Book Clubs

Without Warning, a historical novel that spans the first days of World War II, is an excellent choice for a book club read. This page provides clubs with various resources to stimulate discussion and gain insights into the novel, including a list of discussion questions and a Q & A with the author. In addition, for book clubs that buy five or more copies of Without Warning, Tom is available to speak to the club, in person for clubs meeting in San Diego, or via Skype. To make such arrangements, contact Tom.

Suggested Discussion Questions:

  1. What did you know about the start of World War II before reading this book? Did you learn anything new?
  2. Why didn’t the United States enter the war when Britain did?
  3. Which of the characters in the book did you identify most strongly with, and why?
  4. What were your feelings toward the German submarine captain (Fritz-Julius Lemp)?
  5. Discuss the decisions the book’s character faced during the rescue operations. Would you have done the same?
  6. Do you think the British Admiralty bore any responsibility for Athenia’s sinking?
  7. Discuss the book’s title. Why were submarines required to give warning before attacking an unarmed, unescorted merchant ship?
  8. At the end of the book the author tells what happened to each of the main characters after the war. Did this add to or detract from the story?
  9. Why do you think the author wrote about this incident as historical fiction rather than writing a nonfiction account?
  10. If the book’s main characters and events are all real, why is this a work of fiction?
  11. What do you think are the main themes of this book?
  12. Why do you think the Athenia incident has been lost to history?

Q & A with Thomas Sanger

Q What was your inspiration for writing Without Warning?

A My grandmother was a passenger on the Athenia when the ship was torpedoed. She survived the attack, and when she returned home she wrote about her experiences. Seventy years later, when I read her 14-page account, it was so vivid that it transported back to those events as if I were seeing them through her eyes. I thought if I could recreate that experience with other passengers, I could tell Athenia’s story in a very compelling way for the reader.

Q If Without Warning is based on actual people and events, why do you call it fiction?

A It’s fiction because the words I give the characters to say, the emotions I have them experience, and some of the situations they face are purely my invention. I’ve also taken the liberty to change the timing of some events to create more dramatic tension and better serve the story’s arc. If you make up stuff, even in telling a true story, you are writing fiction.

Q What do you see is the difference between fiction and narrative non-fiction?

A Narrative non-fiction uses the novelist’s techniques, like dialogue, foreshadowing, and dramatic tension, to relate a true story of events that have taken place. With non-fiction, the author cannot change any of the facts and must be able to substantiate every detail, including conversations between persons in the book. Fiction authors have no such restrictions on their powers of invention, although historical fiction generally conforms to events and conditions that existed during the period in which the story takes place.

Q How did you choose the people to follow in Without Warning?

A I wanted to find passengers who had interesting tales to tell and who experienced the breadth of events that took place during evacuation and rescue operations. For example, I wanted passengers who were on the two lifeboats that were lost, passengers who boarded the different rescue ships and were taken to the three different ports that received survivors, and passengers who were separated from loved ones. I included Athenia’s chief officer because he gave readers an overall perspective of the ship and because of his dramatic rescue of a passenger who had been left behind. And I followed the German submarine commander so that readers could see the action from the enemy’s point of view.

Q If you are writing fiction about real people, are you obligated to portray them accurately?

A I don’t think the novelist is under any obligation, other than assuring that the character serves the story’s purpose. The further back you go in history, the harder it becomes to know whether a real person is being portrayed accurately. Did Shakespeare accurately portray Richard III? We’ll never know. I was more sensitive to the character portrayals in Without Warning because many of their descendants are still alive and in some cases provided me with insights into their relatives. In the end, I sought to portray them as everyday people caught up in a catastrophe, hoping the reader identifies with the decisions they made in order to survive.

Q Did you consider changing the names of the people you portrayed in your book?

A I thought about it, but never seriously considered it. I always knew I would use my grandmother’s real name because it gave me a visceral connection to the story, and I thought it would have more resonance with the reader. I figured that also would be the case with all the other main characters who faced harrowing decisions and acted so courageously.

Q How many of the people in your book are entirely fictional?

A All the main characters are based on real people, but most of the incidental characters are my invention. The only fictional characters who appear more than once in the book are Copland’s fellow merchant navy chief officer, Gordon Dunbar, the Athenia cadet and later merchant officer, Jimmy Turnbull, and the chief engineer in the book’s last chapter.

Q How long did it take you to write the book?

A About six years. Two years of research and four years of writing, editing and re-writing.

Q What do you like about writing historical fiction?

A I enjoy the research. For Without Warning I had to consider the social conditions in England and Canada, the operations and tactics of German submarine warfare, the deck plan and shipboard routines of the Athenia, and the regulations and traditions of the German Navy and the British Merchant Navy. My wife and I visited national archives, libraries, and museums in Washington, D.C., England, Scotland, and Germany. We read more than 100 affidavits from Athenia’s officers and passengers describing the torpedo strike, the lifeboat launchings, conditions in the lifeboats, and the rescue operations. Many of the insights we gained from these readings made it into the book in some form.

Q What is the biggest challenge in writing historical fiction?

A Getting the details right in such a way as to convincingly create a historical time and place. I’m convinced that one of the reasons people read historical fiction is to be transported to a world that once was, but no longer exists. It’s like science fiction for people who don’t read fantasy.

Q Are you working on another book?

A Not at the moment, but I’m thinking about going back to the same time period as Without Warning and focusing more on the courage and sacrifices made by merchant sailors during the war. I think the merchant marine story has largely been ignored.

Q What was your favorite book as a child?

A I don’t recall having a favorite book as a child. As a teenager I read The Old Man and the Sea, and marveled at the simplicity of the language and the story’s powerful allegory with art and religion. It was my introduction to “literature.”

Q How did you begin writing? Did you intend to become an author?

A I became involved in writing when I chose to major in journalism in college. It was by default, really. I liked art but didn’t see a way to support myself other than by teaching, which I didn’t want to do. I was reasonably good at math but didn’t want to be an engineer. I liked writing and thought that journalism would be a practical application of whatever skill I might have with words. It must have been the right decision, because I have been writing ever since. My wife and I wrote a travel book in the early 1990’s, but for me it was more like an extended piece of journalism. I never saw myself as an “author” until I ghostwrote an autobiography for a doctor in Australia. I started Without Warning right after I finished the Australia book.

Q What book or books have had a strong influence on your writing?

A The most obvious influence on Without Warning is Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels, which tells the story of the Battle of Gettysburg from the perspectives of key soldiers for both the North and the South. I thought the structure of Shaara’s book was the ideal way to approach the story I wanted to tell about Athenia. Another huge influence is the humanity that shines through every one of David McCullough’s books.

Q What authors do you like to read?

A In addition to David McCullough and Michael Shaara, I also like Shaara’s son, Jeff. I enjoy the historical fiction of Robert Harris, Ken Follett, and Bernard Cornwell, as well as the late Gore Vidal. For more contemporary fiction I’m drawn to Scott Turow, Richard Price, Anthony Doerr, and Chris Cleave. Among non-fiction authors, I’ll read anything by Doris Kearns Goodwin and Laura Hillenbrand.

Q As a writer, is it more important to be original or to give readers what they want?

A I think it’s a little of both. If you are writing for a genre, such as murder mysteries or romances, then you have a well-defined series of marks you must hit or you’ll disappoint your reader. But if you can work in an original concept and still meet the genre’s expectations, you have a better chance to delight and surprise your reader. In terms of serious literature, authors have more flexibility to be original but they cannot totally ignore the conventions of a novel.

Q What is your writing routine when you are working on a book?

A When I worked on Without Warning, I wrote almost every day, and often for five or six hours. I worked from a very detailed outline, but sometimes I would write myself into a hole and spend the better part of a day scouring reference works or the Internet to confirm the likelihood of the circumstances I had just written about or to find how some routine but critical function was performed on a German submarine.

Q What is the most difficult part of writing for you?

A Maintaining some sense of objectivity about what I have written. Objectivity is critical when I’m revising my work, which is the second most difficult part of writing for me.