Q: Your new book, Murphy Station, is coming out twenty-nine years after your first. Why the delay?
A: I have been an active scientist for a long time and science in the American academy is a challenging and competitive career field. Staying current, staying competitive, and keeping my research funded sucked up almost all my time. I simply didn’t have the time, or was it stamina, to remain both a scientist and an author in other areas. Long story short, I wasn’t going to quit my day job, so writing had to come in second place; well, maybe even third since I had a family, too! Still, I enjoyed writing and knew I wanted to find an opportunity to do more of it. Retiring a bit early from the University of Virginia gave me that opportunity.
Q: Your first book was Once a Warrior King (OWK). There are hundreds of books about the war in Vietnam. What’s so important about yours?
A: OWK is not just a story about an American G. I. doing the conventional troop duty in Vietnam, even the usual infantry duty. There are a lot of brave guys who did that, but I was assigned to something different. My job was to carry out counterinsurgency and counterguerrilla operations in an area the size of many American counties. I didn’t command a platoon or a company of Americans, I and my team of four other Americans led and advised the Vietnamese down in their villages. That job had particular challenges that have been little written about. I thought it was important to get those experiences in writing, not only as a tale of war, but as a warning, maybe in some ways a help, to those who would come after.
Q: Why did you choose to use a pen name for OWK?
A: There were two prominent reasons. The first was that I had already done a lot of writing as a scientist and had a scientific career under the name of Terry Turner. The kind of objective, just-the-facts-ma’am writing required for science is very different from the kind of writing that appeals to general audiences. I wanted to keep those two styles and those two careers separate. The second reason was that I found it much easier to write about myself as David Donovan. I could step under the umbrella of that other name and tell stories that would have been much harder for me to tell as Terry Turner. A mental trick, I guess. Call me crazy. Anyway, having adopted the name, I’m going to stick with it.
Q: Have you been back to Vietnam?
A: Yes. I went in 1992 before you could get there from here. It was one of those I-knew-a-guy-who-knew-a-guy kinds of thing. I had the help of a former interpreter for the 9th Infantry Division. I made it back out to my village and it was a great experience. I’d love to go again!
Q: Do your experiences in Vietnam speak to the counterinsurgency effort being made today in Iraq and Afghanistan?
A: Absolutely. Anyone having read OWK would have been able to anticipate the difficulties imposed by cultural and religious differences when a western country goes to war against a country in the east. They should have known that local corruption would be a cancer eating at the heart of any effort to rebuild or reconstitute such a country. They should also have known that westernized elites from those countries often over-promise the democratic tendencies of their more traditionalist countrymen. Also, the traditions of tribe or village over country are difficult for westerners to give credence to, yet they are a part of the experience discussed in OWK. On the other hand, for the soldiers, especially soldier-advisors, in the current conflicts, I hope the incidents, emotions, and methods mentioned in the book can be some sort of guide. What is now called “asymmetric war” is at its heart counterinsurgency. It is small-unit, in-the-bushes warfare conducted in an atmosphere where winning the approval, even the affection of locals is vital to success. OWK is the story of one such war in one village, but its application, I think, is much more general.
Q: Murphy Station is another memoir. Why this one?
A: Murphy Station is a story of the American South during a difficult period in American history. We had America was facing the challenges of racial integration and the cold war, both things that kept tensions high for twenty or thirty years. As a young boy growing up in the South during those times, I was watching the adults around me. Their ways, their actions and reactions, were the influences that made me who I am for good or ill. There are tens of millions of Americans who were young in those same times, who experienced in one way or another those same tensions. Murphy Station is an attempt at not forgetting. Parts of that world were warm and lovely. Parts were not. Remembrance helps us tell the difference.
Q: Both your books so far have been memoirs. Are you going to stick with non-fiction?
A: I have ideas for other non-fiction books, but right now I’m trying my hand at fiction. I hope to have something ready in the next year or so.
Q: In both of your memoirs, you say in your introductions that you have changed peoples’ names. If you’re telling about real events, why not use real names?
A: I realize this is a problem for some. They fear it can become a license to simply make up stories. I have done it for two reasons. The first is that I write under a pen name. If I change my name, I think it’s a simple consistency to do the same with others. Secondly, it’s hard to write a nice, tight narrative when you are constantly having to introduce new characters and describe their particular trait or tic that makes them interesting for the point of the current story. Too many people pop in and out. Too much text is spent explaining nuances that have already been explained for a similar character. My remedy has been to avoid slow-downs and side-ventures by combining a couple of similar, real characters under one name. Perhaps a more skilled writer could do better, but that’s what I decided to do and why I say in the introductions of both books that the memoir is a characterization, not a photograph.