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 What people are saying about Haunting Legacy

"What a terrific book!"

Lesley Stahl, correspondent for 60 Minutes


"This is great narrative history and biography combined to create informative case studies."

Walter Isaacson, president and CEO of the Aspen Institute


"Marvin Kalb and Deborah Kalb’s account of this phenomenon is studiously researched, vividly narrated, and, above all, highly readable. It will stand as a major contribution to the subject."

Stanley Karnow, author of Vietnam: A History and winner of the Pulitzer Prize

 

To read more reviews of Haunting Legacy, click here.

Tuesday
Apr022019

Q&A with Heath Hardage Lee

Heath Hardage Lee is the author of the new book The League of Wives: The Untold Story of the Women Who Took On the U.S. Government to Bring Their Husbands Home from Vietnam. She also has written Winnie Davis: Daughter of the Lost Cause. She has worked in museum education, and she lives in Roanoke, Virginia.


Q: How did you learn about the women you wrote about in The League of Wives, and at what point did you decide to write this book?


A: Phyllis Galanti, the blond woman in the center of the cover, was a good friend of my mother’s. I knew her growing up, but didn’t know much about her. My first book was about Civil War women. I thought, I should talk to Phyllis about her activism in the Vietnam War, and then she died unexpectedly in 2015.


I was on a book tour about the first book, speaking at the Virginia Museum of History and Culture. I’m always looking for hidden history about women. They said there’s something you need to see—Phyllis had donated her papers.


She had left [what was like] a treasure map. She was important, but Sybil Stockdale was where everything emanated from. Phyllis’s papers led me to Sybil Stockdale, and to the West Coast. I met with Sybil just before she passed away. Her sons were with us. I got permission to see her diary.


Between Phyllis’s papers, Sybil’s diary, and Jane Denton in Virginia Beach—her family gave me her diary and it led me to dozens of women who gave me papers, diaries, clothes for an exhibit [on the same topic as the book].


I’m a curator, also, and I thought, I’ve got to do something with this. I decided to do a book and an exhibit at the same time! It worked out, and we got through it. One person would lead to another. It took almost five years to do it.


Q: You focus on various women in the book, but the two major figures are Sybil Stockdale and Jane Denton. Why did you focus on them, and what do you see as their legacies today?


A: [It was important] to have a West Coast and an East Coast person. With naval bases, they tend to be on the coasts. There’s been so much wrong information about this group of women. The myth is that multiple people founded the National League of Families. It was Sybil Stockdale.


Sybil is probably my favorite character in the book. She’s such a strong character, so smart and capable. She would have been a great president. In another era, she could have been a rock star politician or diplomat. In this era, she was just as important, heading up the movement to [free] the POWs.


Jane Denton was the opposite of Sybil. She was a traditional, rule-bound person who had to fight hard to throw off the conventions of a military wife. She was more of a Southern woman taught to toe the line. Sybil was a New Englander, speaking out. It worked well to have people like Sybil and like Jane, who was more diplomatic and would smooth things over.


They all were worried their husbands could be harmed if they spoke out. They were all wary of speaking to the press. They said at the end that we are going to do whatever it takes, even speaking with peace activists.


Q: What were some of the surprises you found in your research?


A: Of course the coding of secret letters [they would write] was so cool. With the Stockdales, there are real details in her diary. I tried to give generalities—some in that generation are upset when you talk about specifics. I never knew any of that.


Some of the facts of the war, like the Gulf of Tonkin incident, were such a farce. They were used by Johnson to get into the war. I was born in ’69 and was never conscious of it. Our government under Johnson, what a total disaster. Johnson was a piece of work, but I didn’t know how much of one, how much of a disaster the planning and execution of the war were.


And that these women, none of them considered themselves feminists. It was considered a dirty word associated with communism and the left. They considered themselves human rights activists. 


But then it seeps in as they have more power. I wouldn’t say they evolve into feminists, but they became powerful independent women. It was not a question to them that they knew how to handle things, but they borrowed things from the [feminist] movement and from the civil rights movement.


You can’t project what you think. You’re the tour guide as a historian. I want them to be feminists and they aren’t—it was something I learned that’s more about myself, not to project your stuff on other people.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?


A: I would like these women to be in the history books. They were so important and have never gotten credit. Even some of their husbands didn’t understand that they went over and above to get them out.


The fact that they organized a national group and had so much power—organizing as a group instead of as individual voices is effective. They got stationery, a bank account, and that legitimized them.


And giving them credit for the amazing thing they did, how their husbands would have died or wouldn’t have been rescued for a long time had the women not gone forward.


A lot of government officials are still trying to take credit for this. They have the point of view that the government did this. The government gave them a platform, but the women did this.


It changed the image of military wives—they’re not just passive, hosting parties. They’re powerful and smart and got things done.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: It’s always going to be about women. This is the tip of the iceberg in terms of these stories. There are tons of them. The next time is the ‘20s—something with World War I as the backdrop. It will have flappers and suffragists. I’m still working on it.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: The movie with Reese Witherspoon! It’s been optioned by Hello Sunshine and Fox 2000, and I’m an executive producer. We’re moving forward pretty quickly with that. It’s great to bring the story to another audience.


The exhibit opened March 1 in Richmond, Virginia, at the Virginia Museum of History and Culture. It will be there until September and then it’s going to West Coast venues including the Nixon Library. It’s important to have multiple platforms. 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. This interview also appears on deborahkalbbooks.blogspot.com.

Thursday
Nov292018

Q&A with Steve Watkins

Steve Watkins is the author of the new young adult novel On Blood Road, which takes place during the Vietnam War. His other books include Sink or Swim and Great Falls. He is a former professor of journalism, creative writing, and Vietnam War literature, he cofounded a nonprofit yoga studio, and he lives in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

 
Q: How did you come up with the idea for On Blood Road and for your character Taylor?

 
A: I guess it grew out of the idea that we were all tourists in a weird way, in terms of our involvement in the War in Vietnam. During the war you actually could go there as a tourist, and many did.


Plenty of family members made the trip over--at least to Saigon and protected areas on the coast. Continental Airlines flew direct from the States, I think.


If you read accounts of the war from the American perspective, most of them barely mention the Vietnamese, except as marginal players--either illiterate villagers who were either Viet Cong spies or hapless victims, evil North Vietnamese who happily tortured, ambushed, maimed, and killed in cowardly ways, or prostitutes.

 

None of which was true, except in the popular American consciousness, and the terrible John Wayne film The Green Berets.

 

So I wanted to take a privileged kid from the States, clueless about what was really going on and not having to think too much about it, and drop him into the center of the insanity. Also this year is the 50th anniversary of the Tet Offensive and the Siege at Khe Sanh.

 

Q: What type of research did you do to write the novel, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?

 

A: A LOT of research, starting years ago when I first began teaching a college course on the literature of the Vietnam War. So I've read a considerable number of accounts of the war over the years--novels, short stories, poems, memoirs, historical accounts, analyses, films, documentaries--that helped prepare me to write this book.

 

I read a number of books and articles on the so-called Ho Chi Minh Trail (Blood Road), including the definitive work on the subject by the journalist John Prados, who Scholastic actually ended up hiring to vet the manuscript of On Blood Road, which was quite an honor, and quite nerve-wracking as I waited for him to pass judgement as it were.

 

Not surprising, exactly, but heart-breaking nonetheless, was learning, or being reminded of, the utter devastation from the bombing we did for years in North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia to interrupt the supply lines, and the countless victims of those millions of bombs even today.

 

Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: Didn't know, but certainly hoped Taylor would find a way to survive. The Vietnamese characters grew in importance as I wrote the book, as you might expect, and that determined--and changed--a lot of the directions I may originally have had in mind. I must have written the ending a dozen times or more. 


Q: How much do you assume your readers will know about the Vietnam War before coming to the book, and what do you hope they take away from it?

 
A: Younger readers won't know much, which is why we added the truncated summary of the war in the Author's Note at the end, and why there are some hopefully non-intrusive expository sections in the novel, to provide enough context for events for readers who aren't up to speed on the history.


I hope they come away with a thousand questions about the war they want to explore for themselves. And an understanding of the deep complexities of this and any war and the people who fight in it and are affected by it.

 

Q: What are you working on now?

 
A: A novel about teenagers in the French Resistance in Occupied France during World War II, and the tragic experiences of some of them who were sent to the only Nazi-run concentration camp (and associated work camps) in France during the war, in Alsace-Lorraine. Truly terrible, terrible stuff that I'm having a difficult time getting my writer's head around how to handle. 


Q: Anything else we should know?

 
A: Yes. We absolutely need stricter gun laws in this country, and it's criminal negligence that we don't. Off topic, I know, but perhaps not really.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. This interview can also be found on deborahkalbbooks.blogspot.com.

Thursday
Jun212018

Q&A with Elizabeth Partridge

Elizabeth Partridge is the author of Boots on the Ground: America's War in Vietnam, a new book for teens. Her other books include This Land Was Made for You and  Me and Marching for Freedom. She lives in the San Francisco Bay area.


Q: Why did you decide to write Boots on the Ground?


A: We saw a lot of coverage of the war on television and in magazines and newspapers when I was in high school and college. I was in the San Francisco Bay area where there were a lot of protests, and I often joined them.


I just could not see why our country needed to be in Vietnam, and I wanted us to get out. In the news coverage, I could see that not only were American troops being injured and killed, but Vietnamese military and civilians were as well. It all seemed senseless to me.


After the war, Vietnam veterans and protestors didn't mix. Most veterans rarely spoke about their service, just kept their heads down and tried to get on with their lives.


We had not yet learned as a country to separate the war from the warriors. Many veterans were traumatized, and there was little or no help for them from the Veterans Administration. PTSD  (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) had not yet been invented as term to describe the complex mental health issues that some veterans face.


Several years ago I went to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. It was late afternoon on a cold autumn day, and I was nearly alone at the Wall. I reached out to touch the letters of the names written on the memorial, and my eyes filled with tears.


I thought, why am I crying? I don't know anyone listed on this memorial. That got me thinking about the war, and I realized how little I knew. I needed to understand what the war had been like for the people who served there.


By interviewing seven veterans I was able to hear about their experiences first-hand. All of them had friends or buddies who died in Vietnam and whose names are on the Wall. I added the place on the memorial where their names were located. I also interviewed a refugee and included a chapter on her harrowing story, because there is never a war without refugees.


Q: The book includes chapters on a variety of people, including presidents and Vietnam veterans. How did you decide which figures to include?


A: I structured the book around the veterans, the years they were in Vietnam, and the experiences they had. Then I interspersed their chapters with chapters on what was happening back home -- the presidents, policies, and protestors.


Deciding who to include was partially intentional, and partially intuitive, as I followed one lead to another. This is actually my favorite way to write a good nonfiction book -- the research process will turn up things I have never heard of, which will send me in a new direction.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?


A: I would like teenagers who read Boots on the Ground to see that war is hell. There is just no way around it. Some young men see war as a great adventure, but it is also suffering, death, and unbelievable destruction.
I am not against anyone who chooses to join the military -- there are many reasons people do -- but I would like young men and women to have a realistic view of war.


A number of Vietnam veterans have come to my book talks. After decades of remaining silent, many are eager talk about their experiences, and to be heard.


We often don't know if it is even okay to ask veterans about their service. A good way to start a conversation is to ask, "Can I ask you a few questions about your time in Vietnam?"


Young people often know one of their grandparents or other family member served in the military, but not if they were in Vietnam. It's okay to ask! It might be just the perfect way to start a conversation.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I'm doing a picture book on Frederick Law Olmsted, who built so many terrific public parks in cities across America. This book is a pleasure to write, and gives me a breather from some of the more difficult subjects I like to tackle.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I think what most surprised me about writing this book is how courageous I found the veterans to be. Many of them didn't want to go to Vietnam, but they did. Some because they were patriots, and if they were asked to serve, they went. Others went because we had a draft, and they faced compulsive military service.


But once in the military, they were incredibly courageous. Not only in caring for and defending their brothers in the military, but in how they coped with the many obstacles and difficulties they faced.


And once home, they had to work hard to pull their lives together. And it wasn't something they did and moved on. It has been a lifetime issue for many of them. I have profound respect for all of them.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. This Q&A also appears on deborahkalbbooks.blogspot.com.

Monday
Jun112018

Q&A with Sheila O'Connor

Sheila O’Connor is the author of Until Tomorrow, Mr. Marsworth, a new novel for kids. Her other books include Sparrow Road and Keeping Safe the Stars, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Bellingham Review and Minnesota Monthly. She teaches in the MFA program at Hamline University and is fiction editor for Water~Stone Review.


Q: How did you come up with the idea for Until Tomorrow, Mr. Marsworth, and for your character Reenie?


A: I had the idea for Reenie, a scrappy girl new to a small town, before I even knew Mr. Marsworth existed.  I didn’t know anything about her, but I pictured the small Midwestern town she lived in, and I was interested in seeing what would happen to her in that setting.


Once I discovered that the book was set in 1968, I began to pay attention to the things in the world that would be pressing in on Reenie’s reality.  The draft, the anti-war movement, the war in Vietnam, the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, the civil rights movement, the women’s rights movement.  I knew all of that would influence characters in the book.   


Q: Why did you decide to write the book in the form of letters?


A: First, for the challenge.  I’m a professor in an MFA program where I teach a class on point of view, and as my students can attest, I’m a bit of a nerd about the possibilities of point of view and form. 


I fell in love with the epistolary novel as a child, and always had a desire to give it a whirl. I knew it would be difficult, and I like difficult things as a writer, but it may have been more difficult than I imagined. 


Q: What kind of research did you do to write this novel, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: I did extensive research, most of which isn’t directly on the pages of the book, but rather in the background informing events and characters’ choices. I read widely from that period, clocked a lot of hours at the Minnesota History Center reading old newspapers on microfiche. I read old magazines for period details. 


I learned an incredible amount in my research, but perhaps the most surprising and interesting research I did was on conscientious objectors, not just during the war in Vietnam, but also in World War I and World War II. 
I knew nothing about either of those subjects when I started the book, and it was painful to learn how conscientious objectors have been treated historically, especially in World War I. 


The great national contempt toward people who refused to fight ran through all the wars, and I gained tremendous admiration for the courage required of those who stand for peace, and gratitude for their many service contributions. 


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the story?


A: The book takes up a fair share of subjects, but as Mr. Marsworth says, our students study wars, but they rarely study peace. I would love to see people inspired to learn more about the little-known subject of conscientious objectors and their contributions in the wars, as well as the consequences they faced.  


In 1968, so many of the young men had no idea how to go about registering as a conscientious objector. As long as we have the draft--which young men are required to register for once they turn 18--and as long as wars continue, I think our young should understand what it means to be a conscientious objector both past and present.  


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am working on revisions for an adult novel, tentatively titled V, that will be out in October 2019 with Rose Metal Press. That’s also a historical novel, set in the 1930s, and has involved an immense amount of research.

 
Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Until Tomorrow, Mr. Marsworth is a book for readers of all ages; I’m already hearing from both young people and adults. Just as Reenie discovers the power of inter-generational friendship, I intended it to be a book that can be shared across the generations.  I hope it is.  


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. This Q&A also appears on deborahkalbbooks.blogspot.com.

Friday
Apr132018

Q&A with poet Diana Khoi Nguyen

Diana Khoi Nguyen is the author of the new poetry collection Ghost Of. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Poetry and American Poetry Review. She lives in Denver, and is a doctoral candidate in creative writing at the University of Denver.

Q: How did you come up with the title of your poetry collection, and what does it signify for you?

A: The title came from a friend. We’re actually not friends any more. The former friend had read a different version of the manuscript with completely different poems. There were many different kinds of shades or forms, and they recommended I title it “Ghost Of.”

I liked it because it felt incomplete, like the fragmentary identities that come to our mind. A couple of years later, I decided to write the poem “Ghost Of.” It was funny that the title gifted to me engendered a poem. It became central to how I thought of the book.

There are skeletons in the closet in any family, there are things you’ve done that haunt you. And beyond the family, it’s the Vietnam War. Everybody has ghosts.

Q: You’ve written about your late brother and the impact his absence has had on your work. How difficult was it to write these poems?

A: Some were not difficult. Actually I tend to play things down. The most difficult thing was working with the family pictures. For two years after his suicide, I couldn’t go near his room.

Everybody grieves in different ways. I wanted to be as far from physical reminders as possible. My father took to wearing his shoes, his hat. I felt numb for a long time. I felt guilty for feeling numb.

The pictures [that he had cut himself out of before his death] had power to them. He did it very calmly. He cut himself out with an Exacto knife and put the pictures back. Up until last Christmas, they were still there.

I was faced with the reminder of what he’d done, and knowing the artifacts he left behind had this power, I wanted to work against and do something with the images. I wanted to reach him and fill him in.

There were all these feelings that finally opened me up. That was the hard part. I finally grieved. It also felt so good to free that from me. The other poems were hard, but don’t deal with it directly.

The hardest thing is reading the poems out loud to people. It’s such a private thing. I worry—I’m not trying to perform grief. I know most people have lost somebody, and I bring them to that space of grief, but it speaks to people. It’s a form of connection I find valuable.

Q: You mentioned the Vietnam War—what’s been the impact and the legacy of the war on you and your family?

A: About four or five years ago my mother finally told me the story of how she came to this country. In third, or fifth, grade you’re supposed to talk about how your ancestors came to this country.

My father’s story was quite simple—on the day the war ended, he and his family went to the U.S. Embassy and got on a plane because his father worked for the Embassy.

My mother never wanted to talk about it. My parents are very forward-looking. They own multiple properties in California, they both got their master’s. I don’t know why she finally felt she could open up about it….

I started to become acutely aware of the nuances around me. I had experienced racial slurs. It came to a point that this was not okay. I wanted to push back, and I wanted to know who my parents were. I felt she had undiagnosed PTSD. The war ended when she was about 16, a formative time as a teenager. She finally shared a hard story.

It was really sad. She was from a large family, one of 11 children. They ran a local pharmacy in Saigon. My grandfather worked for the Embassy as well. They were told to bring your family to the Embassy, and my grandfather was really prideful and didn’t think the South could lose the war.

My eldest uncle was studying abroad. [My grandfather] took his youngest son, and left his daughters and wife behind to run the family business. The gender dynamic is important. My grandmother, mother, aunts were left behind.

The way this was told is that one aunt escorted her father and brother to the Embassy, and they realized it was a big mistake in not taking the whole family, but it was too late. I try to imagine my grandfather when he realized that.

My mother describes the insane chaos in Saigon, teenagers haphazardly driving tanks down the street. When the Communists took over she had to go to a reeducation camp.

They kept trying to escape. It was a big risk. My grandfather was sending back gold. You didn’t know who you could trust. They ended up on a rickety boat, and made it to a refugee camp in Malaysia. And they finally came over. There were so many moments when they were almost caught. They were living in constant terror.

When I learned the story, I had sympathy and empathy for my mother. I didn’t know how she could do everything she did here. It helped me understand. It made me think about the people who didn’t make it.

My dissertation project is to travel to the diaspora in this country [and others] and record how they tell the story, and examine how people assimilate. There’s always a [refugee crisis] happening.

Q: Over how long a time did you write these poems, and how did you decide on the order in which they would appear?

A: My brother died in 2014. The title was there before that. It happened really fast. I didn’t decide to write with the pictures until July 2016. I write in summer and winter. I wrote it in August and December 2016. The book was picked up in 2017.

The book just poured out of me once I figured out how to access that part of me. Ninety percent was written in 30 days. I plan, I prepare, and I don’t see anybody for 15 days.

I printed everything out, and then I knew I wanted three sections. I like the prime numbers, the imbalance. A beginning, a middle, and an end. There also were three siblings, now there are only two of us…

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The cover makes me happy. Tennis is crucial to our family, and it’s an homage to this tradition in my family. In Asian households you don’t wear shoes in the house, and the sandals encapsulated our family culture.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. This Q&A also appears on deborahkalbbooks.blogspot.com.