I always have to ask, what sparked this book? What was it about the subject matter that haunted you?
I was a teenager during the Vietnam war era, and my youth was shaped by that war and the passionate movement to end it. The U.S. had a military draft back then, so the burden and terror of war were shared more widely than they are today. I can distinctly remember looking around my high school classroom at all the boys and feeling despair that the war would never end and it would swallow them too. At the time, I never gave a thought to the women who were serving in Vietnam, if I even realized there were any.
It wasn’t until decades later that I began to wonder what it would be like to be a regular, middle-aged woman going about your daily life, but to have that Vietnam war experience – that ball of flames – burning away inside you. I started to do some research, and one thing I learned fascinated me: many of the women who served in Vietnam never talked about it. To anyone.
I’m not a veteran or a nurse, but I do know what it’s like to be in the closet. I felt compelled to tell this story, to throw the light of fiction on this hidden corner of our American history.
What is it about Vietnam that still haunts us today?
The Vietnam war brought home to America loss after loss. First, of course, were the casualties, the young men and women who returned from Vietnam so broken and altered. We also lost trust in our political leaders, in part because the Vietnam War was the first to be waged on television, and we could see that our leaders were lying to us. We lost the glow of righteousness and invincibility left over from World War II. And we lost a little bit of our soul when we turned against not only the war but the soldiers we had sent into battle.
Della Brown, your heroine, moves from army nurse to mother, sister, wife--still carrying the damage of the war. Do you think such damage can ever be undone completely?
I think in many ways the impact of each war is lifelong for the participants and their families. This is not to say that every veteran is damaged, only that they are permanently changed by the experience of war, and those changes can ripple out to engulf the people around them. I recently read We Are Called to Rise, a novel by Laura McBride, which does a wonderful job of portraying how those ripples can affect a family and a community. Della’s war experience, like that of most of the nurses who served in Vietnam, was particularly intense and relentless, and therefore, I think, particularly damaging.
Tell me about the title, Her Own Vietnam, and its deeper meaning.
The title has a few layers for me. One is that although war is a collective effort, each person experiences it alone, in her own way. Once Della got home after her tour, she was terribly isolated, despite being surrounded by family. No one in the civilian world wanted to hear about what she had been through, even if she had been willing to talk about it. And the word “Vietnam” has come to mean a disaster, a dreadful situation you can’t escape.
It’s also true, of course, that Vietnam is a country, not a war. I’m always struck by the fact that the Vietnamese people call it the American war.
What’s your writing life like? Do you have rituals? Do you map your stories out or just wait for the Muse?
I am always fascinated by people’s writing rituals and I wish I had some, but I don’t. I have what you might call writing conditions. For instance, I can’t write in a space that is untidy. And a steaming cup of coffee helps.
I make my living as a writer for a social justice organization. It’s a full-time job (and then some) that engages my writing skills and my political passions. So my fiction writing, important as it is, has to fit itself around my job. I write in the early morning during the workweek, as well as on weekends and vacations. There are also long periods of time when I’m not writing fiction, when I just don’t have the mental space to think creatively.
As for mapping out stories, I think you and I share the fact that we completely lack a sense of direction. For me, writing is all about exploration. What would it feel like if…? What would happen if…? I have to write my way into the story, and I never know exactly where it will end up. Sadly, this is also how I drive.
What’s obsessing you now and why?
I’m always obsessed with injustice – sexism, racism, the kind of cruel capitalism that makes many people suffer so a few can prosper. I know this is not exactly cocktail party chatter, but that’s what’s going on inside my head. I’m also perfectly capable of becoming obsessed about a TV show. Orphan Black, anyone?
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
You didn’t ask about my publisher, Shade Mountain Press, and why there’s still a need for a press devoted to women’s writing. It’s because even today, women’s voices fill only a small corner of the literary marketplace. Although women buy the majority of books in the U.S., the vast majority of the books published and reviewed are by men.
The writer Rosalie Morales Kearns decided to do something about it, so she founded Shade Mountain Press. It’s committed to publishing literature by women, particularly the voices you hear the least - women of color, women with disabilities, women from working-class backgrounds, and lesbian/bisexual/queer women. I’m really proud to be published by Shade Mountain Press.