Why I Write by Karl Marlantes (Veterans Day 4)
I took the following interview almost verbatim as it is so powerful. The link brings you to the full article.
Having read a galley of my novel, Matterhorn, about Marines in Vietnam, a somewhat embarrassed woman came up to me and said, “I didn’t even know you guys slept outside.” She was college educated and had been an active protester against the war. I felt that my novel had built a small bridge.
The chasm that small bridge crossed is still wide and deep in this country. I remember being in uniform in early 1970, delivering a document to the White House, when I was accosted by a group of students waving Vietcong and North Vietnamese flags. They shouted obscenities and jeered at me. I could only stand there stunned, thinking of my dead and maimed friends, wanting desperately to tell these students that my friends and I were just like them: their age, even younger, with the same feelings, yearnings, and passions. Later, I quite fell for a girl who was doing her master’s thesis on D. H. Lawrence. Late one night we were sitting on the stairs to her apartment and I told her that I’d been a Marine in Vietnam. “They’re the worst,” she cried, and ran up the stairs, leaving me standing there in bewilderment.
After the war, I worked as a business consultant to international energy companies to support a family, eventually being blessed with five children. I began writing Matterhorn in 1975 and for more than 30 years, I kept working on my novel in my spare time, unable to get an agent or publisher to even read the manuscript. Certainly, writing the novel was a way of dealing with the wounds of combat, but why would I subject myself to the further wounds all writers receive trying to get published? I think it’s because I’ve wanted to reach out to those people on the other side of the chasm who delivered the wound of misunderstanding. I wanted to be understood.
Writing to be understood is a powerful motivator for anyone. For one who served to defend his/her country, it is so hard to return and be scorned by those you believe you were defending in the field. I experienced this when I would return on leave from my service during the first Intifada in Gaza. This is what brought me to a war veteran writing to be understood in Unwanted Heroes.
I hear you, Karl. I just wish so many others could find such an outlet to heal themselves.
Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at www.alonshalev.com