Tuesday, October 29, 2013


     Up until now, I have only included profiles of female Creative Late Bloomers in my weekly tributes to those who have achieved creative success in their 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s and even 90s. But plenty of men also have found their creative stride late in life. Here's one: a Vietnam veteran who had to wait more than three decades -- until he was Medicare age -- to see the story of his war experiences finally published. When Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War appeared in 2010, the New York Times Book Review gave it prestigious front-page treatment. Sebastian Junger called it "one of the most profound and devastating novels ever to come out of Vietnam -- or any war." The first novel won a slew of awards and launched Karl Marlantes's writing career. He was 65. A year later, at age 66, he published the non-fiction What It Is Like To Go To War. Now at 68, Marlantes is a frequent speaker on veterans' issues, particularly post traumatic stress disorder. He was suffering from PTSD when he first started writing his Vietnam novel in 1975. In 2011, he told the Washington Independent Review of Books that he was working on a second novel, this time about a female labor organizer in the logging camps of the Northwest at the beginning of the 20th century. "I'm pretty much done with war," said Marlantes.


Age 68

     This month (October 2013) Marlantes appeared, along with Cameron Smith, a fellow Marine veteran who is director of the Oregon Department of Veterans' Affairs, in the Think & Drink Series 2013: How to Love America. The happy-hour Think & Drink series, sponsored by Oregon Humanities and held at The Mission Theater in Portland, combines beer drinking with conversations about big ideas.
Head shot of Mr Marlantes wearing jacket and necktie.   There is some greying of the temples, and he seems unshaven.
Karl Marlantes at the Texas Book Festival 2010
     In February 2013, Marlantes was interviewed on Seattle's Well Read program about What It Is Like To Go To War, his non-fiction follow up to Matterhorn: A Novel About the Vietnam War, his 2010 bestselling first novel. Why did he write these books? "Trying to make sense of an experience that blew my brains," Marlantes told Well Read.  Go to http://blogs.seattletimes.com/artspage/2013/02/19/karl-marlantes-tells-the-true-story-of-what-it-is-like-to-go-to-war/ to listen to the whole interview.

     A football player and student body president of his high school class in the logging town of Seaside. OR, Karl Marlantes won a National Merit Scholarship and attended Yale University where he played on the Rugby team. A Rhodes Scholar at University College, Oxford, he left after one semester to volunteer for active duty in the U.S. Marine Corps. Serving in Vietnam as a Marine Corps 2nd and 1st lieutenant, he was awarded the Navy Cross, Bronze Star, two Navy Commendation Medals for valor, two Purple Hearts and ten Air Medals. After Vietnam, he was posted to Marine Corps headquarters in Washington D.C. where one day he passed by a group of anti-war protesters, yelling obscenities at him. He decided he needed to tell his side of the Vietnam story in novel form. For more than 30 years, off and on, Marlantes worked on his Vietnam novel. Employed as an international energy consultant throughout the world, he wrote and rewrote the story, despite rejection from publishers. Then in 2009, a small, nonprofit press in Berkeley, El Leon Literary Arts, printed 1,200 paperback copies of the now 800-page novel. One of those copies caught the attention of editor Morgan Entrekin, president of Grove/Atlantic, who slimmed down and sped up the story. In 2010 Atlantic Monthly Press and El Leon Literary Arts co-published a 598-page hardback version of Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War. Marlantes was 65. Debuting on the New York Times bestseller list in April, 2010, Matterhorn was both a New York Times Notable Book and an ALA Notable Book that year. The novel also won the William E. Colby Award from the Pritzker Miliary Library, the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize from the Center for Fiction and the James Webb Award for Distinguished Fiction from the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation. In 2011, the novel won the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Award, the Washington State Book Award for fiction and the Indies' Choice Award for Adult Debut Book of the Year.
       In 2011, Marlantes followed up the success of his bestselling first novel with a non-fiction book: What It Is Like To Go To War, an account of what life is like for veterans returning from the fog of war. A year later, the Atlantic Monthly Press published another book by Marlantes, this time the non-fiction What It Is Like To Go To War. That year Marlantes's war experiences were included in the History Channel series' Vietnam in HD. An interview about his harrowing first day in Vietnam is posted on History Channel site. Go to http://www.history.com/shows/vietnam-in-hd/videos/karl-marlantes?m=518971be8380b to watch.

     After serving in Vietnam, Karl Marlantes suffered a severe case of post traumatic stress disorder which eventually broke up his first marriage. "One cost of war we don't generally count up is the havoc it wreaks on families long after the war is over," Marlantes told Tom Glenn of the Washington Independent Review of Books in 2011. Marlantes was battling PTSD when he started writing down his experience as a Marine on a combat tour in Vietnam. His first attempt, which he started after being spit on by a woman who called him a "baby killer," was a first person account that he says was a 1,700-page rant of unmediated bitterness. His next attempt, a 1,200-page novel that he finished in 1977, was the story of a terrified 21-year-old in Vietnam. "I couldn't get anyone to even read it to reject it," Marlantes told USA Today's Bob Minzesheimer. But Marlantes refused to get up. He continued to work on his Vietnam novel between consulting jobs around the world. Revising. Revising. Revising. And piling up rejection slips. By the '90s, publishers were advising him to cut the novel in half and set it in Iraq or in Afghanistan. Marlantes stuck to his locale but he turned the novel into a tale of a company of soldiers in Vietnam led by a clueless commander. That draft clocked in at some 1,600 pages. In 2009 El Leon Literary Arts, a small, nonprofit publisher in Berkeley, finally agreed to print 1,200 paperback copies of it, after editing it down to 800-pages. Marlantes's pay was 120 personal copies. Before the book's release, Marlantes's second wife, Anne, suggested that he send the novel to a literary contest so someone would have to read it. He sent it to the Barnes & Noble Discover New Writers program and Sessalee Hensley, a fiction buyer at the chain, did read it and was blown away. She wanted to include it in the Discover New Writers program but was afraid that at $25 the paperback was too expensive. She also worried that a small publisher would be unable to handle the demand inclusion in the Discover New Writers program would prompt. So she sent it to Morgan Entrekin, publisher of Grove/Atlantic. He called it the "most amazing story" of his 33 years in publishing. "Not just Karl's persistence. But that his book turned out so well. I think it's a classic." In 2010 the Atlantic Monthly Press, along with El Leon Literary Arts, put out a shorter and slightly edited version of the novel (598 pages) in hardback. Marantes was 65. 

     "If the book would have been published when I first wanted it to be, it wouldn't have been half the book it is today," Marlantes told the Wall Street Journal. "I didn't have the experience or maturity I brought to the characters over 30 years. The other thing is the racial stuff. I didn't really get into the racial stuff at all in the earlier drafts. I was afraid of it. By the time the '90s rolled around, I realized you cannot write about that time period in America without dealing with racism."
     "Over the years, the book got better," told USA Today. "I learned from reading the greats -- Tolstoy and Flannery O'Connor and others -- and asking 'How did they do that?' You've got to stay at the table. If you walk away, nothing will ever happen."


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