Monday, October 15, 2012
Q&A with writer Bobbie Ann Mason
Award-winning writer Bobbie Ann Mason's books include "In Country," "Shiloh and Other Stories," and "The Girl in the Blue Beret."
Q: How did you come up with the idea for the characters and the story you write about in “In Country”?
A: I didn't start with the notion to write a novel about Vietnam. I backed into it, along the route of discovery typical to the practice of writing fiction. I had a set of characters--Sam, her uncle Emmett, her boyfriend Lonnie, and her mother, Irene. But I didn't know what their story was. They intrigued me and I followed their antics for a while, trying to find out where they were going. Where was Sam's father? Emmett was a bit strange, a loner, an eccentric. Why was he wearing a skirt? I decided he was a Vietnam vet but was hesitant to go further.
Then one day it hit me--Sam's father had been killed in Vietnam just before she was born. At that moment I realized that she was in the first wave of the children of Vietnam vets who were coming of age and starting to ask questions. That's when I knew there was an important story, a timeless tale. The search for the father. Telemachus searching for Odysseus after the Trojan War. This time it was Vietnam. And she was a girl. This process of writing--searching for the story, allowing the characters to develop in the imagination and letting them lead you into places you might not have thought of--is essential to many novelists, most of whom would be stumped if they had to sit down and write a list of ideas or an outline.
In this case, I was at first intimidated by the challenge of writing about Vietnam. After all, I hadn't been there. I didn't even know anyone who had been there. It took a long time of trial and error, of searching, to get into what it was about the war that left its marks on the family. So it wasn't ideas. It was more to do with imagery, behavior, memory. The beautiful egret that Emmett remembers from the rice paddies. The songs that Sam is attracted to, the "Born in the USA" album by Springsteen. I didn't consult books on the history of the war. Mostly I read oral histories and memoirs. Several prominent memoirs and oral histories appeared in the early eighties, as the Memorial was urged into being and veterans began to speak out. The voices in those books --such as "Charlie Company," "Everything We Had," and Mark Baker's "Nam,"--were riveting and alive. There was a common experience, a common language. I could hear their voices as they reported their time in country.
My Vietnam vet characters came alive in my imagination because of those eloquent voices telling about the hell they had been through. When they told what it was like to arrive in Vietnam, they all had the same reference points--the heat, the smell, the thousand-yard stare on the faces of the GIs boarding the plane to return to the US. The whole thing was something they shared, but it was difficult to tell people who hadn't been there.
Q: Do you think things have changed for Vietnam veterans since “In Country” was published in 1985, and if so, how?
A: Since 1985 the Vietnam vets have gained visibility, a position in the community. The Memorial was the greatest factor. The NEA began a program called Operation Homecoming to welcome the GIs home from Iraq and Afghanistan. It was meant to show that the country had learned something since the Vietnam War. We would welcome our guys home, not spit on them. Operation Homecoming offered a series of writing workshops at military bases to help the returning GIs deal with their experience by writing about it. To a large extent this program was successful, and an anthology of poems and stories and memoirs was published. I participated in 2004 by leading a workshop at Camp Lejeune. But what was dismaying to me was that this program that was supposed to help the GIs make a transition back to "the world" was being thwarted --the GIs were being sent back on more than one tour of duty.
Q: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial plays a major role in “In Country.” Why did you choose to highlight it, and what impact do you think the memorial has had over the years?
A: In the first chapter of "In Country" the characters are traveling to the Memorial. And then the novel flashes back to what led up to the trip. But I had basically written the novel before I knew the Memorial would play a part in it. My husband and I went to the Memorial one day in the rain. As we were walking down the Mall from the Capitol toward the Memorial, I could hear the characters talking as if they were coming along with me. I could imagine just what they would be saying and thinking if they were on this trip. And when I got to the Memorial, I saw it through their eyes. It was very emotional, very real, immediate. The visual imagery was strong.
And then I saw my own name on the wall--Bobby G. Mason. Someone named Bobby Mason had died in Vietnam. Perhaps it was then that I realized that I had a right to tell this story even though I hadn't been to Vietnam. It was every American's story. I was crying, in the rain. The scene almost wrote itself. The impact of the Memorial has been so strong. There are thousands of personal, private events taking place in front of the wall. Just the load of mementoes left there is powerful enough. If you go in the summer, late in the day, you can feel how warm the stone is, radiating heat like something alive.
Q: You have written about the enduring legacy of war in some of your other books as well. What draws you to that topic, and are there themes you hope the reader takes away after finishing one or more of your books?
A: I'm not entirely sure why I'm drawn to writing about war. As I said, I haven't been there. One of my first short stories was called "Shiloh," and the characters go to the Civil War battleground, but they are ignorant of its history. I've never been there myself, and I'm interested in the way we tend to lose our history. I think a novel needs to have a hard substance at its heart. It should encompass something serious and universal. And war is the most problematic of themes. My questions are Sam's adolescent questions--how can this happen? Why? Who in his right mind would want to go to war? How do we get so deep into it that we can't get out? This is endlessly frustrating. My sensibility is pacifistic and squeamish. War! What is it good for? At the same time, there you have it. The great subject. The Trojan War. The Napoleonic Wars. The World Wars. Will it ever end?
I was drawn to World War II in my current novel, "The Girl in the Blue Beret," which pays homage to the Europeans who risked their lives to shelter fallen Allied aviators. In looking at this war, I found all the elements of danger, risk, romance, and urgency that make war irresistible as subject matter. I was forced to ask myself what I would have done in those circumstances. And I don't know the answer. I hope I would rise to the occasion. "War! What is it good for?" is a different question when it comes to Hitler. Themes and take away: Those are two terms that don't quite suit my sensibility as a novelist because I don't like to reduce a story to a tag or abstraction. I hope the reader will remember images and scenes from "In Country"--like Emmett talking about the egret, or Sam talking to the portrait of her father about how he missed the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper" album and Watergate, or Sam's grandmother climbing the ladder at the Memorial to touch her son's name. A history book can tell you about battles and strategies, but this is what a novel can do.
Q: What project are you working on now?
A: Nothing big. I'm returning to short fiction. I'm not eager to write about war again very soon! "The Girl in the Blue Beret" was a huge undertaking for me, and I am still involved with it in various ways. In writing it, I met members of the French Resistance who had aided Allied aviators during the War. These friendships were unexpected--precious and rewarding. So you might say my current project is learning French!
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Perhaps this would be of interest: When a movie of "In Country" was filmed, in 1988, in my hometown in western Kentucky, the local Vietnam Veterans chapter was just getting organized. Some of the guys hadn't talked about the war, even to their wives. Suddenly the movies had come to town, wanting the vets to be part of their own story on film--as actors and advisors. This was a profound experience for many of them. Their experience was validated. They were heard. They provided memorabilia for a scene in the movie. Fifteen years later, they had a reunion, and they brought their scrapbooks and memorabilia from the summer of 1988, when the movie was made. And then they watched the movie.
Interview with Deborah Kalb. This interview previously appeared on www.hauntinglegacy.com.