A Conversation with Larry Heinemann
June 25, 1997
"To make a long story short, we were not pleasant people and the war was not a pleasant business. I have no doubt we radicalized more southern Vietnamese to Ho Chi Minh's national revolution than we 'saved.'" So writes Larry Heinemann, author of the story "The Fragging" (June, 1997, Atlantic), in an essay on his experience in the Vietnam War recently posted on the PBS Web site. It is with this sensibility that Heinemann -- who served as an infantryman in the 25th Division of the U.S. Army from 1967-68 in Vietnam -- has written "The Fragging" and other works on the horrors of the Vietnam War.
Heinemann has written three novels: Close Quarters (1979); Paco's Story (1986), which won the National Book Award for fiction; and Cooler by the Lake (1992). His stories and essays have appeared in numerous journals and magazines, among them Harper's, Playboy, and TriQuarterly. Although he has read, lectured, and taught at writers' workshops, universities, and veterans' gatherings in such far-flung locales as Vietnam, England, China, and the Soviet Union, Heinemann is something of a homebody. A self-described "househusband," he has lived in Chicago all his life and currently resides two miles from where he was born.
Heinemann recently spoke with Atlantic Unbound's Ryan Nally.
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You chronicle officer incompetence in the military in "The Fragging." Did
you witness similar incompetence during your own tour of duty?
I was an enlisted draftee. I encountered exactly three men that I regarded with respect: a Navaho first sergeant at Fort Knox; a Pennsylvania redneck platoon sergeant at Cu Chi; and, when I was stationed at Dau Tieng, a first lieutenant with a degree in history from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. To my mind the rest of the officers and NCOs I encountered were ticket-punching lifers (as we used to call them). You have to understand that from my point of view as a private citizen the institutional incompetence and workaday stupidity was routine. In general, when I was overseas we were treated like meat and expected to behave like meat.
"The Fragging" is a wonderfully constructed short story in terms of setting, characterization, conflict, rising tension, and climax. Do you write short stories with a certain stylistic philosophy in mind or does your approach vary depending on the subject matter?
My approach changes when the circumstance of the story demands it. The most important thing for a writer to accomplish is to tell a story in such a way that the reader (or listener) is able to imaginatively participate, to see and physically respond (as in theater). A story doesn't just happen from the neck up.
In my novel Paco's Story I began with the ambition to write a parody of Naked Lunch. Wouldn't it be interesting to sustain that kind of energy for three or four hundred pages? That didn't happen, of course, but that was the impulse that got me going. Lately I have been taken by the structure and form of folktales, especially the Grimm's Household Tales, as well as the novellas of Heinrick von Kliest (and the like), where the story structure is deceptively simple and the storyteller's point of view is distant, benign, and neutral in the extreme (and the stories have a that's-the-way-of-the-world quality to them).
As a general thing I am one of those guys who thinks there is no such thing as a "short" story and that you should leave nothing out (regardless of the subject matter, language, and point of view).
A blurb on the jacket of Paco's Story reads, "Like Hemingway in A Farewell to Arms, Heinemann convinces us of the authenticity of his war by limiting the narrative's point of view to that of the individual in battle." Was this your intention?
Yes. How else to represent the authenticity of story -- especially the war story -- than through the perception of the individual? Otherwise you're writing history. At the same time a story is also a reflection, a meditation, or a reminiscence. Speaking strictly of war stories and battle scenes: at Waterloo neither Napolean nor Wellington saw everything, and both those gentleman were standing there watching quite carefully. Battles can be quite compact but they can also spread out over hundreds of meters or many miles. I don't know anyone in Vietnam, including helicopter pilots, who saw a battle in the same way. The fighting did not always occur in the clean light of day; it often took place in a moonless dark, a monsoon downpour, or the thickest woods -- circumstances where you cannot see your hand in front of your face.
The story of war will always be the individual's story, for the same reason that "authentic" war stories will always be anti-war stories.
Fictionalizing a topic as politically volatile as the Vietnam war is not an innocuous pursuit. In a recent interview with Atlantic Unbound Cynthia Ozick remarked, "I'm against writing Holocaust fiction ... I'm definitely on the side of sticking with the documents and am morally and emotionally opposed to the mythopoeticization of those events in any form or genre." However, Ozick finds herself continuing to write a great deal of Holocaust fiction. Does this contradiction resonate with you?
The war has been like a nail in my head, like a corpse in my house. I have often wished that it were not so but I am also old enough to understand that the whole epoch of American history will be a source, a font, a wellspring of my work. I will aways be able to reach back and touch it one way or another, and find "story." Ten years ago I promised myself that I would never write another war story, but, as Cynthia Ozick knows, some stories simply cannot be denied. To want to see at the same time that you don't want to see is very human. It is the writer's job to understand that some things demand knowledge as well as acknowledgement. Extreme human circumstance will always be story worthy.
Your attention to detail is exacting -- in Paco's Story, for instance, you devote six pages to describing the menus in different types of restaurants. And when the endearing crook Maxmillian Nutmeg -- the protagonist of your novel Cooler by the Lake (1992) -- dons a tie, there is no mistaking its make, shape, color, and fit. Is detail a tool for you or a personal preoccupation?
I would say that precision is the preoccupation. Language is exact as well as explicit; "story" is in the details. As a storyteller I don't want any misunderstanding about what the reader ought to be "seeing." I'm a big one for lists, too. If everything in Paco's Story contains its own irony, then everything in Cooler by the Lake is a send-up -- and if you're going to send it up, why not send it all the way up?
Where Paco's Story is exceedingly grim, Cooler by the Lake is outrageously wacky. What accounts for the shift in theme and tone between novels?
After working eight years on Paco's Story, a very serious book, I wanted to see if I could sit down and write a purposely funny book. My family told me later that they never heard so much laughter coming from my studio as when I was writing Cooler by the Lake. I wanted to write something like the best of the Marx brothers' slapstick. Their philosophy was if it gets a laugh, leave it in. Cooler by the Lake is every Chicago gag I know; there was no reason to save them.
In previous interviews with Atlantic Unbound, Tim Gautreaux has advised readers to write what they know and Cynthia Ozick has recommended that they write what they don't know. Where do you stand on this issue?
Writing about what you know or don't know is hardly the issue. As I take it, storytelling is guided self-discovery, a meditation; it means listening deeply down into your most human (and humane) imaginative resources. Anything the human imagination can conceive of is story-worthy, regardless. Mark Twain once said that when he was younger he could remember everything, whether it happened or not, but as he got older he could remember only those things that never happened.
Sometimes your imagination is overwhelmed by a single subject or event. The Holocaust, Vietnam, the South, growing up black. Conrad wrote beautifully about the sea and sailors; so did Melville. Kafka made a career of nightmares. Virginia Woolf wrote about the English upper-middle class. The trick, always, is to connect the story with the wider world of human relationships and experience.
To what extent has your living in Chicago shaped your writing?
I haven't the faintest idea. It's not something I've ever dwelt upon. I am told there is the "Chicago Realist" school of fiction, but I've never bothered about it. There's an old blues tune by Count Basie and Jimmy Rushing that begins, "I'm going to Chicago, sorry but I can't take you." That about sums it up.
What are you working on now?
I have two projects. One is a nonfiction piece about contemporary Vietnam and the Vietnam Railway. I've made four trips back since 1990 and am moved to write about that. If my first novel Close Quarters was about what I saw, what I did, and what I became, and if Paco's Story is about the everlasting reverberations of the aftermath of the war, then this book about train travel has to do with "Who are these guys?" It has developed into an extended essay about the war. It'll be finished this year and published by Harcourt Brace & Co.
The other is a novel, of which "The Fragging" is the first chapter. It is a picaresque novel and each subsequent chapter deals with each of the characters who "knew of the matter," along with Le Thi Kim, McQuade's parents, Reyes' family, and others.
Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.