At Alex Kershaw’s book The First Wave accomplishes many things, but perhaps the most important is its “out and out celebration of sacrifice and courage” made by the first wave of American soldiers on the beaches at Normandy in World War II. As the 75th anniversary of D-Day approaches, he said he had a very specific purpose in writing the novel.
“This story was written to celebrate the stars,” Kershaw said. “I wanted to take the people who were extraordinary and tell their stories in as much detail as possible.”
Kershaw, known for his award-winning histories of WWII, generally focuses on the very pure theme of good vs. evil, stories about heroism. That first wave of soldiers, he told me, was the beginning of something that should be celebrated over and over and over again.
“These men were the first to fight, the first to put their lives on the line,” he said. “These were deeply, deeply impressive human beings. We owe them more than we could ever say.”
These stories and these people are important to Kershaw, and have been for as long as he can remember. He said he always loved stories about WWII as a kid and later, as a journalist, he got to meet and interview many of the men he called his heroes.
“Getting to tell these stories is extremely rewarding,” he said. “Over the years I’ve been very lucky to spend time with many D-Day veterans, and I’m able to draw on that foundation of knowledge for each of my stories.”
It’s no easy task, though. Kershaw said he usually spends up to six months creating a very detailed outline of each project. Then comes the research—a task that gets harder every year.
“There are so few people who can tell you what it was really like; it’s really hard to find anyone still living,” he explained.
For this project, he relied heavily on oral histories, working diligently to develop each character so the reader will feel involved. People, he chuckled, have to have characters they can route for; otherwise it just becomes “a really long wiki entry.”
He was still laughing when I asked him if he had any advice for aspiring writers.
“I would never recommend someone to become a writer,” he said. “It’s hard to do it for a long period of time and make a living.”
But, he said, it’s a hell of a ride.
Join us for a conversation between NYT bestselling author Alex Kershaw and Kurt Piehler, director of FSU’s WWII Institute, at the FSU Alumni Center (1030 W. Tennessee St.) on Tuesday, May 14 at 5:30pm. Free admission (copies of The First Wave will be available for purchase and signing).