To celebrate the release of Purple Hearts, the third and final novel in the Front Lines series, we chatted with Michael Grant about staying true to history, the horrors of World War II, and more.
About ‘Purple Hearts’
New York Times bestselling author Michael Grant unleashes the gritty and powerful conclusion to the Front Line series and evokes the brutal truth of World War II: War is hell. An epic tale of historical reimagining, perfect for fans of Code Name Verity and Salt to the Sea.
Courage, sacrifice, and fear have lead Rio, Frangie, and Rainy through front-line battles in North Africa and Sicily, and their missions are not over. These soldiers and thousands of Allies must fight their deadliest battle yet—for their country and their lives—as they descend into the freezing water and onto the treacherous sands of Omaha Beach. It is June 6, 1944. D-Day has arrived.
No longer naive recruits, these soldier girls are now Silver Star recipients and battle-hardened. Others look to them for guidance and confidence, but this is a war that will leave sixty million dead. Flesh will turn to charcoal. Piles will be made of torn limbs. The women must find a way to lead while holding on to their own last shreds of belief in humanity.
Our interview with Michael Grant, author of ‘Purple Hearts’ and the Front Lines series
1. Unlike ‘Front Lines’ and ‘Silver Stars,’ ‘Purple Hearts’ features quite a few chapters from new characters’ points of view. Why did you choose to broaden the scope of viewpoints at this point in the series (no matter how short-lived they ended up being)?
It’s all about realism. In order to tell the story I have to make compromises with reality, but I try hard to limit the damage, to stay as real as possible. In reality no group of soldiers would stay together as long as Rio’s platoon, so I try to show that, characters leaving because of injury or transfer and being replaced with FNG’s – Fuckin’ New Guys – who had very low status in the existing group. I have Rio at one point angry at the idea of losing Cat Preeling in exchange for three new people because Cat knew what she was doing, she killed Germans. One soldier who knew what he or she was doing was worth a whole squad of newbies.
An important part of the war after Normandy was about replacements, often very minimally trained, being sent straight into battle alongside veterans. I wanted to show that. People maybe 19 years old, with a few weeks of basic training, were often driven at night and dropped off in pitch blackness to join some dug-in, veteran platoon facing a line of German tanks. It was terrifying, and they very often died through lack of experience.
And I wanted to show that virtue or likability had absolutely nothing to do with who lived and who died.
2. Rio, Frangie, and Rainy were largely separated in the first two novels but met and interacted often in ‘Purple Hearts’ (which I loved, by the way). What drove you to draw them together so much more frequently?
They came together more often because in a sense the war came together. In Front Lines we see four main characters (Rio, Frangie, Rainy and Jenou) coming from three different towns, experiencing enlistment and training differently. With a segregated army it was just not possible to bring a black character and a white character together during training and stay true to reality. In Silver Stars we’re in Italy and we get more interaction, but it wasn’t until Purple Hearts and Normandy basically that we saw African-American combat units involved with white units. And, of course Rainy is a spy, and weaving that in with the combat soldier and the medic is all-but impossible.
3. One of the aspects I love most about this series is all of its memorable characters – major, minor, and even those that are brand new. Were there any characters you wanted to spend more time with but ultimately couldn’t?
Frangie. I made a decision early on to introduce one major change – women in combat. I made a second decision to advance the combat involvement of black troops but not to wave away the racism of the army or of the larger society. I wasn’t going for rainbows and happiness, I wanted to show as much of the reality of racism and misogyny and the more benign sexism as I could while staying as close to reality as possible. I wanted the series to work as fiction, but also do the job of teaching about World War II. Long story short it was hard to ‘integrate’ (heh) Frangie into story lines at times.
I’d also have liked to get more into Hansu Pang’s life, and Cat’s life, but I just didn’t have the space.
But if there was anyone I’d want to have a beer with it would probably be Cat Preeling and Sergeant Cole. We share a sense of humor.
4. Were there any characters whose fates or storylines changed and differed drastically from how you originally envisioned them?
Well, I have to avoid spoilers, but I’d say the Rio-Jack-Strand relationship ended up surprising me in frustrating but ultimately honest ways. Characters have to behave true-to-form, and frankly Rio was not easy to bend to my writerly will in this area.
5. What challenges did you come up against in writing about some of World War II’s most well-known battles and events in this novel? Were there any events from this period of the war that you wanted to explore but ultimately couldn’t make fit?
Oh, man, there were lots of challenges. Let’s start with this: how the hell do I do Omaha Beach better, or at least almost as well, as Saving Private Ryan, or The Longest Day, or Band of Brothers? These movie and TV productions created indelible images, not just of events but of personalities. Let me just tell you that no writer wants to start his work day thinking, “I have to paint a better, more visceral picture of Omaha Beach than Steven Spielberg.” That is one tall hill to climb.
There’s a character whose sexuality is evident to a close reader, and I’d have liked to go deeper into that, but the realities of that time and place made it very difficult. People did not come out of the closet in 1944. The Stonewall riot was 25 years in the future.
Then there’s the fact that the level of death and horror which was already very intense in Italy gets ramped up to a nearly unbearable level. You can’t have 500 pages of nothing but awful, awful, awful.
And I just felt this moral obligation to get so much right. A lot of my research involved reading or watching first-hand accounts from the guys who fought these battles in the Bocage, and in the Hurtgen Forest and the Bulge. I’m just some pipsqueak writer and when I listen to some octogenarian who still, to this day, cannot get through a war story without breaking down in tears, I am painfully aware of what that soldier did and risked and sacrificed, and how much I owe him as a writer, as an ethnic Jew, as an American, as a human being. I have an obligation to tell the truth about them, not as plaster saints but as regular human beings who were so often freezing, starving, lice-ridden and terrified but who nevertheless did astonishingly brave things.
6. Though it takes place during the last chunk of World War II, ‘Purple Hearts’ feels more timely than ever with its very pointed discussions of race, sex and gender, and, of course, the ‘glamor’ of war. How did the current political and social climate affect the way you wrote and finished this story in comparison to how you approached the first two novels in the series?
The reason World War II remains so fascinating is that it is a very rare example of a war that was absolutely necessary for us to fight. We had to win for human liberty to survive. It was not a conflict of perfect good versus absolute evil, there were definitely shades of gray, definitely things we did that we should not have. No country comes through a war with clean hands and a clear conscience. But that doesn’t alter the fact that Nazism was profoundly evil and had to be destroyed.
The essence of our opposition to Nazism is our belief in liberty, in tolerance, in equality before the law, in the rights of the individual, in freedom of speech and religion. These are all under attack now, today, not from a foreign foe, but from an American population that is complacent, often ignorant of what are meant to be our core values, and too-ready to embrace the very tribalism and contempt for the “other” that caused the war. Fortunately, I didn’t have to deliver some lecture, the simple historical truth did that job.
7. On Twitter, you mentioned to me that ‘Purple Hearts’ is the thing you’re proudest of having written. What sets it apart from the rest of the series for you (as well as the rest of your work)?
I was thinking of the whole trilogy, not just this volume. I approach series or trilogies not as an initial book with sequels, but as a single book broken into manageable pieces. It’s all one story.
I tend to value work. I’m a blue collar guy, a full-time working man since the age of 16 and this was hard work. Fun, too, but hard fun. And often emotionally difficult in a way that writing Gone or co-writing Animorphs was not. In my speculative universes I’m god, I’m in control. In the Front Lines series I’m under an obligation to history, and that weighed at times. Spend an afternoon at Oradour Sur Glane or Buchenwald and you come away knowing you have to get it right. I tried hard to get it right, to tell the truth, to be emotionally as well as factually honest. In the end I felt I did a pretty good job of that, so yes, I think it’s the best thing I’ve written.
About Michael Grant
Michael Grant, author of the Front Lines Series (including Purple Hearts), Messenger of Fear Series, the Gone Series and The Magnificent Twelve Series, has spent much of his life on the move. Raised in a military family, he attended ten schools in five states, as well as three schools in France. Even as an adult he kept moving, and in fact became a writer in part because it was one of the few jobs that wouldn’t tie him down. His fondest dream is to spend a year circumnavigating the globe and visiting every continent. Yes, even Antarctica.
He lives in California with his wife, Katherine Applegate, and their two children.