Letters From The Fire / June 19, 2018

The story behind the story

Alma Hromic returned to her New Zealand home one day in late March 1999, about an hour after the evening news had started, and was greeted at the door by her white-faced mother.

‘They bombed Belgrade.’

Those three words started a vigil of hell for Alma and her family. They watched the bombs falling onto their home city of Novi Sad, Yugoslavia and agonized for the safety of their family who still lived there.

Alma’s aunt, her daughter and Alma’s little nieces, her cousin’s children, escaped into exile hours before the bombs started raining down on Novi Sad. Alma and her parents spent fortunes on phone calls to them, in their banishment, and to brother-in-law who was somehow, miraculously, almost always at the other end of a telephone, usually calming them down instead of vice versa.

Alma started posting messages decrying the NATO war in misc.writing, an Internet discussion group that had been her cyberspace home away from home for years. In addition, she posted messages giving the URLs of Web sites that offered news and analysis of the war that was often in stark contrast to most of the news being reported in the Western print and electronic media.

The story behind the story

The story behind the story

The war debate in misc.writing was vigorous and sometimes raucous. While Alma was not alone in her arguments against the NATO war on Yugoslavia, most who joined in the debate took NATO’s side. And sometimes the debate turned nasty and personal, with Alma being accused of being ‘in denial’ about the ‘true’ story of the war.

R. A. ‘Deck’ Deckert had also been arguing against the NATO war, although from a different perspective. While Alma argued points involving the long and tortured history of the Balkans, Deck was arguing that the NATO war was unwise, immoral, illegal under international law, and against the U.S. Constitution.

Deck’s position brought him flak from a lot of people who thought the war was a good idea, including some friends who couldn’t understand how he could possibly oppose it. However, one of those friends, Carol Schmidt, thought she saw an opportunity in his and Alma’s continuing battle about the war.

‘Why don’t you,’ she suggested, write a ‘short story done showing only e-mails between an American guy and a Serbian woman…’

Deck liked the idea but thought it would make a better novel than a short story and he proposed it to Alma. They had already been e-pals, Internet e-mail friends, for more than two years and he thought the girl is some player that they were in a unique position to write a book that would put a human face on the war. Alma was not wholly enthusiastic at first because it would invoke strong emotions in her. But after a brief hesitation, she said, “Let’s do it.”

They wrote the book as an exchange of emails between the two protagonists, Dave Barker, an American man from South Florida and initially a supporter of the war, and Sasha, a Serb woman living under the bombs in the city of Novi Sad.

Deck quite naturally became Dave, and Alma became Sasha, and they began writing the story as a series of e-mail letters. They used no outline. They knew only where the story began and how it was to end (and even that was changed late in the process). They became their characters and their letters flowed naturally, with each letter building on the previous one.

The Dave/Sasha exchange is bitterly confrontational in the beginning, but, almost against their will, a tentative friendship develops and then stronger emotional bonds are forged. With a speed not uncommon in the fury of war, the friendship catches fire and the two fall in love.

The love story plays out against the tragedy of a nation in the last explosive war of the old millennium, and in cyberspace, the new frontiers of the new millennium. The relationship between Dave and Sasha quickly transcended the authors’ original vision for the book, and the novel became an exploration of the futility of war and the transcendent power of love. The book was written and published with mind-spinning speed. Begun on April 23, it was completed by the first week in June. By July 6 HarperCollins in New Zealand had accepted the novel and scheduled publication in Australia and New Zealand by September 27, with foreign rights under negotiation. From idea to published book, Letters took just over five months. Which, in the publishing world, is nearly unprecedented.

FILED UNDER : Behind The Story

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