My Link in "The Next Big Thing" Blog Chain
What is the working title of your book?
“Fayettenam: A Memoir”
Where did the idea come from for the book?
Several years ago I was preparing to drive back to Texas with my wife and son after a Christmas visit to my mother’s home in Fayetteville, North Carolina – home to Fort Bragg, where I had lived three different times myself as a boy. As I was packing up the car, my mother gave me a tin box filled with letters my stepfather had sent home during his third tour of Vietnam, 1969 – 70. I had known about the box since I was a child; it was one of several artifacts in a deep drawer in a tall chest that had traveled around with us through the many moves typical of a military family.
After I got back to Houston, I opened the box and re-stacked the 145 airmail envelopes on the desk in front of me. I recognized my stepfather’s handwriting, and my mother’s as well: she had numbered each one as she’d received it. Her own letters, probably twice as many, must have been discarded 13,000 miles away and nearly forty years earlier, in the jungles of III Corps, in the vicinity of Long Binh, where my stepfather had served his tour as CO in a Ranger battalion.
I opened the first few envelopes and unfolded the letters inside. My stepfather, who disappeared in 1982, had been a terrifying man to me. He was charming, violent, intelligent, domineering, heroically responsible, brutal – oversized, in my mind, even today, though I am many years older than he was when he went missing. When he wrote these letters, he was young enough then to be my own son now. (That chastens me, and deep down, confuses me: how can a father be younger than the son?) A junior officer, he was, on the other hand, an “old man” to his troops; and from the letters, and other documents I eventually gathered, as oversized and fearsome to them as he was to his family.
I read the letters, a few at a time over many days, because it was too much to take in all at once. They represented the body of the man who had disappeared all those years before, but whose ghost still occasionally visited my dreams: in the dreams, the only recurring sort of dream I’ve ever had, my stepfather has just returned; he walks through the door as if he’d been gone a short while, out for cigarettes or just back from the field. In the dreams, I am not pleased to see him return. The dream would echo into my waking moments, my anxiety and ambivalence slowly converting to the knowledge he was still long gone; “dead” by default and by legal declaration, but still disappeared. My relief, as I realize the dream was just a dream, is always tinged with guilt, or my guilt with relief.
The letter formed a narrative, or one recursive, insistent point of view in a narrative I’d always known, that had always been a part of my own sense of self: the War, now no longer “the War” – we always have another one, after all. My stepfather managed to lead his company that year, while managing by mail our home affairs half a world away; the letters are filled with minutiae of family budget, childcare, discipline ( the same thing in his mind, essentially), gossip about his comrades and their spouses, current events, his desires, his hopes for the future, all woven into occasional references to the war around him: who had been wounded, who killed, whom he’d dressed down, what engagements they’d had, etc.
I spent a few weeks re-reading the letters, then typing them out, then photocopying them, and later scanning them, so that I could fold each one back into its envelope, re-stack them in the cookie tin with Victorian Christmas scenes on it (a gift from someone, perhaps another Army wife, decades ago), and ship it back to my mother, so she could place it back in the drawer where it belonged. For a missing man, such relics must reside in their reliquary; more than relics, they are a series of cenotaphs, or effigies, or the man himself.
After I had completed my archival chores, or rather my ritual procrastinations, I started writing around the letters. The first plan was to co-write a memoir with my stepfather: to use his own letters as one half of a dialogic story, not only of that single year, but of my growing up, our family travels, and the era. It worked well enough as a siphoning or invention strategy. Simply to fill the gaps, to digress into small corners of memory or find my way in the vast, open fields of it, writing between his letters helped me find the raw matter for a memoir.
The letters are, I suppose, of interest only to me and my family; they’re documentary, like all soldiers’ letters, or other letters salvaged from a significant past; but they’re not, by themselves, compelling to an audience. Part of me doesn’t understand why not, of course. But it took a while to allow myself to edit the letters, to rearrange them, condense them, or consolidate them. Still, the dialogue wasn’t working the way I’d hoped; I didn’t have an engaging story that strangers would care about – and that care matters much to me. If this book fails, it’s a second disappearance.
I loved and hated the man. I hate the military, but I love being an Army brat. I feel pride in my stepfather’s heroism, which has been written of at length by Michael Lee Lanning in The Only War We Had, and for which he was much decorated; but I loathe the very idea that the Vietnam War, that our wars now, have had anything to do with a true defense of values. Everyone has the right to take on history; but taking on history at the same time I was trying to take on my stepfather’s ghost was proving too difficult and too painful.
So, the letters have disappeared from the book, first by a slow attrition, then by complete abandonment.
At this stage, busy with teaching and other matters of the present life, and suffering as well from a lack of courage, I have let “Fayettenam” sleep in its own drawer for a few years now; I write poems about horses, about my wife, about other things. But writing this blog post has made me take the pages out of the drawer; it’s sitting on the corner of the desk. Let’s see if I get some courage today.
What genre does the book fall under?
Memoir; creative nonfiction; confession; history; lyric essay; possibly a dense sort of prose- poem sequence, before I’m done with it.
Which actors would you choose to play your characters in the movie rendition?
They’d have to clone the man himself. I’d insist on it as a contractual clause. Maybe the rest of us should be Claymation figures.
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
“In searching the cosmos for a missing man, the author time-travels through the Sixties and Seventies, with cameos from the Fifties and Eighties.”
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
I tried a hundred literary agents and got nowhere a few years back; a conspiracy to keep the man hidden, no doubt. If I can finish a new draft, I’ll enter the small-press contests. Then, in a few years, I’ll publish it online and move on.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
Three years, as a series of blog posts. A few long-lost relatives came across it and got in touch – uncertain, I sensed, about exactly what I was up to. Memoir is treason.
What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
The Great Santini by Pat Conroy is fiction, but a landmark book for military families; then there’s Sarah Bird’s The Yokota Officer’s Club, and Patricia MacInness’ Last Night on Bikini: Marines, Air Force, and Navy, respectively. In memoir, perhaps Danielle Trussoni’s Falling Through the Earth, about her father’s troubled postwar life and her discovery of his past; or William Jay Smith’s Army Brat, about a military family’s peacetime, indeed rather idyllic experience of the pre-WWII years.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
The letters; my stepfather himself. Also, my friend Phil Brady, who has written of his Irish-American family in a beautiful memoir called To Prove My Blood: A Tale of Emigrations and the Afterlife; my mother, who has keep faith, suffered long, and held the center of our far-flung and much-troubled family, all of us haunted by my stepfather’s and my first father’s ghosts (another soldier, long dead, who had gone missing from my life long before he died; he has his role, though, in the story).
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
Disappearance fascinates me – obviously. I don’t know about other people; but if I can tweak my solipsism and various neuroses, my father-fixation and my overly-dense lyric prose style, I hope fans of mystery will give the book a try.
Also, it’s a document of the subculture of military families. There are novels, as I’ve mentioned, but few memoirs, about us. It’s a facet of American life (and in other countries, I suppose) that deserves more attention (See Mary Edwards Wertsch’s thorough, somewhat-sociological study called Military Brats; and a celebratory film on DVD narrative by Kris Kristofferson called Military Brats: Our Journey Home.)
I was invited by Philip Brady; his blog post is here.
I'll update to include links of the five I invite, when/if they follow through...