By Jaci Wendel
After she graduated from DeSales in 1995 with a degree in English, Teresa Messineo took a Mensa self-test for kicks, and scored in the top two-to-three percentile. It was only then that she recognized “an innate talent and intelligence” that she possessed and pursued everything from coming back to DeSales to study to become a physician assistant to starting an Irish band with her four children, to learning the Tinikling dance in a Philippine dance troupe, to writing her first and highly-successful novel “The Fire by Night.”
On Feb. 23 at 7 p.m., students and members of the DeSales community gathered in the DUC to hear Messineo give a reading from her novel and discuss her variegated journey from student to novelist.
“The Fire by Night” is about two military nurses during World War II. Jo is the last remaining medical
personnel at her station in France, tasked with keeping six men from the Allied army—as well as herself— alive with little to no medical supplies or food. Kay, a POW in Manila in the Pacific theater of war, must endure the unique tortures of the Japanese army while still trying to hold herself together after previous traumas of the war. The book follows these two nurses throughout the entire war, including how their lives have been affected during peacetime.
Messineo did not initially have the idea of writing a novel; her road into World War II history began by attending World War II Weekend in Reading, Pa., dressing and acting the part of civilians of the time. While many attendees were interested in seeing the military battles unfold, Messineo toured the lessvisited medical tents, asking doctors and nurses about the kinds of procedures and medications that would have been used in the 1930s and 40s.
These visits became the first steps in research that took over seven years to complete.
“When it comes to the second World War, people are still alive, and a lot is written about it, so you really need to be diligent in you fact checking,” Messineo said in an interview for the Fall 2013 issue of the DeSales Alumni Magazine.
After the research was complete, writing the book itself came easily.
“It took six months writing one, one and a half hours a day,” Messineo told the audience. “I told my editor, if you condense the actual hours I spent writing and put that into a regular work week, I wrote this thing in 10 weeks.”
Part of that ease of writing came from her training as an undergraduate English major at DeSales, particularly having Dr. Stephen Myers for journalism classes.
“Writing this book was a lot like being a journalist. Being a journalist then and there and writing down what I saw,” Messineo said. “So the conversations, how the people felt, especially the women, I could see all that. I could feel all that. So I was really grateful I knew how to type because the copy was coming so fast, I could barely keep up.”
The writing of the book itself was not the only part of the process that was fast-tracked. On a Tuesday around closing time, Messineo’s agent submitted her manuscript to around a dozen publishing houses; Wednesday morning, Messineo’s phone was ringing off the hook, all calls from her agent.
“We home school, and [I] don’t take business calls during the school day… So when [my agent] kept calling Wednesday morning—the following morning—I didn’t pick up at first. When I finally did, I hate to say it, I think I was rude, I think I was, like, ‘What?’” Messineo recalled. “And it had sold. HarperCollins wanted to pre-empt… and I remember saying, because it was like nine o’clock in the morning, ‘They couldn’t have read it all.’… And they hadn’t. They just wanted it.”
She said in a later phone interview, “It gave me a lot more confidence in the caliber of my work that HarperCollins was willing to buy it without the whole novel being seen.”
Messineo read two passages from her book before taking questions from the audience. She offered advice for both writers and non-writers alike.
“Your time as a student is spent looking forward in the future, but you forget to stop and appreciate where you are and that difficult midterm you just had,” Messineo said. “The reason behind it was to get the best out of you, and I think the professors at DeSales genuinely want… the best for you.”
“The Fire by Night” is available through Amazon, as well as the DeSales University bookstore, for $26.99.