Monday, June 13, 2011

HOW HUGE THE NIGHT by Heather and Lydia Munn

Growing up as a youth in war-torn, Nazi-occupied France, Julien Losier finds his very identity threatened by the horrifying and devastating effects of war. At the young age of fifteen, this can be extremely daunting for a teenager and can inflict huge psychological damage.

In "How Huge the Night," Heather and Lydia Munn portray the unseen and unsung heroes of World War 2, as they grapple with hunger, racism and war, in a world not of their own making, struggling to come to terms with heart-searching questions about the goodness of God in the midst of conflicting ethnic tensions in communities torn apart by war.

The devastating horrors of war, the selfless heroism of adolescents triumphing in the face of overwhelming adversity and the significant choices they made are vividly portrayed as the authors deftly weave together the lives of ordinary people who promptly chose to focus their immediate attention on those in dire danger and protect them safely from harm. This historical novel, a most inspiring and compelling coming-of-age drama, will inspire people to reflect thoughtfully on the choices they make each day and the cost they have to pay to make those choices.

© Miriam Jacob



How did you become a writer?

Lydia: I have always loved stories and literature. As a child, I devoured books, and as a college student, I chose literature as a major. But it was only gradually, as an adult, that I began to think about creating my own stories, instead of reading what others had created.

Heather: I decided I wanted to be a writer when I was five or six years old, when my Mom read me the Little House on the Prairie books and somehow it struck me as really cool that you could tell all about your childhood like that. Which is ironic, because I don't plan on ever writing a memoir... Well, then I wrote my first poem when I was nine, and kept on writing poetry & stories & the beginnings (never the endings!) of novels as I grew up... I don't remember exactly when I figured out that this made sense for me, this was what I was supposed to do, but by the time I was in high school I was pretty sure.

What do you enjoy most about writing?

Heather: The sentences. OK, that sounds really funny, but I mean it. There's still a lot of poet in me, and when a really beautiful phrase or sentence comes to me it really gives me joy. Something else I shouldn't leave out, though, is character voice. Sometimes a character starts talking to me. I recently wrote a short story showing the Resurrection from the point of view of an obscure, unnamed disciple. It was like the man was real, in my head, just telling me his story. And I loved him. I don't even know his name, and he's my favorite of all characters, even above any of the people in this book.

Lydia: I enjoy creating characters, ones that I care about, and seeing them develop through the situations they go through. I enjoy the process of creating the story itself, watching the tension mount, then relax a bit, then mount again to the climax, using foreshadowing to whet the appetite for what's ahead. I also enjoy crafting strong sentences, using words that have an impact, though I am not the poet that Heather is.

What prompted you to write “How Huge the Night?”

Heather: My mom asked me to! It was her book—she'd re-written it several times and it was not getting accepted for publication—and then she asked me if I would write my own revision of it. I wanted to be writing and didn't feel ready for the only novel idea I had just then, plus I loved my mom and this was her dream, so I said yes.
Lydia: I had lived in France for five or six years before I first heard about the events in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon on which this novel is based. The story made such an impression on me that I wanted to retell it, especially to the English speaking world, where it is not widely known. One thing that moved me was the quiet heroism of very ordinary people, who later seemed surprised that others thought they had done something special. "These people needed help," they said. "We only did what had to be done."

How would you describe your book and your style of writing?

Heather: I write for people who are interested in choices, in how people change, in the inner drama of somebody's soul. Also for people who love language and like to see a writer use it as well as she can. And I write for people who are willing to go through some real darkness, in a book (and maybe in life too) to get to the light on the other side.

Lydia: Because I love books where you learn to care deeply about the characters, that is the kind of book I try to write. Some people are surprised that a book set in wartime has so much of ordinary life in it. But it allows them to really get to know the characters and see the tensions within them that will be played out under the pressures that war and invasion will inevitably bring.

Why did you choose “How Huge the Night” as your title?

Heather: The truth is, I didn't. My mom titled it The Refuge, I re-titled it The Shadow's Edge. How Huge the Night was the title proposed by a committee at Kregel. But as soon as I laid eyes on it I was in love. It's perfect. It's a phrase from the book, from one of my favorite chapters, and it comes at a moment when the teenage character is awakening to how big and scary the world is. I think that's why it fits so well; because in a lot of ways that's what the book's about.

What are the main things you hope to accomplish through your book?

Heather: First of all I hope to give people an enjoyable, quality book to read. Also to make the true story behind the book more well-known, and to teach people about a part of history most Americans don't really get taught in school—I don't mean WWII of course, but the French perspective on it, and especially Vichy France. And there are a lot of different themes and issues in the book I'd like to provoke people into thinking about; too many to mention, really. One that was really important to me: one character deals with a lot of fear as a girl who's practically alone in a world at war... it's the fear all young women have to deal with, but more. I hope to maybe give a few girls a little help in dealing with it, and boys a little bit of understanding.

Lydia: I would love for American readers to come away with a different perspective on France than what they get, either from the media, or from tourism. I'd love for them to know that France has people like Grandpa, rooted in the soil, with wisdom that speaks to us, and values that we admire. I also hope that people will get a certain vision of God through the book. In war time, or any time of great suffering, we naturally question God. Where is he? Why couldn't he stop all this? From the opening pages of the book, the answer comes through that God is not going to stop this war. Julien and his family will have to live through it. But I hope we learn with Julien that God's presence, in the midst of suffering and doubt, makes all the difference.

How does your relationship with God play into your writing?

Heather: I'm not sure how to explain it. When I write really well, I feel connected to God, and grateful for being given what I'm writing. My most fundamental writing principle is “tell the truth”--meaning the truth about human experience (since that's what fiction is meant to represent), about the parts of life where God seems absent as well as the moments when his presence is clear. Also, I do a fair amount of writing directly from the Bible—re-tellings, mostly written to be read aloud in church services (which, incidentally, are available for free at—and there is absolutely nothing in my life that gets me deeper into the Bible than doing that. It's like I'm there. When I write one of those it feels like worship—experiencing God with intensity.

Lydia: I have always loved the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. Many people know that he would write the words "For the glory of God" at the top of the music he had just composed. I would love for that to be written at the top of my manuscript, as well. Though I know my motives are mixed (whose aren't?), yet I hope my writing communicates a true vision of God, as well as a true vision of human beings.

What influence has living in France had on the writing of this book?

Lydia: It was much easier to write about France after having lived in the country for several years. I think my love of French people, the countryside, the food – all that comes across in my writing. Even the French reserve toward outsiders is something I've come to understand over time. We moved to a small town when Heather was in junior high, and she found that almost all the kids in her school had been together since kindergarten. On our street we met neighbors who had lived in the same house for fifty years. How Huge the Night reflects that experience of being outsiders, needing time to find our place.

Heather: A whole lot of influence. I was so glad to be able to put many of my good (and a few bad) memories of France into this book. From the stone walls and the hills and the weather-beaten farmers to the double desks with inkwells in them and the mean teacher everyone loves to hate... a lot of my childhood's in there. Even how the people interact. It's subtle, but there is French culture surrounding everything. A school friend drops in and Julien immediately serves him something to drink. That's what a French kid would do, you're supposed to, you have to. Little things like that.

How much research was involved in writing about historical events? How did you know how much historical detail to provide?

Heather: I was pretty lucky. Mom did an incredible amount of research. I did do some of my own when I had a question she couldn't answer or just wanted to get the feel of something—but for almost everything I could just ask her. As for what to include, the principle is: if the character cares, the reader cares, and that makes it interesting. So stuff that affects the characters' lives is mostly what we included—and that added up to quite a bit.

Lydia: When I first became interested in retelling the story of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, I not only read everything I could find on the town itself, but I also read a lot about World War II, especially related to what happened in France during the war. I made time lines to make sure that historical events really happened at the time we said they did (such as Hitler's meeting with Marshall Pétain). By looking at what was happening in the wider world, we would ask ourselves the question, how does this event impact the characters in this story? When we get to Pearl Harbor, for instance (which should happen in the next book), when will Julien's family hear about it? Will they see it as a turning point in the war, or will it be a minor news story of another of so many battles being lost at the time?

Do you have plans to develop these characters or this story?

Heather: Mom and I are working on a sequel, which actually follows Julien's younger sister, Magali, through the next year or so of the war. She becomes an assistant to a young woman who is transporting kids to safety.

Lydia: In the true story behind the novel, Le Chambon-sur-Lignon developed homes for children who were being released from detention camps in the south of France. In my background reading about the war, I came across the stories of young women who spent their lives moving Jewish children to safety. Another group of unsung heroes! Because Pâquerette, one of these young women, is so important in the sequel, it was natural for the story to be told through the eyes of Magali, instead of Julien. The second book will see Magali's coming of age as much as How Huge the Night was Julien's story. She will grow, make mistakes, and change as she travels to the camps with Pâquerette. But this continues to be more than just the story of one young person. It is also the story of a family, and of a town, of Mama, and Pastor Alex, who all have to respond to the events that happen.

What is the story behind the story?

It's the story of a small town in central France called Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, which became a haven for Jews during World War II. Basically the whole town was in agreement about sheltering them—which was beyond unusual. Because of this, as a town of around 3,000 people, over the course of the war they sheltered and saved between 3,000 and 5,000 refugees. You can visit our website at to learn more.

What do you hope readers take away from reading How Huge is the Night?

Heather: A lot of things. One is the fact that small choices matter—everyday choices, that have no life-or-death results attached, like how to treat that guy you just can't stand. In the book, Julien is in those sorts of everyday situations... and when the life-or-death situation comes, the choices he's made previously are tremendously important, for good and ill, because they've shaped both who he is and how others respond to him. To me, the fact that it can be that way is proof that even if Hitler isn't around these days to present us with more obviously crucial decisions, those everyday choices matter tremendously.

Lydia: I too see the idea of choice as being central to the book. Many people in France chose to go along with Nazi propaganda with tragic results, both for the Jews, and for the collaborators themselves. It was not easy to make the right choices. Issues were blurred (all these refugees are ruining our country!), and costs of helping them were high. But some in France did choose rightly, and they help us to see that it is possible to do so. I hope readers will also see that choosing wrongly is not necessarily the end of the story. Julien makes some bad mistakes. But because he learns to admit his mistakes and seek forgiveness, he also finds God's help to start over.

HEATHER MUNN has a B.A. in Literature from Wheaton College. She was born in Northern Ireland of American parents and grew up in the south of France. She decided to be a writer at the age of five when her mother read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books aloud, but worried that she couldn’t write about her childhood since she didn’t remember it. When she was young, her favorite time of day was after supper when the family would gather and her father would read a chapter from a novel. Heather went to French school until her teens, and grew up hearing the story of Le Chambonsur-Lignon, only an hour’s drive away. She now lives in rural Illinois with her husband, Paul, where they offer free spiritual retreats to people coming out of homelessness and addiction. She enjoys wandering in the woods, gardening, writing, and splitting wood.

LYDIA MUNN received a B.A. in literature from Wheaton College, and an M.A. in Bible from Columbia Graduate School of Bible and Lydia Missions. She was homeschooled for five years because there was no school where her family served as missionaries in the savannahs of northern Brazil. There was no public library either, but Lydia read every book she could get her hands on. This led naturally to her choice of an English major at Wheaton College. Her original plan to teach high school English gradually transitioned into a lifelong love of teaching the Bible to both adults and young people as a missionary in France. She and her husband, Jim, have two children: their son, Robin, and their daughter, Heather. With her husband, Jim, she has worked in church planting and Bible teaching since 1983, notably in St. Etienne, near the small town in the central mountains of France which forms the background of How Huge the Night. The Munns now live in Grenoble, France.

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