Joyce Wagner may be semi-retired, but she’s far from ready to put down her laptop. The former MV Times writer, humorist, columnist, and short story writer was awarded the Royal Palm Literary Award (RPLA) from the Florida Writers Association for Unpublished Historical Fiction for her novel “The French Tenor.” There were 549 submissions, with Wagner coming away with the Golden Award. She was also fourth runner-up in the overall contest, which included all book genres. Wagner now splits her time between summers on the Island and Gulfport, Fla.
The story’s main character, Davet Sacripant, “the French tenor,” witnesses firsthand Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass, when Nazis in Germany torched synagogues, and vandalized Jewish homes, schools, and businesses, killing nearly 100 Jews, in November 1938. The experience changes this well-known singer’s life, and he decides to go deep undercover with the American OSS, losing all the vestiges of his former life. His wife, Pepper Bailey, is an American radio star, and struggles in New York City with the knowledge that her husband is missing and presumed dead. The book goes back and forth with those two points of view, Wagner explained.
Wagner said she’s always been fascinated by people who survive profound loss, such as the residents of New Orleans who went through Hurricane Katrina, or persons who’ve lost loved ones due to an accident. “How do they go on?” she said in a phone interview with The Times.
The idea for the protagonist came to her in a roundabout way. “I saw an interview with the four guys in Il Divo, and the Frenchman kind of interested me. The three others were opera-trained, and he was pop-music-trained, and self-trained,” Wagner explains. “He’s kind of a fish out of water, and so that all mixed up, and that guy is the physical model for Davet Sacripant, but he’s based on several other people.”
Wagner began writing in earnest when she was 40, she said, although she toyed with the idea long before that. She won first place for prose in her college literary magazine; her professor had submitted her work. For a couple of years in the mid-2000s she wrote a humor column in the Sunday Concord Monitor in New Hampshire called “Overthinking,” and a compilation of her columns was published a few years ago in a book titled, “Random Overthoughts: The Best (Give or Take) of the Humor Column ‘Overthinking.’”
“If someone was retiring, I’d write a funny skit,” she said. “On the Island, I created a newsletter for women with bad judgment. I was a humorist.”
Wagner even got a fan letter from George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic company. She had written a column about computer-generated characters being disenfranchised — once they were born and served their purpose, that was the end of them. She mentioned Lucas in the column; the company had a clipping service and found her column.
Now, though, she’s shopping for agents in hopes of getting her latest work published. A more serious undertaking, the character Davet Sacripant is one she is clearly connected to.
“I wanted to give him everything — a beautiful life, a beautiful wife,” Wagner describes her protagonist, “then, because of what he witnesses in Kristallnacht and how he is worried about the Nazis coming to America, he’s forced to go into deep cover as a lame and idiotic shoeshine boy who can’t communicate with his family, can’t have friendships with other people. Everything that defined him is pretty much taken away.”
This latest writing honor arrived while she was still on the Island this year, and she gathered with a group of friends and they toasted with a bottle of prosecco while they watched the virtual awards ceremony. She is working on the sequel to “The French Tenor” now, and says it’s going a lot faster than the five years it took to write the first one.
“Right now I’m shopping for an agent. It’s causing quite a stir in New York,” Wagner jokes, “agents are lining up to turn it down.”
Maybe she’ll get lucky and the right agent will find her; then Wagner and “The French Tenor” will find their audience.