Tuesday, June 2nd, 2009
“I wanted to tell the story that would be accurate, true to the lives and deaths of my Marine brothers, and give a non-military reader an honest, nonjudgmental look at what might have happened if he’d gotten swept up into the events of the time as I did.”
Several years ago, Jack McLean began transcribing the over one hundred letters he had sent home to his family while serving in the Marine Corps. He was hoping to pass the story on to his daughters. Shortly after, he let a few fellow veterans read some of them and realized that he had something important on his hands that needed to be shared. Deciding that the book had to be completed, Jack did what any disciplined Marine/writer would do: He put the rest of his life on hold and moved into a friend’s garage until the job was done. The result was Loon: A Marine Story, Jack’s fascinating first-person account of his long and unpredictable journey from confused teenager to Marine to, finally, student at Harvard University.
I recently sat down for an IM conversation with Jack about his writing process, revisiting old memories, and his editor’s demands for full disclosure.
Chris Teja: What made you want to share your story?
Jack McLean: The book began as a simple legacy for my three daughters. As I wrote and several years passed, I realized that it was having a powerful impact on Vietnam Veterans and their families.
You were sharing it with other Veterans while you were writing it?
Yes. I began my transcribing the 100+ letters home that I’d written while in the Marine corps from 1966 to 1968. I then shared them with several of my Charlie Company buddies that I’d recently found. This was six or seven years ago. They then passed virally through families, kids, etc., and they always came back saying they wanted more. So I kept writing and sharing along the way.
Wow, that’s a really interesting way to start writing a book. Were there any events, political or otherwise, that gave you a push to finish it?
During this period, my life was in increasing turmoil. I got fired from several jobs, my second marriage was failing, and, Yankee that I am, I wasn’t particularly comfortable writing about myself or my life experiences. When I told this to Terry Tillery, he grabbed my shoulders and said, “Look, you have the story, we don’t. It’s not just your story, though, it belongs to all of us. You know how to write, we don’t. You have contacts that may be useful in getting the word out, we don/t. So, quit feeling sorry for yourself and get back to work. We ain’t gonna be around forever, you know.”
Haha. That sounds pretty motivational.
It really set me straight, which must be why the moment remains so vivid. I never looked back after that, not even for a second. I stopped looking for work, left my wife, moved in over Terry’s garage in NC, and finished the book. I was still over a year away from having a finished manuscript.
I loved how you talked about how you just sort of fell into the Marines—mainly because you didn’t want to go to college right away. How do you feel about that now looking back?
The same, really. Except for the almost getting killed part, the Marine Corps was a positive experience for me. I could have gone to college, Andover would have shoe-horned me in someplace, but I really wanted a break and, well, there was a draft. One or the other. I was pleased that I was able to get into a program that would last two years. Little did I know at the time, Vietnam was still a country and not yet a war.
It’s amazing to me that the book takes place over just just two years because of the drastic changes you go through, both physically and mentally. Was it difficult to revisit those formative years?
When I began, it was very difficult—traumatizing. I suffer from PTSD from my Vietnam experience, so even with counseling and lots of support, it was really tough to read the letters and begin. I had, in fact, never read them since I wrote them. Once I got into it, however, maybe after six months or so, writing became its own therapy. I’d find myself laughing out loud at some of the dumb-assed things we did as kids, and gently cried for each of the boys we lost.
I can’t imagine putting yourself through that a second time. Was there anything in the letters that you were hesitant to include?
No. I initially made it a point to include every part of every letter. After a time, I began to edit a few of them, not so much for content, but for context. When I began working with my editor Katie Hall several years ago, she felt that my prose would be of greater value to telling the story, than just the letters. Now, I think there are parts of, maybe, two letters left in the book. Not surprisingly, there was no mention in the original letters of my R&R experience, the true horror of LZ Loon, or the liquor store incident in LA…
Those were some of my favorite parts!
LOL. Mine, too. When I first wrote about my R&R, I stopped the story when I got to my hotel room and took a bath then picked it back up on the forth day when I saw the newspaper with the Columbia account. When the edits came back from Katie, she had a huge note next to it that read, “Your reader—AND your editor—want to know what went on during the first three days!!
Haha, that’s so funny. The book does a pretty amazing job of showing the experience from your point of view while also filling in the context of what was happening in the world. Do you see it more as using your life to talk about the war, or as using the war to talk about your life?
Context is so important in the telling of any story. The staggering world and national events of 1968 are well documented, but readers may not realize the impact that they had on us as well. There were two events that really hit me during my writing and research. The first was President Johnson’s dogged determination to go to war with the Vietnamese and, thereby, accepting as fact the ridiculous story about the US Destroyer Maddox being attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin. I was writing while the Iraq war was ramping up. The parallels were just so incredible. The other was that the USS Pueblo was captured intact, crew and all, in late January 1968 by North Korea. It was the first time since the War of 1812 that a US ship had been surrendered without a shot. It also occurred several weeks before the historic Tet Offensive when thousands of North Vietnamese poured into the South. Certainly, as I mention in the book, the leadership of the North must have been greatly emboldened by our cowardly stance with the Pueblo.
But I see it as using my life to tell about the times. So many people are now openly curious about those years generally and Vietnam specifically. Few had the stomach or inclination to speak about it until now, but for books and movies driving hard political agendas. So few with the ability to stay in school served. That included just about everybody I knew on the outside. I wanted to tell the story that would be accurate, true to the lives and deaths of my Marine brothers, and give a non-military reader an honest, nonjudgmental look at what might have happened if he’d gotten swept up into the events of the time as I did.
That’s so weird. That’s exactly what I wanted to tell you about my experience reading the book…
Thank you. I’m pleased to hear you say that.
I could never really see myself joining the military, but I completely related to your description of not knowing what to do after high school and definitely could have seen myself making the same choice while I was reading it.
Had I a third choice back then—no matter what it was—I would have taken it! Without the draft, kids have choices that we didn’t. The military certainly isn’t for everyone, but I do feel that national service can benefit all. Freedom isn’t free, as we always hear, but there are so many vitally important things that we all can do to serve and protect this country and most don’t require a firearm.
That’s very true. Your book ends on a pretty optimistically with you studying at Harvard. Is there anything you would change if you could go back?
Like everybody, at any age, there are dozens of things I’d change—every day, every step of the way. But then, I wouldn’t have gotten to where I am now. I like where I am now. I am fortunate in ways that I could never have possibly imagined and none have to do with money or possessions.
Well you wrote an amazing book, so I definitely wouldn’t want you to do anything that would change that.
Thank you, Chris. It poured from my pores.
So my last question is a standard for every SMITH interview…What’s your six-word memoir?
Oh shoot, I figured this was coming. Hang on a sec………
Comfortable life, war, write Loon, recover.
That’s great. Was that off the top of your head?
Yes. If you give me more time, I’ll never get anything done.
READ an excerpt from Loon
BUY a copy of the book
SEE Jack McLean read his work