Casablanca Meets Das Boot
John Winn Miller’s first novel is a hit
By KEVIN NANCE
When John Winn Miller set out to become a newspaperman several decades ago, the Lexington native saw it as the means to a different end, a different career. “I wanted to write the Great American Novel — or at least a novel,” he recalls with a laugh. “But I realized that I didn’t know how to write, and I had no experiences to write about. So I thought, ‘I’ll be a journalist.’”
And so it went, the newspaper gigs piling up over the years: as a foreign correspondent for the Associated Press and the Wall Street Journal in Italy, as a reporter and editor at the Lexington Herald-Leader, as an editor in Pennsylvania and Florida, as a publisher in Washington state and New Hampshire.
Back in Lexington as a retiree with time on his hands during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, Miller finally got down to the business of fiction writing that had been waiting for him for nearly half a century.
The result is The Hunt for the Peggy C, a World War II maritime thriller that was a semifinalist for the Clive Cussler Adventure Writers Competition and was published in November 2022 by Bancroft Press. Set in 1941, the painstakingly researched novel follows the hair-raising voyage of the American smuggler Capt. Jake Rogers and his ragtag crew on a decrepit tramp steamer in the North Atlantic. They’re pursued by an implacable German U-boat commander bent on recovering the Peggy C’s contraband cargo: a Jewish family from the Netherlands fleeing the Holocaust.
Along the way, Rogers — handsome, cynical and surprisingly well-read — falls in love with his beautiful, brilliant Jewish passenger Miriam, who’s been expelled from medical school by the Nazi occupiers in Amsterdam and has her own character arc from meek victim to empowered heroine.
“I call it Casablanca meets Das Boot,” says Miller, 70, referring to the 1981 Oscar-nominated film about a U-boat. “I didn’t want it to just be a guys-and-guns thing. I wanted it to have some heart, so it became a love story wrapped in an action-adventure piece. Rick thinks soldiers are suckers and quotes Napoleon, who said it’s amazing what men will do for little pieces of colored ribbon. But gradually falling in love with Miriam, he comes to believe that there are things worth fighting for.”
Miller got the idea for The Hunt for Peggy C sometime in the 1980s, when he and his young daughter, Allison (now a screenwriter, director and actor starring in the ABC series “A Million Little Things”), were watching a sub-par action-adventure movie. “I could write a better screenplay than that,” he told his daughter. That same night, he had a dream in which the title, the beginning and the end of the story were revealed to him.
For the next several years he researched the historical period, including the technology and culture of tramp steamers and U-boats early in WWII, a time when American cargo ships were still technically neutral — because the United States had not yet entered the war — but increasingly in danger from predatory German submarines prowling the Atlantic. Miller ultimately did write the screenplay but failed to sell it to Hollywood. Still, it proved useful as an outline when he sat down to write the novel.
Also helpful were the writing chops he’d developed at newspapers over the years and, most important, his skills as a researcher — which proved crucial since he insisted on accuracy in the details of his portrait of life on the sea during the period, even though Miller had no military or sailing experience.
“I didn’t want a sailor to read the book and say, ‘That’s not possible — they would never do that or say that,’” Miller says. The author pored over dozens of books, diaries of Holocaust victims and U-boat captains (Google Translate came in handy); he even consulted period almanacs to determine the phases of the moon (moonlight being crucial for navigation at sea) on the specific dates of the fictional action.
The work paid off. “Immediately I could tell I had in my hands a book that I would have selected off the shelf for myself,” says Matt Zullo, a military historian and novelist who was one of several people Miller got to check the manuscript for accuracy. “John grabbed my attention from the very first page, and I was hooked all the way to the end. The characters and the action were top notch, in my opinion, and any notes I provided were minor details in an otherwise outstanding nautical thriller. For my part, I helped by providing some suggestions for changes to the naval and nautical terminology of the time. This kind of assistance would have been little help to a second rate manuscript, but John’s first novel was so much better than that.”
Now Miller is on a roll, having completed a Peggy C sequel, Rogers’ Last Watch, and is well under way on a third novel. He and his publisher are pitching the trilogy to Netflix, Amazon Prime and other streaming services as a series.
Whether that project is greenlighted or not, the ex-journalist plans to keep on writing fiction. “It’s one of the cooler things I’ve ever done,” Miller says. “It’s ironic that I ended up writing novels about things I knew nothing about, but that’s what you learned in journalism: You had to be an expert on everything.”
This article appears on pages 10-11 of the January 2023 issue of Ace.
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