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New book came easier than ‘Nightingale’

Some books come hard. American Nightingale had a longer gestation period than a camel. Information only came grudgingly. In my third day of trying to get Frances Slanger’s 1930s school records, I got transferred to a janitor in the Boston School District’s boiler room. In all, I spent nearly two years researching Nightingale.

Ah, but some books come more easily.

Last spring, in my post-Beachside Writers recovery week in Yachats, I read Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken. Great book. And one that reignited by interest in perhaps writing about World War II.

But despite all the research on Nightingale and Easy Company Soldier, no new ideas had surfaced.

Once at home, however, I arrived to discover an e-mail from my agent, Greg Johnson, of Colorado Springs, Colo. Four brothers in Indiana wanted a book written about their late father, who had eluded the Bataan Death March in 1942 and survived for 34 months in the jungles of the Philippines.

Was I interested?

Definitely. Even more interested midway through a phone conversation with one of the sons, Jim Conner, of Indianapolis. I asked him what kind of information was available.

“Are you at your computer?” he said.

“I am.”

“I’m sending you some files.”

In five minutes, I was sent far more information about his father’s WWII experience than I could gather in nearly two years of research on Frances Slanger.

Resolve: From the Jungles of WWII Bataan, the Story of a Soldier, a Flag, and a Promise Kept is due to be released by New York’s Penguin Books in November.

The only caveat was that Penguin wanted it not in June 2012, which our proposal had promised, but in January 2012. In other words, they wanted me to write a 90,000-word book in 10 months, not the 16 we’d planned on.

I did it. That’s not a credit to me. That’s a credit to Clay Conner, Jr., my subject, who kept a journal, wrote extensively about his experiences after the war and saved everything: records, photos, newspaper clippings and, most importantly, letters.

His mother and father never gave up hope that he was alive, even though they went nearly three years without hearing from him and the Army continually listed him as “missing.”

Resolve is a book about perseverance. About people rising above their own backgrounds; Conner was a Duke cheerleader who’d never camped out overnight, but managed to stay alive in a jungle full of Japanese soldiers, disease and snakes as thick as his legs. Finally, it’s a book about the bonds of friendship; Conner survived, in part, because of the relationships he and his men built with the Filipino natives and a pygmy Negrito tribe.

An author friend of mine, Mike Yorkey, says the book is “Unbroken meets Robinson Crusoe.”

All I know is it was far easier to research than American Nightingale. And included a bonus I got while on one of my two trips to the Indianapolis area: playing basketball in the “Hickory” gym used for the movie Hoosiers! (See video.)

I still consider Nightingale the most profound journalistic experience I’ve had, so profound I wrote a second book, Pebble in the Water, to recount the life lessons I learned on the way.

But I have to be honest: I could get used to writing books in which information seemingly drops down from heaven.

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