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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.

| Fri Apr. 30, 2010 6:00 AM EDT

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.

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