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Tracy KidderDescribe your latest project.
I am making a few last revisions to a book about the year I spent (June, 1968, to June, 1969) as a soldier in Vietnam. I was a junior officer and commanded, in a manner of speaking, a detachment of eight enlisted men. Like the majority of American soldiers who were sent to Vietnam, we were never in combat, at least not in combat with the prescribed enemy. It's a book, I think, about various lunacies of youth, or at least of my youth, especially the romanticism that accompanies wars, that seems indeed to help make wars possible.
I started work on this book nearly twenty years ago. I used to turn to it in between other books. I think I'll miss having it to work on, in part because it has partially filled an old yearning of mine to write fiction. Memoir, as has often been said, is named for the most plastic of human faculties. In my view, it occupies an undefinable area between non-fiction and fiction. The title of my book is My Detachment, all possible meanings intended. Random House tells me that they plan to publish it in the fall of 2005.
I eagerly recommend Stuart Dybek, the author whom I recommend to practically everyone I meet. I should confess that he is a personal friend, but a friend I endeavored to make first of all because I greatly admired his writing.
Chicago is one of the few American cities with a discernable literary tradition, staunchly realistic and focused on place. Dybek has extended that tradition. At the center of almost everything he's written there is a Chicago neighborhood of Mexican and Eastern European immigrants. His depictions of the place and its people are economical and vivid; people and place come to life on the page. But while his stories and poems are anchored in realism, they all have another dimension, a haunting, parable-like quality. His synthesis of the realistic and fantastical is distinctive. Indeed, it feels wholly original. For all their literary virtues, his stories and poems seem like genuine responses to his own Chicago, capturing not just the visible, audible life of his neighborhood but also the old folkways and dreams abroad in the place. What he creates is a mythical world, like Joyce's Dublin, or Faulkner's Yoknapatawphaw County, or Kafka's Prague.
Dybek has published two collections of stories (Childhood and Other Neighborhoods and The Coast of Chicago), a collection of poems (Brass Knuckles), and many stories and poems and other short works that are difficult to classify. His second book of poems, Streets in Their Own Ink, will be published in November this year. Last fall he published another book of fiction, called I Sailed with Magellan. It's labelled "a novel in stories," and in this case the label seems apt. I think it's the best of all his books, which is saying a lot, because I like all of them immoderately. So I'd start with I Sailed with Magellan.
Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.
Some chapters back, one Bulkington was spoken of, a tall, new-landed mariner, encountered in New Bedford at the inn.
What section of the newspaper do you read first?
Fahrenheit, Celsius, or Kelvin?
What do you dislike most?
In the wealthy countries, there are many people, many groups, who want to help in places such as Haiti. Too often they go to work in an impoverished spot; they discover that it is very difficult to get anything done in the absence of the most basic necessities, such as clean water and roads and electricity; and then they rather quickly declare defeat, blaming the people they were supposed to help. I dislike that pattern, largely because I have witnessed the work of one group, a Boston-based charity named Partners in Health, which has had remarkable success in improving public health in one of Haiti's most impoverished regions.
Partners in Health goes about its business in a way entirely different from the depressing norm. When, as inevitably happens, they run into problems and make mistakes, they try to figure out what they, not the Haitians, did wrong. They don't leave. They fix their approach. Moreover, they insist that Haitians be involved at every level of every project. Their approach has worked, and goes on working. I've seen it with my own eyes. For that reason, I also dislike the pessimism that some experts in various fields continue to express on behalf of people who live in the desperately impoverished places of the world. And, of course, I dislike the pessimism I still sometimes indulge in myself, on behalf of people far less fortunate than I am.