Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Interview with Karl Marlantes

"Had it gotten published when I wanted it to be, it would not have been half the novel it turned out to be." - Karl Marlantes

At the James River Writers Conference, I confess to expending so much energy building up expectations of greatness for many of the sessions that I didn't bother even considering what I might learn in others.  The interview with Karl Marlentes, author of NYT Bestseller "Matterhorn," was one of the latter.  It led off the second day, and to be honest I was focused more on the upcoming one-on-one meeting I had with an agent than on the session ahead.  It didn't take long, though, for the interview to suck my attention completely in. 

First off, I have to say that the choice of interviewer makes a significant difference, and this choice was great.  Joe Williams is a U of R grad and a former Nieman Fellow at Harvard, has been an editor for the Boston Globe and the Minneapolis Star Tribune, is currently the White House correspondent for Politico, and is simply a very interesting guy.  I sat enthralled through the session on How to Take the Free out of Freelancing, where he was on the panel, and I can't wait to tell you about that session too. 

Karl Marlantes is no slouch himself.  A Yale grad, he told us of winning a Rhodes Scholarship, going to study at Oxford, and feeling guilty about his posh life.  He quit, returned to the Marines to serve in Vietnam, and once the war was over returned to Oxford with a chest filled with a couple of Purple Hearts and several awards for valor to complete his studies. 

Then the smart guy took 30 years to write a book.

I say that with tongue gently nestled into my cheek, of course.  It took a few years to scribe the draft, which at over a thousand pages was quite an accomplishment.  Then he read over the first draft and found he had "three pages about wet socks."  To a soldier, as I will verify first-hand, wet socks justify three pages worth of griping.  So do all sorts of rashes and sores and conditions and foodstuff that you wouldn't feed your worst enemy's pet, for that matter--none of which you really want to hear about if you haven't lived it.  He recognized, though, that he wasn't writing the book to soldiers, so the socks had to go. 

By 1977 the book was ready to be sold, he thought.  Unfortunately, there had been a lot of books about Vietnam written in the meantime.  The crest of the wave of interest in the topic had come and gone, and nobody wanted to publish another book about the war that we were all sort of embarrassed about by then. 

He put it in a shelf, pulling it out sporadically for editing and to try getting it published again.  He tried several times in the 80s and 90s; he usually quit after twenty or twenty-five rejections.

"What kept you going?" Joe asked.

Karl replied that he wasn't always sure.  He frequently asked himself, "Are you crazy?"  But in the end, "Our story needs to be told so that people understand who we were."

It's an impressive tale, one I wish now that I'd recorded in its entirety.  Karl spoke of, as part of his military duty assignment, carrying a message to the White House in his Marines uniform, and being made fun of by a group of kids across the D.C. street--how he wanted to reach out, to educate them, to make them understand.  It was clear this was the core of why he'd written the story.  "Not everybody should go to war," he said, "but we are all involved....  The soldier is the one at the end of the line pulling the trigger." 

When he finally got the nod to be published, he was told to shorten the book by quite a lot (twenty-five percent, if I recall correctly).  "I struggled with my artistic integrity for about twenty seconds," he quipped with a grin before launching into a tale of using an Excel workbook to track chapter page counts, calculating how much he needed to reduce each one by to get there.  The first few chapters were cut more because he knew they needed to be lean and gripping.  The rest were cut according to a grand plan set up in a formula-driven spreadsheet. 

Now there's something I can see myself doing.

I've read a lot of Vietnam books.  Some of them I had to read as part of my military history/"science" training at West Point, and some of them genuinely grabbed and held my interest.  That period of American civilian and military history was, and still is, such an enigma to me.  Race relations--or lack thereof--something that Karl said he'd never really faced before--caused the murder of several hundred people.  One thing my mind still can't really wrap around is what might cause somebody to purposely kill a guy who fights on the same side as them.  At the same time, the officer-enlisted relationship broke down completely over there.  Civilians mocked their own countrymen, their own heroes who came home from the war, alive and otherwise. 

I still don't get it, and probably never will. 

That's why I bought a copy of Matterhorn.  And then I had Karl sign it. 

It was a great session. 

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