I returned to Vietnam in '94, and even then, all those decades later, walking around that place, I remained afraid. And, in some ways, rightly so.
I could feel my moral compass as a soldier, in danger of - I could feel the squeeze, the pressure of frustration and anger and fear combining on me... I felt the danger; I felt the squeeze of it.
Who do you call a civilian in a guerilla war? I mean, it might be a farmer by day or a merchant, a housewife, and by night the housewife may be helping to make landmines and booby traps and who knows.
Pinkville was called Pinkville because in the military maps, it was shaded a bright kind of shimmering pink, which signified what was called on the maps a 'built up' area, which was extremely misleading - 'built up' only meant there were little villages and it wasn't just desolate paddy land or unpopulated.
I live in my head all day long and the world is a little dreamy.
Inside I feel much like a 12-year-old or a 17-year-old who knows big words.
Fantasy has a dark side to it. It also has a light hemisphere - the power of the human imagination to keep going, to imagine a better tomorrow.
After each of my books about the war has appeared, I thought it might be the last, but I've stopped saying that to myself. There are just too many stories left to tell - in fact, more all the time.
War is a fundamental aspect of human existence. It's good to know what war entails and what the human sacrifice is.
A small, seemingly inconsequential event can determine a life.
I carry the memories of the ghosts of a place called Vietnam - the people of Vietnam, my fellow soldiers.
It's one thing to say you're for the war; it's another thing to send your kid to war - your daughter or your son.
A bullet can kill the enemy, but a bullet can also produce an enemy, depending on whom that bullet strikes.
Place is so important to me. The Midwest is like a ghost in my life. It's present as I look out the window now. I see Texas, but if I close my eyes and look out the same window, I'm back in my hometown in Worthington, Minnesota, and I cherish those values and that diction.
The human life is all one thing, like a blade tracing loops on the ice: a little kid, a twenty-three-year-old infantry sergeant, a middle-aged writer knowing guilt and sorrow.
I know what it is to feel unloved, to want revenge, to make mistakes, to suffer disappointment, yet also to find the courage to go forward in life.
In books or films, it is desirable to have a climactic battle scene, but the world does not operate in those gross dramatic terms. In Vietnam, there was a general aimlessness, not just in the physical sense, but beyond that in the moral and ethical sense.
America before the 1960s was a pretty innocent place. We were the Lone Ranger galloping off to the rescue of the needy and the oppressed of the world, and we could get things done.
If I see a phrase that strikes me as ugly, I'll delete it. Or, if I find a way to say something a bit more freshly than it was expressed originally, I'll do it. Ultimately, you want to try to leave behind the best possible paragraph or sentence.
No matter how wonderful the story, it has to move on something, and that is language. The words that I use, the pace, the rhythm and cadences all need to be there. If they're not there, the story is like a boat that just sits there and doesn't move on the ocean.
I received my draft notice right after graduation from college and had three months before going into the Army in September to think about it.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, our soldiers signed up intentionally. That's a huge difference from the largely conscripted army of my era.
I didn't get into writing to make money or get famous or any of that. I got into it to hit hearts, and man, when I get letters not just from the soldiers but from their kids, especially their kids, it makes it all worthwhile.
Poetry is not an issue of form and enjambments. Poetry, as the word is classically used, has to do with sound and sense. It can be rhyme. It can be rhythm, pace, breath.
Stories can encourage us and embolden us to face ourselves and to feel. Stories can make us feel less alone. If we're reading a story that moves us, we can feel that emotion that I feel towards my father or mother or girlfriend. So they can give us late-night company.
When writing, I'm not thinking about war, even if I'm writing about it. I'm thinking about sentences, rhythm and story. So the focus, when I'm working, even if it's on a story that takes place at war, is not on bombs or bullets. It's on the story.
I don't think I'd call myself a war writer, but I would probably say I'm a writer who has written about war.
In the summer of 1954, after several years in Austin, Minnesota, our family moved across the state to the small, rural town of Worthington, where my dad became regional manager for a life insurance company. To me, at age 7, Worthington seemed a perfectly splendid spot on the earth.
Unlike Chicago or New York, small-town Minnesota did not allow a man's failings to disappear beneath a veil of numbers. People talked. Secrets did not stay secret.
I showed up in October 1946, part of an early surge that would become a great nationwide baby boom. My sister Kathy was born a year later.
From the year of his birth in 1914 until the outbreak of war in 1941, my father lived in a mostly white, mostly working-class, mostly Irish Catholic neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York.
When you're so close to material, it would be as if you had come out of a bad marriage. You would be so close to it that you would be paying attention to detail that may not mean a whole lot for the reader.
When I have a book I enjoy, I'm partly in the book. I'm not just observing it.
The word war itself has a kind of glazing abstraction to it that conjures up bombs and bullets and so on, whereas my goal is to try to, so much as I can, capture the heart and the stomach and the back of the throat of readers who can lie in bed at night and participate in a story.
For me, the way to approach a subject such as Vietnam is through storytelling.
Above all, a well-imagined story is organized around extraordinary human behaviors and unexpected and startling events, which help illuminate the commonplace and the ordinary.
To be memorable and to have dramatic impact, informational detail must function actively within the dynamic of a story.
In fiction workshops, we tend to focus on matters of verisimilitude largely because such issues are so much easier to talk about than the failure of imagination.
To provide background and physical description and all the rest is of course vital to fiction, but vital only insofar as such detail is in the service of a richly imagined story, rather than in the service of good botany or good philosophy or good geography.
The wars don't end when you sign peace treaties or when the years go by. They will echo on until I'm gone and all the widows and orphans are gone.