly those who refused to implement it.
ED- Tell us about the characters in the story.
MO- My protagonist Hans Udet loves his country, proudly serving in its military. He is a moral man, intelligent and contemplative – the implications of what Hans witnesses in the middle years of the Third Reich are not lost on him. Even so, he’s occasionally and briefly swept up by the rhetoric which led the entire German nation astray. Hans also comes to rely too much on alcohol to relax him after his exposure to combat, and he can be impulsive, a trait which lands him in trouble from time to time. I tried to make Hans believable – he’s got some undesirable personality traits which round him out as a human being. I originally intended Rachel Cartofilo to be a one-scene character. But she blossomed before my startled eyes into my protagonist’s love interest, a driving force in Days of Smoke. It’s a curious process for me to watch one of my own stories unfold – sometimes, I’m as surprised as the reader by the way things develop.I used literary license to borrow several historical figures. Ernst Udet was a high-scoring WWI ace, who later became a general in Hitler’s Luftwaffe. By employing Udet as Hans’ uncle, I can introduce readers to facts that would otherwise have been impossible to show in a first person novel. I place Rudolph Hoess – whom history knew as the commandant of Auschwitz extermination camp – in situations of my choosing, where he serves as the personification of Fascism incarnate.
ED- We understand that you have also achieved an aeronautical education. Please tell us about this.
MO- I attended Florida Institute of Technology and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, colleges in which flying was part of the curriculum. Thus, in earning my MBA I also received my Commercial pilot license with Instrument rating. My education didn’t stop with college, though, as I’ve been privileged to meet many veterans who had colorful flying careers. Their stories and achievements are indelibly etched in my mind.
ED- How has this leant credence to your story line?
MO- Being a pilot allows me to write authentic flying scenes. In fact, a number of them were drawn straight from my logbook. I’m also lucky enough to live on an airport with an eclectic assortment of aeroplanes. I use this word intentionally, as the airfield is home to everything from biplanes to business jets, including WWII fighter aircraft. You might say I took up aeronautical writing partly in self-defense – now, when I drool over planes for hours at a time, at least I can tell people I’m doing research. Early in my time here, I was writing a scene involving a dogfight between a Russian Polikarpov and a German Messerschmitt. I was wrapped so completely up in this scene that it took me a while to realize the engine song I was hearing was produced not by my imagination, but by a P-51 Mustang making high speed passes down the runway. What a place to write flying stories!
ED-Tell us about some of the awards that your novel has reaped.
MO- Days of Smoke received this year’s Gold Medal for historical fiction, from the Military Writers Society of America. Coming from a group composed mainly of veterans, this award has great significance to me. My novel has also earned a Golden Quill Award from the American Authors Association. Perhaps the nicest complement came from a veteran who literally flew from the first day of the war until the last, first with Poland’s air force then with Britain’s – his praise was music to a starving writer’s ears. Having initially received sixty-nine rejections for this novel, I’ll admit that it’s nice to get some pats on the back.
MO- I’m a professional editor only in the way that all writers must be, in order to get published. I credit my writers critique group, the Word Weavers, with teaching me to pare my words down to the essential, to focus only upon that which drives a story forward, to show rather than tell. If I were to give budding writers a single piece of advice, it’s to join a good critique group. But there’s more to editing than the above – one often has to hack away with a machete to find the right literary path. For months I endlessly reworked the first few chapters of my novel, before I had a moment of clarity and tried writing in first person. In third person Days of Smoke lacked immediacy, but in first person the story had real authority.
ED- We have learned that you are also working on your second novel, ‘In The Weeds’. Can you tell us something about this?
MO- In the Weeds is another aeronautical story, partly set in Vietnam where my protagonist Slats Kisov serves as a Forward Air Controller. FACs flew unarmed Cessnas at low altitude, directing fighter-bomber attacks and artillery fire in some of the war’s most dangerous missions. Slats returns to the US a changed man, one determined to “live a life of harmless banditry from the cockpit of an airplane,” using the exceptional low-and-slow flying skills honed in battle. This book was inspired by a quirky autobiography I read in high school, whose author used a biplane to smuggle liquor from Mexico into Texas during prohibition. I borrowed this theme to write a darkly humorous novel about the modern-day equivalent. I enjoy creating characters that many folks might see as antiheroes. But they’re not, really – they’re moral people who just also happen to be Nazis, smugglers, or poetry-spouting bulimic Cuban marijuana farmers.
ED- Mark, where can our readers find your current novel, and who is the publisher?
MO- Paperback and Kindle versions of Days of Smoke are available through Amazon. Paperbacks can also be ordered through any bookseller, and alternative e-book formats are available from Fictionwise.com. The publisher is Asylett Press.
ED- Mark, it is always exciting to meet a new author and especially one who opens new venues for our readers to explore. We want to thank you for spending your time with us with this interview, and I am sure many of our readers will be seeking out your novel.
MO- You’re most welcome – I truly appreciate the opportunity to interact with Eerie Digest.