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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

History, Fiction, perspective and the Search for Truth

When I started writing the book that eventually became IN THE SHADOW OF SURIBACHI, I thought that everyone would be pleased. I began the project with a trip back to my home town with my daughter. We armed ourselves with a laptop computer, video camera, a voice recorder and a list of issues that I was determined to explore. My sister gave us a room and seemed eager for me to find the answers to the many questions we both had about our strange, troubled childhood. I packed my car and headed south with little trepidation. The events I would be researching were 30-40 years in the past. Most of the main characters in this story were long dead. I looked forward to rummaging through old closets, libraries, and cemeteries.
It’s not that I believed it would be easy. My family has more than its share of dark corners and black secrets. However, I planned on shining the blazing light of my investigation into those musty places and come away with TRUTH – at last. That’s a good thing, right? I soon learned that I was na├»ve – and what I considered preparation to write a book about me and my family could be viewed as a crusade by others. I also relearned a hard-to-accept tenet – truth and fact aren’t necessarily the same thing.
My educational background is varied – I studied writing at the University of Arkansas in the mid-1960s, engineering science in the mid-1970s, Chemical Engineering in the early 1980s and Business in the early 1990s. I have, as they say, “been around.” I worked in the Oil and Gas Industry for years. When I left the corporate world, I was the Director of eCommerce. If there’s one thing I knew how to do, it was collect and analyze information. I could focus. However, I could be so focused on an idea, project, or event that I never noticed the anxieties such determination created in others. This failing, I discovered, was the proverbial “mixed blessing” in the coming adventure.
My trip to Arkansas resulted in more tales than I could possibly represent in a single book. It included background information on family intrigue, two murders, mental and physical genetic disorders, war, abuse, and a great love story – all set against the backdrop of history. In interviewing the remaining players in this saga, I was struck by the disdain that people felt for the perspectives of others. One person would describe an incident in great detail that would be fuzzy in another’s memory – although both were principle actors. There were times that the narrations were so different that I didn’t realize they were the same story until later.
Interestingly, when there were discrepancies, my subjects were quick to accuse each other of “lying.” The passage of time was only one issue. Most of these events were colored with passion. For example, when my grandfather was murdered in 1962, everyone thought they knew who ‘did it.’ Suspicion often had nothing to do with reality. Ancient rivalries and antagonisms fueled perspectives. When presented with physical evidence that contradicted someone’s prevailing opinion, folks told me that such evidence was “wrong” and that they knew better. When asked to explain, they couldn’t – they just “knew.”
At first, I thought this was a function of my dysfunctional family. Now, after having written several books on historical events, I’ve come to understand that this is human nature. For example, when my coauthor Pat Avery and I were interviewing the survivors of the Sunchon Tunnel Massacre, the men accused each other of being “full of s__t.” They assumed that if something didn’t happen to them, it didn’t happen. It was a source of great anxiety too. How dare that other guy “lie” about such things?
What we discovered over time was that if we assumed that that everyone was being “truthful”, we could explain discrepancies. One man might be in the front of a long line of POWs while another might be at the end of the march. Where a person was positioned could change how they saw things. In addition, the physical or emotional state of a prisoner could influence how effectively they collected and stored information. A man who was shot and bleeding out might not notice the same things as one who was uninjured.
Then there are the social issues. If a man expected a particular race or rank or type of person to have certain attitudes, he ascribed those attitudes to behavior that might have other interpretations. For example, my father believed that the Japanese were “sneaky.” Therefore, when a Japanese person would avoid “looking him in the eye,” he believed it was an example of their inherent sneakiness. When I went to Japan and learned that they believed that it was polite to avoid eye contact with someone that they respected, it became clear to me that my dad’s existing ideas created a different reality for him. He wasn’t lying, he was just describing how he saw it. It was a small leap for me to appreciate that who a witness is – how he views himself and his world – can change how he describes an event.
So, back to my trip to Arkansas. There was one final thing to learn about writing from this experience. I spent a month interviewing people – and collecting information. I talked to relatives, neighbors, police, private investigators, religious people, military people, librarians, historians and other witnesses. I read newspaper clippings, scrapbooks, trial transcripts, and other legal documents. I rummaged through boxes of clothes and pictures. I found old guns, knives, bloody flags and bracelets made out of Japanese airplanes. I was as confused as to the TRUTH of things as ever.
How to write a book that would allow my audience to experience the perspectives of the people involved in these stories? First, I had to narrow it down to one message – one aspect of the story. I chose to focus on my dad’s stories about his experiences as a young marine at the Battle of Iwo Jima. That was problematic though. When I was ten years old, Daddy had a “nervous breakdown.” He was afraid that someone was chasing him and that someone was going to shoot into the windows of our house. He’d slam on the breaks of his car, jump out and threaten the hapless driver who’d been tailgating him. He couldn’t eat or sleep. He’d sit in his recliner, using Dristan every few minutes to get rid of a “bad smell” that only he noticed, and cry. At one point, he tried to kill us and his mother and himself. They took him away and he remained in a mental hospital for months. In those days, people looked down on folks with mental and emotional problems. Doctors didn’t really know how to treat what Daddy was experiencing – so to “calm” him, they gave him shock treatments. When he came home, he was pale, thin – and he couldn’t stop talking about Iwo Jima. After a while, my mother couldn’t stand listening to all the gory details and she’d walk away from him. I listened though – partly because I was the right age, partly because I suddenly felt motherly about my own father, and partly because he didn’t give me any choice. These were the stories that haunted him – and as an adult, I thought they defined not only my father, but me. I grew up with Iwo Jima on my back too.
Once I had my focus, I had to decide how to go about it – should this be non-fiction or fiction? At the time that I was going through this process, another writer – James Bradley was doing something similar. We spoke on the phone a few times – marveling at the complexities of our fathers’ lives and how different and how similar their experiences had been. James Bradley’s father had been a Navy Corpsman who, along with five others, raised the flag on top of Mount Suribachi a few days after D-Day. My father was a Marine who fought all 36 days on the island below the mountain – his group was killed off to a man except for him twice. James had already decided to go the nonfiction route – and his approach was broad—the entirety of the historical event limited only by time. His book, FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS, became a best seller and a motion picture.
I chose to focus on one group of guys who were not famous and whose deaths broke my father’s heart. That made it even more crucial to decide how to handle the material. First, how accurate was my dad’s memory? His reveries were emotional and filled with the self-loathing of survivor’s guilt. My research had determined that Daddy’s Dristan addition combined with alcohol explained much of his psychotic behavior, but did those things also impact his stories? Hundreds of hours in the library, pouring over military records, exploring on the internet and talking with other Iwo vets confirmed the general outline of his experience. However, there were certain stories – like the specific circumstances surrounding the deaths of his friends that no one knew but Daddy. All of their deaths were ugly. Their parents were gone. Their siblings were elderly. They never grew up to have wives or children. Did I want to dig up sorrow in second and third generations once or twice removed?
In the end, I chose Historical Fiction. I consider it a great compromise. It allowed me to explore not only my father’s perspectives – but also those of his friends as well – without the pleasure of speaking with them personally. They came from all parts of the country, so I was able to use other historical events to introduce the boys that went to war in February 1945. For example, my dad often spoke of his sergeant. Although he was only 22, my father and his fellow marines were 17 and 18 years old. To them, the sergeant was an ‘old man’ with experience in the ways of the world. Daddy described him as “wise” and a “hero.” “I trusted him completely,” he often said. “I would have followed him anywhere.” In fact, he did.
To recreate the man that elicited this admiration in my father, I lucked upon a story one day when I wandered into the library in Key West. In 1935, Islamorada was struck by a deadly hurricane that blew over a locomotive sent to rescue World War I veterans who had been hired to build Highway 1. The images of that event created the perfect allegory for an innocent boy to become the wizened Marine Sergeant who led Daddy and his friends onto the beach below Suribachi ten years later. The day the man I called Emil Kroner learned about death was the same day he learned about hope. That quality was crucial to the story of his relationship with my dad – and what happened to them. In fact, it was more important than the real identity of that Sergeant. It was TRUTH and fact blended together.
The fate of others sometimes confuses and distresses thoughtful people. We cope with that reality with sayings like “only the good die young” or by reading books like “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” I submit that this impression is also a function of perspective. My dad never did figure out why Sergeant Kroner exploded in a mist of blood and bone splinters a few feet in front of him seconds after reaching the beach – while he, a lesser human being, survived 35 more days of fighting and 30 more years of life. Using fiction, it was much easier to let the reader experience this strange cognitive dissonance – in fact, it was easier to show it in the novel than to tell you about it now.
On the flip side, why is it that bad guys don’t know they are bad? In non-fiction, it’s hard to get a reader’s mind around that other perspective. We are all too locked into our own reality to accept it. One of the more enjoyable aspects of being a novelist is that you can explore those alternate ideas from the viewpoint of each character. Daddy’s anguish about the loss of his friends was aggravated by the survival of a man who was a thief and a coward – someone who complained constantly and refused to accept responsibility. Without alienating a veteran and his family (who view him as their personal hero), how would an author explore these themes in nonfiction? Fiction allowed me to create Sweet Tooth Tommy and follow him through his role on Iwo and his ultimate social achievements after the war – and to expose another truth -- not everyone who succeeds in life is likeable.
The messages of IN THE SHADOW OF SURIBACHI are those of emotion and human reaction. As I often tell people, of all the things I have written, this piece has my heart. Historical research along with information collected from many Iwo veterans allowed me to set the stage believably. My painful relationship with my father gave me a basic understanding of the sorrows associated with PTSD. Fiction freed me from the distractions of conflicting information and angry arguments over the accuracy of specific events or conversations. Blending history and fiction gave me the tools to tell a straight story that is both personal and philosophical. Perhaps the most intriguing result of this novel for me was the fact that the book has been praised on both sides of the political spectrum. It’s been called an “important anti-war” novel by the left and “supportive of American Troops” by conservative reviewers. It’s really just a story about my Daddy.

Joyce Faulkner
MWSAPresident@gmail.com

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