Could this be the best season yet for the National Writers Series? Founder Doug Stanton won’t go that far. But he does say that after each presentation, invariably someone comes up to congratulate him, saying, “This was the best one ever.”
Stanton does believe this season, featuring famed chef Alice Waters, editor Terry McDonnel, poet Dan Gerber and Dr. Murray Howe among others, will appeal to a variety of people. “I would say it’s one of the most diverse,” Stanton says. The guests include returning favorites (including Stanton himself; more on that below) and new authors, and the subjects range from war to food, golfing with Hunter S. Thompson and George Plimpton while on LSD, and growing up with Mr. Hockey, a.k.a. Gordie Howe, as your father.
“It’s root vegetables to deadlines to drunken golf and two poets,” says Stanton. Yep, pretty diverse all right.
This year’s slate kicks off with Stanton himself, discussing his newest book with his editor, Colin Harrison. The Odyssey of Echo Company tells the story of one company and the individuals in it during the Vietnam War and afterward. It will be available for purchase September 19.
Why go back? What is to be gained from further examination of the war that divided a nation? Stanton believes that is exactly the point. “Now is the time to have the conversation about Vietnam,” he says. “I think that whole generation spends a lot of time thinking about the experience that divided us: Right and left, doves and hawks. We’ve never had a national conversation about how we feel about that war, what it has done to us. When you speak to veterans and those who didn’t fight or protested … I think it’s America’s unfinished story.”
He notes that Vietnam veterans are now hitting their 70s, the same age as veterans of World War II in the 1990s when a number of books started to come out, such as Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation. “At that age, they are willing to be more forthcoming,” Stanton says. “We’re at a reflecting point, I hope.”
He also compares it to the current state of the country and its politics. “In these political times, there’s a national dysfunction going on. Then it was very caustic and very costly. Nobody wanted to hear about it. The cost in blood and treasure was enormous.”
Stanton’s book is not simply an overview of that war. He examines, in particular, one company and what took place during the Tet Offensive, one of the largest military campaigns of the war. More than 80,000 North Vietnamese troops launched a wave of attacks on some 100 towns and cities, including 36 of the 44 provincial capitals in South Vietnam.
Stanton conducted first-person interviews with soldiers, traveled to former battlegrounds, and read hundreds of documents, from Pentagon reports to letters sent to and from Echo Company. The story ends with one soldier finding closure in the country where it all began.
Praise for the book jacket comes from all quarters, including David Finkel. The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist wrote two books on the soldiers in the Iraq conflict, one during the fighting, the other its aftermath as the soldiers tried to fit back into their families and society. “War has such a dark heart, and Doug Stanton doesn’t shy away from that, but he also shows us the better hearts of human beings, and that’s what makes this book so profoundly moving and unforgettable,” he says.
Stanton says he has always been intrigued by the war and especially the way it changed American society. “I’ve been working on it 10 years,” he says. “What caused all that discord? Part of (the reason for the book) for me was to answer that question.”
He hopes the book will stimulate conversations among friends and family about what took place during and after the war. He tells of one person he’d noticed several times at a local coffee shop, who handed him a note about his own experience. He also mentions a friend who’d had a brother who served in the military. “He never talked about it until two years ago. Ultimately, it’s the power of storytelling to shine a light,” he says.
As to the National Writers Series, Stanton says the goal has always been to engage an audience while also engaging an author, no matter the topic. The series has featured newspaper columnists, mystery writers, screenwriters, humorists, even writing teachers and critics. Some were well-known, others less so, but what they’ve all had in common is a willingness to engage an audience with their inspirations and processes.
Stanton will appear Sunday, September 17 at 7 p.m. at the City Opera House with guest host Colin Harrison, the author of eight novels and editor-in-chief at Scribner. For tickets and more information on any of the appearances, go to NationalWritersSeries.org.