American Boys, by Louise Esola, is the grand-prize winning book in the 23rd Annual Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards. It bested nearly 5,500 entries across nine categories to take home a prize package that includes $8,000 and a trip to the Writer’s Digest Annual Conference in New York City. For complete coverage of this year’s awards, check out the March/April 2016 issue of Writer’s Digest. Click here for a complete list of winners from this year’s awards.
Louise Esola is a 37-year-old freelance journalist who lives in Temecula, California with her husband and two children. Esola studied journalism at Pennsylvania State University, and she has written for publications including The San Diego Union Tribune, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and the Lincoln Journal Star, among others. Currently, she is working on a novel.
Can you describe American Boys for us? In 1969 people everywhere it seemed were calling the Vietnam War a “sinking ship.” Some 300 Americans were coming home in boxes each week. In the middle of 1969, in the middle of the maelstrom, an American warship actually did sink, and few remember it. American Boys is an intimate portrait of the Vietnam War, at the height of the fighting, the crescendo of the war, through the eyes of the people affected by the only warship that sank in that war.
It is the story of a war that sank, and took a ship with it.
American Boys is a story about war, and all war stories are people stories. I like to tell people that the Evans story is a microcosm of the Vietnam War.
What made you choose to pursue this subject matter? That’s a funny question. I think this topic found me. I was on a freelance assignment when I met a survivor of this incident who told me about it and three brothers lost. I’m a military history buff—it’s been an obsession for many, many years—and yet I’d never heard of this. Like many, [when] I thought of the Vietnam War “Platoon,” “Hamburger Hill,” “Apocalypse Now” [came to mind] … you know, Hollywood, guns and ammo, grenades and so on. I started researching this incident, and got my editors to OK a newspaper article about it—and I was instantly obsessed. I thought it had to be a book.
While working on the shorter piece, I came home from an interview with a survivor and told my husband that this had to be a book and that I needed to go to Niobrara, Nebraska—where lived Eunice Sage, who had lost her three sons. My husband’s response was not “where?!” but “when do you want to go?” (Cue “Wind Beneath My Wings” by Bette Midler.) My husband helped push me in the beginning. He’s the one who was the first to tell me that I could do this; that it was possible.
I document my meeting Eunice Sage in American Boys. Had I not met her, had I not been a mother, I am not sure I would have continued with this book. It was a special, among the most memorable, moment in my life.
In my initial, skimming research of this incident, and the Vietnam War, I saw how this tragedy had been forgotten—Eunice died two weeks after I visited her; she died thinking the government had forgotten about her boys. That nobody, few people, cared.
I write about this time in the last section of American Boys: I saw my own boys, then, still in diapers, and thought, this story matters. These people matter. Her boys matter. That’s how this story grabbed me. Those women—I met and became close with several of the mothers who lost their sons on the U.S.S. Frank E. Evans—loved their children as much as I love mine. I also became close with the Chief, as many call him, who was on the U.S.S. Frank E. Evans with his son. Chief Lawrence Reilly survived the tragedy and his son, Larry Jr., did not. I couldn’t imagine what that must have been like. So I asked a lot of questions. It was heartbreaking.
But it had to be done. Somebody had to write this book. And I think the story found me. Me and my empathy.
Describe your writing process for this book. Outline, outline outline. This story kept me up at night. It was so massive and had so many people … I didn’t know where I was going to even begin. I told myself over and over that if I could just hammer down an outline, I could break the story up into manageable bites.
The outline was revised many, many times. It is a braided narrative, which was really, I thought, the only way to tell this story and to keep the reader interested in the people and that turbulent era. And in the end—the eleventh hour—I wound up changing the last part. That’s where I put myself—first person—in the story. It was the only way I could think to end the book. I had to relay a story that was told to me, specifically me, a journalist.
Because of my day jobs—mother of young children, freelance writer—I had to work a lot of marathon sessions in between jobs and when my husband, who is one of those always-gone salesmen, was around. If it was a weekend, I took off to my girlfriend’s apartment to write. That girlfriend just bought a house. Happy to say her guest room includes a desk. I often dream of building a writers shed in my backyard.
The process itself? Just do it. In my very first internship while in college a newsguy looked me while I was just staring at the screen, saying I had “writers block.” He laughed. “ You don’t have time for that, just write something. Write! Write!” That’s the most important skill I learned in my years as a deadline reporter. You have to do it, so do it. Just write.
There really is no such thing as writers block when you are on deadline. I learned this early on. When it comes to nonfiction, if you don’t know what to write, you have not done enough reporting. So get on the phone and call somebody. Go sift through your notes. Listen to your interviews. If you can’t write, research. Then you can write. For American Boys, I immersed myself in books and everything late-1960s and Vietnam War. Even the music I listened to. I listened to a lot of Bob Dylan and Credence Clearwater Revival.
On writing, if I was feeling a little self-conscious or being hard on myself I would have a glass a wine and loosen up. I tend to be really hard on myself. This works for people who think they are bad dancers or that nobody would like them. Liquid courage is what they call it.
When I felt like I knew what I was really writing about, that I really knew the story, I just wrote and wrote and wrote—editing later. It wasn’t easy but that manuscript—the first draft—printed in all its glory and stacked on my desk was amazing sight.
What were the challenges of writing American Boys? The rewards? The story was massive, as I said before, and I was really tangled up in how to write it. I had three different literary agents working with me in the four years it took for the finished product—everybody had their own idea how to go about it. One acquisitions editor had her own idea—and it was awful. It was more chronological, and this story told chronologically would have been boring. I had to weave in the politics of the era and the heartbreak on the home front. Sorry to say, but it was all wrong for the story. (I won several awards; I wouldn’t have done so with the way some thought it needed to be written. I might have put a few people asleep, ala Nyquil.)
In the end, and this is one reward, I self-published. That I had that option was a reward. I knew the story and knew how to write it. I self-published for creative freedom, really. That acquisitions editor said that I had an “artistic vision.” Well, I did. I didn’t want to put people to sleep with some dry military read. I wanted the story to be real and accessible for all readers. Another award is that in my research I came across information that is helping to change history. The names of the 74 men killed on the U.S.S. Frank E. Evans off the coast of Vietnam are not on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. D.C. My book shows how that is an injustice.
Today, there are several lawmakers working to make this happen—one in particular, Sen. Chuck Schumer in New York, is relying on my book and research to see this through. The veterans and families have been trying for decades and today, they are closer than ever to seeing this changed. A few months after releasing American Boys the state of California voted to include the names of the 22 Californians killed on that ship on the state’s own Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Sacramento. I attended that ceremony in March 2015, and know in my heart that I’ll go to Washington some day, hopefully soon. The families and veterans I came to know well. The only way to write a story like this, one that is painful and emotional for a lot of people, is to get close to them. I think I broke a rule in journalism here in that I got close to them. But I had to. There had been others who’ve come along, telling these people that they were writing a book about a tragedy they live with everyday of their lives. I think they were taken aback by me, my age (early thirties at the time) and that I wasn’t related to anyone who was on that ship. That I was just interested in telling this story and that I wanted to climb into their nightmare, so to speak, and help tell the world that this happened. And they are living through it: the disaster that happened on June 3, 1969 and the one that is ongoing, the one where the government left 74 names off the Vietnam Memorial. That is another reward: the relationships and the people I have come to know well.
The U.S.S. Frank E. Evans was known as “The Fighter.” And I guess that’s what I am too, and have always been. A fighter. Plus, I’m from Philly. (Cue Rocky theme music.)
Describe the process of publishing this book. I never had trouble getting an agent’s attention … even agents who wouldn’t represent me liked my work. The problem was that I was writing about the Vietnam War. “Why’d you pick that?” was something I heard a few times. “It doesn’t sell.” That war was and is, as far as books go, unpopular, as I fast learned. But I couldn’t drop it.
It’s funny because the first person to ever tell me this was Eunice Sage, who had lost her three sons on this ship. In my very first hour with her in Niobrara, Nebraska, when I told her I was writing a book, she told me: “Probably … nobody will read it.”
Then I went on to hear this over and over again, in many forms. It was a tough to hear. I was so captivated by this story and well into research and so on, and my heart was there, my passion was there, and in walks the business folk telling me no one would buy this. Money has never been a real motivator for me. I just wanted to tell a story and wanted to do good work.
I think when you die, and this book was about death, naturally, so it gets to you thinking, you don’t take anything with you. Your afterlife is what people remember about you. How people see you. American Boys was my way of helping to right a wrong. It was, in some ways, a beautiful story, just as much as it was tragic. So I e-mailed my agent one day, this agent that had submitted to all the major houses and then some, and told him I was going to self-publish, that is was time to write this story and let it loose into the world. It was time for the world to know that not everybody who died in the Vietnam War is on that Wall in Washington. That the costs of war far surpass the numbers in some ledger somewhere.
On the actual self-publishing process, the very first thing I did was find an editor. I have been a writer for a long, long time and know that every writer needs an editor. You might hate that editor at one point but you need one. Then I found a company that would put the book together, a company that would work with me to make this book look spectacular. In a few words: not self-published. I did a lot of proofing and then, enlisted the help of others. It was one of the most difficult tasks ever. I lost a lot of sleep and spent the summer of 2014 glued to the manuscript.
Why did you choose self-publishing? Mostly, creative freedom—a lot of people thought they knew to present this story and, as I knew innately, were wrong—and then I needed to get this story out. It was time to unleash the story of the U.S.S. Frank E. Evans. The story, this important story that I always saw as a microcosm of the tragedy that was the Vietnam War itself, lived in obscurity. I wasn’t afraid of the sales part, the business part. I think, you know, that I just needed to do this. I had to write this story. I took a risk.
What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced self-publishing? I laugh: the business part. In a word: money. Editors, book design, etc. didn’t come cheap. I wanted the best for this story so I enlisted the best. And this has to be said: I have a very supportive husband who believes in me and my work.
The research, crisscrossing the country several times for interviews that just couldn’t be done over the phone, was expensive. Every time I went to photocopy something at some presidential library or archive, it cost money. My freelancing for newspapers and magazines foot the bill for most of it. (Did I mention my husband has been very supportive?)
Personally, I am not a paycheck player. The way I look at like is this: I’m OK. I drive an older car. I shop Ebay. I grew up pretty poor in a rundown part of Philadelphia, raised by a single mother. Today I live in a pretty suburb with trees and bunnies, and my children have milk for their cereal and bacon with their eggs and two parents at home, who love them. I don’t need much. Plus, I have them; I have these two beautiful children. I love that I can be a writer. I’m already rich. Like I said, I don’t need much.
But I needed to write this story and see it through. That’s what I needed. The challenge was and is seeing it through, being heard. I’m still trying to get people to listen, to take a chance on this book. Finding readers is another challenge. It is getting easier though.
What are the most important benefits of self-publishing? Creative freedom. In the industry you will run into so many people who think something needs to be written a certain way. I stuck to my guns. I knew the story and knew how to write it. Fiction, which I am working on now, is different. Maybe there I will be more pliable. But American Boys wasn’t just about a ship that sank. It was about a war that sank and took a ship with it. Few people saw past the story of the warship. It was really a story about people who got caught up in the Vietnam War, the disaster that it was, on the ship and in the big picture.
What surprised you about the self-publishing process? The workload. Yes, you can hire and editor and book-design team, but you will be busy because in the end, it’s your book. If it’s too easy you are doing something wrong.
What are the biggest misconceptions about self-publishing? That the work is not quality. I’m talking about that stigma. If a traditional publisher didn’t want you that you are no good. I can say, five awards later, it’s not true. I am hard on myself, true, and every single award, including this one, has been a surprise. I remember the day I found out I got a Kirkus star. (The book had been out for about two months and I felt like I was on the freeway riding a tricycle.) I was crying when I got that first, glowing review and saw that star. My husband, old faithful, the believer, was looking at me, going, see? see?
I want to say that anything is possible. If you want to leave your blood and guts on the floor, and work your butt off, it’s possible.
What’s your advice to other self-publishing authors? Do it. Write it. And please, pretty please, hire an editor.
What’s the worst mistake that self-publishing authors can make? Not hiring an editor. Or, at least, enlist the help of friends who are avid readers. I did both. I self-published but I had a lot of people to thank in my acknowledgements. There’s nothing “self” about it if you are going to do it right.
If you were to self-publish again, what is one thing you’d do differently? The one thing you’d do the same? I am not sure I would or could self-publish again. I had to self-publish American Boys. It was time for this story to be unleashed, into the wild. I felt and still feel that I simply had to. Because nobody wanted to publish it, as-is. One acquisitions editor wanted me to change it into something that it wasn’t, something that was like something else that did OK in sales.
The publishing industry doesn’t take chances. I get it. It’s a business and I am all heart. Maybe that’s stupid of me. Maybe that’s my curse, that I think with my heart and that I’m not afraid to take risks. That said, I wouldn’t change a thing.
American Boys, those 74 men, deserved this. Their families, the veterans, earned their place in history. That’s what this is about.
Today and every day my book finds readers. I’ve been compared to Laura Hillenbrand and her Unbroken. Most of my reviews are five stars. That’s exciting to me. So what I would do the same is: hang in there. I’m still doing that.
Who and what has inspired you—in your writing and otherwise? Anybody who has hung in there. Anybody who sticks it out despite the odds. The underdogs. The Continental Army in the Revolutionary War. Rudy, the Notre Dame football player. The tin can sailors off Samar in World War II—one of the greatest, most victorious, mismatched battles in history, in which the weaker won. The fictional Rocky Balboa. (Maybe this is the Philly in me. I read once that there is a scrappiness about us …)
How long have you been writing? How did you start? I would say since I was a kid. My mother bought me my first electronic typewriter. I wrote a newsletter. Nobody read it. (Laugh.)
On my resume, I have been a journalist for 16 years. My journals, which my husband is supposed to burn when I die, have been around for 17 years. Writing helps me see things.
What elements do you think make a successful nonfiction book? Passion. No matter what you are writing, or doing. I like to talk about my exterminator, Bob. When we first moved into our home several years ago we had a little bit of an ant problem. I found Bob via Google. Bob is an actual entomologist. He isn’t some guy who trained for two weeks. He is really passionate. He says, all wide-eyed, “well, those are E. Pluribus Unum ants and they live in the Southwest and tend to eat paper and apple cores …” Bob knows his stuff and if he doesn’t, I’m sure he would try to find out. And he kills everything, with his own child- and dog-friendly elixirs. There are no ants in my house. Bob loves his job and it shows. Those people inspire me.
Passion is a great driver. It will make you write the best book with the best information. Passion will not let you give up. Find something that keeps you up at night, thinking, is passion.
What do you think are the biggest benefits and challenges of writing nonfiction? The benefits are, in the case of fascinating stories about real people, is you will meet fascinating, real people. The challenge is that they are real people. You are telling their story and to them, that story is everything. The challenge is pulling it off. Being accurate. Breathing life into something that is just a memory—a string of memories tied to stacks of letters and newspaper clippings. I think I bugged the same people over and over again with questions and clarifications. My best review never made it to print. It arrived on my voicemail. It was the Chief, a tough-as-nails, candid New Yorker who survived the tragedy but lost his son. The Reilly family is prominent in the book. Chief Lawrence Reilly had served in World War II and in Vietnam and told great stories about both. He told me, days after my book came out, after he had read it: “Well done, babe. Well done.” I don’t think I will ever erase that message.
Do you write in any other categories or genres? I have been working on a novel over the last few months. I needed to take a break from nonfiction for a while—American Boys became such a labor of love with so many real people involved. I can’t replicate my connection to, my passion for this story. What I can do and am doing is taking some very real themes and incorporating them into fiction. I just had lunch with a friend who asked me about my novel and I told her. She goes, I thought you were getting away from war books. I told her that I couldn’t; that the themes followed me. My novel is about World War II, and the darker underbelly, some of the realties of that generation. Naturally, I’ve done my research. It is also a love story. As I always say, war stories are people stories.
Have you published any other books? Won any other competitions? American Boys is my first book. My awards:
- Winner of Silver Medal in the 2015 Independent Publisher Book Awards for US History
- Winner of 2015 National Indie Excellence Award in Military Nonfiction
- Winner of Silver in War & Military for Foreword Reviews’ 2014 INDIEFAB Book of the Year Awards
- Winner of 2015 Readers Favorite Silver Medal in Historical Nonfiction
- Next Generation Indie Awards 2015 Finalist in both General Nonfiction and Historical Nonfiction
- Shelf Unbound 2014 Notable Book
- Kirkus Reviews Indie Book of the Year for 2014 (also, earned the Kirkus Star)
What advice has had the biggest impact on your success in life and as an author? Back to my story about the veteran reporter who told me to “just write.” It’s a Nike slogan, too: Just do it.
What’s the one thing you can’t live without in your writing life? My real life. That is, my children and my husband. I have to get away from them to write sometimes but they have taught me so much about life and love. And sometimes, when I say real life, I mean my past, too. It isn’t the prettiest but it’s helped me breathe life into my writing. The one thing can’t live without in my writing life is my truth: what’s in front of me everyday and in my past. I would never change a thing. I wouldn’t change that I grew up under challenging circumstances. It’s helped me become a better writer.
What does a typical day look like for you? Wake up about 5:30ish, go running if my husband is home, if not, read. Sometimes I have interviews—it’s already 8:30 on the East coast. My favorite thing to do in the morning is read. I real a lot. Coffee and a book is heaven. By 7, I wake my children up and get them ready for school—this can sometimes be equated to a cardio session. I take them to school, walk the dog, exercise if I haven’t, and then go sit in front of the computer to tackle freelance assignments, answer e-mails from American Boys readers, or work on my novel. Right now I tend to do most of my novel-writing on the weekends—it always depends on my freelancing workload. That’s feast or famine. And before I know it, it’s time to pick up my children, now in first and third grades. Then I switch back to mommy mode: activities, homework, dinner, reading with them (I taught them both how to read when they were two and three years old), folding clothes. Then once I get them to bed it is back to reading or writing. I have no idea what is on TV.
If I am on a crazy writing bender, the weekends are always about writing. I can write up to 10,000 words a weekend. As much as half of those words I toss out—I am hard on myself. But I always keep going.
Describe your typical writing routine. Just do it. You might hate everything that you punch into the keyboard but eventually, it will come to you. I am also a daydreamer. I like to say that I am always working. I am always staring off into space, thinking of how to write something, how to structure something. Writers lives in two worlds: the world around them and the one they are writing about, dreaming of.
What are the keys that have made your book a success? Passion and determination. I was never going to walk away from this book, no matter what. It’s who I am. I persevered.
What do you do for a day job? Stay-at-home mom and freelance writer. I think being a parent is the toughest job. You are raising little people, teaching them, being a role model for them.
What’s the one thing you can’t live without in your writing life? My children and my husband. My everyday life makes me who I am. I also love my dog Pablo, a shih tzu who doesn’t know he isn’t human. These real creatures—humans and dogs who think they are human—teach me about love, what makes the world go around, what keeps us up at night, what makes us breathe. I could see the humanity and love in the story of a warship that sank because my life is filled with love.
I also can’t live without coffee. And if you want something more concrete, as is wood, shingles, plaster, and more, it’s my girlfriend Kim’s house. When I really need to get away and focus, I can go there.
Why do you write? I have to. It’s who I am. I love words. I am a humongous nerd. I love stringing words together. I love putting ideas on paper.
What do you feel are your strengths as a writer? How have you developed these qualities? Empathy is number one. I’m very, very sensitive. Writers lean towards depression sometimes and I suppose I might fit in there, too. Next, imagination. Even if you are writing fiction, it’s being able to imagine the character’s plight and feelings.
As far as writing goes, I also think it’s my ability to stick with it. My ability to persevere. I also think one of my strengths is my past. I had a weird family life. No Wonder Bread and white picket fences. It’s sad sometimes but I draw strength from it. All of these things are innate. I was just born into this life, born into being this type of person. This well of feelings I like to call my emotional trust fund. It made me a better writer.
What are some aspects of writing you’ve struggled with? How have you worked to strengthen yourself in these areas? I still have trouble keeping my work life and professional life separate. I feel like I am always working, always thinking of a way to put something on the page. I really don’t know how to stop daydreaming. I suppose it makes me selfish sometimes. Anyone artistic is selfish sometimes. I am also really hard on myself. I’m working on that one. The awards have helped.
What’s your proudest moment as a writer? Hearing about how much my book has meant to someone, personally. That is my brightest, shiniest moment. It brings me to tears.
What are your goals as a writer? To do work that is meaningful. Whether it is nonfiction or fiction, I will always strive for it to be meaningful to people. My close friends sometimes tell me to write a book about my life. I think tend to think beyond myself. My experiences help fuel my writing, help fuel my empathy, but there are so many truths that are meaningful. It is not always, or ever perhaps, about me.
Any final thoughts or advice? Stick with it. Just do it. You only live once. Take a leap. (Geronimo!)