Ali Standish, author of the critically acclaimed The Ethan I Was Before, August Isle, and Bad Bella, grew up in North Carolina and spent several years as an educator in the Washington, DC, public school system. She has an MFA in children’s writing from Hollins University and an MPhil in children’s literature from the University of Cambridge. She lives in Raleigh with her husband, Aki, and their two rescue dogs, Bella and Keeper. You can visit her online at www.alistandish.com.
What typically comes first for you: a character? An era? A story idea? How do you proceed from there?
For me, the idea can start anywhere. With Yonder, I think it really started with the first line of the book: “Every hero has a story, but not every story has a hero.” That line came to me, and I started imagining who might have spoken it and why. Before I could really land on my protagonist, though, I kept getting drawn more deeply into the WWII American Homefront as a setting that felt right for exploring this mythical idea of the hero. Then, bit by bit, Danny and Jack emerged through the mountain mist: two friends separated by a terrible secret.
How do you conduct your research?
This was my first time writing a historical novel, and to be honest I really wasn’t sure the best way to go about it when I started. I bounced back and forth between Big Books that had been written on some element of the WWII American experience, which led me to more specialized texts and contemporaneous accounts. Reading old editions of the Watauga Democrat (which would have been the closest major newspaper to Foggy Gap) was enormously helpful for stitching together details of day-to-day life. History Unfolded, a database compiled by the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, was an amazing resource for helping contextualize Americans’ awareness about Hitler’s campaign against Jews and other minorities. But my favorite part of the process was collecting oral histories from family members, neighbors, and helpful strangers who lived through the 1940s. That was when the era really came alive for me.
Do you have a specific system for collecting data?
“System” would be…a generous word. I keep a list of sources I’ve used with bullet points on the most helpful nuggets of information. I have lots of notes from oral interviews, and lots of books that are heavily underlined! But I spent more time than I care to admit tearing through notes looking for which source explained the origins of the Double V campaign or the contents of a particular of Roosevelt’s fireside chat.
What kinds of sources do you use? The more specifics here, the better!
It really depends on the question I’m trying to answer. For example, one subject I thought would be relatively straightforward to understand but which turned out to be much more complex was how the draft worked. The Vietnam draft has been so instilled in our collective cultural memory, and I assumed the same would be true for the draft in WWII—that most of the information I needed would be simple common knowledge. But there was so much less on the subject than I had anticipated, and what I could find was often either quite vague, or didn’t feel totally reliable, or conflicted with other sources (which I ultimately realized was reflective of what was quite a patchwork and fluid draft board system!). I kept working my way backward through sources until I found an article from a local paper that basically explained to residents how the draft would work in this specific town, who would be on the draft board, and what their steps would be. That article provided the information I needed to fill in that element of my plot, but it took a lot longer to find than I had anticipated. Praise be for small-town journalists past and present!
How long do you typically research before beginning to draft? At what point do you feel comfortable beginning to draft? How does your research continue once you begin writing?
I researched this era on and off for a number of years before settling on the idea for this story. It took a long time to home in on the right place, the right time, the right themes. I finally started writing when I was sure that my plot was historically feasible. I knew the big points could work. From there, it became more of a cyclical process. What event could Danny read about in the newspaper that might make him question what was happening to Jews in Europe? What clues would such a story give him, and what assumptions would it lead him to? How would that change his perspective on events happening in his own town? Even once you know where you’re going with your story, it’s the research that guides you how to get there.
What is your favorite thing about research?
I absolutely loved collecting oral histories. It was fascinating to hear members of an older generation reflect on their childhoods and recall how the war affected them. I particularly liked getting into the differences between how they understood the war as children and how they understand it now. But I also loved hearing about the minutia of their family lives—what they ate for Sunday dinner and the pranks they pulled on their classmates and the thousand tiny things that make every childhood unique. In some cases, my interviewees hadn’t spoken or thought of these things for years or even decades. I loved seeing those memories come back to life as we connected over them.
What’s one of the most interesting things you’ve learned while researching?
There were many wonderful details that made it into Yonder, but so many more that did not. Here’s an example of the latter. Despite the fact that their civil rights had been grossly violated, many Japanese Americans enlisted in the war (the majority straight out of internment camps) and served in the 442nd Infantry Regiment, a segregated army unit composed entirely of Japanese Americans. The 442nd were intentionally given some of the most dangerous combat and rescue missions of the war. Nearly 4,500 were killed or wounded in battle. Today, the 442nd is still recognized as the most highly decorated military unit in our nation’s history, relative to its size and the duration of their service.
Because life isn’t always clear cut, the motives behind our actions don’t always make sense. But stories need to follow a logical path. What sorts of decisions have you had to make about “muddy” historical figures or events in order for your book to work?
I think there’s been a growing societal awareness in the past decade that all heroes are flawed. Every historical figure is going to be muddy, because that’s the nature of a human life. We are all complex, and we can all point to mistakes in our past. Really, this book is about confronting that very idea rather than hiding from it. So it was important for me to acknowledge those complexities, and then let readers sit with them. On a macro level, this means asking Big Questions, like how America could be the hero in a fight for freedom and democracy while denying rights to so many of its citizens? On a character level, it means creating characters who can personify these thorny historical contradictions in some sense. For instance, Jack’s father is a decorated WWI veteran. He is also suffering with severe mental health issues. He is also inexcusably abusive to his son. Is he a hero? A villain? A victim? Can one person be all three? And who is ultimately responsible for the abuse Jack suffers—his father? His community? His country? I want readers to dig into these gray areas and difficult questions.
Why is historical fiction important?
Historical fiction gives young readers the opportunity to go beyond their textbooks and find a place inside of history. It also offers a safe place to explore difficult topics and questions that are still so relevant today. It gives them the chance to reflect on how we’ve come to this point in our society—what we did right and where we went wrong. I think seeing the past and how much has changed is also empowering for readers. It’s a reminder that the status quo is not set in stone, and that our future can be brighter than our current moment. Today’s kids, too, will one day make history of their own.