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.
Ultimately, the only way we’re ever going to bridge the chasms that divide us is by transcending our limited viewpoints. My realization of this came many years ago reading Eudora Welty’s great novel Delta Wedding. I experienced what it would be like to be a married woman on a Mississippi Delta plantation who was responsible for orchestrating one of the great symbols of community and love. I entered her world and expanded beyond my own skin and became a bigger person.
I was given the ability to create stories and characters. That’s my part of the long chain of writers, publishers, agents, booksellers, librarians, and a host of others who eventually deliver literature to the world. I want to do for others what Eudora Welty did for me.