A Vietnam Epic Uncovers Old Wounds: An Interview with Karl Marlantes

The author of the epic war tale Matterhorn talks persistence, publishing, and 40 years of trying to write the great American novel.

In the early '70s, Karl Marlantes sat down to write about his tour of duty as a Marine Corps officer in Vietnam, where he'd been awarded a Navy Cross, a Bronze Star, two Navy Commendation Medals for valor—and two Purple Hearts. He'd hoped to write a book that would be "the Great American Novel about the Vietnam War," but soon realized his first effort was "sheer psychotherapy drivel." He started over, intent on creating a coherent manuscript, and by 1977 he had completed the first draft of an actual novel. Now, after more than 30 years of rejections from publishers, editors, and agents—some of whom advised him to change it to be about the Gulf War or Afghanistan—the nearly 600-page Matterhorn has not only seen the light of day but has become a bestseller. The long road to getting it published reflects an unwillingness to confront the war's legacy, says Marlantes, noting that "Vietnam has been the alcoholic elephant parent in the room for 40 years. No one wants to talk about it." The 65-year-old first-time novelist spoke with Mother Jones about his literary influences, how readers are reacting to the book, and how the divisiveness of the Vietnam era still reverberates.

Mother Jones: Over the 35 years you spent writing and rewriting Matterhorn, you must have read a lot of other books. I'm curious about some of the other works that were important to you as a writer.

Karl Marlantes: Really important books to me are the classics. I try very hard to read them well— you know, especially once I got serious about writing. So, reading Tolstoy several times—War and Peace, The Kreutzer Sonata—all those were really important to me. And I also followed up with Solzhenitsyn—here's an old Russian, here's a new Russian, and they're both really big books. I really liked reading him, he just appealed to me for some reason.

MJ: What about The Iliad?

KM: Oh yeah, in several translations. The Odyssey is the great tale, and I was really taken by The Iliad, so I dig into those things, and when I was a kid I didn't. You've gotta have a certain level of understanding yourself before that stuff really starts to resonate.

MJ: Those classics that you mentioned—what did you take from them that helped you write Matterhorn? Did you draw structure from them?

KM: Actually, the structure for Matterhorn came more from the Percival myth, because the story is about a young man who has to leave his mother and then grow into a knight and grow beyond that by becoming compassionate. Other than that, there's the mechanical structure, which is of course the central metaphor of Matterhorn. Matterhorn is my metaphor of the Vietnam War—we built it, we abandoned it, we assaulted it, we lost, and then we abandoned it again.

MJ: Had you always planned on writing Matterhorn as a novel? Did you ever consider writing it as nonfiction?

KM: It's just weird, there's sort of a myth starting to surround this book, that it started as 1,700 pages long. When I first got back from the war, I said, "I'm gonna write the Great American Novel about the Vietnam War." So I sat down and wrote 1,700 pages of sheer psychotherapy drivel. It was first person, and there would be pages about wet socks and cold feet. I realized when I got done with it that it wasn't fiction—it was really journaling, and it was extremely therapeutic. That's where this myth of how big Matterhorn was in the beginning—it came from this different book. A friend of mine has it in his garage, he says, and he threatens to blackmail me with it. [Laughs] 'Cause it's bad! But it was good for the soul. It just never occurred to me to write a nonfiction book. My heart is in fiction and art—that's just what I want to do with my life, and I always wrote fiction.

MJ: So you had been writing fiction before that?

KM: Oh, my first, quote, "novel" was when I was nine. My cousin and I co-authored it. It was about space invaders coming to Earth, but they were whipped by a giant electric shield that this, oddly enough, 10-year-old invented and put all over the world. So, yeah, I wrote in high school, and I wrote in college. I won a literary prize in college. I've just always written.

MJ: You'll have to dig up that space-invader novel.

KM: I know. If that one was found, that would be really something.

MJ: Have you talked with people who've served in Vietnam and who've read the book? What have their reactions been?

KM: Exceedingly positive. A guy came up to me at a reading in Seattle and he had five books with him. I said, "Wow, how come you're buying five books?" He said, "I'm married, four kids, and I served as a Marine in the area the novel covers. And every time I try to tell them about the war, I'd start shaking or start to get nervous and clam up and I couldn't go through with it. I've been trying for four years and I'm gonna buy this book, because this book will tell it exactly the way it was." And that made me just almost cry.

MJ: You've talked at length about having the book rejected by publishers over and over again. That they told you no one wanted to read about Vietnam, and that they'd like to read about a more current war.

KM: Yeah. "Can you move the mountain to Afghanistan?" I can't believe it.

MJ: The overwhelmingly positive reception seems to suggest that people are, in fact, very interested in reading a nearly 600-page novel about the Vietnam War. How do you account for that interest?

KM: Well, I think there's a couple of things going on. First of all, we've got a war going on right now that is eerily parallel to it—they can go across the border, we can't. We stick out like sore thumbs, they don't. They're a local indigenous population that will fight forever. It's just so eerily familiar, but I think that people are at least cognizant of that, no matter what their politics are.

And I think there's been this enormous chasm in our country ever since Vietnam. I think it's influenced politics to this day. I was in the Democratic Party when I was a college kid, and when I came back, everyone was calling me names and spitting. I felt so horrible that I left the country. Then when I came back, most of those people were college students and became college professors, and I just didn't feel at home, and I stopped being involved—I just sort of backed out and I registered Republican because it was more of a home. It's interesting—who's that senator from Virginia, who wrote Fields of Fire? James Webb—it happened to him. He became a Republican. Now he's gone back to being a Democrat, but it's just interesting how it affected people. There was feeling of animosity, and this gap.

Now I think we're all starting to look back and say, "That was really stupid." First of all, the scapegoating of the kids that came back—they were young, they couldn't make policy. They couldn't even vote yet! And then the reaction of veterans who were vilifying others as sort of hippie, communist, protestor assholes, East Coast intellectual effete. It's so divisive now, and I suspect that's because it got divisive in the '60s, and it never went away, and the politicians are good at exploiting it. And now I think people are tired of it—they're thinking we're getting dysfunctional, that we've gotta solve this problem. And I think this enormous divisiveness started back then, when we were hurling epithets at each other.

MJ: That attitude of disgust towards soldiers during Vietnam, compared to Iraq and Afghanistan, it seems somehow less pronounced now.

KM: Definitely. I think people were ashamed of treating veterans the way they did, and we learned a lesson. We do make progress. I think the lesson was learned. I think it's that simple—people got older, and then just realize that was wrong, and very hurtful. I think that the protesters of war today know that, just from history, or from their parents—or a lot of them are even the same people. They just got older and wiser and mellowed out. When you're a kid, everything's black and white. It's really simple—"Oh, there's the enemy!"—when in fact it's just a shadow casting. "Oh, you're a military, violent, aggressive person," and here they are hurling things at you, shouting names—what are they? And then you get older, and go, "Whoops, that was kind of not too smart." So I think that's changed, and I think that's a good change, and that we're not going to fall into that anymore.

There was a woman at an earlier reading, she came up to me and said, "I'm a little embarrassed—I was in college then, and I was very much against the war, and just protesting it, and after I read your book it was just hard to believe that. I didn't know you guys slept outside." So, you see, the book reaches people and they go, "Oh, they weren't just over there killing babies. They actually had a few problems of their own."

MJ: So are the readers that are struggling with these questions and talking to you mostly of your generation, or are there people my age?

KM: There's an interesting mix. Those questions are mostly from boomers, no doubt about it. But there's a lot of young people—last night I was in La Jolla and there were six or seven Marines there that were interested in writing, and wanted to become writers, all about 25 to 30 years old. They were very curious, not just about writing technique, but seriously wanting to try and understand what [Vietnam] was like. They'd say, "Oh, this hasn't changed a bit." They recognize those things about war that don't go away, and that's interesting to them.

MJ: There's a lot about race in the novel, and the sometimes-strained relationship between blacks and whites in the military during Vietnam. I would venture to say that readers have grown unaccustomed to such frank portrayals of race relations in contemporary fiction. I'm curious if you have any thoughts about that.

KM: Listen, when I first starting writing in the '70s and through the '80s, I was afraid of touching it. I had black characters, but there wasn't any race conflict stuff in the novel. But I just kept going, "Karl, you can't portray this war realistically, and authentically, truthfully, without dealing with this." It was a huge part of the zeitgeist at the time. Cities were going up in flame, people were shooting from windows, killing firemen—we're talking about serious stuff going on. We forget that. But I remember the day I thought, "Okay, I'm gonna do it anyway, because at least I'm gonna try. If it gets out there, I can say, 'Look, I tried.'" Because it was horrible back then, and maybe I didn't get it right, but at least I tried and we can get it out in the open. You can't have stuff like that, it's like having the alcoholic parent, the elephant in the room. Vietnam has been the alcoholic elephant parent in the room for 40 years. No one wanted to talk about it.

Going back to the race thing, though, yes, I was afraid of it, but you get to an age where you just go, "Look, I've been beat up before, and I still survived. So if I get beat up, it won't be fun, but I'll live." And it wouldn't be true without it.

MJ: In fiction, anytime you're trying to portray someone that's not from the same background as you are, it's a risk.

KM: Absolutely. You really do take a risk. I read this book by [Marti Leimbach] called The Man From Saigon, and she's like your age, and she's writing a book about Vietnam, about war correspondents, and she takes on male war correspondents. Pretty brave of her. She was like two years old when the war was going on. Talk about being vulnerable. But she did her homework, and she did okay.

MJ: Those are all of my questions. Is there anything else you want to say?

KM: Um… yeah! [Laughs] If there's anything that I would hope comes of this book, it's that people begin to understand that it's the kids that have to clean up the messes of the adults when it comes to war. War is not the extension of diplomacy by other means. That's horseshit. War is the result of the failure of diplomacy. And then kids are the best weapons. You had better pick your battle and not waste that precious resource. If you read this book, you'll understand what it really takes to be engaged in combat, and what it does to people. Don't ever commit these people lightly. I'm not a pacifist—there are times when it has to be done. But by God, you'd better be sure. And if you put them into situations where it's unclear—and we're doing that—then I think that you'd better get it cleared up.