Stephanie Lile and I met through the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts, a really wonderful MFA program sponsored by a writing community rather than a university. She has a wicked sense of humor and shares my passion for history so I am thrilled to host her today as she talks about her first novel, The Tail Gunner.
There was a box, not in an attic as is often the case, but in the hayloft of a horse barn. The box was filled with dusty, curling photographs; a sea of unknown faces amidst mouse-chewed letters and a tattered red diary. I knew there was a story there. I knew with one look that the secret stash had been my father’s. But he’d died before we even found the stash, and although we knew he’d served as a tail gunner in World War II, we didn’t know much else.
Seven years later, I’m honored to have this opportunity to share the story of The Tail Gunner, a new cross-genre work of young adult fiction. In simple terms, it’s the story of a girl, a ghost, and his final mission. In more complex terms, it’s a grand experiment based on a collection of World War II ephemera and photographs spawned in the strange catacombs of a museum geek’s mind.
Having worked in the museum education field for over two decades, one of the most complex challenges I face is getting our visitors, many of them K-12 kids, to relate the present to the past in a way that makes the past tangible, attainable, and intriguing. Ultimately, what tools can I use to get people of the present to care about the past?
Stories are a key piece to unlocking that riddle. Ask 90 percent of the exhibit designers and interpreters in the field, and they’ll say that “telling stories” is what they do. But my goal has always been to go beyond “telling” stories to imparting skills children need to find the stories, and eventually discern their own truths in the barrage of information that bombards us everyday.
In the writing-for-children field, “show, don’t tell,” is the rule of thumb. So when my sister and I found Dad’s secret stash, I thought long and hard about how, as a historian and writer, to pull teens from one world to the next with this amazing collection. Not interested in writing a Catch 22 for the modern age, I wanted to expose the holes in the veil of the past and show how various images, diary entries, and ephemera connect us to other situations and conventions unique to different times. The Tailer Gunner does that using a framework of magical realism that allows Sylvie, the main character, to tap the young tail gunner’s memories associated with particular objects and images.
In the two months since The Tail Gunner has released, I’ve found myself telling people that, “it's not what you expect.” Friends and family have purchased the book for their dads and brothers, perhaps thinking it will launch them into the heat of battle against the “Krauts.” The book is really about another type of battle—the internal battle that caring, conscientious humans face when we can’t forgive ourselves for what we’ve done in the turmoil of a moment—in the terror of war—and the judgments and glorifications people from the present place on those actions.
People have asked why I didn’t write straight historical fiction or even a work of creative nonfiction. It was tempting, but the truth is that I felt it important to take a risk in my writing just as my Dad did serving 59 missions perched like angler bait in the tail of a B-25. I also believe in the power that objects have to take us to other times. Why do you think museums place “don’t touch signs” in their galleries? Is it to protect the object or the visitor?
Stephanie (S.T.) Lile has worked in the museum field for more than 20 years and is known for her skills as an object detective. When not creating museum exhibits or publications, she writes stories for young readers and teaches museum studies at University of Washington Tacoma. THE TAIL GUNNER is her debut novel published by Bering Street Books. ISBN: 978-0-9896505-0-2