Pam Cole's interview with Elizabeth Partridge
COLE: Can you talk about the seed for Dogtag Summer? Where did the story originate and how did it develop over time?
This story found me, and stayed with me. Many years ago my husband hired an electrician to help him do some wiring at his family’s ranch. After they finished, they sat in front of the fire, talking. The electrician was a Vietnam vet, and began telling my husband about his war experiences. It burst out of him as if he couldn’t stop himself.
His stories of combat sat in the back of my mind, waiting. It made me think about the complexities of war, for everyone involved. Every so often I wondered if I could do justice to those complexities in a novel. Years passed, and finally I started working on the idea in earnest. I read books about the war, read personal stories on the internet, talked to vets and to Vietnamese who’d been involved in the war.
My husband and I bought a small place near his family’s ranch. One day my friend Sydney Feeney helped me clean out an old burn barrel that had been sitting, unused, on our property for years. She jumped inside the huge, rusty barrel and dug her shovel into the ashes. “What’s this?” she said, as she pulled up a shovelful. There was a dogtag half buried in the ashes. I pulled it out and rubbed the ash off to read the words punched into the aluminum tag. It belonged to the vet whose stories I’d heard long ago.
COLE: Can you talk about your use of flashback to inform readers about Tracy’s childhood in Vietnam. Did you consider using another style, approach, and/or even another character to help the character (and reader) remember her past?
I originally wrote the scenes with Tuyet in first person, present tense, to make everything as immediate as possible while I was writing. This way, everything happened exactly in Tuyet’s point of view, and life came at her as if it were a surprise. I imagined the scenes and let what I was experiencing come out my fingers onto the keyboard. Later I went back and put the scenes into past tense, third person, which gave me more distance. I filled in things I knew the reader would need to know, such as: where was the river in relation to her grandmother’s house?
At first I resisted jumping back and forth between two the different times and places. I tried putting all the Vietnam scenes first, and then the American scenes, but the novel felt flat. I’m not a very experienced novelist, and I felt I was on the very edge of my capabilities when I arranged the book alternating back and forth between Vietnam and America. It felt dangerous—if it didn’t work, it would fail spectacularly. But in the end, it felt right for Tuyet’s past in Vietnam to be revealed as she was remembering it in America.
COLE: What was the most difficult scene in the story to write and why?
Absolutely the hardest scene to write was the one in the American military base in Da Nang, when Tuyet is trying to save her mother and her mother is trying to save her. That was excruciating to write, especially in first person. Both of them were in an untenable position, and no good outcome was possible.
Some of the scenes I didn’t write—couldn’t write—still haunt me. What happened to Tuyet’s mother? To her grandmother?
COLE: Can you talk about how you drafted the novel? Did you share the story in multiple stages with others? What type of feedback was helpful in the writing process?
Dogtag Summer went through many stages. It took me a long time to really know the characters: their needs, their weaknesses and strengths, and what they secretly longed for. The main way I learned about them was through researching the historical period they were living through, and then writing scenes. First I kept a journal as I read and learned and researched. I kept a second journal when I took a trip to Vietnam—how things looked and smelled, memories people shared with me, the children in the orphanage I visited, the silence and inexplicable peacefulness of an old battlefield.
Then I wrote a couple hundred pages of scenes. These were still not anything that anyone could read. I don’t belong to any writing groups, as I tend to write for a long time in a kind of stream of consciousness way. Finally I started to shape more real scenes, and then I was able to ask a few writing friends to read it. They were encouraging about the good parts, and yet honest about where I could make it stronger. Once I was feeling close to a final novel, I had several thoughtful people read it for historical accuracy.
COLE: The themes of loss and the importance of human connectedness are central in this story. What do you hope young readers will take with them when they close the pages of Dogtag Summer?
I hope readers will get a sense of how complicated war is, and how it reverberates forever in the people who were caught up in it. I hope I also touch on how the connections of the heart save us, over and over again.
COLE: You’ve written a number of books, both fiction and non- fiction. Is your writing process the same for both genres? Writing nonfiction and fiction both start for me in a similar place: something strikes me as really interesting, and I’m curious to know more about it. Generally what I write requires lots of learning,
which I love. I am truly an archive rat—I could spend my life reading in a library. But at some point I start to feel I know enough to put a book together, and then I’m eager to challenge myself and see if I can convey some of my enthusiasm in a book.
In Dogtag Summer, there are a number of different groups of people, often working in opposition to one another. There were poor Vietnamese families, trying to survive the war. There were Vietnamese fighting against one another. There were American GIs, and their particular codes of ethics and conduct, vocabulary, and living arrangements in a foreign country. In America, there were rednecks and hippies, people working and people living on the land. I loved bringing them all together.
COLE: What will you remember the most about writing this book?
I’m not sure yet. I loved how generous and open-hearted people were with me, sharing memories of how profoundly the war touched them. It was amazing to take a trip to Vietnam.
One thing I loved exploring in this book was the constant interplay between good and evil. We humans do such horrible things to one another, and then we redeem ourselves with an amazingly selfless, gracious goodness.
COLE: How have you changed (and grown) as a writer over time?
Over time I’ve become more able to see what makes a good story. I know when a story has the layers and conflict that will make it interesting. I’ve also realized that the main thing you need as a writer is persistence. I’ve found that just stubbornly keeping at it, day after day, things that seemed impossible start to work. That’s a really satisfying feeling.
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