Novelist Returns to Nonfiction with Patton’s Oracle Memoir
Today’s guest post is by Robert Hays (“Blood on the Roses,” “The Life and Death of Lizzie Morris”) who returns to his nonfiction roots with Patton’s Oracle: Gen. Oscar Koch, as I Knew Him. Since my writing career also began, like my father’s and Robert Hays’, in journalism, I wondered how Robert handled the move from fiction to nonfiction for this book.
Returning to Nonfiction
After four novels, I returned to non-fiction for my new book, Patton’s Oracle: Gen. Oscar Koch, as I Knew Him. I love writing fiction—the freedom to create settings and characters, the magic of working with different plots, the fun of trying ideas just to see if they work—but I also find great satisfaction in non-fiction. I’ve spent most of my adult life as a journalist. I loved newspaper reporting and the prospect of offering readers factual information that I consider interesting and important never wears thin.
What’s new for me in Patton’s Oracle is the addition of subjective material to the mix. The book is a biographical memoir, my effort to recount a marvelous four years of friendship and work with Oscar Koch, an unsung hero of World War II who became my personal hero as well.
Oscar Koch was a brilliant intelligence officer who deserves great credit for his behind-the-scenes role in the success of his celebrated commander, Gen. George S. Patton Jr. My military service had been two years as a draftee enlisted man and I had just turned 31 when I met Gen. Koch, who besides having a distinguished military career of almost forty years was well beyond twice my age. Surely the likelihood of us finding things in common was slight. But we live in a world of chance and in this case the unlikely came to pass.
I discovered the general to be a modest, scholarly and charming man. He found no glory in war, and sought none for himself. He was not enthusiastic when I asked to make him the subject of a personality profile article for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. I believe he consented principally as a favor to me. He was pleased with the article, though, and invited me to collaborate with him on a book that had become his final goal in life.
Gen. Koch was a joy to work with. His book quickly became almost as important to me as it was to him. But shortly after we began, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. From that point forward I knew this was a race against time. We finished the book, G-2: Intelligence for Patton, but Oscar Koch did not survive to see it published. It came out in 1971 and still is in print.
As I summarized this experience in Patton’s Oracle: “I was granted only four years to share life with the general, a period that was far too short. In the beginning he lifted my spirits as we joined in a common purpose. In the end, I endured the anguish of watching an insidious cancer purloin the life from his body even though he never would surrender his gallant spirit. But what a remarkable four years it was, how grateful I am to have had that privilege.”
Patton’s Oracle is my tenth book. But it is the one I’ve wanted for decades to write, timid that I might not do justice to the subject. Even though the words are my own, there are passages that bring tears to my eyes. And of the ten, it is the book that is dearest to my heart.