My friend, Ferd, and I had again yesterday a discussion we’ve had several times over the years. He told me he reads for entertainment, and while he admires my writing skill, my topics are too dark for him. If I’d lighten up, I’d sell more books. My answer has always been and still is that I don’t write to entertain. I write to delve into the human condition with its up and down sides. That puts me into a writing tradition that goes from Shakespeare through Dostoyevsky, Thomas Mann, Steinbeck, Hemingway to Ian McEwan. Ferd points out that few if any of those writers produced best sellers during their lives. But I don’t write to sell books, I tell him. I write because I have to.
Last of the Annamese is a prime example. My time in Vietnam changed me as a human being. I lived through unspeakable events that permanently damaged my soul. Even today I still can’t talk about some of my experiences, but they show up in my writing.
On the one hand, writing forces me to face my grisly memories which in turn helps me come to terms with them. I learn to channel my anguish into my writing, not into my living.
On the other, I write to inform readers of experiences they may have never encountered so that they can understand what others have suffered. No-Accounts relates the ugliness death from AIDS. The Trion Syndrome describes what it’s like to go through Post-Traumatic Stress Injury. And Last of the Annamese tells what really happened during the fall of Saigon.
Maybe my readers will come to feel what my characters feel. Maybe they’ll be less condemning of other human beings different from themselves. Maybe we can even learn to love one another a little. I devoutly hope so. But even if we don’t, I still have to write. And maybe more to the point, I don’t get a choice about the subject matter. My soul commands me, and I obey.