An Interview with Ellen Emerson White about Her Historical Fiction on the Vietnam War

  • Grades: 6–8

Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D. & Eleanore S. Tyson, Ed.D.: Dear America books are intended for female readers while the My Name Is America series is aimed at young men. Where Have All the Flowers Gone?: The Diary of Molly MacKenzie Flaherty is a Dear America book while the companion novel, The Journal of Patrick Seamus Flaherty, is part of the My Name Is America books. How did these two different audiences influence your writing?

Ellen Emerson White: I just write the stories the way they want to go, and presumably, the audience will either come along for the ride — or not. I think that readers who select books purely on the basis of which audience they might fit will miss out on a lot of good books. A book is a book, and if the subject matter interests you, you should read it. I don't see any reason why male and female readers wouldn't like both books — or dislike them — equally.

RFA & EST: Please tell us about the research you did for The Journal of Patrick Seamus Flaherty: United States Marine Corps, Khe Sanh, Vietnam, 1968.

EEW: Obviously, I read a great deal, including things like official USMC after-action reports, and the like. I had already written several books about the Vietnam War, but they were all about the Army, and the Marines have an entirely different outlook and flavor. So, I concentrated on reading as many first-person accounts by Marines as I could find. That gung-ho USMC attitude was a vital part of the journal. Also, I got a bunch of military videos — most of them extremely obscure — and watched them, to get a visual sense of what was going on in Vietnam. The most interesting part for me was picking up a number of photo albums (yes, I confess — on ebay!), with pictures taken by soldiers who served in-country. I've ended up with quite an impressive collection. Not only are the photos themselves interesting, but the soldier's choice of subjects in each case helped give me some insight about what was really making an impression on teenagers serving in Vietnam. I was helped, in this book, by the fact that I'm a huge football fan, so at least that part of it was easy to write.

RFA & EST: You have written six books that deal in some way with the Vietnam War, and you've spent a good deal of time reading the many books that have been written about the war. Other than your own novels, what is your favorite book on the Vietnam War? Why is that?

EEW: Tim O'Brien is probably the single best writer to come out of the Vietnam War, and I particularly liked his novel, The Things They Carried. The first book I ever read about Vietnam, back when I was in high school, was Dispatches by Michael Herr, which is still one of the great books about the war. But readers should keep in mind that most of the writing about this particular war is very dark, and maybe not for everyone. Nothing about war is pretty, and the books about Vietnam reflect this more than books about most other wars in our history.

RFA & EST: Leaving out your main character, Patrick, which character in this novel are you most pleased to have created? Why?

EEW: Bebop, no question. As it happens, I play the saxophone myself — badly — and it was fun to be able to use some of my jazz knowledge in a book. It always surprises me to find out how many people don't like jazz. I'm more of a hard-bopper, than a fan of bebop — but Bebop is just a much better name. That character came to life in a fun way for me, but I also liked the fact that he wasn't afraid to admit that he didn't like sports and was only interested in the idea of Jackie Robinson. His self-confidence was very appealing to me. The little Sound of Music scene probably doesn't belong in there, and yet, I think it was in character for him, especially given John Coltrane's famous interpretation of My Favorite Things. Also, frankly, it was a little private joke for my niece. I have to admit that I enjoyed the cranky, ill-mannered Rotgut, too. For me, he represented a certain kind of tough, mean Marine — and yet, he was still able to work with the other guys, and was very much admired by them.

RFA & EST: There were certainly plenty of other battles you could have written about other than Khe Sanh. Why did you chose this particular battle?

EEW: For one thing, it was one of the few battles in Vietnam which received major media coverage back in the United States. I needed a battle which Patrick's sister Molly would be hearing about on the news and reading about in the papers every day, and Khe Sanh certainly fit the bill. I also liked the idea of Marines being stuck on a hill, not being allowed to go out and engage the enemy, as Marines prefer to do, which leads to a certain amount of feeling stir-crazy and trying to find ways to entertain themselves. The Marines who served at Khe Sanh were under constant, daily attack for many weeks, which was a great contrast to our usual images of soldiers marching around villages in Vietnam and planes dropping bombs.

RFA & EST: Is Patrick's journal a novel about friendship or war?

EEW: I don't know; that's a good question. I think it's both, but as far as I know, that's the essence of war for most soldiers. Most of them fight - and sometimes, sadly, die - to defend their friends, because in the heat on the moment, they aren't thinking about things like freedom and democracy, but rather, the safety of the people they have come to love. If they had met in America, Patrick and Bebop probably never would have even spoken to each other - and yet, in Vietnam, they became the best of friends, despite having very little in common.

RFA & EST: Youngsters are always looking for advice about writing from their favorite authors. What advice would you offer students who dream of becoming writers one day?

EEW: There's only one piece of advice that I have ever found helpful — and that is to read as much as possible. Writing in and of itself is a technical skill, which can be learned by practicing, but the more you read, the more you learn and keep opening your mind to new ideas and different points of view. A writer who doesn't read — voraciously — is never going to be a very good writer, in my opinion.

RFA & EST: What is one thing you hope young readers will take with them after reading The Journal of Patrick Seamus Flaherty?

EEW: Obviously, I don't want anyone to come away with the idea that war is glamorous or fun, because it isn't. It's ugly. Serving one's country is one of the finest things a person can do, but we'd all be a lot better off if wars were no longer fought. Unfortunately, after the events of the last year, it is clear that that is a dream which is fairly distant right now — but it's a goal I hope we can always keep in sight.

Interview conducted by Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D., Professor of Literature for Children and Young Adults, University of Houston and Eleanore S. Tyson, Ed.D., Clinical Assistant Professor, University of Houston, Department of Curriculum and Instruction, Houston, Texas.

  • Subjects:
    Social Studies through Literature, Vietnam War
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