The Trion Syndrome was much more personal than my other books. It’s the story of a Vietnam veteran, like me, with Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI) and how he copes. The inspiration for the book was my imagining what it would be like if I decided I couldn’t stand the irrational rages, nightmares, flashbacks, and panic attacks and chose to end my life. When the characters of Dave and his wife, Mary, revealed themselves to me, I pondered what they would do faced with the dilemma I was dealing with. The critical moment that led to the book was my imagining Dave trying to drown himself to stop the unbearable memories.
What sparked Last of the Annamese, my most recently published novel, on the other hand, was my memory of the moment of jubilation I had when I knew that all my subordinates and their families were safely out of Saigon as it was falling. After that moment came to me from my memory, I let my mind wander and the three main characters of the book came to life: Chuck Griffin, the retired Marine officer who returns to Vietnam to help win the war because he can’t stand the idea that his son who died in the war had died in vain; Tuyet, a member of the Vietnamese royalty forced to marry a commoner for the good of her family; and South Vietnamese Marine Colonel Thanh, the common man Tuyet had married, who cannot tolerate the idea of living under the communists. What would each of these people do faced with the conquest of South Vietnam by the northern communists? They told me what they would do, and I wrote it all down.
The events of Annamese were already firmly in my mind—I had lived them myself. After 1973 when U.S. troops were withdrawn, I was assigned as the chief of the covert NSA operation in South Vietnam.
As it became clear to me that the country was going to fall to the North Vietnamese, I struggled to get my 43 subordinates and their wives and children safely out of the country. The U.S. Ambassador, Graham Martin, forbade me to evacuate my people—he didn’t believe that the North Vietnamese would attack Saigon. I knew better from intercepted North Vietnamese communications. So I used every ruse I could think of to get my people safely out of the country. I had to stay. The ambassador wouldn’t permit me to leave. I succeeded in getting all my people out. Then, the night of 29 April 1975, after the North Vietnamese were already in the streets of the city, I escaped by helicopter under fire.
So the events of the story for Annamese were already there. My job in writing the novel was to put my three principal characters through that string of events and to watch what each of them did.
Hence Tom Glenn’s stories: fiction in name only.
Once I have a draft, the hard part starts. That’s revision. I spend something like 10 percent of my writing time drafting original text and 90 percent revising. That means being sure that I vary my sentence types and lengths. I study each paragraph and look for ways to cut and trim. And so on. That’s fiction craftsmanship, an entirely different subject I wrote about here some time ago.
So it’s probably fair to say that I use the right half of my brain—my intuition, my creativity—to come up with stories and characters, and the left side—my intelligence—to clean up the results.
Let me talk about how that process worked out for my four currently published novels.
My first book, Friendly Casualties, is a collection of short stories and a novella. The stories all came from my time in Vietnam. So did the novella. It tells of a woman diplomat working in the embassy in Saigon and her affair with an army captain assigned to the delta in the southern quadrant. The electrifying moment in my mind that led to the story was a memory of a time in Vietnam when I had to withhold threat information because the source was so sensitive. I solved the problem by telling the man threatened where not to go and what not to do.
The three major characters in the novella streamed from my unconscious, and I thought about what they would do faced with the dilemma I had. That led to the story I told in the novella.
My book No-Accounts resulted from the years I spent taking care of AIDS patients. The arresting scene that started it was my memory of one of my patients holding my hand and thanking me just before he died. I was so deeply moved by that moment that it turned into a book.
The two principal characters in No-Accounts presented themselves to me when I put myself into a meditative state. Peter, the young gay man with AIDS, had essentially wasted his life having a good time as one of the stars in the gay bar scene. He was bright and capable, but instead of using his talent for the good of others or even to create a career, he frittered away his time until he came down with AIDS. The straight man, Martin who cares for him is a failure. His is in a dead-end job, his wife has left him, and his daughter refuses to see him.
The story in the novel is about how these two men help each other to contribute to the good of others as death approaches. I watched them interact in my imagination, then wrote down what I saw.
The only good thing about Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI) is that the memories of grisly moments never fade. They are with me always. That means I have no problem remembering exactly what happened, when, where, and how. The factual basis for my fictional story is firmly grounded.
My work after 1975 is still classified, so I can’t talk about it. Suffice it to say, it had its exciting moments that added to my trove of adventures that I can draw on for fiction.
Meanwhile, I volunteered to help those in need. During the 1980s, I took care of men dying of AIDS. I worked with seven patients. They were all gay, and they all died. Then I spent seven years as a volunteer in a hospice, working with dying people. Those experiences, too, are emblazoned on my memory.
So I have a rich set of experiences to draw on for my fiction. It’s all fact. It all happened.
But the characters in my books and stories are all created by my imagination. They are often based on an amalgam of traits I saw in real people, but they are not depictions of people I knew. Instead, they are produced by my unconscious. I’ve learned to put myself in a meditation-like state, quiet my mind, and give up control. Then the characters come to me, as if in a dream, fully formed. In the beginning they don’t always reveal themselves completely. I have to wait for them to decide to let me know them.
I put my imaginary characters into the real situations that spring from my memory and imagine what they would do. I watch them act and react, then write down what happens.
I usually don’t know the ending of a story or book until I write it. And a scene that I am writing often takes turns I’m not expecting. The characters sometimes do things that surprise me. It is as though a muse were dictating to me a story that only she knows.
I will be doing a presentation this evening on using fact as the basis for fiction. What follows are my thoughts on the subject.
Reviewers of my books often note that my writing is fiction in name only. Everything I write is based on events I have participated in or observed. My four novels and seventeen short stories—and my two books coming out next year—are drawn from events that really happened. I don’t know how to write fiction any other way.
My writing process comes in three stages that sometimes overlap. The first two don’t feel like I’m making them happen. It is as though a spirit or muse is feeding me thoughts and commanding me to create a story. The third stage, revision and polishing, is more intellect driven.
The first stage occurs when an arresting scene comes upon me like a dream. I dwell on what happens in that scene, then let my imagination, or more often, my memory, suggest what led up to that scene and what the outcome was. Little by little the story comes to me.
The inspirational moments of that first stage always originate in something real in my own history. Lucky for me as a writer, I’ve lived a particularly vivid life. Between 1962 and 1975, I was in Vietnam at least four months every year. I had two complete tours there and so many shorter trips that I lost count. My job was signals intelligence, the intercept and exploitation of the radio communications of the invading North Vietnamese. I kept getting sent back to Vietnam because I knew North Vietnamese communications like the back of my hand—I’d been producing intelligence from them since 1960. Besides, I spoke the three languages of Vietnam: Vietnamese, Chinese, and French.
Maybe most important, I was under cover as an enlisted man with whatever unit I was supporting. I lived with the troops—slept beside them on the ground, sat in the dirt with them eating C-rations, used their latrines, and went into combat with them. I worked with army and Marine combat units all over South Vietnam. That meant I was often in the middle of the fight on the battlefield. One consequence is that I suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI). The unspeakable horrors that occurred during the fall of Saigon, when I escaped under fire after the North Vietnamese were already in the streets of the city, made it worse.
The fighting in Northern Ireland came to an end when it was clear that neither side would prevail and further killing was useless. The Northern Irish ended up with more independence than they had known, but they are still today subject to British rule.
You can read my review of Say Nothing at http://www.washingtonindependentreviewofbooks.com/index.php/bookreview/say-nothing-a-true-story-of-murder-and-memory-in-northern-ireland
The other book, Country: A Novel (HarperCollins-Custom House, due to be published October 1, 2019), is fiction. Its author is Northern Ireland native Michael Hughes who writes in the dialect of the region. Set in 1996, it tells of the ruminations among the rebels about whether to continue to fight the unionists and the British or to accept the outcome of the peace talks then underway—that is, to surrender rather than endure and inflict more bloodshed. Most of the characters are the Irish resisters.
Reading Country was a challenge. The Northern Irish dialect is filled with words and structures I had never come across before. In my review, I offer a sample of the vocabulary: “recce,” “oul,” “quare,” “scupper,” “spondulicks,” “bog,” “slag,” “gunk,” and “snog.” The word “wee” is used throughout to mean “little.” “Dacent” apparently means “decent; “thon” seems to mean “that” or maybe “yon.” In short, it took patience and a fair amount of detective work on my part to get through the text.
My review will appear coincident with the publication of the book later this year.
I ended up recommending both books. They both taught me history about the struggle in Northern Ireland. I’m a better man for knowing more.
Since the beginning of the year, I have reviewed two books on the time of Trouble in Northern Ireland. Both dealt with the conflict between the Irish nationalists, also called republicans, and their foes, referred to as unionists or loyalists, aided and abetted by the British government. The nationalists were mostly Catholic, the unionists principally Protestant.
The dispute began in the 1960s and ended, at least on paper, in 1998 when the parties signed a peace agreement of sorts. During the early part of that struggle, until 1975, I was either in Vietnam or between trips. My attention was focused on the U.S. war in Southeast Asia, and I paid little attention to events in Northern Ireland. As a result, both books were eye-openers for me.
The first, Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe (Doubleday, 2019), published in February, is for all intents and purposes a history of the low-level war. It’s title comes from a poem by Seamus Heaney about the Trouble:
O land of the password, handgrip, wink and nod,
Whatever You Say, Say Nothing.
Secrecy was paramount for the nationalists. They barely trusted one another and revealed nothing to those who were not known to be on their side.
All in all, I conclude that solitude suits me. But, ironically, I have learned the immense value of giving to others and expecting nothing in return. It turns out I have two vocations in life. One is writing, the other is offering a helping hand to those in need.
These days I help a number of people in different ways. I write regularly to a man in prison and have volunteered to testify on his behalf during his parole hearing. I have never met him face to face. He wrote to me after reading one of my books. I came to understand that he needed support and encouragement. So we began a correspondence that has now lasted years.
But my friend in prison isn’t the only one. I care for an older lady friend who needs companionship. I spend time with an older man who is lonely. I exchange emails with a mentally deficient man. These people benefit from time spent with me, a gift I’m more than willing to give.
So here I am, alone and content. I have learned that helping others is a source of fulfillment like no other. I am at peace.