'We got out and became like everyone else who has been through a war. changed, enlarged and (some things are expensive to say) incomplete... A few extreme cases felt that the experience there had been a glorious one, while most of us felt that it had been merely wonderful. I thought Vietnam was what we had instead of happy childhoods.'
It’s very rare to meet two god-like writers in one evening but that’s what happened.
Hunter S. Thompson was in London, hanging out and writing stuff for a magazine, for which he was being paid, or part-paid, in coke. It was definitely in a pub in Covent Garden but the date is uncertain (Autumn 1986 perhaps). The Editor was going down there to meet him and sort out the deal and I tagged along.
We walked in the pub and there was the unmistakable figure of Hunter at the bar, tall and built, with glasses and cigarette holder, wearing one of those kind of fishermen jackets that anglers, reporters and photographers wear, with lots of pockets.
I stayed at the bar while the Ed and HST went to the toilets to sort things out. When he came back to the bar, he stood right next to me.
How to start a conversation with this legendary towering personality? I asked him how Oscar Zeta Acosta was. Oscar was the attorney in ‘Fear and Loathing’ and had written a great book ‘Autobiography of A Brown Buffalo’. That got me some attention and we chatted amicably and fairly briefly before he left.
I was in an excited daze after that meet but then the Ed or someone else said you know who that is sitting over there. I stared into a darker corner of the bar. That’s Michael Herr, author of ‘Dispatches’. My God! My hero! Without a moment’s hesitation I went over there, emboldened perhaps by my recent encounter, where I was able to say hello, say how much I admired ‘Dispatches’ and other pleasantries. I think I might have mentioned the idea of an interview. We shook hands.
Michael had moved to London in 1979 to avoid the celebrity generated by the publication of ‘Dispatches’ (1977 in the US/1978 in the UK) and the launch of ‘Apocalypse Now’ (Premiered 15th Aug 79 [US]/Dec 79 [UK]).
I got the interview, tied into the launch of ‘The Big Room’, a large format paperback featuring paintings by Guy Peellaert with text by Michael. At that time I was working for The Guardian. The interview with Michael was conducted at another London pub – the Brompton Arms – on 9th October 1986. I interviewed Guy on the phone. The final piece, containing a tightly edited version of the two interviews, was published on Wednesday 22nd October and the book was officially published two days later.
I republished The Guardian piece in The Generalist on January 29th, 2009 [See Previous Post: GUY PEELAERT: Rock Dreams & The Big Room], the day when The Guardian finally ran Guy's obit, which carried a quote from my interview. He had died on 17th November the year before.
Michael and Guy’s publisher in the UK was Picador Books, run by Sonny Mehta, one of the greats of modern publishing, who, for the last 30 years, has been running Knopf in the US.
There was a party at Sonny’s apartment, which was held sometime shortly after the launch of The Independent (7th October 1986), at which I met Michael and Guy together. I remember the timing because Germaine Greer was there, flicking through the paper's latest issue and saying they needed to get a crossword. Salman Rushdie and many other luminaries were also present.
This transcript of another chunk of my interview with Michael Herr– published here in full for the first time - focuses on his early years and Vietnam. It has been augmented with extra material I gained from doing a phone interview with Michael shortly after our initial meeting.
In preparation for this work I collected together all Michael’s books: ‘Dispatches’, the second edition of Guy Peellaert’s ‘Rock Dreams’ (to which MH contributed a new introduction), ‘The Big Room’, ‘Walter Winchell’ (a hybrid between a novelised biography and a film script) and a short but incisive and revealing book on Kubrick, published as a homage after his death, as a counter-point to the off-colour obits and commentaries that Herr felt unjustly represented this iconic filmmaker.
Herr of course worked closely with Coppola and his film editors on ‘Apocalypse Now', helping to refine the film’s structure and providing the telling narrations that give voice to Martin Sheen’s inner thoughts. He co-scripted the screenplay with Kubrick's ‘Full Metal Jacket’ which gained them an Oscar nomination.
Few of the greatest writers have written so much and published so little. As he discusses in this interview, he wrote very slowly, using pencil and paper. Each sentence being scrutinised and re-tweaked, no doubt to effect a form of prose that was dense and insightful, often describing diaphanous ideas and states of mind so subtle that it required a man of deep insight to produce their charcoal outline. He was a master craftsman with a remarkable ear for a memorable passing phrase and a sharp eye for keen detail that brought the bigger picture to life.
Herr gave relatively few interviews for such a celebrated writer. Having lived in London from 1979, with his English wife and two daughters, they all decamped back to New York in 1991 and later moved upstate where Herr stayed out of the limelight and became a practising Buddhist.
" [I have] complicated ambivalent feelings about the interview process. You always feel like, when you read them, that you’re just honking your brains out. Not much is revealed really. [It’s an] awkward and artificial convention."
I covered the anti-war movement [in] an extensive magazine article [for the] New York Times Sunday magazine in 1964 but [they] never ran the article, even though I finished it and I was paid for it. I don’t know really why they didn’t run the article but I have my suspicions: deliberately spiked. It was very sympathetic.
JM: Do you have a copy of it?
MH: I don’t even have a copy of ‘Dispatches’, let alone the juvenilia I wrote when I was 24 years old.
JM: Your biographers are going to have a hard time.
MH: I’m hoping to discourage them in advance.
‘Herr was born in Lexington, Kentucky, on 13 April 1940, and later grew up in Syracuse, New York. He attended Syracuse University, but ultimately dropped out in favour of a wayward life of travel - akin to writers like Ernest Hemingway.
MH: Syracuse was always - when I was a kid and for years before - one of those cities that was so normal in every American respect it was used as a test site for a new automobile, new washing machine, movies, Broadway shows, It was considered a magic town where the equation, the numbers, were just perfect. If they liked it there, everybody had reason to believe they'd like it.
My dad had a mercantile, merchandising, retailing background. He managed a small department store until his death [and] bought a couple of motels.
Syracuse was like a combination of a farm community outside with a kind of hard industrial core inside. [It was] just close enough to New York to not be the Mid-West but, in many ways [it was] the Mid-West, with Mid-Western values: Republican. It was a great place to grow up actually.
JM: Where you always looking towards the big city?
MH: I think I started living in New York City in my mind when I was about 10 years old and I just had to wait eight or nine years to send my body along because I was a kid.
JM: So was writing always going to be a thing for you?
MH: Since I was a teenager. Since adolescence, The first things I remember writing were imitations of S.J. Perelman stories, New Yorker magazine [articles] and then, inevitably, Hemingway and then whoever I was reading.
When you're young and you are writing, you write like whoever you are reading for a long time. Any writer will tell you that reading a book is work too. It's a creative act and there's a way in which, no matter what anybody says to about your work, it never means the same as when another writer says they like it. You feel better and, if there's a knock, you don't feel so bad about it but you take it very seriously. You consider there's a real possibility that you were a little over the top here, a little lax there.
I never really studied writing, I just wrote. Rod Serling was a cousin of mine, Very useful, when I knew I wanted to become a writer, to have a very successful example in the family, made everybody feel a lot better about it. Rod did the ‘Twilight Zone’, wrote dramas in the so-called Golden Age of American television, very famous in their day. I loved him very much, very fond of him, quite close, rather distantly related but very close. He was encouraging.
When I was very young, 19 or 20, I was asked by New Leader magazine to be their film critic. I don't think it exists any more. It was a sort of left-wing, more radical than liberal magazine.
I didn't last very long because, one, I was very young, two, I had no politics. I was totally saying the wrong things - at first, quite innocently and, eventually, out of sheer perversity - because it was hollow, doctrinaire.
The trouble with politics is that it's adversarial - here it's nothing but adversarial - so there's no impulse towards some consensus. That's one of the problems with politics, the other one being the people who become politicians, and the rest of it being, I don’t think I know what the word means. You know, when I hear the word ‘politics’ it has no real meaning for me. It's like a dead word.
TRAVEL JOURNALISM: HOLIDAY and ESQUIRE
JM: So you started travelling a lot and eventually you went to Vietnam.
MH: I worked for about a year as an editor on a magazine called Holiday which was a wonderful magazine in its day. Its cover was as a kind of glamorous travel and leisure magazine but actually it had great writing in it and often on very strange subjects, subjects you never would imagine would appear in a magazine like that. V.S. Pritchett wrote two major pieces every year, often book-length pieces. Hemingway wrote for them, Faulkner wrote for them. It was interesting except I wasn't doing any writing, just having lunch a lot. That was great for a little time.
JM: So then you went straight to Esquire?
MH: I never really belonged to Esquire. I did freelance pieces for about three years, mostly so I could travel all over the place including Asia, South America. Travel stories, I hope, with some atmosphere, modesty.
|Photo by the legendary Vietnam war photographer Tim Page. |
His moving tribute to Michael Herr can be read here.
'I WAS THERE TO WATCH'
JM: Did you approach Esquire with the idea of going to Vietnam.
MH: Yes I did, 1 wanted to go. I had wanted to go for quite a while but all the ways I could figure out of going there I knew were a mistake because my peculiar pathology, my peculiar talents, didn't lend themselves to that kind of journalism of deadlines and obligations.
Esquire was really prepared to send me, knowing that I wanted to write a book. It was very informal, amazing, because they were really taking on a lot of responsibility by accrediting me as a journalist.
I wanted to go. I wanted to write a book about the Vietnam War. I felt that we were getting all the facts and lots of pictures and tremendous coverage [but] somewhere, something just wasn't being communicated. There was a lot of confusion, most of it moral confusion.
JM: Presumably you're army experience had given you great sympathy for the ‘grunts’ if you like.
MH: Not really. My army experience was a joke. It was basic training, eight weeks as a clerk typist. I had basic infantry training. So I don't know if it was grunts as grunts I had sympathy for. It’s really hard to know where you acquire sympathy.
I went into the service at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis [October 16–28, 1962] when, in fact, I happened to hear that I was about to be drafted which would have meant a two-year hitch. So I instantly got in the reserve programme which meant six months of active duty ‘cos I knew it was unavoidable. I was going to have to serve, one way or the other, so I took the short route. That meant I was exempt from the draft.
JM: Were you anti the war?
MH: In the shortest possible answer and in a word, yes. I was anti the war. It was more complicated than that.
JM: Where did you first land?
MH: Saigon. You virtually had to spend a week in Saigon before you could go on, to get your papers in order, both with the Vietnamese government and the American mission. You'd got to get your field gear, got to find a place to live, meet a few people, see where to go, how to go.
JM: Were you required to file stories during the time you were there?
MH: No. I was only there eleven months, make it a year, because I did have a three or four week break but it was after I’d been there almost ten months. So even though I was in Hong Kong I was still on the story in a funny way.That’s why it was extraordinary that Esquire ever sent me because they didn’t really require anything of me. There was some vague idea that I would write a monthly column. I was there two weeks when I saw what a preposterous idea that was and I wrote the editor Harold Hayes. [He] was a great editor. There’s no-one like him anymore. I hate to sound like some old pooperoo but he was really extraordinary. He didn’t care. He said just do what you want to do. So I did.
JM: ‘Dispatches’ didn’t come out until very late 1977. Were you working on other things?
MH: No. I was working only on that, I had a few really rough and woolly years where I wasn’t really writing much of anything and I was barely making it – a very marginal existence.
I always felt - I’ve said this before and I believe it – it’s very unpopular to say it to the Veterans ‘cos they don’t want to know this:
I don’t want to minimise what they suffered or what I suffered even though I know I had a better time than they did. I may have actually been in more combat than they were but I had a better time ‘cos I never had to. I didn’t have to. That’s really what it was about, I didn’t have to be in combat nor did I have to go through those horrible long interludes between combat, which are a kind of combat.
Whatever it was that happened to me a year or so after I came back from the war wasn’t simply the war. It was everything, it was my whole life and the war had crystallised certain problems, emotional problems. The war just set that off. Whatever it was, man, I was really paralysed for a couple of years.
I was in New York City which was a very bad place to be when you’re going through that kind of rough time. I think if you can survive a period of extended breakdown in New York it gives you a lot of strength. You can survive anything.
JM: Was the Vietnam War the death of conventional journalism?
MH: I never was a conventional journalist. It didn’t seem to kill conventional journalism, on the contrary. But for me, I never thought of myself as a journalist. A writer always, even if I was carrying a card that said I was a journalist. Well they didn’t give cards to people who called themselves writers. You had to have a journal behind you.
JM: Was it a slow and difficult process to write ‘Dispatches’? When was the first time when you realised you had a hold on what you'd experienced?
MH: I felt it strongly from the first piece I ever wrote and I felt it really strongly when I was writing the Khe Sanh thing. A lot of the book appeared in Esquire, all but two sections, [which] appeared somewhere else.
I didn’t want to finish it, man, I just didn’t want to finish it. That’s really where it was at. I simply didn’t want to finish it. Then I did.
JM: Why didn’t you want to finish it?
MH: Complicated. Because you become so attached to those horrible negative states of mind.
If you think that you’re writing a book that will change your life if you finish it, you don’t want to change your life. It’s like having to move house in the middle of the night. Even if you know it’s going to be a great house, infinitely preferable to this hovel you’re living in, you don’t want to make the move ‘cos you’re so attached to that depression, negativity.
But then I just got fed up. I sort of had that moment when I sort of touched bottom. It had a strangely cathartic and cleansing effect and I said, alright, let’s do it. Used it up, just totally. You get yourself in these awful positions and then you use them up.
JM: So how did you feel when Coppola came to you?
MH: It was as soon as the book had been published. I think I heard from him within a few weeks of the book being published: He told me of his dream for the movie at great length, very operatic. Then I sat down to what I remember as being a nearly five-hour assemblage. It wasn't even really a cut; an assemblage of footage that they had had for a year.
They'd been back from the Philippines for a year, worked on it, on and off, for an eighteen month period, on more than just the narration. I got involved with the shape of the film. I spent a lot of time working with the editors, timing the narration spots.
Everybody knows there's a problem with that film but it's a great film. Everyone says the same thing. I say it too. That it's like two films that never quite meet so that, in a way, there's never a payoff and that's a big formal flaw in a work of art.
All I can say is that ‘Apocalypse Now’ survives that flaw. It's a great film. I never had one second of regret for being involved in the film or working with Francis or being exposed to really interesting information, interesting people.
If it was totally up to me I'd never write another film but I sure don't mind writing films. I like writing films. I like movies. I like the people. Excepting Sonny Mehta, I like them a helluva lot more than I like publishing people. You know where you stand.
JM: What do you think about the ‘Rambo’ movie?
MH: I think it represents the kind of male hysteric violent unquiet. Everything that's most brutal and violent in the American psyche perverted. Perverted. It's not like Jesse James. We know too much. We should know better by now. If we don't, man, we'll never know.
He's a false hero. There's no innocence about that proposition. It's all very manipulated. It gets real nasty with ‘Rambo’ and it gets real political. It's comic book politics. Plus it wasn't even very well made, so you've got that gripe too. It wasn't like a consummate action adventure film where all the details work and the production was beautiful and it was great to look at.
It had this horrible self-pity about it too. It was self-righteous, self-pitying. I mean God, man, John Wayne, at the worst moment he ever had on screen, never stoops to that kind of self-pity and it was self-pity.
But what do I know, man. I saw it on a video. I’m not up to going down the street with all my brothers and sisters and sitting in a cinema on 42nd Street and listening to the crowd. I mean I did that on ‘Death Wish’ and it really depressed me, I mean I felt like I was really standing on Dover Beach for sure and the last boat had just left and I was there with this crowd screaming for blood. And I'm not a liberal, I promise you man, I'm not a liberal.
JM: What are you?
MH: A Jeffersonian Maoist, man. I don't know what I am. Sometimes, man, I have a political swing like people have mood swings, you know. I swing from left to right, depending on what the phenomena is that I’m looking at, but one thing I can really say: I could be a fascist, I could be a radical, I could be many things at many moments but I don't have that liberal impulse any more. I plumb wore it out in the ‘60s. I wrote it to death. Just doesn't hold water. I think we're sitting in the wash of a lot of misguided liberal ideas and actions.
JM: Presumably a lot of people in America feel the same way,
MH: A lot of people everywhere feel the same way.
THE DISPATCHES EFFECT
JM: Does it surprise you there's a resurgence in Vietnam publishing.
MH: No it doesn't surprise me. It would surprise me if it hadn't happened. If I could say this to you off the record: It sounds very boastful. I know that I broke the Vietnam War in the culture. That I sort of broke the story as a respectable... as something that wasn't just polemic or just a political thing or a piece of news. I broke it as a cultural event.
It encouraged a lot of people to write about the Vietnam War. It encouraged publishers to publish books about the Vietnam War because, at the time ‘Dispatches’ was published, that was absolute poison. You didn’t publish books about the Vietnam War. It was a foregone conclusion they were going to be a commercial disaster, break their author’s heart.
JM: So you tested the market.
MH: I just wrote a book and published it but I knew that the book would have an impact. One of the results [was] that, between the book and the films that were coming out at the time, it was suddenly a serious subject for serious writing. Now there are dozens of books every year and three big films to come out.
JM: Tell me about Stanley Kubrick?
MH: I wrote a film with Stanley Kubrick, a Vietnam film called ‘Metal Jacket’ [based on a book entitled ‘The Short Timers’] by an author called Gustav Hasford, It’s extraordinary, Scripted it with Stanley. He’s extremely particular.
Once again I must say that I was thrilled that I was able to work with him. Whatever his reputation may be elsewhere, in other departments: one, I don't totally believe it and, two, I never had that experience. I got on great with him. I mean, essentially, Stanley wrote a treatment, I wrote the script, he rewrote the script, I rewrote the script. When shooting started, things 'had to be rewritten occasionally, and we would do that.
JM: How does the view of the Vietnam war portrayed in the book compare with film version?
MH: I think it's very similar. It's more inside in a way. Gus was a marine and the characters are all combat marines in combat situations and it really gets into the marine corps ethic.
It does leave you feeling a lot of ambivalence. It’s full of great, dark, Melvillean ambiguities and it’s very potent writing, He's a natural incredibly gifted writer. [Off the record, the guy is a looney tune]. You read the first section of the book, which is basic training [and] boot camp, and you finish it and you feel like you've read a whole novel but it's only 23 pages or 28 pages. He has a kind of economy and power.
JM: A lot of the movies being produced these days are about Vietnam in the same way that movies of the ‘5Os are about World War Two.
MH: I don't know. I haven't the faintest idea.I don't know where the Vietnam War sits in the American psyche and where it is in the memory. It won't go away but, whether there’s any enlightenment or not, I don’t know.
JM: Have you been to the Vietnam Veterans memorial wall?
MH: No. I tell you man, I functionally said goodbye to Vietnam when I finished the book. I refused for years to speak about it, write about it, do films about it and I refused right up until Stanley contacted me, I wanted to work with him. I loved his movies since I was a teenager. I wanted to work with him. I like him enormously. I’m very fond of him.
That really is it. I never wanted to get involved in anything public. I never wanted to participate in the 10th anniversary celebrations or commemoration, whatever they were. It seemed like some kind of celebration with nothing to celebrate. I mean it was treated in the media like the re-dedication of the Statue of Liberty [with] not much discrimination, I was asked by virtually every network and major magazine to jump in and I told them all I really wanted [was] to remember that anniversary in my own way, real private.
The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen is considered by many to be one of the greatest books on the Vietnam War published in recent years. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction this year and numerous other awards. The author is a Vietnamese American who is an associate professor of English and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California. Its a gripping and highly readable well-told tale which is part historical fiction, part espionage thriller and part satire. Its narrator is a Vietnamese army captain, a half-French, half-Vietnamese communist sleeper agent who escapes to America at the end of the war. He tries to adjust to life as an immigrant but he and his military colleagues hatch plans to return to Vietnam to battle the triumphant Viet Cong. In-between he signs up for a job on the set of a Vietnam movie (clearly based on 'Apocalyspe Now'), to recruit and manage Vietnamese extras. The book's struck a big chord in the US, bringing fresh perspectives to a conflict that is still an open wound. Its dark humour sprinkled with visceral reality brings to mind 'Catch-22'. An important and thought-provoking work.
'The Sorrow of War' (1991) is a novel about a man writing his experiences of the Vietnam War. Bao Ninhwho served with the Glorious 27th Youth Brigade of the North Vietnamese army and is one of only ten survivors of the 500 who set out in 1969 to fight the war.
The book's protagonist Kien feels a burdensome debt as if he's 'carrying with him the history of his generation.' and he is forced to relive in flashbacks the horrors he witnessed, scribbling at night as if his life depended on it. The opening jungle chapter catapults you into a visceral, surreal world of darkness and danger - one of many vivid scenes of front-line conflict that pepper a story which also encompasses a intense and tragic love affair.
To cut to the chase, this is as powerful and moving as Michael Herr's 'Dispatches'. It is an outstanding work that provides a valuable insight and perspective on the War from the North Vietnamese side – a much-needed corrective. [Originally posted August 2012]
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