News & Politics

Labor of Love

What do you do after finishing a novel that took 23 years to write?

Photograph by Matthew Worden.

It was the best of weeks and the worst of weeks for Charles McCain. Just before Christmas 2008, he finished his first book. Days later, he was diagnosed with lymphoma.

The cancer all but squelched McCain’s elation over the novel, An Honorable German, which was 23 years in the making. “I’d achieved one of my greatest goals,” he says, “but the diagnosis brought back the worst part of my life—my mother dying of cancer.”

A lucky turn landed McCain, 54, in a National Institutes of Health trial for a new drug. Chemotherapy was grueling, but it wiped out the disease within months.

Publishing his World War II epic also happened by serendipity. He nearly trashed the oft-rejected manuscript during his move to Washington 11 years ago, but a friend mentioned it to Deborah Grosvenor, the literary agent who had discovered novelist Tom Clancy. She was taken with the tale’s angle—it’s written from the German point of view by an American—but asked for changes.

McCain quit his banking job, figuring the edits would take six months. That stretched to two years. “I went to the greatest length to get the history right,” says McCain, whose novel earned a place on Amazon’s Hot New Releases list.

Orphaned at 16, McCain was a mediocre student but loved novels. He read as many as 300 a year, laboriously diagramming them in hopes of mastering their art. Growing up in South Carolina, he heard Civil War views that were different from those he read in history books. He became interested in how Germans might tell their side of World War II.

“The South was on the losing side and fighting for a terrible cause,” he says. “Germany was similar.”

McCain is working on a second book because he has so much material that “it would be foolish to give it up,” he says. “The only thing worse than writing is not writing.”

This article first appeared in the January 2010 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles from that issue, click here.