Interview with Don Meyer, author of The American War
Today, Tyler Tichelaar is pleased to interview Don Meyer, who is here to talk about his new book The American War, which recently won First Place for Historical Fiction in the Reader Views Literary Awards.
A Vietnam veteran, Don Meyer has published a memoir of the war, The Protected Will Never Know as well as the award-winning novel The American War. Don is also the author of the Sheriff Tom Monason Trilogy and the novel Jennifer’s Plan. Don currently devotes himself to writing in the mountains, in California, where he lives in a little town called June Lake.
Tyler: Welcome, Don. I have a lot of questions for you about writing The American War so I’m anxious to talk to you. First, will you tell our readers why you chose that title?
Don: Well, first of all you should know that in Vietnam, that war is referred to as The American War. When you add in the references to the Civil War, “our American war,” I thought that the title worked well for the overall theme of the book.
Tyler: Don, will you briefly summarize your role in the war for us so we have some understanding of your background in approaching writing the novel?
Don: I was a grunt, a “ground pounder” very much like the character(s) in the book. Our mission was to patrol the jungles, search and destroy the enemy, or their supplies, or both. I was very much in tune with my character(s) and to use a cliché, I wrote what I knew.
Tyler: Before you wrote The American War, you wrote your memoir The Protected Will Never Know. What made you decide to write your memoir? Was it cathartic for you?
Don: The Vietnam memoir was actually written back in 1977—on an old Black Royal Manual Typewriter! Starting from a short story I did in a college English class, I had the basis for the idea. In addition, I had a bunch of letters home, notes I salvaged, and of course, my memories that were still fresh, and very raw. It was very emotional to get that all out…and down on paper. From all that material, I started to compile those pieces into what would become a working manuscript. However, as the ’70s came to a close, everyone was done with Vietnam and all the publishers and agents that I sent the manuscript to decided to reject it. I threw that manuscript into a box and forgot about it. Quite a few years later, my daughter found that manuscript and took it to school for a show and tell, and even though I was through with all that, she nagged me to “get it out there,” which I finally did about ten years ago. It was quite interesting to revisit that work so many years later.
Tyler: Do you feel like people are now no longer “past” Vietnam as you said but ready to revisit it? Do you feel the view of it has changed a lot since the 1970s?
Don: Truthfully, I think it is old news, occasionally mentioned when there is an event of some sort. Sure we may have more recognition than we did back then and I’m certainly glad that has translated into better recognition for our current soldiers, but at the end of the day, for most people, it is just a time and place in history. I think you also have to look at the events of the day—not only was there an unpopular war raging, but the county was racked with violence in protest. For many there are lingering wounds, both physically and emotionally, that is best left alone.
Tyler: I’ve read several Vietnam memoirs, but not many Vietnam War novels—admittedly because of the angst and violence that I would rather not think about. After being in the war and writing a memoir about it, what made you decide to revisit the topic again in The American War?
Don: As I tell people: “I went back to Vietnam for this one.” Actually the original thought was always about the two wars. I was looking for a way to connect the two in a comprehensible story. As I continued my research and started making notes, things kept falling into place and I felt strongly that I was on to something. I don’t think I ever focused on this being about Vietnam so much as being about a soldier caught up in war. Vietnam was familiar and gave me a basis to work from.
Tyler: Why did you decide to tie the Civil War into the novel? Did you always have an interest in it, and why that war rather than another?
Don: From the very beginning, I wanted to use the Civil War, again because I always saw the similarities between the two wars; everywhere I looked, I found parallels between the two and I thought I could use that premise. I didn’t initially have a focus as to where I was going and particularly what I was going to do. However, once I came across a Civil War battle that virtually mirrored a Vietnam battle…or actually vice versa, I knew I had it. Putting together my initial outline just seemed to take off, and once I started putting together scenes, characters and events, it just flowed out of me.
Tyler: Since you were in Vietnam, did you find you didn’t have to do much research for those scenes in the book? I imagine you did more research on the Civil War sections?
Don: Actually I did, because, while I knew the “grunt’s life,” I wanted to make sure I portrayed the events as accurately as possible, so I wound up doing quite a bit of research on the time and place leading up to that specific battle. [A note here, I joined that very unit portrayed in the book in late 1969.] Of course, I did quite a bit of research on the Civil War, but once I found that particular Civil War battle, I dug into that and tried to keep that as accurate as possible. As far as the characters…well a soldier is a soldier regardless of what war he was in.
Tyler: Without giving too much away, can you tell us how you tied the two wars together in the novel?
Don: My character Sam Kensington has these vivid dreams that he is a Union Blue Coat soldier about to embark on a major battle all while he is actually in Vietnam fighting that war…
Tyler: Sam’s comrades in Vietnam keep asking him if he had relatives in the Civil War—was that the case for you, or what first made you interested in the Civil War?
Don: To my knowledge I do not, but it is probably a safe bet most of us do in some way.
I was always fascinated with the Civil War and its effects, so I did a lot of studying of that conflict, both from a political standpoint as well as a war fought against each other right here on our soil. In addition, I have been amazed with the similarities between the two wars and—a history lesson here—Vietnam was a civil war between “North and South” that America got thrust into—fighting for the south by the way! I think when you stand on the outside and look in, you can’t help but kind of point your finger both ways and scratch your head in astonishment at how they line up.
Tyler: I enjoyed the dialogue in the book. A lot of the phrases and sentence structure the different soldiers used were short and repetitive but seemed to have layers of meaning. Did you give much thought to the dialogue and what tips do you have for writing it?
Don: The dialogue flowed as the memories came pouring back. I refreshed myself on some of the phrases we used in Vietnam and tried to incorporate as much as I could into that dialogue. As to be expected, I tried to do the same with the Civil War dialogue. I researched, in depth the Civil War soldier, how they would have talked back then, phrases they would have used, and once again, I tried to incorporate all of that into their discussions.
As far as a tip on writing dialogue, I think the most important thing would be to be aware of the time period you are writing in. Even though Vietnam was just forty years ago, we said things differently, referred to things, as we knew them back then. Same goes for writing in the Civil War time period. You have to be aware of how people would have talked, and really how people talk in general. Dialogue can be hard; we don’t talk in complete sentences; nor do we converse correctly. My final thought on dialogue is that I like writing it. I think conversations between the characters go a long way to explain things or offer insight into the story flow, or how the character is thinking. I’ve always used dialogue in my stories, even my memoir.
Tyler: What kinds of responses have you received from readers so far, especially fellow veterans?
Don: There seems to be an overall liking of the story concept. In fact, I’ve received some good responses from women who just simply liked the story. Others have mentioned liking the concept and some veterans have mentioned revisiting those old memories.
Tyler: Ideally, what response would you like readers to have from reading the book—is there something you hope they will learn or feel as a result of it?
Don: I would like to think there is some message that everyone would walk away with shaking his or her head… (Smile). Honestly I would hope that everyone just simply enjoys the story. That is what I ultimately tried to accomplish, to write an enjoyable entertaining story. I’ll leave the hidden messages to those who need them!
Tyler: You’ve also written several other novels. Would you tell us a little about those?
Don: After the Vietnam memoir, I churned out a novel that I had been developing. I followed that up with the trilogy. The novel, Jennifer’s Plan, is a story idea that I had a rough draft for two years before I finally put that into a finished manuscript. The trilogy is a three-book set of murder mysteries that take place—fictitiously—in the little town where I live, at the very least, the setting is all too familiar. I had a lot of fun doing those. However, I will admit that I was already chomping at the bit to get started on The American War shortly after I finished book two of the trilogy. While deep in the trenches of research, I finally finished the third leg of the trilogy. Once that was done, I took a step back and revisited all my notes and research to get a fresh start on The American War project.
Tyler: What did you find harder to write—The American War or the murder mysteries, and why?
Don: The American War. Trying to create a story around actual events keeps you on your toes. You just can’t go off in any direction; the story has to follow the event, which at times stops you in your tracks, with a notion that “I can’t do that; it won’t work in the confines of the event.” Working on keeping the story historically accurate forces you to frame passages within that context. Whereas my murder mysteries are all mine, the settings, the characters, the time and place, all made up by me that I basically could do anything I want with them without fear of getting something wrong. I found it much harder to stay the course with The American War, making sure I stayed true to the details as I moved my characters along their path.
Tyler: Do you have plans for any future books and could you tell us about them?
Don: The short answer is not now. Putting that book together with all the research and memories and emotions took a toll. At times, I worked on that manuscript day and night. When writing my mysteries, everything was in my head, I can do with it as I pleased, but I so wanted to keep this book as historically accurate as possible, I constantly had to make sure I was on track while I weaved the story. It is a style of writing I wasn’t used to, being creative with actual facts, but I thoroughly enjoyed the challenge. I am ready for a break and happy to promote this book for the next year or so. Of course, I’ll never say never, but four books in six years, I’ll let the dust settle for a bit!
Tyler: I certainly understand that feeling. Thank you again, Don, for joining me today. Before we go, will you tell us what your website is and what additional information we can find there about The American War?
Don: Tyler, thank you very much for taking the time to “listen” to me. My web site is www.dpmeyer.com. In addition to a more detailed description of the book’s concept, you will also find several reviews posted for the book. Of course ordering information is present, from ordering an autographed copy from me direct, to the Amazon link—paperback and Kindle editions; Barnes & Noble—paperback and Nook editions.
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