Launch: John Winn Miller’s The Hunt for the Peggy C
INTERVIEW BY SUSAN HIGGINBOTHAM
John Winn Miller is an award-winning investigative reporter (a Pulitzer finalist), foreign correspondent, newspaper editor and publisher, screenwriter, movie producer, and novelist. He has produced four indie films, including Band of Robbers. Miller and his wife, Margo, a potter, live in Lexington in the United States. Susan Higginbotham interviewed Miller about his novel, The Hunt for the Peggy C, which has just been published.
How would you describe this book and its themes in a couple of sentences?
The Hunt for the Peggy C is a World War II-era thriller that could be described as Casablanca meets Das Boot because it is really a love story wrapped in an action-adventure. It’s about an American fugitive who struggles to outrun an unstable U-boat captain bent on revenge and to outwit the mutinous crew of misfits on his rusty cargo ship to rescue a Jewish family—first for money and then for love.
What brought you to writing historical fiction?
I have always loved historical fiction, particularly books like Colleen McCullough’s Master of Rome series, James Clavell’s Shogun, Gore Vidal’s Burr, and Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels. Those authors use meticulous research and brilliant writing to make history come alive. But strangely, I didn’t choose to write historical fiction; it chose me. The inspiration for The Hunt for the Peggy C came from a dream I had after watching one more lousy movie and thinking I could write a better screenplay. When I woke up the following day, I knew the first and last scenes and the ship’s name. That was all. I had to spend years researching to fill in the blanks.
How has your background in journalism helped you in writing historical fiction?
In more than thirty years as an investigative reporter, foreign correspondent, and editor, I learned how to write clearly and become an expert quickly on any subject. I also learned the importance of using all five senses and telling details to construct a story that is both educational and entertaining (or appalling). So, readers of my novel will experience the sights and sounds of the gritty world of tramp steamers and their less-than-reputable crews plying dangerous war zones in search of cargo. Readers will engage with life inside overcrowded, smelly, and deadly U-boats. The Peggy C’s voyage takes readers from inside Nazi-occupied Amsterdam, through the perilous English Channel, to Gibraltar, to a hospital in Majorca, through a minefield near Malta, and then almost to Palestine.
You’ve also written screenplays. How has that influenced your novel writing?
I liken screenplays to haiku because of the sparse descriptions and terse, often misleading dialogue. Screenplays are all about compelling visuals because you can only write what the audience sees. Within those constraints, you have to create intriguing character arcs while structuring a drama that will keep the audience on the edge of their seats.
How do you explain the attraction of World War II as a topic for historical fiction?
I suppose the popularity is because it was a just war where good and evil were clearly defined, or so you would think until you did more research. The era is full of often heart-breaking stories of heroism and cruelty with immense consequences for mankind. And it seems that every day a new, fascinating story emerges from the shadows of history.
Did the research present any particular challenges for you?
I was determined to portray all the history and technology in great detail and as accurately as possible. But there was a problem. I had never been on a U-boat or tramp steamer and knew next to nothing about the sea. And I am not Jewish, although I have Ashkenazi blood. So, I had to read tons of books, magazine and newspaper articles, watch documentaries and oral histories, search online archives, read diaries, and discover amazingly informative websites like uboat.net. I even went so far as to read the wartime logs of U-boat captains to accurately describe the moon’s phases during each leg of the chase.
Did you come across any surprises in researching your novel?
I had read a ton of World War II fiction since I was a kid. But during the research for my novel, I kept finding myself saying, “What? I had no idea about that.” For instance, a cargo of barrels full of aviation fuel plays a crucial role in my plot. Then I discovered that a new type of fuel called British Air Ministry 100 (BAM 100) was key to the Royal Air Force winning the battle of Britain. The 100-octane aviation fuel gave British Spitfires and Hurricanes 30 percent more horsepower and allowed them to fly 25–34 miles per hour faster than they did over Dunkirk, which startled and befuddled German pilots. Another surprise was that Hitler had pirates, heavily armed warships disguised as merchant ships that collectively sank or captured 140 ships totaling close to a million tons. What made that discovery even more fascinating was who first came up with that idea, during World War I. It was Winston Churchill, who was the First Lord of the British Admiralty at that time.
Who is your favorite minor character?
I would have to say that Rabbi Levy Maduro is my favorite secondary character. He is the father of three young boys and uncle of Miriam (our heroine) and her young sister, who are rescued on the Peggy C. His warmth and funny stories make him a father figure for our hero, Captain Jake Rogers, who came from a broken family. Rabbi Levy also serves as a moral guide for Rogers as he transforms from a hardened cynic to someone who comes to believe that family is worth fighting for.
What can you tell us about the plot without giving away too much?
Rumor has it that Captain Jake Rogers, a gruff U.S. Naval Academy dropout, fled America because of a murder. Now, in the days before America entered World War II, Jake scrounges for cargo to smuggle on his decrepit merchant ship. In Nazi-occupied Amsterdam, he takes on his most dangerous load yet—a Jewish family he’s never met.
During the nerve-wracking 3,000-mile escape through naval battles, minefields, and horrendous weather, the Peggy C struggles to outrun a U-boat commanded by Oberleutnant Viktor Brauer, an ardent Nazi who believes he is doing God’s will. The increasingly unhinged commander knows his shaky career is finished unless he rescues his kidnapped boarding party from Jake.
As the chase intensifies, Rogers falls in love with the family’s eldest daughter Miriam, a sweet medical student with a militant streak who constantly challenges him to change his mercenary ways. Everything seems hopeless when Rogers is badly wounded. Miriam must prove she’s as tough as her rhetoric if she is going to put down a mutiny by some of the fed-up crew of misfits—just as the U-boat closes in for the kill.
What is the last great book you read?
The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson.