Addison Armstrong

Steve Thomas: Addison, welcome to Circulating Ideas.

Addison Armstrong: Thank you. I’m so excited to be here.

Steve Thomas: Your new book, the War Librarian, is about a librarian. What’s been your personal experience with libraries?

Addison Armstrong: Ooh. I feel like I grew up in them. We have a newspaper clipping at my parents’ house in Florida, and it’s a picture of my sister, me and footy pajamas at the library with our Teddy bears tucked under our arms at like a story time, and that’s still up, you know, 20 years later. We were there all the time. I used to go. My grandparents lived in Baton Rouge and that would be my main summer activity. You were allowed to get 12 books at a time. So I would go in, I would get 12 books. I was obsessed with like Nancy Drew, Joan Lowery Nixon, I was in a mystery phase. I get 12 books, read ’em all in the next two days. Go back, get 12 more, on repeat for the two weeks we were there. So libraries were very much part of my formative years.

Steve Thomas: That’s great, and the books that you’ve written at least so far have been historical fiction. When did that genre start really appealing to you, and what is the appeal of that genre to you?

Addison Armstrong: Probably around middle school. I remember I loved like Ann Rinaldi and all those like young adult historical fiction. I don’t know what got me into it at the time, but I know now I love how something that’s often very dry, you know, I’m a teacher, so I’m allowed to say that in class social studies and history are often very boring, can turn into these vivid stories that could be ours, right. You know, the clothes are different and the setting is different, but it could be us. And I can’t remember who said it, but someone said that historical fiction is less a genre and more of a setting. So you can write any genre in historical fiction.

You could write adventure, mystery, romance, any of those things, it’s just in this historical setting, but I especially love dual timeline because I love seeing how one individual person’s choices in what was probably not a great situation a hundred years ago, can echo throughout these generations, you might not even know that person existed or know what that person’s life was or what those decisions were, but they’re affecting you today.

Steve Thomas: And then you have themes going between the two timelines in the book. And then the reader in modern day is like, “oh, well, we’re still dealing with this, that or the other.” So there’s the third timeline, kinda modern day.

Addison Armstrong: It’s one of my very favorite things. It’s hard sometimes to see what’s wrong in our modern society because we’re so used to it, it’s just the way things are. But when we’re able to look at this and think, “wait a second, things haven’t changed as much as I thought they had” or you know, this just looks different now.

Steve Thomas: How long has history been an interest of yours?

Addison Armstrong: I don’t remember it not being interested to be honest. So always.

Steve Thomas: And how do you conduct your research? I guess when you were at Vanderbilt doing it, you maybe had access to a lot of resources there at the school.

Addison Armstrong: That was very convenient, and now I’ve been in Manhattan for about a month and the library system is so vast that, you know, as long as I’m willing to travel an hour on the subway, I can get basically anything I need. I mean, a lot of it’s online. I don’t know what I would do without the internet. My favorite is the old newspapers. You know, I have like a subscription to a website where I can look at those, that’s my absolute favorite because you can see what the contemporary reporting was and it’s not always what you’d expect, and it’ll also give you little details that you would never get that aren’t important enough to record in historical narratives.

So that’s my favorite, but honestly I do a lot of research on the front end to figure out what the plot’s going to be, what makes sense. And then throughout the whole thing, I’ll stop and research and go back and stop and research and go back. And I love researching. And I think I often use it as an excuse to like, not do the writing part.

I’m like, oh, I gotta know this, right this second, I’m like four hours later. I’m like, “well, now it’s too late to write. Oh, well!” So, I’ve gotten lucky enough to do a couple of things in person. The second timeline in the War Librarian is at the Naval Academy, the first co-ed class. And so while I was writing, I couldn’t go because it was shut down to visitors due to COVID. But when I was done and I had like one last round of edits, my mom and I went to Annapolis and it was summer. So I was off teaching and we were able to take a tour. And that was just really incredible.

I went through and tweaked a couple details, so that type of thing’s really fun too. The same thing for the Light of Luna Park, I went to Bellevue Hospital.

Steve Thomas: Yeah. That’s what’s always hard writing in a time like COVID is that you really do need those details of actually being there and seeing, oh, well, I see like the paint’s coming off of that, or the way the doorknobs are, just whatever little details that you can’t get.

Addison Armstrong: Exactly. And I’m spatially so bad that like, I have no conception. I’m like, “wait, you can’t see Brooklyn from Bellevue?” And my husband’s like, “no, you can’t see Brooklyn from Bellevue.” So I need to be there to even get a sense of like, what is the space?

Steve Thomas: Yeah. I always found when I was doing research, especially with newspapers, is it was nice to like, not just to get the text of it, but to see the page itself because then you can see the ads next to it and see what kinds of things are going on.

Addison Armstrong: I love that. They’re so funny. So. Yes. So you can just get a sense of what people were talking about.

Steve Thomas: Yeah. And did you read other things from the times? Just reading the War Librarian especially, there’s the difference in your writing, even in the time, like when you’re the character from 1918 you’re writing differently. Like, she’s speaking the way people in 1918 spoke and how do you get the voice of a time like that?

Addison Armstrong: Definitely the newspapers, some, because they’re writing to the general public. So that helps a lot. Occasionally I’ll try to be ambitious and like watch something from the time, like a movie or something, but my attention span is so short that doesn’t normally help me, but there were other contemporary sources like the American Library Association published bulletins and programs and meeting notes, and I could look at all of that. It was obviously a little bit more formal than someone would be speaking in like a day to day setting, but that sort of thing helped as well.

There are albums with pictures of some of the camp libraries, you know, there are a lot of really incredible sources out there.

Steve Thomas: Before we get into the book itself, was there anything interesting you learned in your research that you didn’t get into the book that you were like, “oh, I wish I could get this in!”

Addison Armstrong: Ooh, that’s a good question. I think I tried to squeeze most of it in. There are probably a couple awkward things where people are like, why, why is that in there? That’s why!

Steve Thomas: So can you tell the listeners what a war librarian is? This is not a concept that you made up.

Addison Armstrong: Yeah. And it’s something I hadn’t heard of. I stumbled across it.

So the American Library Association and the War Department teamed up to form what they called the Library War Service during World War I and their motto, their mission was “a book for every soldier.” So they raised something like 5 million dollars, which was obviously an incredible amount of money at the time, and they distributed millions of books to soldiers, both overseas and also in training camps in the United States.

And they also furnished these libraries, especially at the camps in the US with librarians, most of whom were men, actually. There was a rule at the beginning that camp librarians could be women, but hospital librarians could not. Maybe it was the other way around, but there was like a very specific, they didn’t understand if you look at the meeting notes, they’re like, why are we allowed to be here and then we can’t walk to the other half of the camp and be over here? And eventually they relaxed that rule and changed it. By 1919, the war was over, but there were still convalescents in France, a lot of soldiers who were not able to come back to the United States yet.

And that’s when they really started sending out a lot more librarians overseas, including a lot more women. I have Emmaline, the character in the War Librarian, she’s invented, but she’s sort of modeled after a Portland, Oregon librarian. I have her go a little bit earlier, just because there’s no evidence that they did not and they did have YMCA and Red Cross volunteers working as librarians, so she kind of goes in that vein. And so she’s there in 1918 during the thick of the action, but many of the librarians actually stayed for years there in these terrible conditions. So Emmaline is working in a base hospital. So there are wounded soldiers coming in, and it’s World War I, you know, they’re pretty gruesome wounds and her job is to prescribe them books. And that’s actually the language they used at the time, was prescription.

So there were lists that they would publish, they are gonna wanna read a Western, if they have this kind of injury, because they wanna be distracted and they want to be reminded of adventure. They have this kind of injury, they’re gonna feel depressed and they’re gonna wanna read something funny, but not something like a Western that’ll show them what they can’t do anymore, you know? So there were all these very specific suggestions, but then also, always this clause that was like, you are the expert, you know the person, you need to figure out what they need. So it wasn’t just like she was sitting there behind a desk, checking books out. She was getting to know these men, knowing what books they needed.

But then there was also this element of censorship, where the War Department banned certain books from being distributed to soldiers, and I found that extremely fascinating. So I don’t know what, the real war librarians, how they responded to that, but I have Emmaline grappling with that, and there were librarians in the us who refused to comply with similar rules. There were places where librarians were told to get rid of all texts in the German language, and there were librarians who refused to take them off their shelves, things like that.

Steve Thomas: Intellectual freedom, like you said, is something that we’re still grappling with today, unfortunately, and that’s a concept that you do explore quite a bit. That’s even the reason that her parents left Russia, they were intellectual freedom activists.

Addison Armstrong: Part of what gives her the courage to, oh, maybe I should do something about this because, you know, she realizes that it’s ironic, they’re calling this a war to make the world safe for democracy, America’s supposed to be protecting democracy and free speech and they’re limiting it.

Steve Thomas: Yep. So what was the germ of the story for this one, for that timeline at least? Like where did you go, “oh, well, this will be an interesting thing to write a book about!” What were you researching that tickled that fancy?

Addison Armstrong: When I found that the war librarians existed, that was, oh, you know, maybe this would be interesting. We hear about nurses. We hear about women on the home front. We don’t really hear about this. And obviously I love books. I love libraries. It just seemed natural, but what really convinced this is what I had to write about was that censorship, because it just seemed so paradoxical. How is this massive public undertaking?

 Kids are going door to door, asking for books. The whole country was in support of this program to send books to men. They thought it was so important. And then they were also banning them and I thought, it just doesn’t make sense. And so I wanted to write about that because there was just that question at the core so I was like, what if Emmaline is dealing with that same question? And I realized, as I wrote that it wasn’t as paradoxical as it seemed, because both the conviction that the men needed books and also the act of banning them come from the same core belief, which is that books have power, right? That’s why the men can benefit from them, but that’s also why the government was afraid of them. So books have power and that’s something I really wanted to explore.

Steve Thomas: Well, this is a library podcast so I’ve been focused on that one, but the other timeline, there’s another timeline going on in the seventies. Do you write them separately? Or do you write them together or how do you do that?

Addison Armstrong: I do write them separately. The Light of Luna Park was my first published book. I wrote a manuscript prior to the Light of Luna Park that just wasn’t getting any agents biting, and some of the feedback I got was that the first timeline was beautiful. They loved it. The second timeline didn’t feel like the stakes were as high, et cetera, et cetera. And that one I’d written chapter one, chapter two, chapter three, chapter four, you know, alternating. And so I realized that if I wanted to make sure each story could, not standalone, obviously, because there’s a reason they’re dual timeline, but that the characters could stand alone, that there was a full, complete arc. I realized I had to write them separately. So Light of Luna Park, I wrote Althea’s story. When I was done, I wrote Stella’s. The War Librarian I wrote Emmaline’s and then I wrote Kathleen’s and that makes it sort of harder on the back end, cause you have to weave them together in a way that makes sense. Sometimes you’re like, “oh, they’re not supposed to know this yet!” It gets very messy, but I think for the sake of the whole story, it works better for me. I know lots of authors do it the other way. I wish I could write them alternating, but that doesn’t work for me.

Steve Thomas: Where did the seventies Naval Academy storyline come from for you?

Addison Armstrong: I just saw so many of the same issues. You know, Emmaline was a woman in a man’s world and that was not the primary issue she was facing in that first timeline, but it was there. And then here we are, sixty years later, and . Kathleen is part of the first co-ed class at the Naval Academy, and it’s, in a lot of ways, worse for her than it was for Emmaline. In 1976, my mom was a kid, my grandparents had kids, this was recent.

My uncle said, “oh yeah. I remember when the first women went to the Naval Academy.” I was like, “oh my gosh, what do you remember?” He was like, “I don’t know. I just remember that it happened.” That’s not helpful. I think I wanted to have sort of a more contemporary perspective to, like we said before, show things haven’t necessarily changed as much as we thought, and that was just something that I didn’t know a lot about. Even the people who lived through it, like my uncle, didn’t really pay a lot of attention to it at the time, unless they were moving in those military circles, but all of the service academies were forced by Congress to open up to women and they had varying degrees of success and willingness to do that.

So there was just so much to write about there with the woman in the man’s world. And then there was also an element of, you’re in the military, you really are not given a lot of freedom of expression. So that’s paralleled and as you know, having read it, there are issues that come out of that.

Steve Thomas: Yes. We don’t wanna give too much away, but yes, there are overlapping themes and everything fits together. Writing dual timelines, I imagine that has challenges and it has rewards. It doubles your protagonists, number one, you have to have kind of two characters that you have to write two stories. What are some of the things that make you wanna keep doing that? What is it that clicks for you that makes it so exciting for you?

Addison Armstrong: I love being able to see, you can compare, you have that timeline, you have that timeline and then you have today and that having two of them, instead of one kind of forces you to think of our own time as a third, and then I also just love seeing what Emmaline’s choices were, what Nelly’s choices were, which is a friend of Emmaline’s overseas, how they affect Kathleen decades later, things she doesn’t even know happened to people she doesn’t necessarily know. I think it adds an element of, when you have that second timeline, there are always questions. And so as the character wants to answer them and the reader wants to answer them too. So it provides this impetus to move forward. It moves the plot along because the reader wants to turn the page and find out, “okay, what happened 60 years ago? I don’t know. I might know more than the second timeline character does, but I don’t know the full story yet. And so I think that is a driving force. It gives me the momentum and I hope it gives the reader the momentum to read the book as well.

Steve Thomas: So both of your books also feature strong women in times when women were struggling to be seen as equals and again, third timeline, modern day, struggling in some ways.

Addison Armstrong: Well, it’s very marketable. It’s not why I write it, but it is very marketable. It’s interesting because at the end of the War Librarian, the interview with the publishers, they ask me something about women’s stories finally being told, and that was interesting to me because I’m only 24 years old so all of the fiction I’ve ever read has been women’s stories essentially. I understand that that wasn’t always the case, but for me, it always has been. And so, I answered that by saying instead, like, I don’t think someone reading my book probably isn’t struggling to find stories about white women in history in America, so I go through and list a whole bunch of books by authors of color that’s historical fiction, books that I’ve loved by LGBTQ authors, because I think those stories are so much more underrepresented. Publishing is grappling with that obviously.

But I think while I will continue writing about women because that’s the story that I live, I don’t wanna appropriate, you know, a world that isn’t mine, but I do want to also bring attention to those other stories.

Steve Thomas: So, to wrap up, as we’re recording this, it is close to the start of school and I’m buying school supplies for my kids, and it reminded me that when I was reading your bio on your website, you had mentioned a story that you wrote about talking school supplies. Can you talk about not necessarily that story, if you don’t wanna tell that story, but of just early writing experiences that you had?

Addison Armstrong: I was not good at finishing my stories, but I was very good at starting them. That one was actually a series. Bob was the eraser, he got married, he went on a honeymoon on the rainbow. It was very exciting.

Steve Thomas: No dual timelines though?

Addison Armstrong: No dual timelines there. No dual timelines. And I don’t think I’d have to stamina for a series these days. So kudos to little me.

I think my favorite one that I wrote when I was little was about an ant who is getting revenge on an exterminator for killing his whole family. Every time the exterminators came to our house, you know, we lived in Florida, they had to go out to the patio and whatever. I would cry and cry and cry. I’d be so mad at my parents. I’m like, “you’re killing them. How could you do this? They’re not hurting us. They’re just ants.” You know, if it were up up to me the whole house would’ve been overrun with ants. So I was seven years old, I couldn’t do anything about it, so I took a piece of paper and I took a pencil and I wrote this story and the ant poisoned the, there was a pie, a poisonous pie. There was a lot going on. So I think, I guess in a weird way, that doesn’t seem at all realistic, but in a weird way, I was always pulling things from, what matters, what do I see wrong here now? And how can writing help us understand that? You know, even if it’s something silly.

Steve Thomas: Pulling for the underdog.

Addison Armstrong: Yes, yes.

Steve Thomas: Yeah. That’s a pretty dark story too. That’s like Roald Dahl level dark there.

Addison Armstrong: I know it, it surprised me honestly. Did I really write that? I cried when ants died!

Steve Thomas: So I can’t let you go without asking if you have another book in the pipeline and if you’re allowed to say anything about it?

Addison Armstrong: Yeah, nothing official yet. I am working on two manuscripts, one another dual timeline, historical fiction, 1939 on and 1991 and 92. We’ll see if it turns into anything. And then I’m also working on a middle grade, seemed natural as a teacher. I spend all day with children. It seems like I should write something for them.

Steve Thomas: What grade do you like to teach?

Addison Armstrong: I love third, but elementary is just, anywhere in there I’d be happy.

Steve Thomas: Great. So again, the book is the War Librarian and it is available now. So either run out and buy it or check it out a bunch of times at your local public library, and then they’ll buy more copies and so everybody can get more copies. Thank you Addison so much for coming on and telling my listeners about the book.

Addison Armstrong: This has been so great. Thank you.