Books in Manchester, Maryland

I spent Saturday, October 2, participating in a yard sale/book signing in Manchester, Maryland, about an hour away from my home in Columbia. I manned a table with my books displayed, offering to sell and autograph for anyone interested. Innumerable people stopped by to learn more about my books and the wild life I have led that produced the experiences I have written about.

In six hours, I sold and autographed seven books, not bad for an event of this kind. More important, I talked to readers and learned of their interests. I was surprised to discover, as I always am, the number of very ordinary people who love to read. It is people like that who make my vocation as a writer worthwhile and even noble.

Over the years, I have become quite adept at public sales of my books, especially at outdoor flea markets. Kept in my car are a four-foot foldable table, a folding chair, a red tablecloth, a suitcase full of my books, the pen I use for autographing, business cards, and a clipboard with a sign-in sheet where people can leave me their names and emails so that I can include them in announcements of forthcoming readings and presentations.

Have-books-will-travel.

“I Think I’ll Write a Book”

At the beginning of my workshop on fiction craftsmanship, I tell a story told to me many years ago by Carolyn Thorman (author of Fifty Years of Eternal Vigilance and other Stories, Holy Orders, and The Loss of What We Never Had): “A novelist and brain surgeon were out golfing. The brain surgeon said, ‘You know, George, I think I’ll take off the summer and write a novel.’ ‘Great idea, Henry,’ the novelist said. ‘I think I’ll take off the summer and do brain surgery.’”

The point of the story, of course, is that it takes just as long to learn to write as it does to learn to do brain surgery. Maybe longer. I’ve been studying the craft of writing since I was six years old and first realized that I was born to write. And I’m still learning.

But I regularly run into people who tell me they’re going to write a book. They have no clue about the monumental difficulty writing entails. On average, it took me fourteen years to write each of my books. Granted, I was usually working on more than one book at a time. But it is standard procedure for me to put a novel or short story through as many as ten drafts before I finally decide that I can’t improve it any further.

After I have finished the draft of a novel, I put it away for some period of time, sometimes as long as a year. I don’t read it or think about it during the interim. The point is to create distance and objectivity and to be able to return to the text with fresh eyes. Once the dormitive period has passed, I read and revise, then put it away again. I go through that procedure repeatedly until I am convinced I can’t improve the book any further.

What do I seek to improve? First, the overall structure of the story. Do the buildup, climax, and resolution come at the right places? The paragraph structure—are the sentences of variable length and type? And what about the wording? Do the words convey the emotional content consistent with the story? Are sentences during violent sequences short and blunt while those in exposition are longer and more lyrical? To answer these questions decisively, I read the text aloud and listen to how it moves.

Meanwhile, on the non-technical level, I live with characters in my stories and learn more about them. They take on a life of their own and are independent of me. Sometimes they surprise me with the decisions they make. Occasionally they act in ways I didn’t expect that change the story I’m telling. As I learned long ago, f I want my stories to work, I have to let my characters dictate what happens.

None of this is easy. All of it takes time and considerable effort. Writing stories is the hardest work I’ve ever attempted. The only harder thing I know of is writing poetry, which I won’t even attempt.

Fiction in Name Only

Critics accurately accuse me of passing off fact as fiction. My novels and short stories are invariably about things that really happened. I make them fiction by describing the events as happening to fictional characters rather than to me or real people I knew.

Typical is The Trion Syndrome (Apprentice House, 2015). It is the story of a man suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI) as a consequence of his time in combat in Vietnam. The source of the story is my own struggle with PTSI, and I attribute to Dave, the protagonist, experiences I went through myself. I filled out Dave’s story with things that never happened to me—his complicity in the death of a child in Vietnam, the existence of an unknown illegitimate son, his running away in an attempt to escape the past—but the details of his malady, including nightmares, panic attacks, flashbacks, and sudden rages, are all based on my own experience.

Secretocracy (Adelaide Books, 2020) is the story of Donald Trump’s persecution of an intelligence budgeteer. The events described actually happened to me, not under Trump but under another president. I was at the time a senior budgeteer assigned to the office of the Director of National Intelligence and refused to fund a highly classified project being pushed by the president on the grounds that it violated both U.S. law and our treaties with other nations. The president was furious and punished me by stripping me of my intelligence clearances and assigning me to a warehouse in Anacostia with no work to do. He didn’t want to fire me outright because I could then sue the government. But I refused to resign. I was stuck without work in an abandoned building in the slums until that president’s term ran out and a new president was elected.

Because of the level of classification of the project in question, I won’t identify the president involved.

Last of the Annamese (Naval Institute Press, 2017), a story set during the fall of Saigon from which I escaped under fire after the North Vietnamese were already in the streets, is all fact. No event described in that book didn’t really happen. But the characters living through that maelstrom are fictional. I describe what happened to me as having happened to others.

Thus my work. Writing fiction drawn from fact may not be the standard for novelists, but it works for me.

More Republicans Die

From the beginning through today, Donald Trump and his Republican supporters have denied the seriousness of the covid-19 pandemic and discouraged their followers from taking precautions. Even now, a year and a half after the onset of the pandemic, Republicans are politicizing getting vaccinated and wearing masks—good Republicans don’t do either.

The consequences speak for themselves: Americans who relied most on former President Donald Trump and the White House coronavirus task force for covid-19 news in the early days of the pandemic are now among those least likely to have been vaccinated against the virus, according to a Pew Research Center survey. As a result, far more Republicans than Democrats are dying and have died from the disease.

Trump’s declarations early in the pandemic are characteristic. On January 22, 2020, he said, “We have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China. It’s going to be just fine.” February 2, 2020: “We pretty much shut it down coming in from China.” Then, on March 7, he said “No, I’m not concerned at all.”

The death statistics confirm Trump’s guilt. In counties where Donald Trump received at least 70 percent of the vote in the 2020 election, the virus has killed about 47 out of every 100,000 people since the end of June, according to Charles Gaba, a health care analyst. In counties where Trump won less than 32 percent of the vote, the number is about 10 out of 100,000.

So among the grievous sins for which Trump will be remembered, his expansion of the pandemic death toll will stand above the others. History will condemn him.

Human Hands

A feature of our humanness we rarely mention and give little attention to is our two hands. We depend on them constantly and take them for granted. Only when by accident or illness we lose the use of a hand do we come to understand how valuable it is.

We use our hands ceaselessly. I’m using mine at this moment to type this blog post. Periodically I pause to pick up my coffee cup and carry it to my lips. If I itch, I scratch with my fingers. Later, I’ll rely on my hands to fetch the delivered newspaper, cook and eat my breakfast, and dress myself. If I decide to make music today, I’ll use my fingers to play the piano or pluck the guitar. Even when I’m reading, I depend on my hand to hold the book and turn the pages. The only activities I engage in that don’t require use of the hands are thinking and sleeping.

We humans share manual dexterity with other primates, but our hands are better developed and more able than those of any species. Our opposable thumb is longer, compared to finger length, than that of any other primate. Our long thumb with its ability to easily touch the other fingers allows us to firmly grasp and manipulate objects of many different shapes. The human hand can grip with strength and with fine control, so it can grasp and lift a dead weight, throw a stone, or write words.

We humans are anything but self-conscious. We give no attention to our feet and legs that carry us about nor to our senses that allow us to communicate with and live in our world. Our bodies are miracles incarnate, but we pay them no mind. And our hands, perhaps the most miraculous of all, are ignored.

God, if there is a god, must find us a source of constant amusement.

Days Names

Like some of the names for months, our names for days of the week come largely from those of pagan gods. But the gods we chose to honor with our day names are not the Roman deities but the Germanic-Norse ones. The names for Tuesday through Friday are derivations of Tyrs’s day, (W)odin’s day, Thor’s day and Frigg’s day. Sunday and Monday are much simpler—they are named after the two heavenly bodies we have always with us, the sun and the moon.

The exception is Saturday whose name originated from the Roman god Saturn.

The names we use for the days of the week and the months of the year are relics of the origin of our language, English. Although Latin and the French influenced our language, English originated from Anglo-Frisian dialects brought to Britain in the mid fifth to seventh centuries AD by Anglo-Saxon migrants from what is now northwest Germany, southern Denmark and the Netherlands. Before that, the common language was Celtic that still survives as Gaelic in parts of Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. Dozens of words still used in modern English come from Gaelic, including pet, slogan, trousers, whiskey, and smidgeon.

The language we speak daily and pay no attention to is nevertheless laden with the history. It tells us where we came from and who we are.

Month Names

As a linguist and author, I am intrigued by the words we English speakers use and how we use them. A good example is the way we have named the months of the year.

January is named after Janus, the Roman god of doors and gates. February is named for Februalia, a time period something like the Christian Lent, when sacrifices were offered to atone for sins. March gets its name from Mars, the god of war. April is something of a problem—I’ll come back to that month’s name. May comes from Maia, best known for being the mother of Hermes. June’s name comes from the goddess Juno, the queen of the gods. July and August are unique in that they take they names from real people, July from Julius Caesar and August from Augustus Caesar.

All months after that are named for numbers, but not for numbers that correspond to their current place in the year. September, the ninth month in the modern calendar, for example, takes its name from the Latin word for “seven.” October has a name that means “eight,” November one that means “nine,” and December one that means “ten.”

April’s name origin is a matter of controversy among linguists and historians. One train of thought is that the name came from the Latin word aprilis, which is derived from the Latin verb aperire meaning “to open.” That could be a reference to the opening or blossoming of flowers and trees, a common occurrence throughout the month of April in the Northern Hemisphere.

Another theory holds that since months are often named for gods and goddesses, and since the word aphrilis is derived from the Greek Aphrodite, maybe the intent was to name the month for the Greek goddess of love (the goddess that the Romans called Venus).

To me, April has always meant “opening” because of its similarity to the words that mean “to open” in Latin, French, Spanish, and Italian—aperire, ouvrir, abrir, and aprire, respectively. And I always think of it as referring to the opening of the welcoming season when it’s warm and comfortable.

Like so many other aspects of modern American English, the names we have given our months tells us great deal about who we are and where we came from. One day soon, I’ll take on another set of oddities: the origins of the names we give to the days of the week.

Endings

At this point in my life, I find myself constantly reminded that all things come to an end. September signals that the summer is over. The days grow shorter, the nights longer and colder. Autumn is here, a warning that the year is moving toward the dark days of winter. And with winter comes the end of the year.

 I look at the begonia plants on my deck at the back of my house, some now a foot tall and covered in brilliant red blooms, and I know their days are numbered. The first frost, probably sometime in November, will kill them. The dozens of mature trees surrounding the deck will lose their leaves and become living skeletons.

Outdoor gatherings of people, now already becoming fewer, will cease altogether. We’ll all huddle indoors and light fires against the cold and lamps against the darkness. When we must venture outdoors, we will cover our bodies for warmth, making us less distinguishable from one another.

Hence life itself. No longer a young man, I know my own end is coming. I try not to dwell on the subject, but reminders are constant. So I reach out to those I love to assure that they know that I cherish them. I hurry to get as much writing as possible done. And I seek peace.

I have lived a full and fruitful life. I served my country honorably for thirty-five years, repeatedly putting my life on the line for the good of others. I am the father of four fine children and the grandfather of four delightful grandchildren. Thanks to my years in government service, I am the beneficiary of a generous annuity so I never need concern myself with money problems. And, most important, I am the author of six books of fiction and seventeen short stories, all published after I retired from government service.

And I am very healthy and unusually active for my age. So while my end is coming, the likelihood is that it will be some years before it arrives. I still have time and need to make the most of it. Writing will be at the forefront.

Josh at the Door

I have been working, on and off, for several years on a novel that was to have been named Josh at the Door. The story was drawn from my relationship with Su which had lasted more than twenty years. Then, a year ago last March, Su died as the result of a stomach ailment. Work on the book stopped.

It’s obvious to me that the story I was writing is now fundamentally changed. It will end as Josh, the protagonist, learns to adjust to life without his beloved Mimì. And the name will be changed to Love in the Time of Coronavirus, inspired by Love in the Time of Cholera, a novel by Colombian Nobel prize winning author Gabriel García Márquez.

But so far, try as I might, I haven’t been able to resume work on the book. My grief at the loss of Su has stopped me. But since I was born to write and writing is why I was put on earth, I must find a way to resume my work on that book and another one I was sketching out on the 1967 battle of Dak To in Vietnam’s western highlands, one of the bloodiest battles of the war and one I was deeply involved in. My reason for existence is at stake.

So I’ll try again. Wish me luck.

Name: Last of the Annamese

My novel set during the fall of Saigon is named Last of the Annamese. Those who have read the book understand very well what “Annamese” is, but those who haven’t often ask me what the name means or who it refers to.

“Annamese” is the adjectival form of the Vietnamese place name An Nam  (安 南 in Chinese), an ancient name for what we now call Vietnam  (越  南). The Chinese chose the name “Vietnam” for the non-Chinese rebellious tribe in southern China who eventually moved south into Vietnam. The name means “those who cross over in the south” or “the trouble makers in the south.” The Vietnamese adopted that name for themselves but called their new nation by a series of different names. One of those names was An Nam, meaning “peace in the south.”

One of the principal characters in the novel, Last of the Annamese, is the South Vietnamese colonel named Thanh. He dislikes the name “Vietnam” because of its meaning and prefers “An Nam” because he considers himself both a southerner and a peace maker. By his way of thinking, his wife and son are also citizens of An Nam. The reader is left to answer the question who is the last of the Annamese referred to by the title.

Given the etymology of “Annamese,” the reader can understand why the name appealed to me, a dyed-in-the-wool linguist comfortable in seven languages other than English. The close relationship between the Vietnamese and Chinese languages has fascinated me since I first studied Vietnamese as a young soldier, well before the Vietnam war.

And I, like Thanh, prefer the name for a place I love that means “peace in the south.”