Launch: Gary Baysinger’s Margaret’s Last Prayer
INTERVIEW BY ELLEN IRWIN
Gary Baysinger spent his formative years growing up in Kwajalein, on the site of a World War II battlefield. It was here he learned to love a good story, though, since 2016, he has focused on writing and authoring stories of his own. Now, in his debut novel, Margaret’s Last Prayer, Gary marries longstanding interests in historical fiction, ancestral history, classic Hollywood cinema, and war comics in a story that honors his World War II relatives and features a direct ancestor, Margaret Laemmer. Gary lives in Oregon with his wife, two children, and two ill-behaved dogs.
How would you describe the theme(s) of this novel in two sentences?
The overarching theme is reunification. Even though we may be apart, we are all connected.
Your historical novel was inspired by a unique confluence of interests—ancestral history, Hollywood cinema, and war comics. What was the inspiration behind this?
My ancestors are Alsatian. I was curious about the ones who had stayed behind. Would I recognize them if I saw them? To answer my questions, I wrote a story about a family being reunited and a special pair of amulets that are passed down from one generation to the next. The comic book influence is also tied to these amulets. As a kid, I read a comic book called Weird War, which featured war stories with a supernatural element. One story was about a soldier who was rewarded with an amulet after saving a gypsy woman from being killed by the Nazis. He abused the special power of the amulet and paid a heavy price. I decided to use the amulet for something good, something that would link the families together. When I was young, we had no television for several years. I read a lot of books and watched a lot of movies to fill my imagination. My writing is a reflection of these influences.
Did you travel to any of the locations that feature in your novel? How did your experiences inform your story?
My family and I traveled to Alsace in 2018 and visited the ancestral village of the Baysingers (Besinger). My son and I visited the Alsace Museum in Strasbourg, which is a recreation of a typical Alsatian home from the early 19th century. I went through the museum tour with a notebook in my hand, thinking I’d found a gold mine of information. When we finished the tour, I was very excited about my finds, whereas my son thought it was the most boring tour he’d ever been on. Many of the details I gleaned from the museum tour ended up in the book.
Was there a particular historical artifact, tidbit of information, or figure you came across in your research that made it into your story?
Part of what hooked me into writing this novel was the story of the “Malgre Nous.” That’s a French term that means “against ourselves” or “against our will.” Alsace has bounced back and forth between France and Germany over the last few centuries. When Germany invaded France in 1940, Alsace became part of Germany again. Since Alsatians were considered full Germans again, they enjoyed privileges that occupied France did not. On the other hand, since they were German again, 10,000 young men were conscripted into the German army and sent to fight on the Eastern front. Many did not come back. I saw a parallel to our own war in Vietnam, during which young men were being drafted to fight for a cause in which they did not believe.
Was there a viewpoint character that was more difficult for you to write? Why do you think that was?
Margaret was the most difficult for me to write, primarily because I am a man who was trying to write from a female perspective. It was also a time and place I knew very little about. I was inspired by my paternal grandmother who grew up on a farm in Kansas. She wanted more out of life than what was being offered to her. I imbued that longing in Margaret—a sense that life is not fair but maybe there is some kind of karmic justice in the end.
You spent formative years growing up near a WWII battleground, and also served in the U.S. Coast Guard. How do you think this may have affected your story?
When I was growing up on Kwajalein, I never gave a lot of thought to the fact that it had been a battleground. At the time, I thought it was cool that there were relics left over from the war. Now, I look back and think about what the fighting would have been like, and the number of young American and Japanese men who lost their lives there. It’s humbling to think they would have drawn their last breath on the soil where we played “war” as kids. Serving in the armed forces gave me the confidence to write about young men in uniform. I was never in combat but I understood what it was like to be a young man away from home, isolated, in a foreign environment, with only your buddies for support.
Being a debut novelist, what obstacles did you have to overcome to get to publication?
First, I had to learn how to write fiction. I’ve always enjoyed reading but the thought of writing a book seemed hard. Once I started writing, I learned I was right. It is hard. With feedback from my writer’s group, I think I got the hang of it, but there is more to learn.
I think we can all relate to that—it seems there is always more to learn! What was the last great book you read?
Atonement by Ian McEwan.