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On The Table Read Magazine, “the best book magazine in the UK“, Frank McElvain talks about being inspired by learning about his parents’ lives during World War 2 and the Vietnam War to write SFC: A Poor Man’s Battle.
Written by JJ Barnes
I interviewed Frank McElvain about his life and career, the family history he investigated that inspired him to write about his parents, and the work that went into his new book, SFC: A Poor Man’s Battle.
Tell me a bit about who you are.
I am Frank McElvain, the author of SFC: A Poor Man’s Battle. I am a husband, father, brother and son of John and Hedy, on whom my book was based.
I am an electrical engineer and have previously co-authored technical papers. I live in northern California and enjoy working out.
Over time I learned about my parents and their secret lives, much of which my siblings and I knew little about. They had an improbable marriage and I wanted to tell their story and the impact it had both then and even now. The book can actually serve as a guide to help others gain a better understanding of their family heritage even if it is a mixture of both good and bad.
When did you first WANT to write a book?
Amazingly I discovered family records previously kept secret by John and Hedy after they passed away, exposing what we were told of their story as a fabrication.
Hidden in Hedy’s magazine rack was a record of her life’s most significant events. Letters written to her by a German Soldier, Fredi Deubler, from the Russian Front in 1944, whom we learned was my mother’s fiancée. As a family, we often stayed with the Deubler family when we visited Germany. Also among Hedy’s letters were notes from a woman written to John with whom he abandoned the family for a time to have an affair.
In addition, examination of John’s records yielded the death certificate of his first wife and a son who died on the same day in 1949. It also included military papers seeking permission to accept paternal responsibility for my sister.
When I saw all this I knew I had to write a book about it.
When did you take a step to start writing?
I took two preliminary steps before beginning to write. First, I had Fredi’s letters, my mother’s fiancée, translated. Even though my siblings and I are proficient in German, none of us could read the cursive script of the letters he wrote to Hedy in 1944. We could only recognize some of the writing.
Secondly, I pitched the story to a friend who was an experienced and accomplished author to gauge if there was sufficient material of interest. She introduced me to Max Freedman, who assisted me in the writing process and eventually published the book.
After discovering that a radio we had kept in the family and that Hedy had told us that her father, my grandfather, had built was actually mass produced in 1944 in Hungary, a major storyline for the book came clear to me.
How long did it take you to complete your first book from the first idea to release?
From idea to release required nearly six years. Part of my challenge was to develop a timeline of my parents’ early years, which were never described to us. Hedy was ashamed by being a second wife and was generally embarrassed by her past as well as my father’s. This required diving deeply into John’s military records and correlating them to family photographs. I also spoke with my sister and brother regarding their memories.
What made you want to write SFC: A Poor Man’s Battle?
I was initially offended that my parents withheld the real truth of their lives from their children. I found putting their lives into their true sequence to be therapeutic. Correlating their documentary records to photographs unlocked childhood memories and revealed lives that were more remarkable than I ever imagined.
After I discovered the facts of the radio, noted above, I decided to interpolate and extrapolate between known historical events to write SFC: A Poor Man’s Battle.
What were your biggest challenges with writing SFC: A Poor Man’s Battle?
Confirming the truth. I had to understand where John was stationed during World War II, and later in Vietnam, and when he was stationed there. I also needed context for why John and Hedy feuded so fiercely over where they were going to live.
John and Hedy were embarrassed to disclose to their children that their oldest child was illegitimate. To mask the truth, John and Hedy celebrated their anniversary two years prior to their actual wedding. John wrote on the back of anniversary photographs the inflated years. But John’s military records contradict Interpolating their version of the story and what really happened between the known events.
What was your research process for SFC: A Poor Man’s Battle?
Primarily John’s military records, some of which were retained in their house. I received others from requests from the United States Office of Personnel Management (OPM). The OPM records included telegrams addressed to John’s mother, my grandmother, informing her that John was Missing in Action and of his subsequent recovery from Stalag 7A.
SFC: A Poor Man’s Battle is a story of how history impacted the lives to two children of the 20th Century, thousands of miles apart, who came together because of World War II, and how history continued to influence their lives.
How did you plan the structure of SFC: A Poor Man’s Battle?
Each chapter is told through the eyes of the participants. This includes not only my mother and father, but their relatives, my grandmother, and even my mother’s first fiancée. Since my early years with John and Hedy were filled with so many differing opinions and arguments, alternating the narrator by chapter seemed natural.
Did you get support with editing, and how much editing did SFC: A Poor Man’s Battle need?
Yes, I had support in the broad editing of the book. Max Freedman, who ultimately also published the book, provided extensive editing and advice. My wife, Sharon, also read numerous drafts and noted errors or unclear content. There were others.
What is the first piece of writing advice you would give to anyone inspired to write a book?
Be inspired by the topic of which you will write, and enlist several proof readers to read the book critically and identify unclear content.
Can you give me a hint about any further books you’re planning to write?
I’m looking at the supporting characters in SFC: A Poor Man’s Battle and evaluating the potential for a prequel.
And, finally, are you proud of your accomplishment? Was it worth the effort?
Yes, I am proud of my accomplishment. It was worth the effort in learning the truth of my parents’ lives. I appreciate them more now than I did while they were alive. That is why the book is dedicated to them with a note: I wish I’d known.
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