Why Write About World War I?

Inspiration comes when you least expect it.

Seven years ago, when I decided to write a novel, I had no idea what it would be about. After a decade of wrestling with short stories, I finally realized that I prefer to read long fiction. So why struggle to write a form that doesn’t really engage me? Despite the conventional wisdom that fiction writers should begin with short stories, it just wasn’t for me. But how to begin?

A few years before this epiphany, I had gone to the Neue Galerie in New York City to see an exhibition of works by the German artist Otto Dix. I didn’t know anything about him. I was in New York on business, had a few hours until I caught my train home, and, unlike many other museums, it was open on a Monday.

The exhibition socked me in the gut. Dix’s portraits from the Weimar period are wry, sinister, and evocative. His masterful series of engravings, Der Krieg, which draw from his traumatic experience as a soldier in World War I, are unsparing visions of humankind’s worst instincts and cruelties. Like all great art, his works moved me deeply. I left feeling changed in ways I could not verbalize.

Four years later, in 2014, I was on another business trip, this time at a conference in Kansas City, Missouri, with a half-day to fill before catching my ride to the airport. It was a steaming Midwest summer day, so finding someplace with air conditioning was essential. Skimming the hotel’s guide to attractions, I discovered that the National World War I Monument and Museum was a short walk away. Why not?

Maybe I’d spend an hour or two, I thought. Like so many Americans who only learned of the Great War in a few pages of a high school textbook, I knew next to nothing about its history. I’d read Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front and seen Johnny Got His Gun in college. But beyond that, I had no understanding of the causes, magnitude, horrific loss, and geopolitical transformation that World War I wrought.

As I emerged underground from the elevator and crossed the glass bridge over thousands of paper poppies, each representing thousands of troops who perished in the War, a door cracked open in my imagination. Memories of the Otto Dix exhibit stirred. I found myself once again transfixed, not by artistic imagery this time, but by artifacts, reconstructed trenches, timelines, so many details I’d never known.

One display case, in particular, caught my attention—a woman’s uniform for an ambulance driver. I’d heard that Hemingway and Dos Passos had driven ambulances in World War I. But women, too? I had to know more.

That uniform seeded the plot of Line of Flight. Back home, I began to read. I learned about women, like Gertrude Stein, who drove ambulances behind the trenches in France to deliver medical supplies; nurses and Red Cross volunteers in hospitals and field dressing stations; devastating injuries from hellish weapons and new medical treatments; technological transformations in communications, industry, war; how the war-to-end-all-wars-that-wasn’t reshaped the world. And I realized that the societal transitions leading up to this tragic rupture in human history echoed much of the chaos that threatens our lives today.

I wanted to explore it all and understand how people experienced that epic period—and how it changed them. What did it take to survive? How to comprehend the scale of loss? What endures through tragedy and trauma? That is why I set my novel in 1915, the first year of the Great War.

Evelyn Herwitz writes about the journey of writing her first novel—a work of historical fiction set in World War I—the vagaries of the creative process, and her quest for publication, at evelynherwitz.com.

Image: Detail from mural in the Hall of Memory, National World War I Monument and Museum, Kansas City, Missouri


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