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Jennifer Chiaverini: On Sharing Nearly Forgotten Moments in History

New York Times bestselling author Jennifer Chiaverini discusses the forgotten history that led to her new historical fiction novel, Switchboard Soldiers.

Jennifer Chiaverini is the New York Times bestselling author of 32 novels, including critically acclaimed historical fiction and the beloved Elm Creek Quilts series. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame and the University of Chicago, she lives with her husband and two sons in Madison, Wisconsin. Visit her website JenniferChiaverini.com, and find her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Jennifer Chiaverini: On Sharing Nearly Forgotten Moments in History

Jennifer Chiaverini

In this post, Jennifer discusses the forgotten history that led to her new historical fiction novel, Switchboard Soldiers, her advice for other writers, and more!

Name: Jennifer Chiaverini
Literary agent: Maria Massie, Massie & McQuilkin
Book title: Switchboard Soldiers
Publisher: William Morrow / HarperCollins
Release date: July 19, 2022
Genre/category: Fiction/Historical/World War I
Previous titles: The Women’s March; Mrs. Lincoln’s Sisters; The Christmas Boutique; Resistance Women; Enchantress of Numbers; Fates and Traitors; Christmas Bells; Mrs. Grant and Madame Jule; Mrs. Lincoln’s Rival; The Spymistress; Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker; The Giving Quilt; Sonoma Rose; The Wedding Quilt; The Union Quilters; The Aloha Quilt; A Quilter’s Holiday; The Lost Quilter; The Quilter’s Kitchen; The Winding Ways Quilt; The New Year’s Quilt; The Quilter’s Homecoming; Circle of Quilters; The Christmas Quilt; The Sugar Camp Quilt; The Master Quilter; The Quilter’s Legacy; The Runaway Quilt; The Cross-Country Quilters; Round Robin; The Quilter’s Apprentice
Elevator pitch for the book: Switchboard Soldiers is the enthralling story of the valiant young women of the United States Army Signal Corps who served as telephone operators in France during World War I, when telephones were the most important means of communication between U.S. Army headquarters, Allied outposts, and troops in the field. Their perseverance, courage, skill, and dedication helped the Allies achieve victory and broke down barriers for generations of women who would follow after, not only in the military, but in all aspects of public and professional life.

Jennifer Chiaverini: On Sharing Nearly Forgotten Moments in History

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What prompted you to write this book?

While I was researching my previous novel, The Women’s March, I was surprised to learn that later in his administration, the notoriously misogynistic President Woodrow Wilson endorsed and even campaigned for women’s suffrage, a cause he had once vehemently opposed. Historians noted that one reason for his change of heart was that he had been profoundly impressed by how American women had acquitted themselves during the Great War.

What was it, I wondered, that had finally won over such a vehement antisuffragist? Curiosity compelled me to find out.

I was aware that women had served as nurses and ambulance drivers in WWI, but I was intrigued to learn that decades before the iconic Rosie the Riveter of WWII, women on the home front undertook essential jobs in workplaces from which they had previously been excluded. But what captured my imagination most was a small group of highly skilled, daring women who served Over There: the telephone operators of the U.S. Army Signal Corps.

When General Pershing arrived in France in 1917, he quickly realized that a functioning communications system with advanced American telephone technology and highly skilled, bilingual operators would be absolutely essential. At the time, nearly all well-trained American telephone operators were women—but women were not permitted to enlist, or even to vote in most states.

Nevertheless, the U.S. Army Signal Corps promptly began recruiting qualified female telephone operators for service overseas. These “switchboard soldiers” were among the first women sworn into the U.S. Army under the Articles of War. Deployed throughout France, including near the front lines, the operators endured hardships and risked death or injury from gunfire, bombardments, and the Spanish Flu. All would serve proudly. Not all would survive.

How long did it take to go from idea to publication? And did the idea change during the process?

The process from inspiration to publication took about two years. The concept changed very little except that I originally had intended to use three historical figures for my narrators, but I decided instead to tell the story from the perspectives of one fictionalized historical figure and two entirely fictional characters.

Were there any surprises or learning moments in the publishing process for this title?

Switchboard Soldiers is my 32nd novel, so I’m familiar with the publishing process by now. For me, the publishing process has gradually evolved over time rather than taking sudden, surprising swings in an unexpected direction.

Jennifer Chiaverini: On Sharing Nearly Forgotten Moments in History

Were there any surprises in the writing process for this book?

While researching Switchboard Soldiers, I was surprised and dismayed to learn that after the war, the U.S. government treated the Signal Corps telephone operators disgracefully. Upon their return to the United States, the switchboard soldiers applied for veterans’ benefits and sought to join veterans’ groups. When asked to produce their discharge papers, the women contacted the Department of Defense, only to be informed that they were not veterans. Although they had sworn oaths as members of the U.S. Army Signal Corps and had been subject to military regulations, the government insisted that they had never been more than paid civilians.

Stunned, the women realized that the country they had served with such distinction now denied that they had ever been soldiers. They did not qualify to receive honorable discharges. They were not eligible for medical benefits, medals, or bonuses. They could not march in Memorial Day parades or join their local chapters of the VFW. They could not call themselves veterans.

In the years that followed, some courageous telephone operators undertook a new mission to have Congress recognize their status as veterans. Finally, in 1977, more than 60 years after the end of World War I, President Jimmy Carter signed a bill awarding the women of the U.S. Army Signal Corps honorable discharges and World War I Victory Medals, officially recognizing them as military veterans. Sadly, by that time, only 50 of the Signal Corps telephone operators remained alive to celebrate this last victory.

What do you hope readers will get out of your book?

I wrote Switchboard Soldiers to honor the brave, trailblazing women of the U.S. Army Signal Corps and to share their nearly forgotten story with my readers. Like the more than 16 million men who served in WWI, these women answered their nation’s call to duty, served with honor, and played an essential role in achieving the Allied victory.

Their perseverance, courage, and dedication helped convince a skeptical president, Congress, and public that women too deserved the right to vote. Having bravely accepted the responsibilities of citizenship, including the willingness to sacrifice their very lives for their country, they had proven themselves beyond all doubt well deserving of a citizen’s fundamental rights.

If you could share one piece of advice with other writers, what would it be?

I believe that authors of fiction must first and foremost be passionate, voracious readers. Reread the books you read in childhood that sparked your love for stories and inspired you to become a writer. Ask librarians and independent booksellers for recommendations, their favorite books of all time and the best new books they’ve read recently. Read outside of your usual genres.

Most importantly, think about what you read. What did you absolutely love about a particular book or story? What left you utterly indifferent? Why, and how? Read to discover. At the same time, embrace your community’s literary culture. Attend touring authors’ events and buy their books, especially if they’re presenting their debut novels. You’ll want aspiring writers to do the same for you someday.

Historical Fiction

Join Donna Russo Morin to learn the definition of historical markers and how and where to unearth them. And uncover the tools to integrate history, research, and the fiction plot arc. Most of all, find out how to honor verisimilitude—the goal of any historical writing—and avoid the dreaded anachronism.

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