Angel Candelario Rodriguez, founder and manager of the LinkedIn group “Technical Writer in Action,” interviewed award-winning and best-selling author Don Keith on November 23, 2011. Originally posted on LinkedIn for group members; reprinted here with permission.
Award-winning and best-selling author Don Keith has written or co-written 22 books of fiction and non-fiction including Final Patrol: True Stories of World War II Submarine and more.
Keith has lived in the South all his life. He attended the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa where he received his degree in broadcast and film communication with a minor in English and literature. While working as a broadcast journalist, he won awards from the Associated Press and United Press International for news writing and reporting.
Keith is also the co-author of a novel, FIRING POINT. The book is the basis for a major motion picture, now in pre-production, to be titled HUNTER KILLER.
Very kindly, Don Keith shares with members of Technical Writer In Action group his experiences, his life and his most recent book UNDERSEA WARRIOR in the following interview:
TWIA: Dear Don, thank you very much for this extraordinary opportunity.
Don Keith: You are very welcome.
TWIA: When and why did you begin writing?
Don Keith: I’ve written for as long as I can remember. I come from a long line of storytellers but I’m the first one to have benefit of keyboard and computer. I hope I keep that legacy going. I love being able to introduce readers to extraordinary people who find themselves in extraordinary situations.
TWIA: Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?
Don Keith: Probably with reading. When I read, I don’t just read. I go back and analyze the way the writer has spun the story, how he or she describes things so the reader can feel as if he was there or knows the character better. I observe plot, characterization, and all those literary devices. Way back then, when I thought I could do it…at about age 8…I started writing stories. I have not really quit since and that’s been a long, long time. It just took me about 40 years to finally get published!
TWIA: When did you first consider yourself a writer?
Don Keith: When my first novel came out, a local bookstore held a reading and signing event. When I arrived that day, I walked in the door and immediately saw a lady sitting on one of the big couches in the store, reading my book, and she had a smile on her face. At that moment, I thought, “Hey, if I can make somebody smile with something I wrote, I guess I must be a writer!”
TWIA: Do you see writing as a career?
Don Keith: It can be but it is very, very difficult. I’ve heard that less than a thousand people in the world make their living solely by writing books. I have done 22 books, including a national bestseller, and I’m not close to being able to support my wife and myself on the revenue from those books. However, it only takes one hit book. Look at the young lady who wrote “The Help.” It was her first novel and sold millions of copies, even before the hit movie. I actually see my writing as a supplement to my income when I retire—maybe early next year—plus it will keep me busy, researching, writing and promoting. I do have a couple of movie projects in the works. One is set for release in December 2012, based on a book I co-wrote with former nuclear submarine skipper George Wallace. It will be titled “Hunter Killer,” with Antoine Fuqua attached as director. He did “Training Day” for which Denzel Washington won the Academy Award for best actor. The other is still in the early going but will be based on one of my inspirational novellas.
TWIA: Jeffery Addison is a pseudonym used by you for a series of inspirational novellas co-written with author and media personality Edie Hand. Why write under a pseudonym?
Don Keith: As I note on my web site, www.donkeith.com, most of my books have been about subjects like football, NASCAR racing, and submarines. Those books with Edie are sweet inspirational novellas aimed at a primarily female readership. I didn’t want people to be confused about the books or to hesitate buying them thinking they were similar to the ones written under my real name. Edie Hand, my co-author, and I are looking at re-issuing those books with some changes—mostly based on that strong interest we are getting from a major Hollywood production house—and I will probably go ahead and use my real name if we do.
TWIA: Undersea Warrior recounts the military career of Dudley “Mush” Morton, who commanded the American submarine, USS Wahoo in the Pacific. What inspired you to write this book?
Don Keith: Well, I am a sucker for a good character and interesting story. Morton is a fabulous character and his story is simply amazing. I was looking for my next World War II history project and kept running across references to Morton and USS Wahoo, yet there had never been a biography of Mush. The more I heard about him and his story, the more I knew I had to do it. My publisher was hesitant. They felt as if the subject had been covered already. When I showed them just the beginning of my research, they were immediately enthusiastic. And I’m glad. I really felt this story should be told.
TWIA: How did you come up with the title?
Don Keith: That came from the publisher. I wanted to use the title “On the Winds of the Rising Storm.” That comes from a short poem by fantasy writer Robert Jordan that I use at the front of the book: “We rode on the winds of the rising storm, we ran to the sounds of the thunder. We danced among the lightning bolts and tore the world asunder.” I felt that summed up Mush Morton and some of his contemporary submarine skippers to a tee. But my editor felt it sounded more like a romance novel and military history readers might avoid the book. I reminded them that Morton did a good deal of his damage on top of the sea, not just under it, since he pioneered the use of the deck guns and submarine surface assaults. But they won.
TWIA: Is there a message in your book that you want readers to grasp?
Don Keith: Besides just being a great story about a remarkable man, I hope people understand what I discuss in the book’s foreword. As horrible as war is, it leads to innovation, often accomplished on the fly. Whichever side adapts and evolves is usually the one that prevails. That evolution is what Morton and others were responsible for during WWII. Thank goodness they reinvented how submarines were used in the kind of war in which we found ourselves. Submarines played a huge role in the victory in the Pacific, and they were about all we had at the beginning of the war. Though never more than 5% of the naval assets in the Pacific, submarines accounted for more than half the enemy shipping destroyed in the war.
TWIA: How much of the book is realistic?
Don Keith: Oh, it’s all real. Or as real as I can make it, based on a year’s worth of research, previous books on the subject, the results of a Freedom of Information Act request, and the oral histories of men who were in the boats in the war.
TWIA: What was the hardest part of writing your book?
Don Keith: All that research! Even when writing fiction, there is a certain amount of research a writer must do, but I want these books to be as accurate and true to life as I can make them. It’s like having a term paper due every week for a year or a year and a half!
TWIA: If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in your latest book?
Don Keith: I might convince the editor to allow me to spend more time on the eventually successful search for the wreckage of USS Wahoo. It, in itself, is an amazing and inspiring story and I could only do one chapter at the end of the book on it. It was the perfect summation for my story but maybe somebody will tell the whole story one day or, even better, someone will do a documentary on it.
TWIA: Undersea Warrior cover is amazing. Who designed it?
Don Keith: I have little input into the cover design of my books, but I really like what Penguin has done with my last several. I agree that the cover for “Undersea Warrior” is great. It was done by Patrick Kang, who also did the cover for my last book, “War Beneath the Waves,” and it, too, was stellar. I hope someday to meet him, shake his hand, and thank him for capturing so well the tone of the books. That image of Mush Morton on “Undersea Warrior,” with the ship going down in the background, is spellbinding.
TWIA: Did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?
Don Keith: I learn tons from every book I write. I’m not a submariner. I was never in the military. And obviously I didn’t live through World War II. I have to learn all I can about these complicated machines, the tactics used, the men themselves, and what was happening in the war and the world at the time. I try to talk to as many people who did as I can. And they still have a lot to teach us all.
TWIA: Do you have any advice for other writers?
Don Keith: I have occasion to speak to many writer groups and I tell them all the same thing. I see so many would-be writers who hone and polish and craft their novel or non-fiction work for years and years but never seem to finish it. I suspect most of them are simply afraid to let it go, maybe fearing that somebody will discover they can’t really write. It hurts when somebody calls your baby ugly! But at some point, you have to let it go, do the dirty work of finding an agent, and take that risk. Meanwhile, what else are you working on? If you only have one book in you, that’s fine. But if you want to WRITE, you need to WRITE. Start on the second book as you shop the first one. If neither of them finds a home, get to work on the third. Here’s my story: I wrote four novels before I sold one. Four! My agent kept telling me that he thought I could write, but that I just had not hit it yet. When I sent him the manuscript for the fourth one, he said, “You finally hooked it. I can sell this book.” He did. Four days later. “The Forever Season” won several top literary awards and is still in print after 15 years. And I went back and did a bunch of work on #3 and it became “Wizard of the Wind,” my second novel for St. Martin’s Press. Don’t give up!
TWIA: The New Jersey Naval Museum introduces visitors to naval history in general (home of the USS Ling 297, a World War II submarine). What would be the importance of these museums in the preservation of our history and remember our Undersea Warriors?
Don Keith: You know I did a book about all 17 WWII submarines that are museum ships around the country—including the Ling. It’s called “Final Patrol” because each of these vessels took their final “patrol” to where they rest today. There are 16 U.S. boats and one German U-boat, the U-505 in Chicago that people can actually visit. I did the book to call attention to them, knowing that we are in danger of losing some of them. These boats are invaluable pieces of history. Imagine standing on the deck of Bowfin, the “Pearl Harbor avenger.” Or in the torpedo room of the Pampanito. Or climbing to the bridge of the Drum or Cod or Batfish. And standing there exactly where those brave submariners stood over sixty years ago and helped win a brutal war.
TWIA: Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers?
Don Keith: Again, I am a storyteller. I’m always looking for new stories to tell, and I even occasionally make some up (I’m working on a novel now about a fictitious group of old sub vets who head off to South America to bring back their boat to make her a museum ship…and run into all sorts of adventures in the process.) I am blessed to hear from people regularly who tell me, “My dad was a submariner in World War II, but he would never tell us about what he did. Now we know.” Or from people who tell me how thankful they are for my telling their stories. Or from men like Charlie Rush, the hero of “War Beneath the Waves,” who called me up and said, “You got it right! You couldn’t have done any better if you had been there 300 feet below the surface in the Makassar Strait!”