Many people are under the false impression that women being involved in the military is a new concept, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Gwen Katz joins YA writers Sherri Smith and Elizabeth Wein in writing about women in war with her debut Among the Red Stars.
Katz started writing about the Night Witches – Russia’s women military aviators who dropped thousands of tons of bombs on Germans – in 2014 after her father-in-law introduced them to her. The fascination was instant.
“They’re one of those magnetic topics that no one can hear about without wanting to learn more; you get about as far as the part where they cut their engines to glide silently over the target and you start wondering why everyone doesn’t know about this topic!”
The next step for Katz was to head to the library and find some books on the subject.
“My favorite book on the topic is A Dance With Death by Anne Noggle. Noggle was a WASP—if you’ve read Flygirl, you’re already familiar with the WASPs—and after the Cold War she went to Russia to interview the airwomen there and put together a book of memoirs.”
For those who haven’t read Flygirl, the WASPs were civilian women who shuttled military planes around the United States, allowing more men to head to the battlefield.
“The only movie on the topic, In The Sky Are the Night Witches, was actually directed by former Night Witch Yevgeniya Zhigulenko, who appears in my book. Unfortunately, there isn’t a subtitled version yet.”
Research done and a draft in hand, Katz threw her hat into the Pitch Wars ring and found the experience invaluable.
“It was my big turning point as an author. Not only did my manuscript improve by leaps and bounds—wait, you’re telling me my characters should have feelings?—but that was where I learned about the industry and made my first writer friends. I can confidently say that Among the Red Stars would never have gotten a book deal if I hadn’t participated in Pitch Wars. Much love to my mentor Fiona and my Pitch Wars sister Carleen, and I strongly recommend that all young authors participate if they have the chance.”
Books can be pitched in ways that are vastly different, yet all true; Among the Red Stars is a prime example. Katz’s book was originally pitched with a heavy romance angle, but the final cover copy only vaguely mentions it. Katz says the romance is actually a major element in Among the Red Stars.
“Most of the story is told in the Valka and Pasha’s letters to each other. As we see them experience different events in the war, we also get to see their feelings towards each other gradually develop.”
Yet Katz was kind of surprised at to find herself writing such a strong romance element.
“I’ve never thought of myself as being very good at writing romance, so the response to this relationship has been really encouraging.”
As important as the romance is, the heart of the story is about accurately telling the stories of real women.
“For me, telling these stories is a matter of honesty. Not only did women like these exist, but they’ve existed across all times and places. So, making sure their stories get told is a matter of truthfully representing what happened. But at the same time, we need to take care not to treat these people as novelties or act like they’re wildly exceptional, because that ultimately reinforces the idea that women as a whole can’t do these things.”
Katz is already thinking ahead. “My new project is Star-Spangled Hearts, the story of a girl who enlists in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps and ends up falling in love with another woman. Despite also being set during World War II, this will be a very different kind of story—less of an adventure and more of a proper character-driven romance. It’s new ground for me and I’m very excited about it.”
Among the Red Stars is available now.