Janine Bolon: Hello, and welcome back to the Writers’ Hour creative conversations. I am Janine Bolon, your host.
Today, we happen to have Teresa Funke with us who believes that even Ordinary People can change the world. She has published seven inspiring books for adults and children based on the true stories from World War II. Including one of my personal favorites Dancing in Combat Boots and Remember Wake as well as her Homefront Heroes series for children featuring five novels including one that’s been translated into Spanish.
All of Teresa’s books are based on real people that she has interviewed. Ordinary people who did their very best during extraordinary times. Her newest book Bursts of Brilliance For A Creative Life takes readers in a whole new direction, encouraging them to ignite their creative spirit in order to bring about better ideas for our world. It’s based on her popular blog of the same name and Teresa offers new writers hope inspiration, instruction, and resources on her website and her YouTube Channel so don’t forget that.
She is a community catalyst speaking widely and running programs that support history education, literacy, writing, the arts, and my personal favorite that personal development, and that’s always something we need. Teresa is the mother of three amazing adults, and a lifelong lover of history, travel, theater, books, and classic movies.
Thanks for being with us today, Teresa.
Teresa Funke: Thank you, Janine. It’s great to be here.
Janine: Yeah, it’s always so much fun to talk to other authors who have so many different genres that they’re writing in as well as engagement. Talk to us a little bit about how did you get into this whole writing gig? Anyway, I always love to hear people’s personal stories.
Teresa: Well, I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was in the fifth grade so I’m one of those people who knew for a long time. I wrote all the way through middle school and high school and got tons of encouragement from my teachers and my parents. When I got to high school and I was getting ready to graduate, people said, “What do you want to do when you graduate?” I said, “I’m going to be a writer,” and they all said, “Well, that’s not a job, that’s a hobby.” I was like, “What? What do you mean it’s not a job?” That threw me for a loop so I decided to get a degree in history because if I figured if I ever did right, I would like to write about history.
After I graduated college, I had a couple of really boring jobs that I hated. I thought, “Is this it? Really? Is this going to be my life?” By the way, who said you can’t be a writer? Who said that’s not a job? Why am I listening to other people and letting them tell me what my life is going to look like? So I quit my job and started a freelance writing business. I didn’t really know what that meant but I figured I would figure it out. I started writing for newspapers and magazines and eventually wound up writing my books which are all based on real people that I’ve interviewed from World War II.
That’s my path into the writing world and I’ve been here for 30 years. The people who said, “It’s not your job,” were wrong. I’ve been doing it for 30 years, so that’s pretty fun.
Janine: Well, I don’t mean to doubt you on your age, but how old were you when you made that choice? Because everybody hits that a different time when you said, “Who says this isn’t a real job?” And you got into freelancing.
Teresa: I was 24.
Janine: Oh, bravo. Because for me, I wasn’t that courageous. It took me a lot longer mainly because I was told I stunk at writing, writing was just not good for me, and I should avoid it at all cost because I was just an atrocious writer. I had many English professors tell me that. Here you and I are multiple multiple books later going, “Huh? Oh, we’re authors. Who knew?” For me, that’s a shock that I’m an author.
Tell me a little bit about this whole World War II gig. I mean, what set you up for that theme? I mean, that’s a fun one to pick.
Teresa: Yeah. Well, it wasn’t intentional. I was actually working for a PBS series in Idaho where I grew up and went to school. My job was to do preliminary interviews with people to see if they were a good fit for the series that we were doing. I was sent out to interview a man who’d been a prisoner on Wake Island during World War II, which was attacked the same day as Pearl Harbor. He had been a civilian construction worker on the island taken prisoner alongside the Marines and spent the entire war in prison camps in Japan and China.
This was very much a local story. I grew up in Boise, Idaho. Because many of the men were from Boise that went to build the base. I thought, “How is this possible that I grew up in Boise, I’m a history major, and I have never heard this incredible story.” I decided to tell his story and at the same time, I decided to tell the women’s story because I discovered that no one in 50 years that ever asked the women what that experience has been like for them.
When I wrote my novel, it was really important to me to have both of those stories. The novel’s told in rotating chapters between the man who gets taken prisoner and taken to the prison camps, and the woman who’s left behind and suddenly has to fend for herself without any support from the government. Because he was a civilian and with no knowledge of whether or not he was alive because the Red Cross couldn’t track these civilians.
It’s a fascinating story. I can say without bragging that it’s an amazing story because it’s all true. Ninety percent of that book is true and that led to my second book, which is Dancing In Combat Boots, which is women’s stories from World War II. There are 10 different women, very ordinary women like you and me, but they are from different ethnic groups, different socio-economic groups. I really wanted to explore more deeply what was the home for an experience like for women.
That led to being invited into classrooms to speak to kids about writing and World War II. We’d hardly get to the writing part because the kids were so fascinated with World War II. It was at the suggestion of one of the students, a fifth-grade student. She said, “This war is really interesting. We don’t know anything about this. Would you write something for us?” I started the Home Front of Heroes series which is a series of children’s books. Each book is based on a real person I interviewed just like all my books and t’s a multicultural series. The kids love it, they love getting a chance to learn about World War II because that is not in the curriculum for those middle-grade readers.
Janine: Exactly. That begs the question of what on Earth made you decide to write fiction rather than non-fiction? I mean, you put all this effort into those interviews and really understanding people. Every writer I’ve talked to had to make a choice at some point, “Is this going to be fiction or am I going to do it non-fiction?”
What was your decision-making on that?
Teresa: That’s a great question because with my history degree especially, I could have easily written non-fiction books and had the credibility to do that. The Wake Island Story had been told a little bit in non-fiction books. No one had ever told it in fiction. I felt like that was going to be a way to reach a whole new audience. Plus I really wanted to write a novel.
Now, in the second book came about Dancing In Combat Boots. That was initially an oral history collection. I was going to tell these women’s stories in their own words. That felt really important to me because they were from different parts of the country and different ethnic groups. There’s a woman who flew planes for the military, a woman who is in a Japanese internment camp, a woman who was Mexican-American and running her brother’s store during the war, and an African-American woman who was a whack one of the soldiers in the Army.
I wanted it to be in their words, but when I went out to get it published my agent was shopping it around and we were told oral history collections don’t sell. I spent two years rewriting each of those interviews as a short story, Getting them published in the literary magazines that they would have credibility. I put them together into a short story collection, took them back to the agents and the agent said, “Short story collections don’t sell.”
Now I had a choice to give up on the book, which I couldn’t do because I really cared about those women, or to publish it myself which I had already published my first book. I started my own press at that point to publish Dancing In Combat Boots and the first of the children’s books.
Janine: That was one of the interesting things I ran into. I was a professor at a university and I was teaching science to non-majors. I kept struggling to find textbooks that would work for what I was doing. I got into the habit of writing and I didn’t consider myself an author because these were textbooks I was using in the classroom, yadda, yadda, yadda. Something happened to where my students needed me to help them with their finances. I had this process I used for my family and I started doing this [inaudible] for the principal.
The next thing I know, I have people that want me to photocopy my Master’s thesis because it had that process in there. I got thrust into writing non-fiction that way. One of the things I noticed about you is that you and I have very different paths, but we both came to the same point, which was we ended up having to go into vanity press as it was called when you and I first started publishing because you were so vain, you were self-published. But it was really because I don’t know about you, but I didn’t have an author platform. I couldn’t say definitively that I was a financial expert. I just had done this thing that helped my family and so for you same thing, “Hey, I have this thing that needs to be published. I’m not going to give up on it just because you tell me it won’t sell.” We ended up doing that.
It’s fascinating to me that you had all these books based on real people. How did you find them? I mean, it begs the question because when you were doing all of this so many years ago, you didn’t have the internet the way we do now. Those people that you were interviewing wouldn’t have been using it at that point.
Teresa: Oh, absolutely. You’re so right. In the first book, as I mentioned I stumbled into that one because I was working for the PBS series. Through him, I was able to meet. There was a group called the Survivors of Wake, Guam and Cavite. They would meet periodically and so I got to meet more of the men who had been taken prisoner and their wives.
That first book is based on 13 people that I interviewed. I took the best parts of their stories and I put them into the main characters. That’s how I found them with Dancing In Combat Boots when I set out to write that book. It was partly because I had discovered while writing Remember Wake that there were very few books out there that told us what it felt like to be a woman during the war. This was in the early 90s.
There were few books that had statistical information about how many women entered the workforce or maybe they talked about a particular group like nurses. But no one talked about what it felt like to be a woman. Part of those women, I found intentionally. I wanted a Red Cross worker on the front lines and so I called the national Red Cross offices. You start being a detective and working your way down. You following the trail until you find that right person that had the story that I was looking for.
On the flip side. A part of it was just sheer luck or divine intervention. Like one woman I was talking to said, “Oh, you should talk to my sister-in-law.” She was an artist during the war. She sketched three thousand wounded soldiers in their hospital beds. I thought that is not a story you could have ever known that you were looking for.
Janine: I agree. You just don’t see that in the pic in the history books.
Teresa: No. It had to land in my lap. That book is an interesting combination of some intentionally like I was looking for a woman who’d been in a Japanese internment camp and others that I stumbled on. The Mexican-American woman who’s running her brother’s grocery store is actually my great aunt. I got to tell a little bit of family history in that book as well. With all of them, including the children’s books, it was not hard at all to find who I was looking for. Because I think I was sort of led to them, but also it’s just been my experience writing for newspapers and magazines. Almost anyone that I talk to is interesting enough to make a story out of.
It’s really rare to find somebody who I can’t tell a good story about. That’s one thing that has been my entire career is celebrating the ordinary people that make a difference in this world and don’t even realize they’re doing it. For a lot of the people I wrote about when the books came out, the last thing in the world they ever thought would happen was that someone as ordinary as them would have a book told about them. It was one of the major achievements of their lifetime, which felt really good to me.
Janine: That is one of the things as a writer that I absolutely love doing. Number one, finding people stories and then giving them a platform, We’re giving them a place to go where they can actually tell it. Speaking of that, you’re more than just a writer though. I mean, you’ve created a business around your books, and you’ve geared this business toward community service.
Talk to us a little bit about that whole process because that wasn’t an easy thing to do as a self-published person.
Teresa: That’s true. As you mentioned before when I saw published my books at the time, it was considered a pariah to self-publish your fiction in particular. All of my friends warned me I was going to sink my career literally, but I have always had an entrepreneurial spirit. I think I saw there are some really interesting opportunities with this new self-publishing thing that’s coming onto the scene where we authors can create partnerships and relationships that we don’t have to do through a publishing house. We can do it on our own and we can build programs the way we would like to that serve the community and highlight our books.
I was the first one in this area to start doing anything like that. What I was looking at was where’s the community needs and how can we combine that with my books? At that time, I was supporting some organizations that support children in low-income and at-risk families. I came to discovered that they don’t own any books, these kids. To me book ownership is critical. I mean, studies have shown that kids who own books read at grade level. They score better on the tests and they’re more likely to graduate high school.
It became a mission for me to say, “How can I build a program where I can provide my books for free through a sponsorship program to these children. I will hand them out at the holiday parties so that they get a gift of a book along with the toys, or the clothes, or whatever else was being provided to them by the organizations.” It became very popular and this is going to be our 13th year this year doing that program.
A big part of it was just saying, “What do I have to offer? What do I care about? Where do I think I can serve? How do I tie that to my books? How do I tie that to people who are interested in World War II, or interested in history, or interested in great stories for kids?” That’s how the process has worked. I’ve done several community programs with that intention at heart how do I get my books out there in bulk but do it in a way that serves the community.
Janine: If you don’t mind chatting a little bit. That was one of the things I really enjoyed about chatting with you was how you bundle your books because I’ve seen very few authors who actually use that process and it is very helpful. I do that a lot with my speaking engagements, but if you wouldn’t mind chatting a little bit about how you do that.
Teresa: Well, there’s a couple of different ways we do the bundling. One of my favorite ways was I was doing so many school visits and working with the schools. I came to figure out that for a teacher to have a classroom set is a tremendous gift because each of the kids in the class can take the book home and they can read it together. This is a different kind of learning. But for most teachers, there’s not a budget to buy a classroom set of books. They’d have to buy that out of their own pocket.
I created my school kit program wherein the kit, there are 30 copies of my books, there are teaching materials that I hired a teacher to write, and then there’s a gift for the kids. Teachers can buy these kits themselves, or someone can buy them as a gift for a school? Usually, it’s their grandchild’s school. People became really invested in this because they wanted their grandchildren to learn about World War II. We even have a function where if you donate a kit, you can honor someone from your family who’s in the World War II generation.
We started doing things like that, teacher kits, school kits. The other bundling I do is I do a lot of back of the room speaking sales. When I started bundling in the back of the room, my sales doubled. People before were individually buying the books, but now I have the Home Front Heroes collection which is all five of the children’s books for $35, or you can get all seven of my World War II books for $55. It’s about a 20% discount. It’s almost the equivalent of getting one book for free.
As soon as people see that, I started selling as many bundles as I was selling individual copies because a lot of people were going to buy, maybe, three books anyway. They’re like, “Oh. If I spend just a little bit more, I could get all seven of your books. I can give them as gifts. I can keep them for myself.” That wound up literally doubling the sales when I was speaking back in the room.
Janine: That was something that I also noticed in my own speaking opportunities was that the more books I wrote and the more I had available on the table, the more you sold. There really is something to that. I love these people who say, “Oh, I finally wrote my book. It took me ten years,” and I’m like, “Good on you.” I said, “You know what’s really going to sell that book?” They’re like, “What?” I’m like, “Your second book,” and they’re like, “Oh, my God.” But they don’t realize you don’t have to wait another 10 years. [inaudible] You had to get through that, you had to get through all those fear factor aspects of it.
What kind of advice or resources can you give to an aspiring creative or author?
Teresa: Well, I think the aspiring authors come in two camps. There’s the camp who always thought[?] they were a good writer. They’ve always wanted to write, and they jump in, and they do a little bit of learning. They buy some books, they go to a couple of classes, and then they just jump in and they start practicing the writing. There’s the other camp of writers that I’ve noticed that need a lot more reassurance before they start their writing. They take a lot of writing classes, they go to conferences, they subscribe to writing newsletters and magazines, and they do a lot of front-end learning before they even try to start writing
I actually think that the people in the first category probably do the best. It’s like we want to be learning. Absolutely, when I started, I read lots of books, I went to classes, I went to author talks but at the same time, the only way to grow as a writer is to actually do it. If you think, “Oh, I need to learn a little more before I can sit down and start writing.” Maybe stop yourself now and say, “No, I’m going to start writing as I learned because that’s how we find our voice.” It takes a while to find our voice. I mean, we tried different kinds of writing, which are different genres, until we figure out where our voices.
One of the things I like to tell people is, “Yes, do a little bit of learning, but be writing at the same time because you’re going to grow simultaneously through those two experiences.”
Janine: That is what I love about your blog that you started was how to stay inspired, how to be uplifted as a creative in general. But when it comes to being an author, a lot of times, it said the simple thing of just do it and that some days, that’s the big challenge you have. This is getting yourself to sit your butt in the chair and actually type on the keyboard.
Thank you so much for your time today, Teresa. It has been wonderful to chat with you. How can people get a hold of you if they want to get to know more about you, World War II, and your books?
Teresa: Well, my website is fantastic. It’s teresafunke.com. T-E-R-E-S-A-F-U-N-K-E .com. Lots of really great fun information about my books and the people I interviewed and World War II history. Also, a lot of writing resources and videos, and tools on that website. The blog itself lives on my burstsofbrilliance.com. That’s burst with an S. The blog is there. It’s a weekly blog to inspire writers and creatives. You can also find us on both of those Teresa Funke and Company, and burstsofbrilliance.com, on most of the social media channels, and my Teresa Funke YouTube channel as well.
Janine: Wonderful. Lots of resources for those of you that want to write or have already written. Teresa is somebody you can model yourself after who has found out what its work through the School of Hard Knocks. She does not mind you doing that with your area because every single one of us writes something different. It’s not like we as authors were not in competition on stuff like that.
Thank you so much again for your time today, Teresa.
Teresa: Thank you, Janine. This is wonderful.
Janine: We will see you again next week on Friday. This is Janine Bolon with the Writers’ Hour Creative Conversations. Keep putting your butt in that chair and keep typing those words and eventually you will finish that book have a great day.
Janine Bolon: Hello, and welcome back to the Writers’ Hour creative conversations. I am Janine Bolon, your host.