Thursday, January 31, 2013

Q&A with writer Rhoda Janzen

Rhoda Janzen
Rhoda Janzen is the author of two memoirs, Mennonite in a Little Black Dress and Does This Church Make Me Look Fat?, and a poetry collection, Babel's Stair. She teaches at Hope College in Michigan.
Q: Your memoirs deal with very serious topics, including religion and cancer, but your writing also is very funny (as are the titles of both your books). How do you balance the humor with the serious subjects you're writing about?
A: Ah. If we can’t use a sense of humor for serious subjects, then it’s not good for much, is it? Besides, a lively sense of humor chips away at self-importance. I know plenty of people who take themselves seriously all the time, but Lord, why would anybody want to? Traditionally, religion has been funny only to the non-religious; cancer to the cancerous. Time to mix it up!  
Q: How difficult was it to write about such personal topics, and how did your family feel about being included in your books?
A: I suppose that some authors are writing about personal topics in order to be heard or seen—that is, in order to be known and affirmed. That would be hard because it would produce paltry results. Where would it lead, except maybe to more of the insecurity that insisted on affirmation in the first place? Remember, I’m an egghead literature professor.  I don’t use personal material in order to be known. I use it to invite a conversation larger than self.
On the whole my family has been gorgeously supportive. Thank God my parents have a great sense of humor.  My husband, a former hoodlum, doesn’t read much. But he’s perfectly cordial to people who do.  “If you think folks wanna hear about me sellin weed outa my parents’ garage, knock yourself out, Honey.”
Q: You write that there are "several theological points" on which you disagree with your new church. What are they, and do you feel that you're able to be part of it despite those disagreements?
A: Perfect church unity is a myth, like Shambhala. You know all those stories of hopeful explorers traipsing up and down the Himalayas, hoping to discover the lost city? Finding Shambhala isn’t the point of the story. The point is that nobody finds Shambhala—not now, not ever.  We’ll never find perfect concord in any group or organization. And we’re not supposed to. The idea of church is to maintain peace in spite of disunity. That’s why I’ve chosen not to focus on disunity.  I want to do my small part toward making my church a place of refuge and comfort.
Sure, I can still be a part of it. In fact one of the reasons I’m thriving now is that I’m learning the value, the intentional practice, of mouth control. Think of a marriage or a domestic partnership.  In every working relationship, there are annoying habits, flaws and fissures. These things piss us off and chip away at our peace of mind. Some of the pissy things are big, and some just seem big.
In the long run, which helps you to be happier: focusing on the pissy things that divide you, or focusing on the positive things that unite you? It’s the same with church, or work, or the fiscal cliff.  It’s not that you don’t see the flaws. But by practicing a little mindfulness, you don’t have to see only the flaws.
Q: As a poet and memoirist, do you prefer one type of writing to the other, or are there things about each genre that you especially enjoy or find challenging?
A: I love both forms, but I’m not gonna stop with two!
Q: What are you working on now?
A: A novel. And a grammar textbook.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Yes. People seriously underestimate the pleasures of taking their seventy-five-year-old mother on a Caribbean cruise.  Let’s say that you are aboard ship, sitting down to dinner with twelve strangers. Who knew that a mother breaks ice like the Titanic? Within fourteen seconds she’ll have the whole table talking about nudity in airports. 
 --Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with author Juan Williams

Juan Williams
Juan Williams is a political analyst for Fox News and a contributor to The Hill newspaper; he also has worked for National Public Radio and The Washington Post. His books include Muzzled, Enough, Thurgood Marshall, and Eyes on the Prize.

Q: In your book Muzzled, you write, “Conservatives listen only to conservatives, and liberals listen only to liberals. People are spared the inconvenience of facts that don’t fit their beliefs and the unpleasantness of seriously considering a point of view other than their own.” Do you think this trend will continue? Why or why not?

A: There is no hard answer to this question—all I can do is look at where we are with the American media, and project where we’re going. We are now coming out of a phase where people listen to radio, watch TV, read magazines that reaffirm their pre-existing opinions. They like to thump the dashboard when they’re driving and say, "My guy tells it like it is!" People live in a bubble on the left and on the right; it’s more pronounced on the right.

We’re coming out of this a little bit. There’s more willingness to talk about moderation. One example is the current immigration debate. Sen. Marco Rubio had to go back to the talk-radio crowd and they were willing to say that something needs to get done here. It’s a very small but positive sign.

A bigger sign is that there are more radio shows, Geraldo Rivera being an example, where the host says, “I lean a little to the right, but I don’t abhor the center or dislike the left.” Andrea Tantaros’s show is another example. It’s not as orthodox hard-right. The money folks behind the scenes must see that the appetite for hard-right radio has slacked.

Q: You describe your experience of being fired by NPR in 2010, and you write, “No one at Fox has ever told me what to say. The same, sadly, cannot be said of NPR.” In your opinion, why is that the case?

A: It seems to me that in the NPR case, under the guise of stronger editorial guidance, even with me as a host or senior political analyst, that NPR was much more aggressive about saying, We think this is the way to go with content. It seemed to me to be very almost, they feel that they are very smart people, they are very confident in their opinions and attitudes, they are not willing to [look at] other points of view. Like, we know what’s right.

At Fox, there’s a broader design—they know what they’re doing; they have a strong conservative bent, but they want people to say what they want [to say]. Then there’s the opportunity to rebut, and it makes for great TV. I feel lucky that they have that attitude after what happened to me at NPR. It struck me as ironic, because I would have hoped NPR would be more open; I had thought the hard right would be more intolerant.

Q: You write that NPR should not receive federal funds. Why not?

A: NPR has so many fans; it’s an amazingly important journalistic platform. They would get support from advertising and foundations. There’s no question NPR could be self-sufficient. But the primary point is that NPR journalists should not be in a position of having liberals say, “We support NPR,” while conservatives say, “Why is NPR being treated in a favorable way?” That’s a hornet’s nest of conflicts and appearances of conflicts for NPR journalists. It puts them in the role of a liberal network. Whatever journalism NPR wants to do, let them, but it shouldn’t be perceived as one arm of the political spectrum.

NPR gets single-digit funding [within its overall budget] from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB); most of the money from CPB goes to the stations. They say if they didn’t have government backing, that some small stations in rural areas would have to close…but that’s it. There’s a disproportionate cost to NPR in accepting federal money.

Q: Do you think the money eventually will be cut off?

A: It doesn’t seem likely.

Q: In your book Enough, you focus on a speech Bill Cosby gave in 2004, on the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision. What about that speech inspired you to write a book on the same themes?

A: It was the reaction to his comments that prompted me to write the book. Bill Cosby has so much credibility in the United States, and inside the black community. He’s given so much time and money to black causes, promoted the black family, black education. He’s been a terrific positive role model. On the 50th anniversary of the Brown decision, he says there are serious issues to consider—and he was demonized for airing dirty laundry. He was speaking honestly about problems. As a journalist, I wanted to see if he was actually correct. Had he said something that was intended to undermine the black community? I thought it was important to break it down: the black family, education, antipoverty programs. It was a New York Times bestseller, and to this day the book gets attention from the left and the right. I am very pleased with it.

Q: You have written a biography of Justice Thurgood Marshall, titled Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary. Why did you decide to write about Marshall, and what surprised you most as you researched the book?

A: I decided to write the book after I did a Washington Post magazine piece [about Marshall]. To this day, I think it’s the longest article they ever ran. We did six months of interviews in his chambers. There was more material than was necessary [for the article]. I wanted to do a book; he had not cooperated with any other writers.

Q: Did he cooperate with the biography?

A: He spoke to me on the phone; he tried to help me [get material from] the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. His wife was very suspicious of the book; she didn’t want any part of it, and she warned him away from it. Technically, he didn’t [cooperate].

On a larger scale, I did the book because I think Marshall was one of the central architects of race relations in this country. He’s often overlooked, because Supreme Court justices in black robes, part of the establishment, don’t fit into the revolutionary model of civil rights activists. People focus on Martin Luther King or Malcolm X, and do not stop and think about who changed the laws—Thurgood Marshall.

One of the surprises was his relationship with J. Edgar Hoover. In a contemporary context, you would think the two would hate each other, they were polar opposites—but in fact they found areas in which they could work [together]. Hoover invited Marshall to a birthday party.

Also, his relationship with King—at one point, he phoned King to say, “You’re being taped and watched.” King said, I don’t care about that.

On a bigger level, what surprised me was Marshall’s larger view of American society. Historically, I understand him as a figure that comes out of Maryland, middle ground in the Civil War era, him as a child growing up in a place where he had experience with whites, forms him into an integrationist. He believes in the law. The double consciousness that DuBois writes about, being Americans and black Americans—Marshall was saying that we are the greatest patriots; despite what happened, we believe in the Constitution, in equal rights. On a large scale, this was one of the gifts to American society. Yes, we had the Civil War, but post-Civil War it could have devolved into violence. We managed to navigate it to have a demographically stable country, one that continues to grow, and race relations are on a positive trajectory.

Q: You wrote the 1987 book Eyes on the Prize that accompanied the PBS series on the civil rights movement. How did this project come about?

A: Henry Hampton, the creator of Eyes on the Prize, was a businessman in Boston….He wanted to make documentaries, and he was taken with the power of the civil rights drama….He went to ABC and others with the idea [of a civil rights documentary]; they had an idea of making something like Roots. But he wanted to actually tell the story with the power attached to its reality. He was short on money, and he looked at the Vietnam documentary [that had aired on PBS], and Stanley Karnow’s [accompanying] book on Vietnam was a big success, so he thought of having a book as part of the project. He contacted an agent who found me at the Post.

Q: Are you working on another book now?

A: Yes, I am—it’s a book about the people who helped create 21st century America: How did we change over time, especially over the second half of 20th century America.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I also write a column for The Hill newspaper, and for

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Jan. 31

Jan. 31, 1923: Writer Norman Mailer born.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Q&A with children's author Betty G. Birney

Betty G. Birney
Betty G. Birney is the author of many books for children, including The World According to Humphrey and eight other books about Humphrey the hamster. She also has written for children's television, including episodes of Welcome to Pooh Corner, Fraggle Rock, and Zoobilee Zoo.

Q: How did you come up with a hamster named Humphrey as the hero of your series? And did you know from the start that it would be a series, or did you think it would be just one book?

A: The World According to Humphrey, the first book, didn’t start out to be a book about a hamster, but it was an idea about a classroom pet. My son was in a science classroom with a lot of classroom animals – even a boa constrictor. I remember looking at them all and thinking, “I wonder what this classroom looks like through their eyes. What do they hear and see and think?” I decided it would be fun to write a book from the point of view of a classroom pet. Later, that turned out to be Humphrey the hamster.

But I think the seeds of the book came much earlier. When I was growing up, I used to write my aunt letters from my dog, Mitzi. I enjoyed imagining what my dog thought of my life. So I was always interested in looking at the world from a different point of view.

While I had an inkling that it would make a fun series, I sold The World According to Humphrey as a single book. Before it was even published, my editor asked for a second book. The series grew gradually and I just finished book 10.

Q: You wrote your first book at age 7. Did you ever consider any other career that didn't involve writing?

A: I loved acting in junior high and high school, but I always expected I’d write and act. In college, my interest in acting waned and I concentrated on writing. But I am married to an actor.

Q: Why did you decide to write for kids?

A: I fell into writing for children when I started out in television. I was working at Disney as a trailer producer way back when and I had an opportunity to write for one of the first children’s shows that aired on the day the Disney Channel went on the air. It was a Winnie-the-Pooh show. It turned out I had a knack for writing for children and I thoroughly enjoyed writing 90 episodes. I kept on writing hundreds of children’s television shows and realized that what I really want to do was write children’s books, just as I did when I was seven. By then, I had a young child, so I was reading a lot of wonderful children’s books.

Q: What do you see as the differences between writing a novel and writing for TV?

A: In one way, there’s not that much difference. A story is a story with a beginning, a middle and an end, no matter how you tell it. The main differences are mechanical. For instance, it’s much easier to move characters around in a script with cuts and dissolves, and you don’t need all those attributions, such as “he said,” “she said.” On the other hand, you can be more interior in narrative fiction. You can explain what someone is thinking in a book (especially in first person) but in a script, I can’t stand it if someone talks to himself as a method of exposition in a film. Can’t stand it.  I tend to approach fiction like a script. I construct scenes, make sure there’s action, move my characters move around, and I tend to see what’s happening in the story like a movie in my head.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I just turned in the first draft of the tenth Humphrey book, Secrets According to Humphrey. Now I must write the eighth Humphrey’s Tiny Tales book, which are only published in the U.K. at this point. These are shorter, illustrated books. My Playful Puppy Problem is about to come out there. Humphrey is huge in the U.K.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I love Humphrey and he is definitely a part of me. But I do want to carve out time to write some other books, more in the vein of TheSeven Wonders of Sassafras Springs, which is very near and dear to my heart. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Jan. 29

Jan. 29, 1860: Writer Anton Chekhov born.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Q&A with author Garrett Peck

Garrett Peck

Q: Your new book, The Smithsonian Castle and the Seneca Quarry, will be published next month. What were some of the most surprising things you learned while researching the book?

A: The Seneca quarry is such a fascinating and long-forgotten site. It sits in the woods right of the C&O Canal about 20 miles up the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. -- and yet almost no one knows it's there. It was the place where they quarried the distinct red sandstone for the Smithsonian Castle and hundreds of other buildings around the nation's capital. But the story is about much more than just a bunch of rocks -- it's the story of boom-and-bust, a national scandal involving the Grant administration, and a place where former slaves toiled after the Civil War while adding significantly to the architectural skyline of the nation's capital. The quarry closed in 1901 and nature took over. 

The biggest surprise to me was a scandal I uncovered involving the Seneca Sandstone Company and Ulysses S. Grant. It made national headlines in its time, and The Baltimore Sun called it the "Seneca stone ring scandal." The company was terribly financially mismanaged and undercapitalized, and when it collapsed in 1876, it helped bring down the Freedman's Bank, exacerbating poverty among the former slaves for decades. I pieced together the scandal from newspaper articles and Congressional testimony -- none of Grant's biographers have covered it, so this is really original research. And it's a rather jaw-dropping story of crony capitalism gone wrong. 

Another big surprise was that there was this treasure trove of photos showing the quarry in action in the decades after the Civil War. I had to dig through a number of archives to collect them, but it's an amazing collection. Many of the photos show African American workers at the quarry. 

Going into this project, I had no idea how extensive the ongoing preservation of the Smithsonian Castle is. The Smithsonian replaces 25-30 stones on the Castle each year, as redstone is a layered stone and it can peel like an onion if moisture gets into it. I interviewed people involving the building's preservation, and traced the history of the Renwick Gate, which was built in the 1980s using recycled original Seneca redstone. 

Lastly, seeing the site of Seneca quarry is an ongoing surprise to me and the tours I lead through the quarry. It's dilapidated, overgrown with brush and trees, but also surprisingly preserved. The stonecutting mill where they cut the stone for the Smithsonian Castle is still there (at the moment a giant sycamore tree has fallen on it, causing a lot of damage). Wandering through the quarry and scaling its walls is really something. I can only hope that a quarry visitor park can someday be created out of this -- it'd be a dynamite addition to our local parks. The land itself is protected in the C&O Canal National Historical Park and Seneca Creek State Park in Maryland.  

Q: In your book The Potomac River, you write, "The Potomac is the nation's river." How does the Potomac's history link to that of the entire country?

A: Our nation grew up along the Potomac River. Captain John Smith ventured up the river in 1608 from Jamestown, and George Washington was born, lived much of his life, and picked the site for the nation's capital along the river. It served as the de facto boundary between Union and Confederacy during the Civil War, and many of the most dramatic moments in the war took place along its banks, including John Brown's Raid on Harpers Ferry and the Battle of Antietam -- two events that set the stage for the end of slavery. The book covers hundreds of historic sites that are accessible to the public and offer recreation possibilities. I love to hike almost as much as I love history! 

One site I discovered during my research was Seneca quarry, but there's no historic marker or anything; you just have to know it's there. I fell in love with the quarry, and the more I learned about it, the more I wanted to write about it. And so I produced The Smithsonian Castle and the Seneca Quarry, which is in essence a sequel to The Potomac River

Q: You have written two books about Prohibition, one of which focuses on Prohibition in Washington, D.C., and is subtitled "How Dry We Weren't." What got you interested in the history of Prohibition, and how was it enforced (or not enforced) in the nation's capital?

A: I come from a Methodist family, and the Methodist church was once the leading church in the temperance movement (shocking, I know, as most Methodists now drink). What happened to my church and family is what happened to the country: we once demonized drinking alcohol to the point of changing the Constitution to ban it, then ultimately embraced it after Prohibition failed. Two-thirds of American adults now drink (myself included), and it's simply recognized as part of our culture now. The temperance movement lost the culture war against drinking and was discredited by the failure of Prohibition. 

My first book was The Prohibition Hangover: Alcohol in America from Demon Rum to Cult Cabernet, which traced just how America got over Prohibition to become a country that worships at the altar of craft beer and single malt Scotch. It is, to my knowledge, the only book that has examined how Americans drink after Prohibition ended. 

I live in the Washington, D.C., area, and in researching the book, I uncovered a great deal of content about how Prohibition unfolded in the nation's capital. Washington was expected to be the "model dry city" for the country, but it turned out to be anything but. We had up to 3,000 speakeasies, and Congress even employed its own bootleggers such as George Cassiday ("the man in the green hat"). Once the nation learned just how widespread drinking was in Congress and in the capital in 1930, it significantly undermined the national will to enforce Prohibition. The tour served as inspiration for my second book, Prohibition in Washington, D.C.: How Dry We Weren't. 

Q: You also offer Temperance Tours of Washington, D.C. What are some of the highlights?

A: As I was writing my first book, I put together a fun and quirky tour of Prohibition-related sites in the nation's capital. The tour hits places that even most Washingtonians have never seen. Did you know we have a Temperance Fountain, right across from the National Archives? People walk right past it without even noticing it -- in fact, I quiz people about the meaning of "temperance," and most people simply don't know. It's one of those words like anarchy, comstockery, communism and the gold standard that just aren't part of America's cultural vocabulary anymore. 

We also visit Calvary Baptist Church, where the Anti-Saloon League had its first national convention in 1895, and the Woodrow Wilson House, which has an amazing Prohibition-era wine cellar. Wilson was the president when Prohibition began, and he was the only president to retire to D.C. You can read more about the tour at

I should also mention that I lead tours of Seneca quarry in the winter, which is the one time you can actually see the site, when the trees and wild rose are dormant. There's a Facebook page for The Smithsonian Castle and the Seneca Quarry so readers can learn more about upcoming events. 

Q: Are you working on another book now?

A: Indeed, I am. The working title is The Lost Decade, and it's a journalistic summary of the past decade in American history. The decade was bookended by two economic crises: the bursting of the dotcom bubble, and the financial meltdown caused by the housing bubble bursting. In between we witnessed the election of George W. Bush, 9/11, two wars, Hurricane Katrina, an aging population, an emerging gay community, the dominance of the Internet as our new national pastime, and the historic election of Barack Obama to the presidency. I'm actually looking for a publisher right now. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I'm happy to talk to people about my books and tours! People can contact me at 

Q&A with writer Manil Suri

Manil Suri
Manil Suri is the author of the novels The Death of Vishnu, The Age of Shiva, and his newest, The City of Devi. He also is a professor of mathematics at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC).

Q: Your forthcoming novel, The City of Devi, takes place in a futuristic Mumbai. What can you tell us about the book and about the main characters, Sarita, Karun, and Jaz?

A: Cyber-attacks have ravaged the West, Pakistan and India are on the verge of a nuclear war, it very well could be the end of the world. And yet, Sarita can only think of finding her husband Karun who has been missing for some weeks. Her journey through the desolate streets of Mumbai is filled with surreal encounters: the upper echelons of society are still snooty as ever and leave no opportunity to snub her, while the guard at an aquarium where she takes shelter seems to have consumed all the fish from the tanks.

The book is the closest to a thriller I’m probably ever going to write – I had great fun with the action, which I tried to make as over the top as possible (even managing to deploy an elephant!). Best of all, there’s the mystery character Jaz, whom I can’t talk about, since I don’t want to give anything away.   

Q: How do you balance your two careers as novelist and mathematics professor, and what are the similarities and differences between the two disciplines?

A: How do I balance my two careers? In one word, “Poorly.” As far as the similarities and differences between the two disciplines go, I’ve been asked this question so many times that I’ve even made a video on it, called “The Mathematics of Fiction.” Enjoy!

Incidentally, last year I teamed up with an English teacher to further explore the intersection of the two disciplines – we wrote a somewhat cheeky article about the course we taught jointly.

Q: What first convinced you that you should write a novel, and what was the reaction among your math colleagues?

A: I sort of blundered into writing a novel – began a short story that I couldn’t end. Five years later, I had my first book. My math colleagues have been fine with it – surprisingly, it hardly comes up in day-to-day interactions (would be very distracting if it did).

Q: Do you have a favorite among the characters you've created?

A: Definitely Jaz. I love him because he’s so completely irreverent, so full of humor and snarkiness. And he knows how to have fun – lots of it – he’s completely uninhibited when it comes to sexual adventure.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: A math novel, believe it or not – one which will have video embedded in it to make the proceedings more fun and accessible.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Yes: If you read The City of Devi, remember that no matter how dire the setting might seem to be, the novel is about adventure, it’s supposed to be fun.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Jan. 28

Jan. 28, 1813: Pride and Prejudice published (200 years ago!).

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Q&A with writer Marita Golden

Marita Golden
Acclaimed writer Marita Golden is the author of more than a dozen books, both fiction and nonfiction, including Living Out Loud, The Word, A Woman's Place, and Migrations of the Heart. She also has taught writing at a variety of universities, including Johns Hopkins and Fairfield.

Q: In your book The Word, you write, "The current national discourse about literacy and literature is especially relevant to Black Americans. Our future as a people, our ability to sit at the table where the blueprints for tomorrow are drawn up means that this conversation is not just necessary; it is urgent." In recent decades, has the level of urgency remained constant, or has it changed?

A: Well, what has happened is that the discourse about literature and literacy has to some extent in the Black community been hijacked by the discussion about standardized test scores. Throughout the country test scores have come to be a substitute for thoughtful and deep class discussion of ideas and deep thinking. Yet despite the proliferation of social media technology, literacy and literature remain very important issues to address for all communities but especially for communities that have a tradition of marginalization. 

It has been heartening to have a President who monitors his daughters' use of social media and tv and encourages them to read a lot. Some of the most important writers of the last century from Hurston to Baldwin to August Wilson have been born and bred in the African American community. There is an impressive group of young Black writers at work today but there needs to be a converted national effort to address illiteracy, a nagging problem, throughout the country.

Q: In Living Out Loud: A Writer's Journey, you describe how your mother predicted when you were 12 that one day, you would write a book. Did you always think you would end up being a writer?

A: I had no idea that "writer" was a viable career choice or path for me until I was in college. I knew I would always be writing, and I suspected that from an early age but the transition to being a "writer" in the public/authorial and authoritative sense took a while. Of course what helped was coming of age just as Maya Angelou, AliceWalker, Toni Morrison and other significant Black women writers  were creating their public voices. I read their work and saw a reflection of myself in it and was inspired to chisel out a public space of my own by writing not just for myself but for a public audience.

Q: How did you select the authors to include in The Word and the other collections you have edited?

A: I selected writers in The Word to ensure a wide diversity of ages and backgrounds and genres. So there is a journalist/biographer--Wil Haygood, a playwright/novelist--Pearl Cleage, an iconic poet--Nikki Giovanni, and a gifted young writer from Nigeria--Chimamanda Adichie among the group. I am pretty proud that the book represents the African diaspora and includes voices from the Black Arts Movement up to today's young writers.

Q: You have written fiction and nonfiction, and you've also edited anthologies and other works. Do you have a favorite among the different types of writing that you've done, and if so, what is it? As a writing teacher, do you focus on a particular type of writing with your students?

A: Although I have written both fiction and nonfiction, fiction remains for me the Mt. Kilimanjaro of writing because it is based so much in imagination. I love fiction also because once you are launched on a fictional journey you literally have no idea where you will end up. You have to grow into the ability to tell the story and know the characters deeply and that sometimes takes years, it always takes longer than you think it will. Even when a novel is inspired by actual events in the hands of a literary novelist it takes on a new life of its own that can speak beyond the actual event and that is the place where the reader can claim the story as their own. However in my teaching in the MA program at Johns Hopkins and in the low-residency program at Fairfield University I teach both fiction and nonfiction and enjoy working with writers on memoirs and creative nonfiction.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Currently I am working on a novel.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I am offering a writing workshop in Jamaica the last week in June, visit my website and join my listserve for info.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with author Lewis Sorley

Lewis Sorley, a graduate of West Point, served in Germany, Vietnam, and the United States, including teaching on the faculties of West Point and the Army War College. His books include A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam, and biographies of Generals William Westmoreland, Creighton Abrams, and Harold K. Johnson.

Q: Your latest book is titled Westmoreland: The General Who Lost Vietnam. Why did you choose that subtitle for the book, and what do you see as Westmoreland's biggest mistakes?

A: Great first question! The response, to be credible, will have to be a bit lengthy. General Westmoreland commanded U.S. forces in Vietnam for four years (1964-1968). When, in 1965, the United States began introducing large numbers of ground forces to help the South Vietnamese fight the war, Westmoreland essentially took over the conflict and sought to win it using the U.S. forces being deployed. In response to repeated Westmoreland requests for more and more troops, the U.S. forces deployed eventually grew to well over half a million, numbering 543,400 at the peak.

Westmoreland decided to fight a war of attrition. His premise was that, if he could inflict sufficient casualties on the enemy (the North Vietnamese Communists and the controlled indigenous Viet Cong in South Vietnam), they would lose heart and cease their aggression. In such a war the measure of merit was body count. Westmoreland employed "search and destroy" tactics, typically involving large-scale operations (multi-battalion and sometimes even multi-division) seeking enemy forces in the deep jungles of South Vietnam's western reaches adjacent to the borders with Laos and Cambodia.

It is important to know that Westmoreland had complete freedom of action to choose and employ this approach. Over the years of his command his forces did indeed kill large numbers of enemy, really a horrifying number. But the predicted outcome did not result. The enemy did not lose heart or cease his aggression. Instead he kept sending more and more replacements to make up his losses. Thus Westmoreland had nothing to show for his efforts. He was on a treadmill.

Westmoreland also failed to grasp the significance of the friendly casualties his forces were taking. At one point Senator "Fritz" Hollings from Westmoreland's home state of South Carolina visited Vietnam, where Westmoreland told him, "We're killing these people," the enemy, "at a ratio of ten to one." Responded Hollings, "Westy, the American people don't care about the ten. They care about the one." Westmoreland never seemed to get it.

Meanwhile, completely focused on his unavailing tactical approach, Westmoreland neglected two other key responsibilities: building up South Vietnam's armed forces so they could progressively take over more responsibility for their nation's protection, and rooting out the covert Communist infrastructure in South Vietnam's hamlets and villages where, by use of terror and coercion, the enemy was keeping the rural populace under domination. The latter task was called pacification. Said General Phil Davidson, Westmoreland's J-2 (chief intelligence officer), "Westmoreland's interest always lay in the big-unit war. Pacification bored him."

Westmoreland always maintained that he was doing a great deal to build up the South Vietnamese forces, but there was no substance to the claim. Instead Westmoreland gave the best new weaponry, such as the M-16 rifle, to U.S. forces first, leaving the South Vietnamese for year after year equipped with castoff World War II-vintage U.S. equipment like M-1 rifles and carbines. This was an enormous disadvantage, since they were fighting an enemy equipped by its backers, the Soviet Union and China, with the best available modern weaponry, to include the great AK-47 assault rifle.

After Westmoreland there came a U.S. commander who understood the nature of the war and devised a far more effective approach to its conduct, but even though things went much better the United States Congress (and, to some lesser degree, the public and much of the media) had by then had enough of this seemingly endless war and the South Vietnamese were basically abandoned.

That outcome was a direct result of the fact that General Westmoreland had by his unavailing approach squandered four years of support for American involvement in the war, and that is why he deserves to be regarded as "The General Who Lost Vietnam."

Q: You write, "Taken altogether, the life of William Childs Westmoreland turned out to be infinitely sad." How did Vietnam affect Westmoreland personally, and did he ever doubt the course that he had chosen to follow?

A: Others who served with Westmoreland in Vietnam later reflected, candidly and insightfully, on the results of their approach to conduct of the war. Wrote General William DePuy, who as Westmoreland's J-3 (chief operations officer) had helped develop his search and destroy approach, "We ended up with no operational plan that had the slightest chance of ending the war favorably." Said General Fred Weyand, later Army Chief of Staff: "The Vietnam War was not unwinnable. It was just not winnable Westmoreland's way."

Westmoreland could not, or would not, admit to any failures of concept or execution in his conduct of the war. Noted Charles MacDonald, the distinguished military historian who was ghost writer for Westmoreland's memoirs, "from the beginning Westmoreland probably expected to write a memoir of victory similar to [General Eisenhower's] Crusade in Europe and the books of other successful American generals of the past" and "the defeat in Vietnam had not deterred him from this."

In retirement Westmoreland ran an inept and unsuccessful campaign to become governor of South Carolina, then unwisely (against the advice of experienced high-powered lawyers who had his interests at heart) sued CBS for libel after the network broadcast a documentary charging Westmoreland with having manipulated data on enemy strength figures during the Vietnam War. Following a lengthy trial, Westmoreland withdrew his suit only days before the case would have gone to the jury. In exchange he received a vanilla statement from CBS, which he claimed exonerated him. "The effort to defame, dishonor and destroy me and those under my command had been exposed and defeated," he asserted. "I therefore withdrew from the battlefield, all flags flying." 

Editorial opinion was not so favorable. The New York Times succinctly stated the prevailing reaction. "At the end," it concluded, "[General Westmoreland] stood in imminent danger of having a jury confirm the essential truth of the CBS report. For, in court, as on the original program, the general could not get past the testimony of high-ranking former subordinates who confirmed his having colored some intelligence information."

In later years Westmoreland viewed himself as very much put upon. "My years away have been fraught with challenges, frustrations, and sadness," he told a hometown audience. "Nobody has taken more guff than I have," he claimed, "and I am not apologizing for a damn thing—nothing, and I welcome being the point man!" That outlook, no second-guessing of himself and no regrets, persisted through the end of his life.

Observed a former aide to the general, "Westmoreland's life since Vietnam has been miserable." Westmoreland himself contributed much to that outcome. "The Vietnam War is my number one priority," he told an interviewer some years after retirement. "I've tried to spread myself thin and visit all sections of the country."

But then, in an assertion completely undermining the meaning and purpose of years of incessant, even frantic, self-justifying activity, Westmoreland told a college audience that "in the scope of history, Vietnam is not going to be a big deal. It won't float to the top as a major endeavor."

In his later years, then, Westmoreland, widely regarded as a general who lost his war, also lost his only run for political office, lost his libel suit, and lost his reputation. It was a sad ending for a man who for most of his life and career had led what seemed to be a charmed existence.

Westmoreland's ultimate failure would have earned him more compassion, it seems certain, had he not personally been so fundamentally to blame for the endless self-promotion that elevated him to positions and responsibilities beyond his capacity. "It's the aggressive guy who gets his share—plus," Westmoreland maintained. "That principle applies to most anything."

Q: In your book A Better War, you contrast Westmoreland's approach unfavorably with that of his successor, General Creighton Abrams, who took over in 1968, and you write that during the last several years of the war, Abrams, Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker, and the CIA's William Colby "came very close to achieving the elusive goal of a viable nation and a lasting peace." How do you think they managed to come close, and why did they ultimately fail to reach that goal?

A: That is, of course, another complex story that deserves to be told at length and in detail. Just to encapsulate briefly, Abrams, Bunker, and Colby shared a view of the war that was wholly at variance with Westmoreland's. In place of a war of attrition they embarked on what might be termed a war of population security. This, they maintained, must be "One War" in which combat actions (but much revised), improvement of South Vietnam's armed forces, and pacification were of equal importance and equal priority.

Said General Fred Weyand, "The tactics changed within fifteen minutes of Abrams's taking command." Instead of search and destroy operations, forces now concentrated on clear and hold missions in which the "hold" was provided by greatly expanded and improved South Vietnamese Territorial Forces. Thousands of patrols and ambushes replaced the big-unit operations.  And, instead of thrashing about in the deep jungle, seeking to bring the enemy to battle at times and in places of his own choosing—the typical maneuver of the earlier era—allied forces now set up positions sited to protect populated areas from invading forces. This put friendly forces in more advantageous situations and forced the enemy to come through them to gain access to the population, the real objective of both sides in the war.

Confirmed a study group led by Daniel Ellsberg after an inspection tour in Vietnam: "We are using more small patrols for intelligence and spoiling, and we are conducting fewer large-scale sweeps, and those sweeps that we are conducting are smaller in territorial scope. General Abrams has begun to concentrate much more on area control than on kills."

Body count was thus no longer the measure of merit. Instead it was population living in secure areas. Said General Abrams, in a typical comment to subordinate commanders, "The body count does not have much to do with the outcome of the war. Some of the things I do think important are that we preempt or defeat the enemy's major military operations and eliminate or render ineffective the major portion of his guerrillas and his infrastructure—the political, administrative and para-military structure on which his whole movement depends."  

Later Abrams went further, saying, "I don't think it makes any difference how many losses he [the enemy] takes. I don't think that makes any difference." Later still he told a regional conference of U.S. ambassadors of his conviction that, "in the whole picture of the war, the battles don't really mean much." That of course constituted total repudiation of the Westmoreland way of war.

Ambassador Colby said of Abrams: "I was enormously impressed by his grasp of the political significance of the pacification program. Finally we had focused on the real war." Early in his command (which began near the end of June 1968) Abrams cabled General Earle Wheeler, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to report that in pacification "we are making our major effort; so is the enemy. In my judgment, what is required now is all out with all we have. The military machine runs best at full throttle. That's about where we have it and where I intend to keep it."

While all this was going on U.S. forces, which as noted above had progressively and massively increased during the Westmoreland years, were now incrementally and unilaterally withdrawn. That meant that the successes being achieved were, more and more, achieved by the South Vietnamese.

All that had been accomplished was scuttled when, in the aftermath of the 1973 Paris Accords, the United States Congress decided it no longer wished to support our ill-fated South Vietnamese allies, even though by that point the only help being provided was financial. Since neither North Vietnam nor South Vietnam was self-sufficient militarily, that decision was fatal for the South. Cabled Tom Polgar, the last CIA Chief of Staff Saigon, in one of his final messages: "Ultimate outcome hardly in doubt, because South Vietnam cannot survive without U.S. military aid as long as North Vietnam's war-making capacity is unimpaired and supported by Soviet Union and China."

Q: A Better War became very influential at the Pentagon during the Bush and Obama administrations, as the military faced wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. What lessons were drawn from Vietnam as the United States dealt with more recent conflicts?

A: While I of course was not a party to those discussions, I gather from press accounts and conversations with some participants that the principal insights involved the importance of General Abrams's emphasis on clear and hold (rather than search and destroy) tactics, on upgrading indigenous forces, and on providing security for the populace.

Q: Are you working on another book now?

A: I'm currently drafting some selective memoirs—just for my family, of course, not for publication. Over the years my children have encouraged me to do this, but until now I always responded (with complete accuracy) that I was busy telling the stories of far more important people. With publication of the Westmoreland biography I came to a point where I felt I could spare some time for the more personal task, although I was unsure of how it would go. 

The first afternoon I sat down to give it a try, I wrote about the dog my father gave me when I was eight and he was about to leave for World War II. That turned out to be a very nice dog, and I found there were quite a number of things I enjoyed recording about her and our shared adventures. The next day I wrote about my sixth grade teacher, one of the greatest friends I ever had, and that seemed to go well, too. So since then I have been adding anecdotes and reminiscences as they float up in my memory. I can recommend this to everyone. It is especially gratifying to remember all those to whom we have owed so much over the years—dogs of course, but also family members, teachers, friends, and writers and composers and artists and film makers and on and on.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: There are, despite an absolute flood of books about Vietnam and related matters, still some books we need. I am very slow, taking three or four or even five years to produce a book, so I may not have enough time remaining to undertake these projects. One that should be written, though, might be entitled Also Great: The Generation That Fought the Vietnam War. That references, of course, Tom Brokaw's widely known book The Greatest Generation in which he so characterized those who fought World War II. Many people do not know that two-thirds of the World War II cohort were drafted and only one-third volunteered, whereas during the Vietnam War the statistics are just the opposite, with two-thirds of those who served volunteering and only one-third drafted. That in itself seems to me to warrant paying some attention. I would never disparage the World War II veterans, among whom are my father and my uncle, but I do think Vietnam veterans also deserve an account that specifically recognizes their patriotism, valor, and service.

One other necessary book could be entitled Living the Dream: The Vietnamese in America. After we abandoned the South Vietnamese and they were conquered by the North, many fled their own country to find freedom and new opportunities elsewhere. As we now know, many perished in the attempt, lost at sea or dead of starvation or sickness or even the victims of piracy. Many more, though, made their way to Australia, to Canada, to France, and in lesser numbers to other nations of the world. Fortunately for us, one of the largest concentrations of expatriate Vietnamese is in America, where they have demonstrated strong family values, a thirst for education, and capacity for hard work.

In closing A Better War I wrote this: Nearly a quarter-century after the war Nick Sebastian, a West Point graduate then with the Immigration and Naturalization Service, spent three months in what had once been Saigon interviewing candidates for political asylum in the United States, former "boat people" who had been forcibly returned from refugee camps elsewhere in Southeast Asia. It was for Sebastian a moving and humbling experience, for he found both the country of Vietnam and its people beautiful, persevering with admirable spirit under a repressive regime and terrible economic hardship. "The people I met throughout the country," he reported, "accept their loss and in many cases unbelievable subsequent persecution with an equanimity, fortitude, strength of character, and will to survive that is awe-inspiring."

I hope someone will one day tell their story.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. This Q&A also appears on