Q&A: Darrel Nelson
In The Anniversary Waltz, author and teacher Darrel Nelson takes us into the lives of Adam and Elizabeth Carlson as they tell their family a story of passion, bravery, and adversity - their story.
Q. What were your goals writing The Anniversary Waltz?
My main goal was to write the story my father never got to live. He died when I was five, and so I grew up hearing stories about him from my mother and my grandparents. He served in France during World War II and returned home in 1946, a young man ready to get on with his life. He met and married my mother, and they had two children: my sister and me. Then, despite having survived many harrowing experiences in the war, he got cancer and died at the age of thirty-two. So The Anniversary Waltz is the story he never got to live: sixty years of wedded bliss, commemorated annually by family members who gather for a celebration and an opportunity to hear once again the story behind the anniversary waltz. My parents shared only seven years of married life. I wanted the characters they inspired—Adam and Elizabeth—to have much more. The Anniversary Waltz is the story of Adam and Elizabeth’s courtship and marriage. But another goal I have is to continue their story in a future novel, showing their love continuing to grow as they face further challenges and trials together—challenges and trials my mother in real life had to face alone.
Q. The setting for this book is the 1940s. What about this historical period and setting piqued your interest?
My father returned from the war in 1946 and met my mother, so the era was determined for me. But there was much about the time period—especially the latter half of the decade—that interested me anyway. With the war now over, people were anxious to get on with their lives. The economy boomed and employment opportunities became plentiful. The national mood was one of hope and optimism. Rationing ended, giving rise to supermarkets and new clothing styles. Housing became affordable, and appliances like washing machines, stoves, and fridges were available again. Radio comedies and dramas paved the way for the television age, and people had more leisure time to spend enjoying a lifestyle they had lost during the war. Advances in technology, machinery, and transportation occurred. And in the arts, new writers and performers emerged to help rebuild and redefine American culture. The shadow of the Great Depression and World War II lifted, bringing a dawn of peace and prosperity.
Q. Did you do any special research for this novel? How familiar were you with this period before you wrote the book?
The era of my childhood and youth was the 50s and 60s. But that’s another story! So because The Anniversary Waltz is set in the era before my birth, I had to do a fair amount of research to make sure I captured the spirit of the 40s accurately. My mother and my grandparents told me stories over the years about life during and after the war, but I didn’t personally experience that time period. I could understand though the sense of optimism and hope that pervaded the national consciousness, so I tried to build on that and weave a positive thread throughout the book. So I hope The Anniversary Waltz is an uplifting read, despite the challenges and adversities depicted within its pages. The book reflects the new attitude of the times—one of looking ahead rather than looking back and mourning the changes that occurred.
Q. Where do you draw the line between historical accuracy and taking dramatic license?
First of all let me say that my editor, Lori Vanden Bosch, held me accountable for every detail I presented in the book. If I referred to a song, I had to make certain it actually existed in the 40s. If I referred to an appliance, was it on the market then? Did the Carlsons have a refrigerator or was it more likely an icebox? When Maude looks through the box of photographs in one of the chapters, did the family actually have a camera and were they able to afford such a luxury? When Adam listens to the truck radio on his way into town to visit Elizabeth, did vehicles actually have radios back then? So I did a lot of research to make certain there were no anachronisms in the book.
Now … dramatic license. Many of the incidents in the novel are based on events from my family history. My father was injured in the war as described in the book, and my mother worked in a drycleaners as a young woman. When I was a youth, I was chased by a bull and faced being trampled, and my son was buried in a tunnel that collapsed on him, forcing his friends to dig him out. I didn’t embellish these incidents too much, except for the use of a slingshot in the bull incident. I wasn’t saved by my cousin hitting the bull with a rock. I hid behind a pole while he distracted the bull so I could escape through the fence. But I felt the slingshot incident worked better in the story, so I took some dramatic license there. And I took even more in recounting the courtship of Adam and Elizabeth, since I wasn’t around when my parents were dating! Adam is not my father, and Elizabeth is not my mother, but their characters were inspired by my parents. However, many other characters in the book are not based on anyone in particular. The book is a work of fiction, so dramatic license was employed where I felt it served the greater good. For example, the car accident is based on an event that occurred when my sister-in-law was “kidnapped” on her wedding day and whisked away in a car, only to be involved in a minor accident. Fortunately no one was hurt, but I included and embellished the accident to create more drama in the book. Because The Anniversary Waltz is not intended to be a documentary of my family history, I had no trouble taking dramatic license in various instances. But such license had to meet two criteria: it had to be realistic and it had to contribute to the overall development of the plot.
Q. What are the lessons of that era that are still relevant to readers today?
Love, courage, hope and faith are human emotions and traits. No era has an exclusive right to them. A challenge and the subsequent struggle to overcome it in the 40s is as valid as a challenge and the subsequent struggle to overcome it in 2013. Life continues to throw adversities and trials at each generation, and though the specifics may vary, their overall nature is the same. Who hasn’t felt love, pain, joy, grief, hope, loss, relief, and despair? The courage Elizabeth exemplifies and the love Adam demonstrates typify the courage and love written about throughout the ages. The basic premise of the story—love and faith overcoming adversity in the face of overwhelming odds—is the timeless theme of The Anniversary Waltz, making it relevant to all generations of readers.