After more than three decades trying to get his book published, Karl Marlantes has suddenly become an “overnight success.” He began work on his in-country Vietnam War novel in the mid-’70s, not long after he came home from a combat-heavy tour of duty as a Marine lieutenant. Family, work and disinterest from the publishing world got in the way, but in April Grove/Atlantic Press published Marlantes’ Matterhorn. The rest is Vietnam War literary history, as the novel got rave reviews and spent considerable time on the bestseller lists. It’s a combat-heavy tale told through the eyes of a young, Ivy-league-educated lieutenant named Mellas. The story bores in on a Marine company and a seemingly never-ending succession of bloody combat action. It is set primarily in and around a mountaintop fire support base that gives the book its title. Karl Marlantes spoke recently with historian and author Marc Leepson in Washington, D.C.
What did you think when Matterhorn got a rave review on the front page of The New York Times Book Review?
It just blew my mind. I shouted to my wife, “I think we just got the kitchen remodeled.”
Any inkling you’d get such great reviews or that it would become a bestseller?
I was very grateful that the book ended up with Morgan Entrekin, my editor at Grove/Atlantic Press who published Cold Mountain, among many other books. He loved the book, which was one indication. On the other hand, he loves every book that he publishes.
How did you end up in the Marines?
I grew up in a small logging town in Oregon in the ’50s. Like all of us in my generation, my uncles and my dad—seemingly everyone in the generation ahead of us—went into the service. That’s why they called it “the service.” It was just something you did. I knew I’d probably get drafted, so I joined the Marines just out of high school in 1964. It was the Platoon Leaders Course program. I went to boot camp, then I went to Yale.
Were you thinking “Vietnam” at all?
When I joined, the recruiter told me, “Marines guard embassies,” which was true. Then I picked up the newspaper one day in March of 1965 and saw the headline, “Marines Land in Da Nang.” I kind of figured that Vietnam would be in my future.
But you still had a couple more years of college to go.
I was 20. I majored in economics and won a Rhodes Scholarship, but I didn’t think the Marines would let me go to England since I owed them three years. So I wrote a letter to the commandant of the Marine Corps, and it turned out the Marines were happy to have one of their own at Oxford.
What was that like?
After I got there, I started feeling guilty. Guys I trained with, guys I went to high school with, were getting killed in Vietnam. And here I was, hiding behind privilege. I thought my options were limited. I debated leaving Oxford and either going to Vietnam or to Sweden. I finally decided that I should go on active duty. I arrived in Vietnam in October 1968, got assigned to the 4th Marines and got sent up to where the DMZ meets the Laos border.
Did you takes notes over in Vietnam, thinking one day you’d write a novel about it?
I’ve been writing fiction since I was 8 years old. My cousin and I wrote a novel when we were 9. It was about space invaders coming to Earth, but they were stopped by a giant electric shield that was invented by a 10-year-old. I won a literary prize at Yale, and, yes, I had it in the back of my mind in Vietnam that one day I might write a novel. I had a diary I kept. But somewhere along the line, I don’t know where, I lost my diary.
How autobiographical is Matterhorn?
The character of Mellas isn’t me, if that’s what you’re asking. I’m not a politician, like Mellas. If I were as good as he was, I’d be a lot richer and a lot more powerful. He is an amalgam of me, my brother and others. So are the other characters. On the other hand, what Mellas sees and what the other characters see are primarily what I witnessed or what friends who were over there told me about. I was in firefights. I assaulted hills. I saw a guy in our battalion get eaten by a tiger. So, all of those things are pretty much true. But the book is fiction. What Mellas learns in three months, it took me 30 years to learn. And the dialogue is pure fiction.
What did you do when you came home from Vietnam?
I served just shy of 13 months in Vietnam, and came home in October 1969. I worked for a year at Marine Corps Headquarters in Washington, D.C.
How was it, being a Marine in D.C. in ’69?
It was ugly. I have tried very hard to forgive and forget. One incident stands out. I was in full uniform early in 1970 delivering some papers to the White House when I was accosted by a group of kids waving Viet Cong and North Vietnamese flags across the street—about 15 of them, shouting obscenities at me. All I could think about was my dead and maimed friends. My reaction was, “You just don’t know who I am,” and that my friends and I in Vietnam were just like them, the same age, same feelings, same passions.
You then went back to Oxford?
After my three years in the Marines Corps, I received a letter from the warden at my college at Oxford. He had served in World War II, and said that he was pleased to hear that I had come back alive and invited me to come back. They gave me back my scholarship, although I had to start all over again. Two years later I got my degree.
I came home and got married and started selling lumber in the Northwest, then became a consultant for energy companies, traveling all over the world, dragging my family with me. It was a high-pressure job. In the ’90s, I was dealing with stress, anger, anxiety and what could only be descibed as crazy, high-risk behavior. I cracked up, lost my marriage. I went to a VA clinic, where they told me I had PTSD. I started healing. My VA therapists turned my life around.
What books have influenced the writing of Matterhorn?
I read as many books as I could get my hands on. What interested me most were novels such as War and Peace, with huge casts of characters. I read most of the great war fiction. I read the World War I poets: Graves, Sassoon, Owen. I read David Jones’ In Parenthesis, which uses a lot of Welsh mythology and is almost like a big poem. And the World War II novels: The Naked and the Dead, The Thin Red Line, and from the Vietnam War, The Things They Carried and Dispatches. Phil Caputo’s A Rumor of War is also an important book. I read them all and have nothing but high regard for them.
Did you work on your novel all these years?
I would go in fits and starts. I first started writing it about 1975. And I started trying to sell it in 1977. No one would look at it. Nobody wanted to publish a big book about an unpopular war. I’d work on it between contracts, mostly on weekends. My kids would say, “Mom, where’s Dad?” The answer was always the same, “He’s in the basement working on his book.
I tried to sell it again in the mid-’80s. Then, the response was the market was too saturated with Vietnam War fiction, and Hollywood had already done Full Metal Jacket and Platoon. I kept working on it, and in the ’90s I was told maybe I should switch it to the Gulf War, and later to move the plot to Afghanistan.
How did it finally get published?
I gave the manuscript to a friend of mine, Ken Pallack, who sent it to his friend Tom Farber, who had just started this little nonprofit literary publishing house called El León. Tom had me send it to one of his editors, Kit Duane. I said, “You want me to spend 50 bucks at Kinko’s and send this to a woman in Berkeley?” He convinced me to do it, and she loved it. I felt like going to California and kissing her. Kit is the one who pulled it out of obscurity, and El León published it in paperback in 2007.
And that led to Grove/Atlantic picking it up?
El León is a small publisher with no marketing staff. They publish books so writers at least have a product instead of just a manuscript. Their print run was 1,200 and my pay was 120 free copies. So I had a product, but in trying to interest people in New York, I ran into the same problem. No one would read it because, I was told, it was a big book and it was about the Vietnam War. Then my wife came up with a brilliant idea: to have El León submit it to a bunch of writing contests. She and I put together a list, including Barnes & Noble’s Discover Great New Writers program. Some women in one Barnes & Noble’s store read it, loved it and sent it to the head of the program. Then it went to the chief fiction buyer at Grove Press.
What did you expect the reaction to be after Grove published it?
I was just hoping to make back the advance and maybe make some money over the course of the next five years. I also hoped it would get reviewed by people with respect. I hoped veterans would read it. But we had incredible backing from Barnes & Noble. We had sales reps writing to Entrekin saying, “This is a great book.” And then independent bookstores got behind it. The buzz started. Someone sent a Tweet saying, “Entrekin has another Cold Mountain on his hands.”
And you’ve had great reactions from veterans, I believe?
I’m getting great feedback from the veteran community. One example, a guy came up to me at a reading in Seattle and he had five books with him. I asked him why. He told me: “I have tried to tell my wife and four kids what it was like. I served as a Marine in the area the novel covers. And every time I’d try to tell them about the war, I’d start shaking or get nervous and clam up, and I couldn’t go through with it. I’ve been trying for 40 years and now this book will tell it exactly the way it was.” And that made me just almost cry.
But Matterhorn is having an impact way beyond just veterans, isn’t it?
Another time a woman came up to me and she was crying. She said her father’s brother—her uncle—was killed in Vietnam, and her father was an antiwar protestor, an angry young man. They had a third brother who was a Marine in Vietnam, and that brother stopped talking to her father. They didn’t talk to each other for 40 years. She got them each a copy of the book, and her dad called his brother and apologized, saying he was so sorry he made fun of him all those years for drinking so much. And then the Marine brother said he was sorry he was so angry with him, calling him a commie—you know, all the stuff that veterans did back then to protestors. He said, “What were we doing, not talking to each other for 40 years?”
When she was telling me that, tears were running down my face, too. Literature. The power of literature.