TAEM- The Arts and Entertainment Magazine did not have to look far to find another great author. By chance my photographer and I were visiting my favorite Barnes & Nobles Bookstore when I chanced upon meeting a local author conducting a book signing for her latest work. It always pays for an author to show their work in this way, as they never know who fate throws at them.
Author Patricia Chapman Meder comes from a military family and has seen much of life at an early age. Patricia, please tell our readers about your childhood and the impact that it had on you.
PCM- When I came into this world there were 2 factors at play that determined the direction of my life. The first of these was the fact that I was born a Gemini, a creative sign, and the second was due to my father’s choice to attend West Point. Consequently my sister and I were born in to a highly mobile Air Force family.
This military lifestyle mandated that every 2-3 years, we would step away from the familiar and take on a new set of circumstances, location, schools, friends, etc.. This wasn’t always easy but it was expected. And it was what all of our acquaintances did as well. It was our norm. This lifestyle put me in every state in our Union and, eventually, 13 years in Europe. It is a type of background that tends to produce an individual comfortable with other cultures.
TAEM- Please tell us about your education and how it shape your artistic talents.
PCM- That Gemini nature pretty much insisted that I follow an artistic path. I attended three colleges, the University of Maryland Extension in Munich, Germany, which offered no art but amazing trips, American University in WDC, which connected me with one of my most influential art professors, and my alma mater, the University of Colorado, where I began to hit my stride in the field of sculpture. After college I chose to accompany my parents on their second assignment to Paris, France where my, now more focused, education continued. I was fortunate to become a student of both the well-known Hungarian sculptor Laszlo Szabo, whose ancient atelier was a death trap, the poster-child for Fire Prevention Week, and the talented American painter/sculptor, Roger Barr.
PCM- – For many years sculpture was a primary focus but it had to play second fiddle to this continuing mobile life. While I did have shows in the US, France, Spain and Vienna it was always awkward to uproot and continually reestablish working space, maintain a stability of thought and arrange for shows that usually had to be planned about a year in advance. The last pieces I was working on before my direction got somewhat diverted to the literary world were in mixed media. These were large wall-hung works of wood, vacuum formed plastic, and paint. A joy to create but a terror to transport.
TAEM- Your first book is titled The True Story Catch -22 : The Real Men and Missions in Joseph Heller’s 340th Bomb Group in World War II. Tell us about your family’s relation to this story and how it influenced you to write about it.
PCM– During WWII my father became the final commander of the 340th Bombardment Group stationed at that time in Italy, then Corsica. Two months after his arrival, a 19 year-old bombardier, a combat replacement, named Joseph Heller was assigned to one of Dad’s four squadrons, the 488th. The war ended and 6 years later this young Heller had his first novel published – the phenomenal Catch-22, now considered a classic, a masterpiece of American fiction. Heller usually chose to deny that his wonderful characters were based on his war mates, surely to avoid lawsuits, but, without question, those men of the 340th were the seeds for most of his wickedly wild and absurdly funny characters. In fact, my father had the dubious honor of being the genesis of Col. Cathcart, one of the books main characters. And it was not flattering. But then it was not flattering for anyone in Catch-22. When the book was published, the 340th groaned and discussed it continually. What a sore spot.
My father kept copious war records; our family knew the men involved
in Heller’s book. I attended some Bomb Wing reunions with my parents and heard story after story. The components were all there for a parallel book to Catch-22 and, eventually, I seemed to be the right person to work with them.
TAEM- Please tell us what the term Catch-22 stands for.
PCM- The term “Catch-22” describes an unsolvable situation. In the book, a pilot was crazy and could be grounded. “Catch-22” stated that concern for one’s safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. This pilot was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask but as soon as he asked, he would no longer be considered crazy and would have to fly more missions. This tongue-in-cheek term continually crops up in our everyday lives as in, for example, how an immigrant might need a “green card” to work in the U.S: however, in order to work in the U.S, he must first have a “green card.” The term epitomizes how language confuses reality.
TAEM- Joseph Heller, the author of ‘Catch-22’, titled this book as a work of fiction, in which fictional characters held key roles in the book’s story. Why was this done and how does your work differ ?
PCM- Joseph Heller had a highly creative mind and the world of literary fiction allowed him to release this in an original and insanely funny manner as he developed his characters. It blossomed forth even in his novel’s constructed format, strange and uncommon. He leaned on his wartime experiences and war mates to supply the seeds of most of his characters. While that seed was pure fact, his fictional characters sprouted and took on a rich life of their own as they exploded into the unforgettable characters of shrieking, frantic Hungry Joe, young, sliced-in-half Kid Sampson, hard-drinking, vengeful, and disillusioned Chief Halfoat, and that capitalist supreme Milo Minderbinder. My book, The True Story of Catch-22 goes in reverse. Heller drew on the actual men of the 340th bomb group and developed his unique characters. I, on the other hand, drew upon Heller’s characters to bring these men back to their origins. I realized very quickly that a complement book to Catch-22 just begged to be written. The matching up of characters and their true-life counterparts became almost a game. While Heller took fact and used it as a means to create high fiction, I returned that fiction to fact and, as I aired it out, I realized that, indeed, those facts could be equally as gripping as fiction. The deeper
I went in to the files and lives the more fascinating they became. I challenge any reader to forget the story of the true-life young bombardier whose loose parachute dropped from the unexpected open hatch as their murdered plane was in its death throes. My work brings to light the true underlying life of Catch-22.
While Heller’s fully developed characters stand solely, solidly and uniquely on their own merits, The True Story, blending fact and history, proves that any resemblance too persons living or dead is, in fact, actual.
TAEM- Please give us a little history about the real military unit and the theaters it served in.
PCM- The 340th Bombardment Group was, during WWII a combat organization which flew the B-25 Mitchell medium bombers as part of the 12th Air Force. It was activated in Aug. 1942 and served primarily in the Mediterranean, African, and Middle East theatres. It consisted of four squadrons -the 486th, 487th, 488th (Heller’s squadron), and 489th and engaged chiefly in support and interdiction missions targeting particularly airfields, railroads, bridges (the most difficult to hit and in which they excelled), supply depots, gun emplacements, troop concentrations, marshalling yards and factories in Tunisia, Sicily, Italy, France, Austria, Bulgaria, Albania, Yugoslavia, and Greece. The 340th was based at the foot of Mt. Vesuvius when the volcano erupted violently and buried it and its entire stable of 87 aircraft. The B-25s were trashed but, miraculously, not a life was lost. By war’s end this group had received two Distinguished Unit Citations and had become the model to emulate for accuracy and bomb tonnage dropped. In Aug. of 1945 the 340th Bomb Group returned to the US.
TAEM- Heller’s book describes the lives, sacrifices, and frustrations of the men in the 340th Bomb Group. How does your book add to this, and how was the original seen to the actual men who had flown these dangerous missions ?
PCM- While Catch-22 describes those lives, sacrifices and frustrations of its fictional characters, my related book does exactly the same for the true-life men. The True Story highlights primarily the real models for four of Catch-22’s heavy hitters – Yossarian, Gen. Dreedle, Capt. Wren, and Col. Cathcart and how they functioned during the war.
When Catch-22 was first published, the men of the 340th were incredulous when they realized that this was not just a war story, it was their war story. And it did not sit well. What kind of man actually was Joe Heller? Peacenik? Traitor? Genius? And how could he write like this? They recognized their opposite numbers almost immediately and they did not like what they saw.
Heller’s theme of rebellion against authority and rejection of duty was against everything the veterans of that conflict believed in and fought for. Although the men of Heller’s old outfit detested many of the themes of the novel the irony is that it has somewhat immortalized them.
The survivors of the 57th Bomb Wing, of which the 340th is a part, still hold annual reunions and they still chuckle or grimace, discuss or deride this book. No matter that it is considered a masterpiece, it has poked huge fun at a circumstance that took a monumental toll on their lives. While they can acknowledge and even respect the profound impact of Catch-22, still it is at too great an expense of those who had steadily put their lives on the line, as had Joseph Heller, for a cause of such magnitude. They still find it difficult to embrace the levity even decades after the fact. My book serves as a reminder of the difference between fact and fiction. While Heller showcased the creativity of fiction, I highlight the amazing exploits of true-life warriors and, at the same time, enjoy that wonderful and tight connection with Heller’s spawn.
TAEM- You also wrote a companion book for your first novel. Please tell us about it and the connection between the two works.
PCM– Originally the center part of The True Story of Catch-22 was to be the compare-and- contrast section filled with full color illustrations. At the 11th hour the publisher had to eliminate this section due to technical difficulties. Since this part was such an integral component of the book, with the publisher’s blessing, I had the companion book, The True Story of Catch-22 ILLUSTRATED, published separately in a larger format, glossy paperback. In rich vibrant color, the full-blown illustrated characters surge forward to face their true-life counterparts in the manner of Catch-22 – sometimes irreverent, sly, subtle, and always irreverently fumy. The heart of Catch-22 lives and breathes here.
A somewhat interesting aside: Fine art and commercial art are two entirely different disciplines and when I originally attempted these commercial illustrations I just couldn’t get it. I labored over them. Then, in frustration, I decided to approach them as a sculptor.. So, with a pencil in each hand, I, as opposed to all logic, simultaneously started working from the bottom up. I built the character as if it were 3-dimensional. And it worked! It allowed me to work in my comfort zone and the illustrations began to flow.
PCM- Yes, at present I am completing my third book titled What You Do Is Up To You. This is a heavily illustrated full color book geared to the young adult, but, in truth, encompasses all of us. This generation of children has been thrown into such a high gear with all of the ever changing electronic media and crushing expectations that sometimes
just survival itself is a victory. They are facing challenges more complex than at any time in history and they need to be grounded.
The book is filled with bold illustrations of obstacles dealt and victories achieved. It highlights how invaluable advice from family, friends, and teachers is, but how, in the end, that person is solely in control of his own path in life.
My hope with this book is to capture the attention of our youth. They have been given a life to educate, polish, and take full control of. There is so much available to them when they open their minds to possibilities.
TAEM- Patricia, I want to thank you for the time that you have given for this interview and wish you luck in all that you do. Please keep in touch with us as our readers will surely want to follow your writing career closely.