When my novel, The Lotus Eaters, first came out, a reviewer identified it as the Vietnam novel with the bibliography at the back. Forty years after the fall of Saigon, it is still a bit of a shock to consider a period that so many remember as their youth now referred to as history. I was a young child at the end of the sixties, living on a military base. Although I certainly didn’t understand the war, it became an obsession into my adult life. I do not at all consider myself a historical writer, so when the idea first came to me to write about the war from the perspective of a female combat photojournalist, the prospect was terrifying. I tried to push the idea away. There are masterful accounts of the war by soldiers. In my opinion, no one will ever come close to Tim O’Brien’s books on the war. But the story that kept nagging at me was a very different one — one that almost required the kind of distance from the events that I had.
In any war novel, the war itself becomes a character, an active force in the lives of the people who must live and struggle through it. We all know how the war ended — the indelible images of the helicopters withdrawing Americans from rooftops in Saigon — and I felt that it would be coy to not acknowledge that end. This is a storyteller’s decision, not a historian’s. My focus was not on what happened, but why. The question became how to reconcile that ending with the casual beginnings in the late 50’s, early 60’s, when no one could imagine what the war would turn into. It required a diving into research, putting myself in the mindset of my characters during that time, sure that there was no other possible outcome than American victory.
That year-plus of research was spent with non-fiction accounts of the war by historians, soldiers, and journalists. I read extensively about the history of colonialism in Vietnam. Almost a hundred years of French domination that the Vietnamese finally threw off. Would they likely accept Americans or trust our motives? I read first-hand accounts by Vietnamese workers (read slaves) who worked at the Michelin rubber plantation under the French and suffered horrific abuse and exploitation. Those are the people whose descendants were able to live for months at a time underground, in the tunnels of Chu Chi.
Most of my research never made it into the book: I studied the weapons, supplies (I even got a field survival manual and C-rations. No, I did NOT eat them!). Vietnamese poetry, American rock music, classical Vietnamese music, Vietnamese food, and the oh-so-difficult tonal language where the wrong emphasis can be disastrous. I spent many days wandering Westminster (Little Saigon), near where I live. I heard stories and watched. The older generation all came around 1975. The place shares, along with most ex-pat communities around the world, a suspended sense of time. I never felt any of these experiences were wasted time for me as the creator of this very specific world. Instead, they fed my imagination and fueled the years of writing it would take to finish the book.
Although I had been to other parts of Southeast Asia, I had not been to Vietnam as part of my research. Time and money issues, but also the fact that I was concentrating on the setting of wartime, of combat. By the time I had been writing the book five years, I became superstitious that the world I had created might become unavailable to me if I were to add modern Vietnam to the mix. This last December my husband and I finally went. A magical experience, but I do not believe it would have altered anything in the novel. It was very much a trip of closure. Right now, getting ready to revise my second novel, I am again writing short stories set in Vietnam — but, big change, they are all set in modern Vietnam. The past of the American war that I lived in my head for so long, inexplicably, has receded.
Everything I’ve described so far was only the first step of the process. Research, as involving and illuminating as it is, does not make a book. It is merely the foundation. Now I had to actually write a story to go inside this world.
Tatjana Soli is a novelist and short story writer. Born in Salzburg, Austria, she attended Stanford University and the Warren Wilson MFA Program. She lives with her husband in Orange County, California, and teaches through the Gotham Writers’ Workshop.
A review of her debut novel The Lotus Eaters can be found on In The Next Room here.