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Michael Spradlin has written many series, like The Youngest Templar (Keeper of the Grail, Trail of Fate, and Orphan of Destiny) and Killer Species (Menace from the Deep, Feeding Frenzy, Out for Blood, and Ultimate Attack), as well as stand-alones like The Enemy Above, out in June, and this fantastic one. (Our full review here.)
GR: You don’t shy away from horrors of all kinds. How did you approach writing such traumatic things for a young audience?
MPS: First, I think young people are much more resilient and tougher than we think. When you’re writing for young readers you owe to them to be as honest as you can. The second thing is that I feel it’s important when writing about true events that you remain as true to what really happened as you can. I wanted young readers to understand the real sacrifice made by these men. That Into the Killing Seas was not a movie or a video game. It happened in real life. And I tried to write it the way it happened.
GR: We love how you handle the brothers’ relationship, and how different people handle trauma. Could you talk more about the idea that Teddy doesn’t need to be shamed for his shut down state when some might look at him and say he has to “man up”?
MPS: It’s set during World War II and it’s likely that Teddy would not have been treated in the more enlightened way we treat children like him today. He’s somewhere on the autism scale and that was not a condition well understood then. But Teddy has a support system in a brother, Patrick, and a talks tough, but has a heart of gold marine named Benny. Even when Teddy annoys Patrick, he doesn’t abandon him. One of my favorite scenes is where Benny explains to Patrick that Teddy isn’t bad, just different. He’s shut down because he’s traumatized, but some day he’ll come back to himself and be there for Patrick, but for now it’s up to them to watch over him.
GR: What inspired you to focus on guys who are so young and taking action in the course of hugely difficult events?
MPS: My father was a World War II veteran. I have an enormous amount of respect for the Greatest Generation. The things they survived and endured. My father never talked much about his time in the Army. He was a quiet, sensitive man and his older brother was killed in action in Europe. He enlisted as soon as he turned eighteen. He never had more than an 8th grade education. I once asked him why he enlisted instead of waiting to be drafted and he said, “there was a job that needed to be done.” I find that remarkable.
As I started to research the book and look at photos, I realized how young they were. Television and movies have tricked us into thinking the fighting was done by older, more mature men. It wasn’t. Teenagers did the bulk of it. They saved the world. Then they came home, didn’t ask for any special treatment, and just picked up where they left off. My dad returned to the very same job he had before the war.
These boys didn’t see themselves as heroes. When you read their stories or talk to them, most them admit to being scared out of their wits most of the time. I’m sure my father saw things that terrified him. I remember when I visited France several years ago. My father was raised in the hills and hollers of eastern Kentucky. In sending him to France you might have well sent him to the moon. But he went. And he and millions of other men came home and asked for nothing. I think it’s one of the most fascinating periods in our history.
GR: Were you interested in history when you were younger, or did that interest grow more as you grew up?
MPS: One of the first vacations I remember taking was to Gettysburg. I’ve always loved history and when I went to college I majored in it. It’s something you can never stop learning about.
GR: We have to talk a little about sharks. What is the coolest or craziest thing you learned about sharks while researching this?
MPS: I was lucky to be connected with Dr. Sonny Berger of the University of Miami Bimini Sharklab, one of the foremost shark experts in the world. He was kind, gracious, and patient with my questions.
One thing I found interesting was the myth that sharks smell blood from great distances. Most species don’t have a great sense of smell. There are catfish and salmon that have a better sense of smell than most sharks. Sharks are attracted to sound. To them sound means the possibility of food and sound will travel over great distances underwater.
When the Indy sank, you had a perfect storm of noise as the ship exploded and tore itself apart as it sank. The sound attracted sharks from all over the area. Then they arrived to find 900 men floating in the water, most of them wounded, screaming and crying out. The area where the ship was sunk is some of the most heavily shark infested waters in the world. It was horrible.
An interesting side note is that I learned that the famous chef Julia Child worked for the Office of Strategic Services (the forerunner of today’s CIA). One of her first assignments was to create a shark repellant. She mixed up the ingredients in a bathtub with a canoe paddle. It proved to be ineffective.
GR: One of the great things about this novel is how it connects to so much history that interested readers can go find out more about. One thing we find especially relevant to the GR audience is your acknowledgement of Hunter Scott, the twelve-year-old in the late 1990’s whose interest and research led to history of the USS Indianapolis being reclaimed. When were you first introduced to this extraordinary story?
MPS: I first heard about Hunter and his quest to clear Captain McVay in the late 90’s when he was in the news. I understand he went on to join the Navy and that he attends the USS Indianapolis survivor’s reunion, which they hold in Indianapolis every two years. Even though Captain McVay doesn’t appear in Into the Killing Seas, Hunter’s story will hopefully show young people that regardless of the odds, they can facilitate important and significant change. In Hunter’s case he helped restore the reputation of a fine officer and a good man.
GR: What was similar about researching this and your Killer Speciesseries featuring genetically modified creatures? What was different?
MPS: In the Killer Species series I needed to learn about animal behavior and characteristics, much the same, as I needed to learn about shark behavior. What was different is how much I learned about the genetic engineering and cross breeding that is already taking place. We’re creating 300-pound salmon. They’re supposedly to be only for fish farms. Which is what they said about the Asian Carp. We’re messing around with stuff we have no business messing around with.
GR: Did you realize you were making a kind of unofficial Jaws prequel for young audiences? Did you ever imagine a young Quint in the periphery of your scenes?
MPS: I know the Quint scene from the movie. Not surprisingly there are a couple of historical inaccuracies in his speech. But I never really thought about Jaws. I learned from Dr. Berger that there is no such thing as a man-eating shark. A shark eats what it thinks is food. While there are species that are more aggressive than others, you are in their environment. They are going to treat you as food. Ironically, Peter Benchley spent the rest of his life renouncing the portrayal of the shark in Jaws. The book and movie made people think of Great Whites as evil killing machines. They’re not. They’re sharks being sharks.
GR: What’s your next project?
MPS: Coming in June 2016 is another novel set in World War II and based on a true story. During the German occupation of Ukraine there were groups of Jewish families who lived in caves and escaped detection. Some women and children did not see the sun for over 500 days. In The Enemy Above, a young boy named Anton must rescue his grandmother from a Gestapo Major who has captured her and is trying to learn the location of their hiding place. It’s a very psychologically suspenseful novel as Anton and the Major try to outwit each other.
GR: Man, we can’t wait to dig into that one. Lastly, what are some books you love, to pass on to enthusiastic young readers?
MPS: I highly recommend The Edge by Roland Smith. Nobody writes middle grade action and adventure like him. I also love the Monster in my Closet series by Obert Skye. He’s hilarious. I actually snorted out loud a couple of times reading them. Another book I’ve read recently isNight on Fire by Ronald Kidd. It’s a fantastic book about the civil rights movement in the 1960s.