A Conversation with Hawk Koch and Molly Jordan

Every season I invite two guest authors to visit the Unlocking Your Story workshops. We dialogue about the creative process behind the writing of their books, and glean valuable insights that help illuminate our unique paths as storytellers. Guest author visits are also an opportunity for workshop alums to re-join the mix. These reunions create a real feeling of community and are by far some of my favorite events of the year.

This fall is the first time that BOTH guest authors are former members of the Unlocking Your Story workshop, and we now celebrate the release of their books! It is truly soul satisfying.

Wendy Adamson's debut memoir MOTHER LOAD, which dropped this past May, follows a little-league PTA mom down the rabbit hole of addiction and through her journey of recovery and triumph. Molly Jordan co-authored her husband Hawk Koch's memoir, MAGIC TIME, which captures his extraordinary career in the movie business. I recently had a chance to interview Molly and Hawk together, and have included our conversation below. You can also read my conversation with Wendy from April here.


 
 

Starting as a production assistant in 1965 and working his way all the way to the top, Hawk Koch has been intimately involved with the making of over 60 major motion pictures, among them such classics as “Marathon Man,” “Chinatown” “Wayne's World,” “Peggy Sue Got Married,” “Heaven Can Wait,” “The Way We Were” and “Rosemary's Baby.” He is also the former President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS). Hawk’s memoir Magic Time: My Life in Hollywood, co-authored by his wife Molly Jordan, recounts his amazing journey in show business.

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KARIN GUTMAN: Do you remember how we first met?

MOLLY JORDAN: So, I picked up a flyer, because I was in another writer's group when Hawk and I lived in Topanga. I'm just going to get real down with what happened.

KARIN: Yes, please…

MOLLY: I loved this writer's group I was in, until I heard a comment after one of the pieces that I read, which was like a little bee that went directly into my ear. I know I wasn't supposed to hear it, but the guy said, “Can we get past the depressing mother stuff?” And I thought, “I am in the wrong group here.”

I found your flyer and called. And thank God I did. Thank God I found my way to you because I felt totally safe to say anything, to be held in a way that everyone in the group would hold together. And I can't thank you enough for that.

KARIN: I remember our conversation clearly. I remember you had been shut down for a while.

MOLLY: It shut me down for a long time. Because you know, you write vulnerable stuff and when someone says that, you're going to slam the door for a while. I did anyway. And I really tiptoed… I either tiptoed or stormed into your thing, saying, “I dare you to make me feel comfortable here.” But you did.

KARIN: I’m so glad you took the leap!

Tell me, how did the collaboration between you and Hawk come to be?

HAWK KOCH: Well, for years, I've been making films and was always telling stories about stuff that happened. Everybody would say to me, “Would you please write these down? We can't lose these great stories.” And so, I tried a couple of times and it never went anywhere.

KARIN: What did ‘trying’ look like for you?

HAWK: There was a guy whom I worked with for a little bit and it faded. And then I spoke at a couple of places and people were really inspired. I gave the commencement address at Chapman University, the Dodge School of Film, about six years ago. So I went and met with an agent and said, “Hey, can I get any jobs as a speaker?” And they said, “Well, have you got a book?” And I said, “Well, no.” He said, “If you've got a book, maybe you have chance.”

So, I asked the best writer I knew if she'd work with me. We were going to take a trip up to Oregon, and it was a 10 hour drive up the 5 freeway. I had written down every movie that I had worked on starting in 1965. As we drove, Molly had a tape recorder and she'd say, “All right, so this movie,” and I'd talk about that movie, stories that happened on that movie and what was happening in my personal life at the time. And then Molly came home and transcribed it and worked on it.

Being the certified Jungian analyst that she is, she really understood me. I tell everybody who is a producer, find yourself a certified Jungian analyst to get married to. Maybe you'll have a chance.

And then we got serious about two years ago and said, “Alright, we're going to finish this.” She'd write and then I’d revise or talk to her, and then she'd write. She's the only person I know who can ask the most delicate personal questions and people just answer. It's unbelievable. She would ask me, “How do you feel about this and that?” It was like I was in session with her.

Then somebody told us, “You've got to have an editor.” So, we went out and called a couple of people. We found an editor who wasn't very good, who gave us like five notes. It was ridiculous. Then I suggested a literary agent at CAA who was the first woman to be an agent at Creative Artists in the 1970s.

KARIN: Who was that?

HAWK: Her name was Amy Grossman, now Amy Bookman. She’d known me since 1982 or something. And she's tough. She's from Brooklyn and she's a tough New Yorker. She and Molly kind of ganged up on me.

KARIN: In what way?

HAWK: Two against one. “You can't tell that,” or “You'd have to tell that story.” “Wait a minute, Hawk, I know you and you did this or you did that.” They kind of called me on my shit.

KARIN: What does that mean?

HAWK: I've been married many times and there were certain moments that were so hurtful and painful to me, but they said, “Wait a minute, think about her and what was she going through at that moment.” We had to look at both sides of something like that.

MOLLY: And imagine it as though she were reading the book.

HAWK: So, Amy really did a lot of work, and then we gave it to my three children. I didn't want to publish something that they would feel uncomfortable about. We got different reactions from each one of them.

KARIN: Did they have amendments?

HAWK: Very minor.

MOLLY: We wanted them to feel comfortable. So, we did everything they said, which wasn't much because we had really tried to do that anyway.

HAWK: Then since I'm represented by an agency here in town, I asked, “Do you have a book agent?” I sent it to the book agent and he called me back like a week later and said, “Wow, it's really good.” And I thought, “Oh great, thank you.” He said, “But you know, movie books about the movie business, it's really hard to get a publisher. I'll send it out to three or four publishers and we'll see what we get back.”

And I said, “But it's not just a book about movies. It's a book about fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, mothers and sons.” A week later he called back and said, “Hey, I think we've got one.” We had a publisher, Post Hill Press. They're distributed by Simon & Schuster.

KARIN: That’s amazing, how easily and quickly you landed a publisher.

Can you share more details about how you worked together? Writing is hard work, not to mention that you’re married.

HAWK: She learned a lot.

MOLLY: It was a big undertaking and honestly, I didn't know if I could do it. I've never written a book before. I've been in your writing group, which by the way, Karin, gave me the confidence to think, “Okay, I could take this on.”

Hawk is so wired in the world. He's never asked me for anything. He doesn't need much from me at all. So, when he asked me to do it, I thought, I want to do it if I can. And so, I took it really seriously and I knew that it was going to be challenging sometimes and that yeah, that it would challenge my ego. But if I stayed true to what is in the best interest of this book, kind of like he does on a movie, then I could do it.

I would write all day sometimes and then give him pages. He was also really good about saying, “Have you got…?” you know, “Hand it over.” We had conversations we've never had before, and I asked him questions I would never have thought to ask him otherwise. I think we got much closer through it.

KARIN: How did you find the structure for it?

MOLLY: That's a really good question, because we did work with some other people initially who had techniques for that. I soon found for me that they didn't work. For example, one thing I tried was the Hero's Journey. That just didn't work. So there was really no solid structure until it just became obvious. Hawk started by putting a chronology together of all the movies and then plugging in where his personal life was at that time. So, it became more of an autobiography.

KARIN: Were you following any kind of emotional journey or arc?

MOLLY: What I had in my mind was, can he evolve from a character who doesn't know who he is, to someone who discovers who he is?

HAWK: I had to start at the beginning.

KARIN: What was your writing and editing process like?

MOLLY: I've never written a book, but I have written things. My process is really to go over it—over and over and over—I think because I'm an analyst. There's this image in alchemical texts where you take a piece of clothing and you rinse it and you rinse it and you rinse it and you rinse it and you rinse it… until it's clean. And I did that over and over and over again. I wish I had done it more to tell you the truth. I wish I'd had more time to do it.

KARIN: How do you know when you're done rinsing?

MOLLY: It's a gut thing. I know it when I hear it. I am picky about every word and every sentence. So I get a flinch if something just doesn't seem to meet what I'm trying to say or the right word. I do know it when I’ve found it, but it takes a lot of rinsing.

KARIN: Do you take a break between those rinses?

MOLLY: Yes. That would make me crazy, if I didn't get away from it for a long time. Sometimes days or weeks.

I listened to this Krista Tippett interview with Mary Oliver, and Mary Oliver said this amazing thing, which was really helpful and continues to be helpful to me. She said that there is a poet in her. She said she goes to meet that poet every day and if that poet has something to say to her, she writes it down. She said there is no expectation because she may not speak to her, but she wants the poet to trust her enough to know that Mary is going to be there if this is a time when you have something to say. And so she showed up whether or not she got anything, but there wasn't a judgment about not getting anything.

So that really helped, understanding that some days you sit there and nothing comes or it sucks. Somehow that made all that okay. Because another time you go in to meet that writer, to let that writer know you're there, and she speaks differently. That was really helpful for me.

KARIN: What kind of notes did the publisher have?

HAWK: The book now is about 80,000 words, but we had about 110,000 words. When the managing editor of the publisher said, “You've got to get it down,” we thought, “Oh my God, how are we going to cut out 25,000 words?”

KARIN: Did they have recommendations for you?

MOLLY: They said, “You take a first pass.” So we did, and we managed to do it.

KARIN: What did you cut?

MOLLY: Stories.

HAWK: Lots of stories that are in my briefcase right now.

KARIN: Stories that weren't necessary for moving the story forward?

MOLLY: That's right. That was the criteria.

HAWK: The reason I asked Molly to write it with me, was because I knew how great her writing was. I also had an ulterior motive, which Molly knows, which was, Molly had an unbelievable childhood, and I don't mean a happy one.

MOLLY: Can we please get past the depressing mother stuff?

HAWK: I really wanted Molly to write her story. So now, I'm happy to say because of the positive feedback that we've gotten, Molly is now writing her stuff.

KARIN: That’s very exciting. How do you feel about it?

MOLLY: I alternate between feeling, “Why am I doing this?” and “I'm so glad I'm doing this.” Some days I just think, “What is this? Where's this structure?” But I just keep showing up because I have learned from this process, and I'm getting more comfortable with saying, “I'm a writer.” The more that I can believe that, the more I'm okay whether something comes or doesn't, because that part won't change.

It's brand new for me to start writing. I took a big break after finishing Hawk’s book and then getting through what comes with publishing it. So I've only just started, probably in the last month or so. So it's just brand new puzzle pieces at this point, with no thread.

KARIN: Are you re-visiting your previous work, or are you exploring new territory in your writing?

MOLLY: Yes and yes. I am re-visiting some of those stories that I’d written. I'm looking at them with different eyes and changing them and keeping some of them. Also what is coming, are stories that come to mind. To be specific about the physicality of it, I started a notebook, which I didn't do with Hawk’s book. I have a section with the heading ‘story ideas’ or ‘stories to include’. Stuff I've already written, little notes, writing notes and things like that.

Someone recently said, “Don't commit to the project, commit to the writer.” That was very liberating because every time I get trapped with, “What is this going to turn out to be?” I just commit to the writer in that Mary Oliver kind of way. Just go in there and show up—and the rest… figure it out later or don't.

KARIN: Do you find it harder to write your own story versus someone else’s?

MOLLY: Much more. It was difficult because it's someone else's story, but my own value didn't really enter into it as it does now. I'm just back in that process for my own sake, and I am really in that struggle of trying to find the value in it. When I hear that come up, I remind myself, “Do it for the writer, not the project.” But it is a struggle.

HAWK: The words “show up”—I show up. I show up for family, I show up for my friends, I show up for the business. And so I would say, if you're writing, show up. Don't find an excuse if this is what you love to do.



Buy the book!

To learn more about Hawk Koch,
visit his website.

See all interviews

 
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Molly Jordan, Karin Gutman, Hawk Koch and Wendy Adamson

Molly Jordan, Karin Gutman, Hawk Koch and Wendy Adamson

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A Conversation with Jason Cochran

I had a great time reconnecting with an old friend from college, Jason Cochran, whose book Here Lies America just dropped last week. Jason is a well-reputed travel writer whose love for history inspired him to trek across the U.S. to destinations where horrible tragedies have taken place. Whilst you may think that a dark and heavy topic, Jason's wry sense of humor and quick wit carry you on a fascinating journey through time—think Bill Bryson, but edgier! He weaves in the unraveling of his own family history along the way, too.


Jason Cochran has been a travel authority and consumer expert for 20 years, starting in 1998 when, on a two-year round-the-world backpacking trip, he created one of the first regular travel blogs. He is currently Editor-in-Chief of Frommers.com and co-host with Pauline Frommer of the weekly Travel Show on WABC, broadcast out of New York City.

What would happen if you took a long road trip–but only visited the tourism attractions that opened because something really horrible had happened? In his new book Here Lies America, Jason Cochran romps through American disaster zones, battlefields, Confederate memorials, and terrorist attack sites. Along the way, he takes a look at why these places matter, why some really don’t, and what motivated the people who built the monuments. And when he pauses to seek the meaning behind the early demise of one of his own ancestors, he uncovers a tragic race-based murder plot that had been buried for a century.

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KARIN GUTMAN: Where did you get the idea for this book?

JASON COCHRAN: I'm a travel writer—I have been basically about 20 years. I was working at Entertainment Weekly and burned out on that. I went backpacking around the world for two years, and when I came back, I thought, “Okay I'm a journalist, but what kind?” Well, I became a travel writer. Arthur Frommer hired me. It became my job to go to places and then come back and tell other people how to repeat the tourist experience for the best value. My type of travel writing was never about the machismo of conquering the mountain or the adrenaline rush of jumping out of the airplane. I'm not a consumeristic traveler.

I realized pretty quickly after I started, that many of my fellow travel writers always had one aspect of travel they looked into the most—the folks always writing about food when they travel, or spas when they travel. I found myself most interested in history. I realized that I was less interested in the aspect of the active travel I did, but in the discovery of past worlds wherever I went.

I realized I was a historic person, but you need to travel to cover history because it didn't happen where you're sitting, most of it. In a way, being interested in history is like travel, it's just traveling backward through time. You still have to put yourself in a different mindset to go back to a generation that's not like yours and to try to see things the way they did, just the way you try to go to other countries and then figure out how to fit in. It's almost the same in a lot of ways mentally.

I thought it'd be fun, in a dark way, to go to all the historic sites in America—the battlefields and graveyards that tourists go to—and observe the ridiculousness of what we're doing. I imagined this would be a book of descriptions of fat kids eating ice cream cones on Arlington graves, and inappropriate souvenirs and that kind of thing. But very quickly when I began researching this, when I started in Georgia, I realized that wasn't the story.

KARIN: What happened in Georgia?

JASON: This was in Andersonville, which was an old Civil War concentration camp run by the Confederates near Americus. It's not too far from where Jimmy Carter was born and raised, and still lives. I was in Americus that night at a really old hotel from the 1800s. It was quiet and there was a young kid running the desk. He was asking what I was doing in town. I said, "I have this idea for a book, but I had a hard time today. There wasn't much." He said, "Did you notice the monuments?" I said, "How they're all clustered in one corner?" He said, "No, did you notice how Maryland's is huge, and the other states are much smaller? They didn't lose nearly as many people as the other states did."

I said, "Oh, that's interesting." Then we started to talk about the hotel, and he said, "This was built basically to house people who wanted to come to Americus to go see the concentration camp remains from the 1890s in the beginning of the century." I thought, that's interesting too because there was barely anyone there when I was there. I went back to Andersonville the next day and I looked at the monuments, and sure enough they were very disparate. I noticed, though, that the years on all of them were either at the very tail end of the 1800s or mostly in the early 1900s, which is 50 years after the Civil War.

That was the beginning of me realizing that this is really about the historic sites and who shaped them, and what they wanted you to believe when they did it.

In Georgia, also that same trip, I went up to Atlanta where I have ancestors. I'm from Atlanta originally. My people go back to the 1700s in Georgia. My great-great grandfather reputedly was buried in one of the most famous graveyards in Atlanta, one that attracts tourists. I found him in the graveyard and learned he wasn't very old when he had died. I realized that if I'm going to be fair about this whole thing, I have to look into my own family tragedy while I'm talking about all these other people's tragedies.

The book takes twin paths. While I'm going to all these various sites across the country, and I do from Hawaii to Florida, to everywhere in between, I'm also trying to figure out what happened to the person buried there in Oakland Cemetery. It was my great-great grandfather, and very quickly I find out he was a train engineer who died in a wreck. That much I knew. But when I went up to South Carolina to do a bit of research in the libraries up there--South Carolina is where the accident happened--I found out something that my family had never talked about which is yes, he died in the train wreck but it was sabotaged, and two African American teens were held for his murder and tried for it.

No one in my family had never known this. We had just known about the death. No one ever talked about this murder thing. So the book becomes an exploration of my own family's path and some questioning of how we got to where we are, and why this story fell out of the story, and finding out what other things fell out of the stories at these other sites as well.

KARIN: I love the concept. It sounds like you discovered the personal aspect of the book organically…

JASON: It happened purely by accident. I think even for the first month or so, I wasn't quite connecting the two. I was like, "Oh, I can research my family while I'm out and about." But when I found the clips on microfiche at a local library, that these young men had been held and arraigned for murder, I was furious. I was really pissed off that no one in my family had told me this.

This family that allegedly venerated our ancestor never happened to mention maybe the most salient part of the story of his death. I started to connect my anger with what I was discovering about these sites, how these major aspects of American history had been bent and twisted so they would be more pleasing mythology.

KARIN: Did you ever find out why the boys killed him?

JASON: It's part of the climax of the book, when you finally find out what their story was. There are still some questions. I don't want to give it away obviously, but you do find out the result of the trial.

KARIN: The book sounds more like a narrative than it does a travel guide…

JASON: Right, it's definitely not a guide. There are no websites, phone numbers, opening hours, or admission prices.

There's a rough narrative. As you move along, as I structure it, the uses of these sites become more tactical by political groups, people who want to venerate people or venerate themselves until we get to present day, which I think it's too early for us to really have a clear picture of why we tell our stories the way we tell our stories now. We need for someone else to look at us through the distance of time. But I do talk about what I'm seeing us do that other generations didn't do when they re-told their stories and how they theatrically presented their own worst moments of mortality.

It's not a gruesome book. I tried to keep it very light. I have a sort of self-effacing, wry voice, I'm told. I'm told that I sound like a guy named Bill Bryson, who's an American writer who works in England. I have my very strong feelings about what all this means to the mythology of my country, but it's not a political book.

KARIN: What does your writing practice look like? Do you dedicate a certain period of time to writing every day? Or does it depend on the ebbs and flows on what you're working on?

JASON: I have to fit my writing in alongside my full-time job. My full-time job is also writing, which can be difficult because if you spend all day writing, you don't necessarily want to spend another five hours in front of your computer at night writing. I try to balance that. It's very much when either inspiration or guilt hits me hard enough that I get in front of the monitor. I'm very much one of these writers who has required periods of gestation. That's what Stephen Sondheim called it. He gets the information he needs, he gets the character in the situation, and then he goes away to think about it, and then he comes back and somewhere there it is. That's what I need. I need to not think about it for a while.

For me, sitting in front of a computer for three set hours every single day is not always the best course for me, because I've written a lot of useless things that way, that I've just had to do over again. I mean, I always do it over again anyway, but I find that I'm much better if I walk away from the thing and then I just reach an emotional point where I just have to get back there and get it down.

KARIN: Tell us about your full-time job with Frommer’s… Are you going to an office?

JASON: As far as my work for Frommer's goes, I run the website editorially. I do the assigning and the editing of everyone else. I write two of their books every single year, so my springs are shot because I go to London for a month and a half or two months, and I also do Orlando. I'm there for less than that. Every single spring and early summer I write those books so they're out in December.

KARIN: I see, so you're basically updating your book every year.

JASON: Right, it's all mine. No one else works on it, so everything in it is my keystroke and I can decide what to change every single year. But it's an evolving thing every year because the world evolves.

The nice thing about Frommer's is they've changed as well with publishing. They don't have a bricks and mortar. It's a piece of overhead they don't need, especially with a travel company, with so many people always on the road. Each of us works independently, but of course with computers and everything, we're always “getting together.” I've always been at home, which is terrific. I don't work on my book during the day. I don't take time away from my day job, because I find it too hard to shift gears. The book thing is one set of muscles and one set of emotions, and the day job is much more technical and it's just an old skill. I try not to mix those. I just write at night or on weekends with my book.

I do, interestingly, tend to work in different spots. I work at my standup desk for my book writing, and I go anywhere else basically for work.

When it came to editing my book, I did most all of that out of the house. I worked a lot on this book at Mousso & Frank at the bar. I was the guy at the end of the bar with a stack of papers. I did it at Disneyland, too, believe it or not. There's a bar in the Lagoon at California Adventure, and I would bring my stacks of papers, and edit and cut. Both places had the same question, "Are you a teacher?"

KARIN: Grading papers?

JASON: Yep, that's what they thought. I told them, "No, I'm writing a book."

KARIN: You graduated from Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism, trained as a journalist. I'm curious what your experience has been as a journalist? Obviously, publishing is changing, but journalism is changing too.

JASON: My Medill training in a way did form this book, in that at Medill, you're always told to find primary sources, not secondhand sources for any historic or current fact that you have. I think my always asking that question, trying to find, “Has this been filtered before it got to me?” helped me interpret a lot of these sites I was going to, because I was always looking for the most essential, most basic, most primary truth. I think it has likely informed my entire world view. It's being very critical with my thinking.

Also, there's a joke... My last line in the whole in the afterward is, “This book was made without Wikipedia,” because I very much wanted to find either primary sources or a newspaper account, something that goes back to the source of things rather than from an interpretation of the source of things.

Ever since the day the Huffington Post was big, far too many journalists do what I used to call “clip jobs.” They just collect all this information from all these different places they've found, and they present what they think the story is, or what they interpreted the story to be. I think that a lot of these journalists and outfits today like BuzzFeed, and most of their departments, encourage that kind of behavior because they set minimum posts you have to do every day, minimum clicks you need to get to get paid. When you start thinking that way, obviously you're starting to skew things in order to pay for yourself and speed things up as well.

KARIN: Do you feel like being a journalist today is a viable path, given that there is more “clip job” reporting and less on-the-ground reporting?

JASON: I'm not sure if it's an entirely viable path. There are very few places that I would say still honor wholeheartedly that kind of quality. You're more likely, especially if you're a millennial, to wind up at one of these post mill places where really they're hiring you for your judgment rather than your journalistic ability which are not the same thing.

Now I have to go back and think, was it ever viable? I think in the 1800s almost every journalist was a yellow one, and to sell papers, that was always the name of the game. In a way, we just had an anomalous heyday of lawyer-like standards for journalists, which maybe was never realistic given greed, and corruption, and economic pressures of the world. Maybe we just had a luxury of trying to be as unbiased as possible, because economic circumstances favored us briefly. I also think there's no such things as journalism without bias. I think it doesn't exist.

For example, if you choose to cover a story you already have exhibited a bias by choosing that and not the other thing. I go into it in my book. I ask the question, “Why do we go to all these historic sites?” When all these are forgotten, and maybe more people were killed at those.” So there's a bias to why we record certain things. There's a bias in journalism—do you give it the first story or the third story, the front page or the 10th page? That's a bias. How long is the story? So it's impossible to have journalism without bias. My book, it's very much saying… ultimately, it's impossible to have history without bias. There's no such thing as a fact in history. Physics has facts. Particle physics, the way things move—laws, rules. There are no hard and fast facts on how you interpret how something went down. It's always a bias.

KARIN: Right, even if you have first person testimonials…

JASON: Yes, that's part of it. Even the sources might be wrong, or skewed. Secondly, there's so much that went unrecorded that you may not even know about, because that's history—things just don't get recorded and they don’t get down to you. You can get four dots of the picture and expect to come up with something much more complex out of those four dots; and it's ridiculous, because you're never going to know the truth.

Ultimately, that's what I realized about my own personal experience with my family in the book. I'm never going to know the truth. The truth, as I imagine it might be, isn't very pleasant. But I'm never going to know really what happened. I go to Stone Mountain in Georgia, which was the KKK ritual spot. My great-great grandfather’s son became a photographer for the newspaper. On the side, he would shoot KKK meetings for them. The debate is, was he or wasn't he? We'll never know. That's not the kind of thing people write down.

KARIN: I know you had to travel quite a bit to write this book, right?

JASON: Yeah, I went to more than 70 places.

KARIN: What’s the secret to carving out time for your passion project—the thing that you want to do, the thing that wants to be birthed—while maintaining your job and life?

JASON: My circumstance is that I am a travel writer. I happen to have very generous bosses, who will let me go places. We don't have a bricks and mortar. They don't expect me to be there all the time. So if I'm working one day from South Dakota, they're okay with it. I would tag it on to other trips I was taking, for work often, so I slipped things in when I could. Sometimes it's vacation time, sometimes it was business trips, sometimes it was working while I was traveling.

Which is one of the reasons it took years, because I had so many places to get to. I went to a lot more places that I had to cut from the book too, maybe another 40%, because the lessons I was learning at the places were repeated things that I had already learned at other places that I had decided to include.

KARIN: How long did you work on it?

JASON: About eight or nine years, off and on. A lot of off, but with the on, it was pretty intense.

KARIN: How do you feel, now that it’s out in the world?

JASON: I'm very proud to have it in my hands, and kind of never thought it would even happen because there were so many setbacks and roadblocks. Structurally, it was difficult to arrive at what we finally arrived at. I feel proud and grateful. I have yet to hear much feedback from people, because it's just out.

I have an uncle in his 90s that's an old school Southerner, who loved it, but says that there are some people who are going to get really mad at me because of some of the things I say about the South. “So, be careful.” Yeah, that's fine. You know, I've always been a little bit marginal. This book is about disillusionment, especially when it comes to my nationality in a lot of ways. I'm sort of prepared to be further disillusioned by the reception of it. When I wrote this, I really only cared about it being read and respected by people I respect and like. I'm not doing it for fame or fortune. I want like minds to dig it.

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A Conversation with Bill Eshelman

This month I have the great pleasure of featuring my uncle, Bill Eshelman - a retired General of the Marines, whose memoir Letters to Pat just hit the shelves! It captures his time serving in the Vietnam War using the letters he wrote to his wife Pat over the course of that year, 1967-68, as the foundation of his narrative. Originally, he says, it was just meant to be for friends and family, but then with some prompting, he reached out to a publisher who believed his personal testimonial has a broader appeal and audience. I feel so proud of him for committing his experience to the page and am honored to share his story with you!


Bill Eshelman graduated from the US Naval Academy and served 35 years as a Marine, retiring as a Major General in 1994. His career covered many different command and staff positions, but it was during his time as a military advisor to a South Vietnamese infantry battalion in combat that he recorded his actions and thoughts on an almost daily basis in letters written to his wife.

Letters to Pat chronicles the day by day events of Bill Eshelman, a young Marine Captain writing home to his wife. Hoping to command a U.S. infantry company in combat, Eshelman is instead ordered to advisory duty with a Vietnamese Marine battalion. The ensuing months present new challenges: dealing with US headquarters, the Vietnamese way of doing things and contact with the enemy. The letters plus notes from his combat journal form the basis of his book written 50 years after his 1967-68 experience.

 
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Karin Gutman: I never imagined interviewing you for a book!

Bill Eshelman: I've never imagined you interviewing me either.

Karin: Did you ever imagine writing a book?

Bill: No. This is the only book I've ever written. The way it started was, after the war was over and I was back in the States—so we're into the '70s now—then until now, whenever the subject of Vietnam came up people would say after we talked for a bit, "Why don't you write a book about that?" I had never thought very much about it, but I kept getting those questions, even from my kids. But more so from my friends and in particular a couple of my Marine friends that I had served with said, "You need to capture what the Vietnamese Marines did over there. Hardly anybody writes about the Vietnamese Marines. It's all about the U.S. Marines."

I'd think about it and say, "Well I don't even know where to start for that." And then I think it was December 2017, Christmas, I was at [my daughter] Cathy's home in Colorado, and for some reason, the subject of writing a book came up again. And she said, "You need to do this for the family." She pulled out this box of letters… they were the letters that I had written to [my wife] Pat. Pat had saved all of them.

Karin: Wow.

Bill: I was aware of the box, but I'd never looked at it or opened it over all these years. I didn't know she had saved all those letters. I opened up the box and looked at a couple which I hadn't seen in almost 50 years, or even thought about, and I got to thinking, “It's been 50 years since I was there. Maybe it's time.”

Cathy said, “Take these letters with you and see what you can do.” I brought them back here to Pensacola and spent all of 2018 a week at a time going through those letters day by day and then pulling out of the letters what I thought was relevant about the war and my thoughts on it. And then I located my combat journal that I had kept the year that I was over there, '67, '68. And I added addendums to each of the letters when I thought it would help, based on more detail that I didn't write home to Pat about but was in my combat journal.

The more I got into that, the more I thought, “You know I need to finish this.” And so I took the whole year, and I finished it in December 2018.

Then I went back and added my thoughts, now that the war was over and all these years have gone by. We know so much more now about the war than any of us ever did when we were over there. Back then we only knew what was being told to us or what we were experiencing firsthand. There was no television and we had no access to the news every night. We were just living life an hour at a time at some points.

I wrote an epilogue at the end trying to pull together all the thoughts that I had had from those letters in the way I was thinking back then and what I know and think now. That's how I end the book.

Then I told the kids that I've put this thing together and asked, “Do you want me to run some copies off for you?” I think it was Cathy in particular who said, “No. You need to publish this thing.” I said, “I don't even know what that means.”

So I started asking around. It turns out my next-door neighbor here in the condo had done some work in that area, and she recommended two or three publishers to me. I picked out one that had a reputation for publishing a lot of military kinds of books in Virginia Beach. So I got hold of them, and I said, “I'd like to send this to you. See if you're interested. I just wrote it for my family and friends and they came back and said, 'We think it's got a wider appeal.'” And that's how it started.

Karin: How many letters were in that box?

Bill: That's a great question. I should've counted. Sometimes I would be writing a letter every day for a week or two. And then other times, it was impossible for me to write because we were on the move or in a battle, or it was raining; we were in the muck. That whole year I was on the move—or my outfit was on the move—so it wasn't like we went back to the same place every day. Lots of times the place I went back to was a hammock I hung between two trees out in the jungle or things of that nature.

So sometimes it would be as long as a week between letters. But for the most part, it was almost every day, so what 365 days? I probably have 150-200 letters.

Karin: That's amazing. So you were deployed for 12 months?

Bill: It was a 12-month tour, October '67 to October '68.

Karin: Did you know at the time that it would be for a year?

Bill: Yes, I had already been overseas for a year in Japan before Vietnam started. In fact, the reason I didn't get over to Vietnam until 1967 is I had just come back in 1964 from a year by myself in Japan.

And of course, the war really kicked off in '65. So they gave me a couple of years to get to see my family again before they sent me over to Vietnam.

Karin: And the letters you include were specifically the ones you wrote to Pat?

Bill: Yes, but I did write letters to my mom and dad and other people occasionally. But I don't have any of those. I only used the letters to Pat. And they were the most important because I was trying my best to write to her about what I was feeling, what I was going through so she could sort of live it through with me. She was home with three small kids reading the newspaper and listening to the news every night. And I can't even imagine how scary that must've been for her because it was taking one to three weeks for our letters to go home and come back.

There were no iPhones, no computers, none of that stuff. It was just snail mail. And sometimes, I was in a situation over there where I couldn't figure out even how to get a letter somewhere where it could be mailed. So I'd wait 'til a helicopter came in for whatever, hand it to the pilot and say, “Would you take this letter back and get it mailed for me?”

Karin: Could you actually read them after all these years? I mean, the writing hadn’t faded?

Bill: All the letters are readable, even those that got wet before I could mail them! They were written in ballpoint.

Karin: On a legal pad?

Bill: All kinds of stationery. I would try to keep some in a little plastic bag with me so they wouldn't get wet, a pad of stationery with some airmail envelopes. But there are all kinds of envelopes in the stack of letters. It's whatever I could find.

Karin: I'm curious to learn more about this combat journal…

Bill: It was a requirement. I had to make reports after every battle and every time period that had been established. I had to report back the numbers: how many wounded, how many killed, where we were, what the objective was. We who were officers or in charge of anything had to submit these back to the higher headquarters and that's how they reported the war overall.

One of my big gripes, and it's in my book, is that an awful lot of that was inflated as it went up to higher headquarters. And it was just a real problem for the outcome of the war.

Karin: What was inflated?

Bill: The numbers, especially the numbers of the bad guys. I'd go through a battle and knew what had happened because I was there. We counted the people that were killed and wounded on both sides, and counted all the weapons that were captured. And these numbers were reported up the chain of command.

In some cases, I even had a little camera in a plastic bag with me sometimes so that I could take pictures. And then Pat would send me a newspaper clipping which I'd get two or three weeks later from the Washington Post, and I'd read about the battle. Well, it was hard to tell that was the same battle that I had been in because the enemy numbers had all been inflated to make us look good—make us, the U.S. look good.

So early on as a young guy over there, I knew there was a little bit of a problem here. We weren't being really honest in terms of our reports.

Karin: How did you shape the letters into the form of a narrative that would work for a book?

Bill: Well, I added in the letters to Pat a lot of my own emotion that I was feeling as these different things were happening from day to day and from battle to battle. Somebody else came up with this phrase, but I use it because it's very descriptive… that that year over there in Vietnam, or in any combat zone I guess, for me and I think for most people if they're honest, could be described as days and weeks of sheer boredom interrupted by a few moments of stark terror.

That’s the way I wrote the letters back to Pat. When things would go crazy, I wouldn't write for a while because it'd take me a while to get my act together. And then I'd just give her the outline of the stark terror part. But all the details would be in my combat journal.

If I had time just to sit there all afternoon and think about it, I'd have a lot of personal stuff in there. If I didn't, I just wrote her, “Boom boom. Here's what's happening right now. I got to go. We're taking off again.” Stick it in an envelope and hand it to a helicopter.


1968, Tet, Saigon

1968, Tet, Saigon

1967, Bong Son

1967, Bong Son

1967, Bong Son

1967, Bong Son


Karin: So once you had a draft of the manuscript, did you share it with anyone before going to any of these publishers?

Bill: Oh yes. As I wrote the first few months, I would send chapters to the kids and ask them if they have time to look it over and see if they had any comments or, “Am I going in the right direction for something the family might want to hold onto?”

I got pretty good feedback from the kids. I did it with a few of my friends around here too that I've known for almost 20 years. And I even shared it with a couple of folks back in Arkansas that I had stayed in touch with, that I had grown up with since first grade. So I had a pretty wide audience to bounce this off of including some of my Marine friends that I had served with at various places. But I never shared the whole book, just the chapters as I was writing.

Then my next-door neighbor who recommended the publishers to me, since she had had some experience in the editing and publishing business, said, “When you finish with what you've got there, if you'd like, I'll be happy to look it over and give you some thoughts on it.”

So around Christmastime last year, I handed a whole manuscript to her, and I said, “Here it is in the rough.” She took a couple of weeks or so, brought it back and pretty well liked what I had written. She just suggested that I might want to say this or that slightly differently and that was about it. But it was a great page by page edit.

Even when I sent it to the publisher and they put their editor on it, all he really did was change around a few sentences.

Karin: How was the experience of writing it for you?

Bill: It was emotional. As I said, I took a year to write this book week by week. And sometimes I'd read a letter, and I'd have to think a day or two before I could actually write it down and add to it from the combat journal. It wasn't something that flowed. I had to take myself back 50 years to make that thing work.

When I left Vietnam, we went to Thailand for two years, so I was away from the U.S. for almost three years. My orders were from Saigon to Bangkok, Thailand. So essentially I hitchhiked home back to Virginia. Pat had already sold the house, sold the car, sold the boat. And three days, later, we were all heading back cross-country and across the Pacific. And then I didn't return to the U.S. 'til the end of 1970.

As a result I wasn't exposed to everything that was happening back in the States. I missed the RFK assassination, Martin Luther King Jr., all of the anti-war rioting. I'd read about it in the papers, and you'd hear people talking about it from time to time, but I was wrapped up in my job. And none of any of that hit me full face until I got home the end of 1970.

We moved back to the Washington area, and wow, it was almost like I arrived in a different country. The attitude, everything had changed.

Karin: In what way?

Bill: ANTI-VIETNAM in capital letters. I was starting to get a feel for that while I was still in Vietnam a little bit, but nothing like in 1970 when we went back home again. So all that was sort of a turn-off for me; we didn't talk about Vietnam, especially with our civilian friends.

I remember a cocktail party at a friend's home in about 1971, I guess, a few months after we had been back. I'd known a couple of these guys since high school days; they were both married with families now. But we hadn't seen each other since high school up in the Maryland area.

One of the wives that I'd never known started to engage me in talking about Vietnam and I started to tell her a little bit. I mean, I just responded honestly. And she said, “You're a liar,” and it stopped the whole party. She said, “You're lying. You don't know what you're talking about.” Now I'm thinking, “She doesn't think I know what I'm talking about? I was there.” So I just let it go. But that's an example of what I came back to.

Karin: What were you talking about?

Bill: I told her that I had lived with the Vietnamese for almost a year. I said there's some good points, nobody's perfect. I can't remember the exact words. But it didn't include the kind of things, I guess, that were on the six o'clock news back thenthat I was starting to hear since I'd gotten back. So those kinds of things did not give me any reason to think about writing a book.

Karin: So did you repress and bury the experience?

Bill: Those words may be a little strong. But it was that thought. “Yeah, I've got other things I need to concentrate on. If I'm going to stay in the Marine Corps, I need to concentrate on my job. And I don't need to let this bother me, that kind of thing.”

But I always kept getting comments every so many years from different people, “You ought to write a book about that,” whenever we started talking about Vietnam.

Karin: So when you decided to spend that year revisiting all of these memories and experiences, you say it was emotional. I can only imagine. Did you apply any self-care practices through the process?

Bill: I did. Sometimes I just had to put the letter down and wait a couple of days before I could finish that chapter. Yes, especially when I'd read the letter, then I'd read my combat journal, and get into the casualties and talk about some of the really bad stuff. It was better for me to wait a day or two and let it filter through rather than react to it immediately. And I found out it was much easier to write that way if I didn't rush it.

I didn't have any deadlines. I was just thinking about halfway through, “This thing is going sort of month by month just like I lived it 50 years ago. If this keeps up, I'll probably finish the book the end of this year.” And sure enough, that's the way it happened.

Karin: Did you at any point feel like, “Oh I don't want to keep doing this. This is just dredging up too much… too many memories, too many emotions.”

Bill: Just the opposite, Karin. The more I got into it, the more I felt like I've got to finish this. I need to do this for the kids and for my family. And I was not thinking of anything beyond family and friends.

Karin: And how about writing it for yourself?

Bill: I think it was always about my family and friends. I don't think I needed to re-live it again. It was pretty hard sometimes. But I did need to do it to finish the book for the family.

Karin: Where are you now, on the other side of it? Was the process of writing transformative for you?

Bill: How could it not be? I just can't tell you how much. In church, first week of September, the pastor has asked me to stand up at a Wednesday night dinner where they feature different folks to talk about their lives. And they want me to talk about this. And I wouldn't have done that a couple years ago, but I don't have a problem now doing it.

One of the reviews from a good friend of mine, a Marine friend of mine—he's retired—said something like this as he reviewed the book, “You said all the things that we were thinking about but never said ourselves.” And that really made me feel good.

Karin: That's got to be the greatest compliment.

Bill: I thought it was.

Karin: Now that your book is being shared with the world, what are you hoping the takeaway or message is?

Bill: Well, I guess I haven't thought about that very deeply, but off the top of my head, I'd like for families to understand what their loved ones are going through on a day-by-day basis when they're thrown into a situation like I was in, into a combat zone, which is still happening today as you know.

And the second thing I'd like for people to understand is the relationship with the third world country like Vietnam, and like so many other countries now that we're involved with. I'd like them to understand down at the ground-roots level where I was living with the Vietnamese, and most of the time by myself as the only American, what the challenges are and how that can just wear you out. The Vietnamese had been in this shooting war for a long time. It was just day by day trying to exist and make things work for them.

And that's what I was trying to explain to Pat in the letters. It's exactly what I was thinking back then. As I read a letter at a time, as I put this book together, I said, “That's right on.” And a couple times, I expanded on it just to emphasize it. That's all in italics in the book whenever I added to her letters.

I don't know that this book is going to be a success or not. I think it's going to be fun for my family and friends. But in terms of publishing a book to the world, I don't know anything about that yet. It might sell 100 copies, and then that's it. But that wasn't my goal, so it doesn't matter.

If it's successful, I think that's great because I think there's a story there for young Marines to read about and for families to read about. And it's interesting for non-military folks too if they want to get a sense of what military folks are going through and what the families then would have to be aware of.

Karin: It also certainly offers some perspective on the Vietnam War. Whether you're curious about what the families in the military go through or not, it's a personal testimony which is different, and perhaps more powerful, than a history book!

Bill: Yes, you're exactly right. The history component there is valuable, I think, because I've written it from the Vietnamese side during the 68 Tet Offensive which was one of the most horrific times... that was the turning point of the war it turns out, because everybody back in the U.S. thought we'd lost the war. Of course, I didn't find out about that until much later. I thought we'd won.

What I documented to Pat and in my military journal, and in some parts it's hour by hour for a few days, is how that battle went and how we won those battles during Tet 68. So there's a historical significance to this on the Vietnamese side that I don't think has been written about before.

Karin: Incredibly valuable. From your perspective at the time, why did you think we’d won the war?

Bill: Well, I was in three major battles over there during that year. We never lost a battle. We lost a lot of people, but we inflicted more damage on the North Vietnamese than they inflicted on us. In terms of numbers, we won every battle, so I had a hard time trying to understand when I'd hear from Pat or she'd send me newspaper articles about how we were losing after the 68 Tet Offensive. But I didn't think a whole lot about it. We just kept trying to win the next fight.

Karin: But I thought you said the U.S. papers were publishing better numbers?

Bill: No, the U.S. military was doing that. Saigon, General Westmoreland, and the Military Assistance Command Vietnam were inflating the numbers of enemy casualties as they were coming in and providing them to the White House and press. And I don't know if they were reducing the numbers of our losses or not. But they were certainly inflating the numbers of the battles that we were winning, and then that was going on the six o'clock news I guess to try to make us look like we were doing better than we were.

And then in the middle of all of that, with all these inflated numbers of how we're just winning this war big-time, the Tet Offensive happened, where at end of January and first of February in 1968, the whole South Vietnam exploded because the North Vietnamese had infiltrated over time the whole country. Like our New Year's here, we went on a truce where everybody stood down during the Tet which is their New Year's, and people went home. The Vietnamese went home. Everybody just took it easy. This was supposed to be a vacation for the North and the South. And the North then pulled the rug out from underneath us and attacked the whole country all at one time and caught us by surprise. Well, the papers back home made a big deal about how we got caught with our pants down and they created among us initially a whole lot of casualties. But we reacted and we fought back. And we won back every town and every hamlet that they had taken by surprise because they cheated on us. That's when the war turned around because the news folks back home, I guess, convinced a majority of the public that we were never going to win the war after that.

Karin: Now I understand...

Bill: But see that wasn't so evident to us there at the time. We had no six o'clock news. We weren't getting newspapers. I was primarily just hearing it from Pat from time to time. There were times that she could tell where I was and what was happening by reading the Washington Post long before she ever got a letter from me.

Karin: And now that you're done with the book, do you feel like writing anymore?

Bill: No, I don't. But I didn't feel like writing before, until it happened.

Karin: This is the story that needed to be told.

Buy the book!

To learn more about Bill Eshelman, visit his website.

See all author interviews

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