The Iliad to War and Peace, from All Quiet on the Western Front to The Things They Carried, writers have drawn rich and universal insights from the depths of the most horrendous experiences that humanity has faced.War has always been a rich source for literary excavation. From
Vietnam is no different. Tim O'Brien, Bao Ninh, Larry Heinemann — the list of authors whose work is rooted in that conflict is long and illustrious. Now we can add Karl Marlantes to those rolls. Marlantes's debut novel, Matterhorn, is the epic story of young men pushed to the edge in the jungles of Vietnam, and of how they respond.
Even before its publication by Grove/Atlantic, the book has received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Library Journal, as well as enthusiastic praise from booksellers around the country. Powells.com chose Matterhorn as the 17th volume of our Indiespensable subscription club. Galleys of the novel disappeared quickly from our offices, never to be seen or heard from again.
Clearly, Matterhorn is a debut novel to get excited about — and it only took Marlantes 30 years to write it.
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Karl Marlantes: Well, I'm not like any of the characters, really. If I had to chose the one most like me, I'd pick Cortell, who's more of a minor character. Like him, I'm more of the introverted, quiet type. I'm not a politician, like Mellas. If I were as good as he was, I'd be a lot richer and a lot more powerful. [Laughter] But what the characters see — almost all of it — I myself experienced. I was in firefights. I assaulted hills. I saw a guy, not in my company but in the same battalion, get eaten by a tiger. So, all of those things are pretty much true.
Of course, the dialogue is pure fiction. But a lot of what the characters see are things that I experienced or that were similar to my experiences as a second lieutenant — and those were similar to the experiences of thousands of soldiers that went over there. In that sense, we're all the same. So is that autobiographical? I don't know.
Faatz: Well, I'd say it's somewhat autobiographical, because it reflects your experiences, even if it's in a more general sense.
Marlantes: Oh, no doubt about it. I don't have that good of an imagination. [Laughter]
Faatz: How long did it take you to write the book?
Marlantes: I first started writing it about 1975.
Marlantes: And I started trying to sell it in '77.The few publishers that wrote back said pretty much the same thing: "Well, I don't think I can sell it. It's a really big book about an unpopular war — nobody wants to touch Vietnam right now."
Around that time, I was starting a family, so I worked on it for a little while, put it aside for a year, and then worked on it some more. Finally, in the mid-'80s, I ginned up another effort to get it published, and I read all the books on how to write the killer query letter, how to find an agent that will work for you. You guys must sell thousands of books like that to writers.
Faatz: It's true.
Marlantes: By this time it had changed. I had cut it a lot, probably by a third. Whole characters and story lines had been thrown out. You don't cut a book by a third without doing that. Then, the response was, "Well, you know, Hollywood's already done it — Full Metal Jacket, Platoon. I just don't think there's going to be a market that hasn't already been saturated. And can you cut it in half?" It makes me laugh because the first guy, one of the few who responded to me in my early publishing attempts, told me I had to cut it down to about 400 pages. That's when it was around 1,200 pages. On the second attempt, 10 years later, they told me to cut it in half — it was an 800-page manuscript then — so that still came out to 400 pages. At least the industry's pretty consistent. [Laughter]
I mean, I think it makes sense. I'm not sour about the rejections. How the hell do they know? They're sitting in New York and get a letter from this guy trying to push a book about the war. I mean, it's just tough to judge at that point.
Faatz: It's really tough.
Marlantes: So, after those attempts, I worked on it again. And then in the '90s it was like, "Well, gee, maybe you could set it in the Gulf War — and cut it in half." By the early '00s I was trying to sell it and I'm hearing, "Well, maybe if you could change it to Afghanistan, we might be able to pick it up." It's just this horrible bind that I think the whole book industry has to face, trying to combine art with business. What's a reasonable way? Well, what's topical? God, the Vietnam War? That was years ago.
But, finally what happened was, after sending all my wonderful query letters, I gave the manuscript to a friend of mine, Ken Pallack. While Ken was reading it, he happened to get a call from an old college friend of his from Berkeley, Tom Farber, who had just started this little nonprofit literary house called El León. Ken told him, "Hey, I'm reading a great manuscript you might be interested in." So, Tom said, "Well, have the guy send it to my editor, Kit Duane."
When Ken called me to pass on the news, I said, "Ken, you've got to be shitting me. I'm going to have to spend 50 bucks to get this thing photocopied, and you want me to send a book about Marines and Vietnam to a woman in Berkeley, California? That's got to be the dumbest business decision I'll ever make." But he convinced me, so I dutifully copied it and sent it off. And Kit loved it!
Faatz: Oh, that's fantastic.
Marlantes: There was the presumption that the market for the book would be guys. But, as it turned out, it was a woman, Kit, that pulled it out of obscurity.
So, El León published it — that was two years ago. But, being so small, they had no marketing staff. What they do is get a book published so the writer at least has a product instead of a manuscript. Their print run was 1,200 and my pay was 120 copies out of that, and they had all the rights for three years or until the first run sold out.
But, even after I got it to the point where I had a product, in trying to interest people in New York, I ran into the same problem. No one would read it; it's a big book, and it's about Vietnam.
Then my wife came up with a brilliant idea: have El León send it to a bunch of contests because if they have any integrity at all they'll have to read at least the first 15 or 20 pages. Hopefully it hooks somebody by that point. Well, El León submitted it, and it went to Barnes and Noble's Discover Great New Writers program.
Faatz: That's a good program.
Marlantes: And they loved it. They asked El León for more copies, but soon realized that it would bury El León to fill the order. So, someone from the program took it to Morgan Entrekin at Grove.
Morgan read it and within about four or five days he was ready to make a deal. Tom explained that El León had all the rights for three years or until the first run sold out. So, Morgan asked, "How many books are left?" Tom said, "Well, take away Karl's 120, and we've got about 1,000 left." Morgan's response was, "Okay, I'll buy them all." And that took care of the contract!
Marlantes: Morgan Entrekin was exceedingly good. That's all he needed to do, but in addition he paid their printing costs and cut them in on a percentage. I mean, I don't know amounts, but he's giving them a percentage of the first hardbound runs and all because he wants to support El León doing what they're doing.
Faatz: That's great.
Marlantes: And they had another big success.
Faatz: El León did?
Marlantes: Yeah. Penguin picked up one of their books, Locke 1928. It's about a Chinese community in the Sacramento River Valley, and they changed the name to Water Ghosts. So, El León has gotten two books into the general marketplace.
Faatz: What sorts of disciplines did you apply to yourself? How did you actually write the book?
Marlantes: I would get up in the morning and go to work at 8:00 and type until I had done at least 10 pages. If I had to throw away nine of them the next day, that was fine. But I wouldn't leave until I got my quota done for the day. And when I started editing, it was the same sort of thing. I'd set a quota, and if I didn't finish until 4:00 in the afternoon because I just couldn't do it fast, that's the way it had to be. I can't write a novel any other way except that kind of methodical approach.
Faatz: I can easily see how this could have been a very difficult book to write. Do you feel it was an exercise of purging demons, of coming to grips with your experiences in the war?
Marlantes: Absolutely. I'll tell you a funny story about that. There's another "novel" — and I put quotes around the word novel — that I wrote immediately after I got out of the Marine Corps. I think it was 1,700 pages, double spaced. That was my first novel, and it's really where I got the demons out. A kind way of putting it would be psychotherapeutic journaling, but someone else could call it whining and vitriol. I threw it away. There's a friend of mine who's got a copy someplace; he's not sure where. I hope he never finds it. But, then, after I got that one out of the way, I started reading books about how you structure novels, and I got much more into mythology and the hero's journey and things like that.
Faatz: So you were into Jung and Writer's Market.
Marlantes: Yeah, I was into Jung and I think he's been very important to me, to my development.
Faatz: How can you apply Jung to the narrative in the book?
Marlantes: Well, first of all, the book's full of symbols. It's sort of the T. S. Eliot thing, reverberating in your unconscious. Like the cup that's always passed around [in Matterhorn], and Hawke says, "This is the cup that cures all evil and cures all ill." That cup is very important to the growing compassion of Mellas, and he finally ends up with it at the end of the book. It goes back to early Irish mythology where there's mention of a large cauldron that feeds the people. It also goes back to the Grail legend. It goes back to feminine symbolism, that sort of stuff. So, there are a lot of symbols. Jung was there.
The other one of Jung's concepts that I wish we all could get better at is this idea of the shadow. I write about it as coming to realize the mad monkey. You remember that conversation right at the end of the book, where Mellas realizes, with help from Hawke, that you've got to own all the evil you're capable of doing, because humans can do an enormous amount of evil, and you can't just throw it on other people? A lot of the racism stems from that. They're lazy. Well, no, I'm lazy. They're mean. No, I'm mean. If you just could own those feelings, they wouldn't be nearly as vitriolic or as intense as they are — and, so, the concept of shadow is important in the book, too.
Faatz: The politics of that period play a big role in Matterhorn. How did the tension between, for example, Black Power and the established hierarchy of the Marine Corps play itself out? And was there ever any resolution in that?
Marlantes: You've got a bunch of 19-year-olds with 30 times the testosterone going through their body than they'll have at any other time in their life. They're all armed, and they're black and white, and you don't think there's going to be racial tension?
The Marine Corps, the Army, and all the other services had to deal with this. There was an enormous amount of hate literature pouring into our hands. Black Panthers were out there and George Wallace was on the other side. It was an unbelievable time and all these kids are getting this stuff and... man, it could have been a lot worse. There were fights. There were fraggings. A hell of a lot of the fraggings were racially motivated. Some black soldier would get mad at some white sergeant, a Cassidy sort of guy, because he was pulling a racial number. And they'd go after him because it was so easy.
I mean, Jesus, shells are flying all over the place, and some guy ends up with shrapnel in his body, and he's dead. I can't remember the exact number, but I think there were well over 200 actual recorded fragging incidents in Vietnam. But, according to my dad, who was in World War II, it's gone on forever. Your life's at stake, and if you've got a bad officer, there are several ways you can get rid of him.
Faatz: Remove the officer.
Marlantes: I think it was less racial in World War II because they didn't have black soldiers in the same units then. Vietnam is where they became integrated. I really think that's where blacks and whites learned to trust each other. You had to. If one guy had your back and you didn't trust him, you were screwed.
Faatz: Well that certainly comes through in the book, when the young black soldier, China, was able to at least develop a relationship of respect with Mellas.
Marlantes: Yeah, eventually, he did, because they're mirror images of each other, if you think about it. They're both great politicians. They're both ambitious. They both want power. They're mirror images, and they begin to recognize that in each other. That's Jung's shadow again.
Faatz: I thought it was interesting how China wouldn't use drugs or alcohol, sort of paid loose allegiance to a Black Muslim creed.
Marlantes: Absolutely, yeah, it was prevalent. They were more of a minority, but the Black Muslims were very important to countering this drug culture. That's why I've got Henry in there, who represents the gang drug culture, which I think did an enormous amount of damage to the black community.
Faatz: Oh, yes. Still does.
Marlantes: Yeah, if I had to choose between the two, I'd choose the Muslims every time.
Faatz: I was just reading a book about Malcolm X and how the Muslims cleaned him up in prison.
Marlantes: Yeah, and then I think part of that group assassinated him. It was awful.
Faatz: Those were scary times. I was eight years old in 1968 and that stuff was very formative to me.
Marlantes: It had to be. Detroit was going up in smoke. There were snipers shooting people in Newark. Watts was burning down. I mean, holy-moly, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, Malcolm X. The country was just raging.
Faatz: You mentioned T. S. Eliot earlier. I bought Eliot's Selected Poems and I memorized "The Hollow Men" because it so powerfully captured the era of the time.
Marlantes: Yeah, he wrote after the First World War but it absolutely fit.There is considerable "Wasteland" imagery in Matterhorn. I mean, that hill itself is the wasteland.
Faatz: I hadn't thought about that, but you're absolutely right. What sort of background other than your own experience did you use in writing the book? Did you read widely?
Faatz: I never read that, but I've read all of Sassoon's poetry.
Marlantes: It's a good one. Robert Graves wrote a great one, Goodbye to All That, pretty bitter, but very good. He's still a great writer. David Jones wrote a book called In Parenthesis which is just fabulous. It uses a lot of Welsh mythology and early poetry, which is really interesting.
I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Bearing the Cross, about Martin Luther King, to try and get into the heads of my black characters. I thought all I need is to have a bunch of black readers thinking I'm just stupid; I got it so wrong. It was a little scary. When I was first writing the book, I skipped right over those scenes because I just didn't think I could do it. But finally I'd gotten old enough to say, "Look, if I get kicked around, it's okay, because at least people will be talking about it, and that's what we need to do." We're still a racist society. I mean, we can all try to be unprejudiced, and that's what I try to do, but I don't have any black friends.
Faatz: I want to touch on Jung again. What sort of stuff did you read that provided the mythic imagery you used to give the book more shape and form?
Marlantes: Jung's autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, was very important because he talks a lot about the spontaneous religious imagery that erupted in his own unconscious, compared to the stuff that we are all presented with in the Episcopal Church and so on. Then I read Man and His Symbols. I remember reading several of his collective works, like Aion, which is a huge book about the collective unconscious. I read a lot of people who wrote about Jung, like good old Joseph Campbell. And Marie-Louise von Franz, who did a lot with fairy tales. And Irene de Castillejo, who wrote about feminine psychology. I just kept reading books in that general area and adding it in. And I read good literature, as well.
Faatz: Like War and Peace.
Faatz: Is it?
Marlantes: I've read it several times. At my foot right now is the new translation by Pevear and Volokhonsky. I'm going to start on that and it'll be my third or fourth time through it.
Faatz: How about The Quiet American by Graham Greene?
Marlantes: Oh yes, I read that when I was in high school. At the time I went, "What do you mean Americans don't have a right?" I was pissed at Graham Greene. He nailed it.
Faatz: What do you think about authors like Tim O'Brien, Larry Heinemann, Michael Herr, or the Vietnamese author Bao Ninh?
Marlantes: Is he the one who wrote The Sorrow of War?
Faatz: Yes, what a great book.
Marlantes: Yeah, superb book. Tim O'Brien is a great writer, and [Michael Herr's] Dispatches is an important book. Phil Caputo's A Rumor of War is also an important book. I read all of those and I have nothing but high regard for them.
Faatz: The advance reviews and blurbs for Matterhorn are outstanding, including starred reviews in Publishers Weekly and Library Journal. You must be very excited. What's going on in your mind as you embark on this big, new adventure in your life?
Marlantes: William Stafford was interviewed by a reporter — he'd just won some big award — and the reporter said, "Well, Bill, how does it feel to be getting famous?" Stafford turned to him and said, "I try not to inhale." [Laughter] That's exactly the way I'm feeling right now: Just try not to inhale, Karl, because it's really heady right now, but in six months there'll be somebody else.
I have the advantage of having a mom who was Finnish. I don't know if you know that culture, but they don't count their chickens before they hatch. We haven't sold a single book yet, you know.
Faatz: So are you going to tour for the book? I know you're appearing at Powell's. What other cities and venues are you going to?
Marlantes: Grove has me scheduled at a lot of the other independents. I'm going to be in Oxford, Mississippi; then Durango, Colorado; Santa Barbara; Vroman's in Pasadena; at Elliott Bay in Seattle. Then there's going to be a Southeast tour: Washington, D.C., Pensacola. And in the Northeast, Andover Bookstore in Massachusetts. Then I'm going to go to several Barnes and Nobles, because they did that Discover program and were important. Grove's got me booked up until Father's Day, basically.
Faatz: You're going to be a busy man.
Marlantes: My wife is groaning, but we both said, "Look, two years ago you would have died to be in this position." It's going to be hard work, but I'm delighted.
I'm an introvert and it's not going to be easy, but the one thing that's wonderful about this business is that everybody loves books and they're sort of excited [about this one]. I can't imagine what it'd be like as a politician, where people are lying in wait to get you. I don't have to worry about that, so it's nice.
Faatz: What new literary projects are you pursuing?
Marlantes: I've already started working on another novel and I finished a nonfiction book. I haven't got a title for it yet, but I facetiously call it "The 15 Things They Can't Teach You in Boot Camp and Maybe They Shouldn't." It's about the relationship between spirituality and combat. Look at any of the major religions of the world, like Buddhism, for example — being in the moment all the time, being aware of your mortality all the time, being in the sangha, in other words, in the church, in the group, sacrificing yourself for the good of others instead of your own self — I mean, every one of those things lines up with combat.
Of course, we're talking about the other side of the coin, but I'm writing that there are some connections in here. Why is combat so compelling for people, and why is it an experience that they never can settle down from? I can never settle down from it. It's a book that tries to answer my own questions. I don't even know if it's publishable, but it's helped me a lot. I wrote it at the same time I was writing Matterhorn, and I just cleaned it up and put it aside.
I think I'm done with war now. There are other things to write about.
Books mentioned in this post