Several weeks ago, I finished the final revisions of my next book, Can I See Your I.D.? True Stories of False Identities, a YA nonfiction project coming next spring from Dial.
This past week, I finished the manuscript again.
The project was all done, as far as I knew, when I received a set of documents from the US Navy. I’d requested them — not knowing what was in them, only that they existed — via the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). When they didn’t arrive in time for my deadline, I shrugged and moved on.
But when I saw one startling piece of information on one page of the FOIA documents, shrugging was not an option. It indicated that a transformative childhood event — the death of the sister of one of my subjects — had never occurred. I immediately found corroborating evidence online, and here let’s pause to appreciate just how amazing it is that a 65-year-old wedding announcement for total strangers in a far-off state can now be found in seconds.
So, then what? Well, if that sister hadn’t died as a teenager, and was married in the mid-1940s to a man whose name, college affiliation, and other biographical details I now knew, that meant I might be able to find her and ask her some questions about her definitely deceased brother’s upbringing and subsequent misadventures. Or, if she hadn’t survived until her 90s, maybe I could find her children or grandchildren to share some family lore regarding my subject.
Despite much advice and encouragement — especially from Marc Tyler Nobleman and Rebecca Smith Hurd — I got nowhere. Dead end followed dead end. Public records databases and online article archives offered not even a single reference to the sister or her husband. I gave up, and un-gave up, and gave up again until I remembered the library — the public library in my subject’s home town.
And there, I hit paydirt. Not only did I find a special collections librarian eager to do some digging on my behalf in the local archives, but the library director’s own mother grew up with my subject, had known him personally, and remembered him well.
I interviewed the director’s mother a couple of weeks ago, and in addition to being an absolutely delightful way to spend 20 minutes, it was also extremely useful. She corroborated some prior research that I’d come to have doubts about, and she also set me straight about the fate of the sister.
My subject’s sister did not die as a teenager, but she survived only another dozen years or so, dying not long after her marriage. She was gone. The children and grandchildren I had been seeking did not exist. I like to think that my sadness upon learning this was for her and those who loved her and not for the way it limited my ability to know my subject better still, but in all honesty it was probably some of both.
What I did get was useful, though, and it allowed me to fix a couple of paragraphs in that profile (one of ten included in the book) — maybe even in time to get the changes into the galleys scheduled to be printed later this month. And while it feels good to be done, again, I shouldn’t get too used to the feeling.
You see, the postal service seems to have gobbled up the documents that the special collections librarian sent my way. The replacement copies probably won’t arrive in time for the galleys. But, depending on what those documents contain, maybe I’ll get to finish the book yet again.