Danielle Flood is an extraordinary journalist who has written for the New York Times, New York magazine, the Associated Press, the Daily News and so many other outlets. In her memoir, The Unquiet Daughter, she turns her journalistic skills to finding the truth about her past. I'm honored to host her here. Thank you so much, Danielle.
The Unquiet Daughter has been called a new version of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American. Can you talk about this please?
It has been a delight after working alone for some eleven years on a story, that so affected my life, to have a Graham Greene expert of several decades read it and come along and stand by me, along with Kurt Andersen, the novelist and host of NPR’s Studio 360. The expert is Michael Shelden, a Pulitzer finalist and author of a masterful Graham Greene biography and several others. Of The Unquiet Daughter, he has written:
"Passionate and unflinchingly honest, this is a fascinating memoir that explores the tangled connections between Graham Greene’s fictional version of wartime Indochina, and the real people there whose actions have haunted the author for most of her life. Danielle Flood is the child of an affair so much like the one described in the love triangle of Greene’s novel, The Quiet American, that she is perfectly right to make her startling claim, ‘I am a sequel he never wrote.’”
Frankly, when I first read his comment, I danced around the room with relief.
So you ask: is The Unquiet Daughter a new version of The Quiet American? It would be more accurate to say that The Unquiet Daughter includes the original version – i.e. the original story – upon which The Quiet American was based and its sequel: me. I am, and what happened to me, the child from the original love triangle, the sequel that Graham Greene never wrote; but he knew about me.
My parents were in Saigon before Greene got there. He arrived in early 1951. My stepfather, Jim Flood, arrived about a week before Greene; things happened; there was a love triangle; Greene heard about it and the marriage. For him to have known about that, the marriage, he had to have followed the story – some of the time from abroad – for about 18 months because for a U.S. Foreign Service Officer to marry a foreign national when posted overseas, he had to get permission and that took a while, and in this case, a long long while. That was such an interesting nugget. Of course there’s much more to the story.
What event made you search for your father?
The Unquiet Daughter is a memoir but written also as a mystery story. The answer to your question would be a spoiler. But I can say it was something that made me more angry than I had ever been in my life; it made me understand how people could do murder, though I could never do that; I understand it to my core.
What made you need to write about it?
First, I felt I needed to respond to Graham Greene’s authorized biographer, Norman Sherry, who described my parents’ love triangle in The Life of Graham Greene Vol. II (of three), but then I thought about it for a while.
Then, I am an obstinate sort, I suppose. The moment that I realized it was possible that I might never be able to get the information I needed to write it, I knew I had to go get it. That moment came in the wake of 9/11. I had three uncles, part French and part Vietnamese, living in France and they had information and historic photos from French Indochina where they were born and grew up with my mother that I needed.
I really think you had to remember the fear some of us had in the first few weeks after 9/11. Some of us realized that it was possible we might never be able to travel freely to Europe again. I expressed this to my daughter and she said, “Mommy, Go.” And I did. I remember I was sleeping during that trip in Marseille airport for a bit, half an hour or more, waiting for a plane when I woke up and said, “Osama Bin Laden.” My saying his name woke me up. And the security people were really hyped – they took away my lavender soap, saying a bomb could be made with it. So that was the beginning of the massive work involved in investigating why my mother didn’t want me to know what I found out.
The pain involved in realizing – which took years – that I was/am illegitimate, born out of wedlock, caused me to prevail, persist in the getting the words down; it took years; also, I wanted to share with others – others who were born out of wedlock and others who take their mothers and fathers for granted – what happened to me so that others under similar or related circumstances would not feel so alone. The subject needs to be talked about. The number of single mothers has been rising significantly for the last fifty years. In The Unquiet Daughter I say the following, at a certain time in my life, which was a large period of years -- decades -- when I had no father:
“I know it shouldn’t matter that I have no father in my life, but it does: To have someone stand up to the world and say: she’s mine, I love her, someday she’s going to do something that matters and I care about it. The biggest luxury would be to have a father – and a mother – who says: I care about her even if she doesn’t make a big mark in the world; I just want her to be happy."
You’ve been a staff writer for various newspapers, and I’m curious how your journalistic skills helped you in your quest to write this book and to find answers?
Journalists are taught techniques of the interview. There is an interviewing device, which is to ask the same question twice, even thrice, to see if the interviewee answers it the same way, or not, possibly indicating that the interviewee is lying. I think insurance people, lawyers and the police also use it when asking someone to retell a story. When I used this on my mother one time, she answered the same question with two different responses. I knew she wasn’t telling me the truth that time due to that device. It made me furious.
There is a great deal of information that is available in the public record. Journalists know this. I wish non-journalists were more aware of that fact. I guess we are trained from the outset as journalists to befriend librarians. They are researchers’ or writers’ or investigators’ best friends. Being familiar with public records helps, and some family records are similar in foreign countries, though some give more or less details than others. I had to do a lot of international reportage. I was grateful when email existed in order to have documentation of some records, such as the curator of the French archives stating that not only did the French authorities not have the details or documents surrounding the double-car bombing that happened in Saigon on January 9, 1952, but she stated, she didn’t know where they are if they still exist.
I was taught by my mentor at a young age 19, 20, that you know when a story hangs together. And it’s true. And you know when there is a hole or there are holes in it. It’s instinctual some of the time and some of the time you figure things out because of logic.
I’m grateful that I had had a lot of experience interviewing people by the time I slammed straight into this story. Because no matter how emotional you feel about the subject matter, as a journalist you have to produce, so there’s still that bothersome bird on your shoulder saying: Did you get everything? What’s your lead? What’s your ending? What’s the feeling you want to convey in the beginning? What’s the feeling at the end? Does this make sense? What’s missing? What colors are there in the story? Smells? You have those things bothering you until you get everything you need. I can’t sleep until I have as much as I can get for a story. Finally, you get that quiet, digested feeling so you can write.
To be accurate, though, I should mention that I was trained to be eyes and ears in the walls; as a journalist I was trained to stay out of any story I was covering unless it was absolutely necessary for me to be in it to tell it. I am not alone in such training. Many other journalists have been trained this way. So it took a long time and it was very difficult for me to write this story. And I think I edited or proofread it around 25 times over eleven of the last 15 years.
What surprised you while you were writing this book?
There were lots of surprises, details that all three parents withheld from me, though some of them were the result of an investigative journalist having been exhaustive; I think it’s normal for people to edit their lives for their children or families. I was especially surprised to learn that my mother was a mistress, and before that a sergeant chief grade in the French army, though delegating work seems to have been second nature to her anyway. I was surprised to find how much violence played out in Saigon after World War II and before the French lost Indochina at the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. I grew up a great deal of time in America, in New York, so I had the perception that Vietnam was full of violence during the American Vietnam war, but not before that, during the French war for Indochina. But there was a great deal of violence between 1947 when my mother got to Saigon as a young sergeant and 1953 when she left; there was a great deal of terrorism; a shopping trip on the rue Catinat could end your life.
Did it change how you thought about your past?
Yes, Who I was and who my parents were became more clear and more complicated and more interesting, with many more shades of gray.
Do you see things differently?
Yes. They are not as nebulous anymore. I am not maybe a half British person and part Vietnamese and French. I am half Scottish and half English, one-eighth Vietnamese and three-eighths French. In fact, it was brought to my attention that my great grandfather owned and died in a castle in Scotland. I'm going to visit it. Good-looking castle, too. It's called Crossbasket Castle, in Lanarkshire. I'm not blue-blooded; they were just very wealthy, from their textile business.
What's obsessing you now and why?
I'm writing an essay in my head that has become ripe to put on paper. it starts writing itself early in the morning while I'm sleeping and so I wake up with the words frothing and so I need to write them down on paper by the bed. I'm worried about getting what I have to say just right; my stepfather, Jim Flood, used to tell me to fight to be precise and it is a struggle sometimes but it's also beautiful when you win; you feel good about it; you know that. You must know that.
What question didn't I ask that I should have?
How did this story affect my life? It's thought-provoking to say someone comes of age, or finds himself or herself as the result of a quest because it is as if he or she is being described as someone who holds still, when we are constantly changing, every day, every second. So I changed when I learned each new bit of information about my heritage and who I was, which includes my reaction to my heritage. And I'm still changing. I know because I should have written the essay I mentioned a long time ago, but it wasn't ready and so if I could change, or grow a little more for a few days, it will all come out just fine, I hope.