The First Christmas of the War: An Interview with Alan Simon

Over the holidays, millions of Americans will pick up and read a book. I'm more of a non-fiction guy, but as an author I try to pay attention to literary trends. One of the most interesting is the growth of historical fiction. I was curious about what such a book looked like. To this end, I sat down with my new W. P. Carey colleague and friend Alan Simon (no relation). We talked about one of his many books, The First Christmas of the War.

The following are excerpts of our conversation.

PS: What is The First Christmas of the War about? Why is it particularly relevant now?

AS: The First Christmas of the War is set during what was arguably the most surreal holiday season in American history, exactly 75 years ago. The attack on Pearl Harbor took place less than three weeks before Christmas, and suddenly the whole country was thrown into World War II. Paradoxically, most Americans still tried to make the best of that holiday season, knowing that their sons and husbands and brothers would soon be off to war.

PS: Is your book more of a war novel or a family saga?

AS: It's definitely a family saga, set on the Home Front in my own hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The characters in the family at the center of the story are dealing with their own worries and problems even beyond the sudden outbreak of war. For example, the eldest son plans to ask his long-time girlfriend to marry him on Christmas Eve, even as she agrees to a goodbye date with her former boyfriend before he goes off to war. His sixteen-year old sister just became secretly engaged to her boyfriend who likewise is headed off to war. Another son talks about dropping out of high school to enlist. As you might imagine, all of these little dramas threaten to disrupt the family's Christmas every bit as much as the war.

PS: What's new about The First Christmas of the War to commemorate this year's milestone World War II anniversary?

AS: The novel was written during the early and mid-2000s and published in 2010. Since this year commemorates the 75th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, I've updated the book to also include all-new bonus material that tracks the same day-by-day structure of the story line. The newspaper headlines and stories in the bonus section are about not only the early days of the war and the Home Front, but also from sports, entertainment, fashion, and everyday life...all straight from newspapers published on those same dates.

PS: What was your inspiration for this novel?

AS: Fifteen years ago on December 7, 2001, I was watching the ceremonies on television that were commemorating the 60th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. A Navy Admiral was making the comparison between December of 1941 and the then-present day, which was less than three months after the 9/11 attacks. I began thinking about what was shaping up as a very somber 2001 holiday season, and wondering what the holidays back in 1941 must have been like. And that was the genesis of The First Christmas of the War and also the beginning of the series.

PS: What was that holiday season 75 years ago actually like?

AS: What many people don't realize, given the eventual outcome of World War II, was that throughout December of 1941 the prevalent mood on the Home Front was one of intense worry and fear because the early days of the war were going so badly. The scenario painted in the series The Man in the High Castle, with the Japanese and Nazis victorious in World War II, was the unspoken fear of many Americans during the time frame in which this novel takes place.

Despite these fears, Americans paradoxically did their best to celebrate this very peculiar holiday season. In fact, the terrifying reality of loved ones soon at war may have actually driven this surreal attempt at holiday normalcy, and that's the atmosphere I tried to capture throughout the story.

PS: Speaking of The Man in the High Castle, do you have any plans for a movie or scripted series based on the novel?

AS: I'd love to see that happen of course, but the book would need to catch the eye of someone "in the business" and that's not really in my control. So I just focus on writing the most engaging novels I can, including the sequels.

PS: This book is the first title in a series that you're still writing. Tell us about the series.

AS: The series follows this same family through the World War II years, into the Korean War, and eventually through the 1960s into the late 1970s. The second and third titles have been available since 2012 and 2015, respectively: Thanksgiving, 1942 and The First Christmas After the War, which is set during the holiday season of 1945 when millions came home from the war in time for the holidays. From reader reviews and emails, many readers seem to feel like part of this family as they go through the war years. There will be seven titles in the series when it's completed.

PS: Tell me about one of your other novels about the Gettysburg "Great Reunion" in 1913.

AS: Just like the unique holiday season of 1941, the real-life Civil War Great Reunion fascinates me, so I wrote a novel about it. That's when more than 50,000 aging Civil War veterans from both sides of that war came back to Gettysburg to commemorate the 50th anniversary of that battle. That book was briefly on the USA Today bestseller list in February of 2016.