An Interview with John M. Taylor, author of Missing Sticks
(Originally written By William Bennent and published in the Florida Gulf Coast Chapter of the 101st Airborne Association Sun Eagle News)
The Florida Gulf Coast Chapter is fortunate to have several authors among its membership. Perhaps the most accomplished in terms of quantity of published works and awards received for his writing is John Taylor. The first of his trilogy on the 101st Airborne Division in Europe is Missing Sticks, which chronicles D-Day. The Editor recently had a conversation with John.
John, what motivated you to write a novel on the 101st’s operations on D-Day?
Listening to the WWII vets tell their stories at the Reunions and the realization that they will not always be around inspired me to capture the sense of their accomplishments and their hardships. The stories told over a bottle of beer or a glass of scotch always were humorous, as if they didn’t really want to talk about the tragedies of combat, but preferred to remember the humor in life. I felt I had to capture that feeling.
How did you come up with the title, “Missing Sticks?”
A plane load of paratroopers was called a stick. In the context of WWII troopers, usually around 17 men crammed with their gear and door bundles in a C-47. When dawn came on the real D-Day, 18 planes and their paratroopers were missing. Some had been seen to explode in midair, some crashed, some were just missing. I wondered what would the missing troopers have done if they had made it safely to the ground. “Missing Sticks” is their fictional story.
What were your major sources of information during your research?
I started with “Rendezvous with Destiny,” and am now up to over twenty books on my shelf. In addition, I spent hours on the Internet reading official US Army historical after-action reports that in turn led to web sites dedicated to individuals, units, weapons, on and on… I can even describe how fly a Waco glider or start and takeoff a B-17 Flying Fortress. I can not abide inaccurate descriptions of actual historical events, weapons; any of the details in the description of a combat operation. So “Missing Sticks” may be fiction, but the setting: units, terrain, weather and sequence of operations are real. I didn’t want any of our vets who fought on that battlefield to find a single inaccuracy.
How did you come up with your characters for your novel?
I start with incidents, then populate with characters that fit the events. I worked hard to create characters as diverse as the men who were there: background, race, education, et al., but trying to avoid stereotypes. Many of the novel’s scenes were based on real events (e.g., the actual crash of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment pathfinders) but told from a fictional character’s point of view. I create a backstory for each character (extensive for some) that I can immerse myself in as I write, so the character exhibits consistent behavior that the reader can relate to, with all the personal baggage that every individual hauls around. I originally envisioned eighteen short stories, each about a different character with diverse specialties and from different units, each representing one of the eighteen lost planes. Totally out of my control, the characters began meeting on the battlefield and assembling into effective units, just as the real Screaming Eagles did on D-Day.
Were your characters based on any real-world individuals? Would you care to identify them?
Pat Macri was a major influence on the “STICK” series. Sparks, a radio operator and Lewis, a field wireman and switchboard operator, both came from Pat’s accounts of his actions on D-Day and at Bastogne, not in regard to personalities, but to the events described in the scenes. I used Frank Boffa’s “last rites” story and Vince Speranza’s’ “killing of the cow” tale as the basis for fictional scenes that I hoped would bring as much humor to the novels as the original tellers brought to life. Tom Macintyre even convinced me to include a provost marshal sergeant, a hard-bitten ex-NY beat cop. Each fictional character’s personality and traits are out of whole cloth. As life as moved on, my original thoughts held true as each of thes Screaming Eagles have soared.
Were any of the combat actions you describe in your novel based on real-world combat actions?
Most, if not every scene, was based on an event I heard or read about, then let my imagination run amuck as I wrote. The details may stretch the truth a bit (or a lot), but many are realistic enough that readers have asked “…did that really happen.” The answer in most cases is “…not really, but close enough for hand grenades.”
What motivated you to write fiction?
My head is full of stories that I want to share, many inspired by the intriguing and interesting places, cultures, personalities and events I have experienced. From such diverse settings as a kid on a tobacco farm and a dependent teen in Occupied Japan, I have been to many places and experienced unusual situations and cultures, some of it as an Army paratrooper, with tours in Vietnam and Europe, operations in the Middle East, and later in life and as a system engineer involved with nuclear weapons and command and control systems.
Which author did you model your writing after?
Tom Clancy initially, but influenced by many, from Robert Louis Stevenson to Nevil Shute Norway to W. E. B. Griffin to John D. McDonald to Thomas Perry to Bernard Cornwell to Nevada Barr to many, many other adventure and thriller writers. I love to read them all.