The Sweetest Debut: Teresa Messineo on Writing a Historical Novel While Home-Schooling Four Kids

Welcome to The Sweetest Debut, a new and regular installment in which we reach out to debut (or near-debut, we’re flexible!) fiction, poetry and nonfiction authors working with presses of all sizes and find out about their pop culture diets, their writing habits, and their fan-fiction fantasies.

A historical novel about two nurses thousands of miles apart in World War II, facing some of the most squalid conditions imaginable, Teresa Messineo’s The Fire By Night is informed by recently revealed details about the experiences of American nurses in prison camps in the Pacific. She spoke to us about her own inclination to be in the medical world and the WWII pop culture that inspired her.

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Name a book you’ve read more than two times.

I’ve read 2,347 works of literature since graduating from college – not counting the re-reads – but I’ve read Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca more times than any other book. It’s my favorite go-to novel and never gets old. Sheer brilliance.

What’s your favorite show to binge watch when you’re not writing?

My son, Johnny, got me hooked on Stranger Things. Combine that with Vietnamese take-out and you’ll find me absolutely reveling in guilty pleasure.

What’s the last movie you saw in theaters?

Robert Zemeckis’ lavish World War II thriller, Allied. Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard managed to break my heart in two hours and four minutes flat.

Do you listen to music while you’re writing? If so, what kind?

I only listen to music while writing to ‘drown out’ distractions and background noise. For that, my favorite piece of music is Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, especially the second movement, Andante molto mosso. I just keep it on repeat.

If you could buy a house anywhere in the world just to write in, where would it be?

The lovely and pastoral Oley Valley, in my own home county of Berks, Pennsylvania. It’s the only place I know of where the entire township is a historic district. Put me in an old farmhouse with a stream running outside and I’m set.

What did you initially want to be when you grew up?

I always wanted to be a doctor. Later on, because of time constraints, I modified that to Physician Assistant. I still hope to get into pro bono medical missionary work. What my exact certification will be when I’m out in the field is still up for grabs, but I’ve consistently felt that tug to help out. And that’s something you just can’t ignore.

Do you prefer a buzzing coffee shop or silent library?

In general, or for writing? If for writing, then definitely a silent library, buzzing overhead fluorescent lighting a must.

Do you write at a desk, bed or couch?

At a little roll-top desk without the roll-top part that my friend Carlyn gave me.

Is morning writing or late-night writing your go-to-time?

Because I teach, the only time I can squirrel away for writing is very late at night or very early in the morning – sometimes, one blends into the other. The very thought of writing at a ‘decent’ hour like eleven or noon is foreign – and fascinating – to me.

Do you tend towards writing it all out in one big messy draft and then editing, or perfecting as you go (or something in between)?

I write it all out and edit later. Especially when the writing is going well – when I just step back and outside of myself and start a line and twenty minutes later come up for air, not remembering any of it – that’s when it really clicks for me.

How do you pay the bills, if not solely by your pen and your wit?

My full-time occupation is home schooling my kids, and writing is something I’ve done ‘on the side.’ However, I am currently supporting the kids and myself by pen and wit alone and it has been an amazing trip.

What is your trick to finding time to write your book while also doing the above?

I’ve gotten incredibly organized and incredibly goal oriented. You don’t raise (and home school) four kids without squeezing every second and every opportunity from every day. I’ll vacuum and cook now, for example, when the kids are home so for the ninety minutes they’re in sports practice or the two hours they’ll be at their friends’ house tonight I can write. Or I’ll do editing or publicity writing (like this!) while also overseeing Algebra II or Geography lessons, and wait until later to start work on a new novel that will demand all my attention and creativity.

If you could write fanfiction about any pop culture character, real or imagined, who would it be?

We threw away our television 17 years ago so I really don’t know a lot of current figures or celebrities. In fact, the only actor I follow – and that I do religiously – is Daniel Craig. And who can blame me there?

Care to give us a few sentences of micro-fiction about that character?

Would I! Okay, here goes . . .

‘I hear I’m the only actor you care for.’
She turned to face him. The way he emphasized care for had made her heart skip a beat. She recovered with difficulty.
‘Wait, you read that in Flavorwire?’
‘Of course, everyone reads that.’
She swallowed hard, getting lost for a moment in the cool turquoise of his eyes. Struggling to focus. To even pretend to be an author of a book and not just his biggest fan.
‘Then you also read there that I wrote the part of Captain Clark in The Fire By Night just for you . . .’ her voice trailed off, expectantly, not daring to expect.
Again, that phrase. ‘Of course.’
And his smile deepened and the little crows-feet at the corners of his eyes were perfect and it was perfect, just like a dream, just like she was writing the scene herself.
‘Where do I sign, ma’am?’