Q. What is the origin of The Last Lightning?
A. In 2010, I finished my first novel, The Fortunate Orphans, and was concentrating on marketing it. Though I had other books in the works, an article in our local newspaper piqued my curiosity. The story was about Bryan and Chris Moon, a father-son team who organized trips to Papua New Guinea to look for missing planes from World War II. The duo had made a pitch for volunteers at a local American Legion. Moon's group, called MIA Hunters, was looking for people to join them on that year's upcoming mission. Searching for downed aircraft in PNG sounded like an adventure worth writing about. Bryan Moon was going to speak the following month at a local church. I went to hear him, introduced myself, and asked if I might interview him about his adventures. Two weeks later, I spent several hours listening to Bryan's tales of hiking through jungles, crossing rivers, and scaling mountains to locate missing American planes. I returned for a second interview and ended up signing on with his 2010 expedition. That trip to PNG formed the basis for my new novel.
Q. Did you begin writing after you returned or had you already outlined a plot for your story before going overseas?
A. After researching MIA Hunters and their past missions—and before meeting Bryan—
I scribbled a few ideas about such a trip. The "what ifs" and the "whys" of something as radical as searching for planes in a remote place like Papua New Guinea intrigued me. Between my first hearing about MIA Hunters, checking them out on the Internet, and eventually interviewing the group's founder, Bryan Moon, I worked on a rough outline.
Q. Did this first idea eventually become The Last Lightning?
A. Some of the original plot survived, but as the story took some unexpected turns and characters developed, I rewrote several key scenes prior to my trip overseas in May of 2010. When I returned from Papua New Guinea, I was convinced I needed to give my characters even more depth.
Q. Did the trip to PNG end up having a dramatic impact on your story?
A. There's no question the trip gave me a better understanding of how MIA Hunters operated, particularly the interaction with locals who provided us with guides, shelter, transportation, and food.
Q. Did you keep a journal during your trip?
A. I filled a notebook with impressions on my trip over, while hiking in the jungle and during my stay in villages. I also brought along a camera and sketchbook.
Q. Did you find time to sketch?
A. Not every day—that was due to the weather and being constantly on the go, either in the jungle, on a boat, or in a van. When I did grab a few minutes to draw I ended up with an audience. The only problem with sketching in public is that everyone wants a drawing of themselves. I once did a quick portrait of a young boy in a village where we were excavating a fighter's half-buried wing. The youngster sat for me while everyone kibitzed over my shoulder. I gave the drawing to him and then had to make excuses why I couldn't stay there all day and draw each person in the village. I didn't have enough time or paper. But drawing was a hit with the people and they were gracious about finally letting me go on my way. I found myself in a similar situation in a village where we stayed for two days. As a favor to the headman I drew him, only to have others lining up in turn. I ended up doing a dozen portraits before I bowed out. The people loved the drawings I gave them.
Q. Without giving away the entire plot, give a brief synopsis of the story.
A. The Last Lightning is an adventure/mystery set in one of the world's most beautiful but inhospitable places. The book begins in World War II. In July 1944 a top-secret escort mission flown by four American aces in New Guinea runs into a hornet's nest of Japanese fighters. The U.S. planes disappear in some of the world's most foreboding terrain. Despite weeks of intense search in the middle of the war, none of the American pilots are found. The airplanes and pilots have vanished. The story then leaps to contemporary times. Now, nearly seventy years later, a missionary makes a startling discovery: one of the missing planes—a P-38 Lightning belonging to the flight leader—has been found deep in the jungle. Half a world away, others who learn of the surprising discovery in Papua New Guinea race to unlock the mystery. Greed, betrayal, and brutality descend on an isolated valley where tribal life that has been unchanged for 100 years is about to be visited by a whirlwind of violence. The mission to search for missing planes doesn't turn out as positive for the book's characters as mine was for me. I've always tried to write stories anchored in reality. My goal is to create an experience that seems probable to the reader. The land and people of PNG play two strong supporting roles in The Last Lightning. The natives are wonderful and welcoming, but the terrain in which they live is unforgiving. It sounds contradictory, but the jungle around them is oddly neutral yet malevolent at the same time.
Q. So the natives played a major role in your trip as well as your story?
A. Definitely. Once my team set foot in Port Moresby, the capital, we were immersed in the culture. Outside of the capital major towns were few and far between. Roads are poor and most people, including entire families, walk everywhere. Once off the beaten track, we were immediately swallowed up by jungle whenever we took to trails with our guides. Our teams were completely dependent on these village pathfinders. In Vietnam, we depended on maps and compasses to find our way in the jungle, but in PNG, villagers led us to the wreck sites and we followed.
Q. You mention familiarity with the jungle. Did Papua New Guinea's terrain prompt a sense of déjà vu from your Vietnam days?
A. It was eerie to leave our vehicle on some weedy track and follow a narrow footpath into the bush. But it wasn't a "flashback" moment. It was just different to go deeper into the jungle carrying a walking stick instead of a weapon. All the locals—men, women, and children—were armed with machetes, some as long as swords. But they cleared paths, tried to make swampy areas passable for us by dropping brush to corduroy our way, and generally made us feel safe wherever they took us. Other MIA Hunters's groups, whose members tackled cliffs and narrow footpaths this last trip, experienced more potential peril than my team.
Q. One last question. This is your second novel with its roots in World War II. Why this continuing fascination with that particular war?
A. I have said that if all authors, artists, poets, musicians, and filmmakers turned only to the Second World War for inspiration, they would never run out of subject matter. It was such a horrific watershed in history. I enjoy writing fiction, but the true stories of that war are even more thrilling and captivating than any fiction. Yet I find this global war a never-ending source of ideas. I am in awe of those who lived it. Without spending years researching actual battles or the people who fought them to produce an academic work, I prefer to use historical fiction to create my own stories.