Today we are excited to have an interview with author Lynn Salsi. Lynn was a Seton Hill classmate of ours and is the one and only person who was a critique partner of all three of the Damsels while we were at school. She is probably the most diverse author we’ve had the privilege to interview so far, writing fiction for children and young adults in novel, short story, and picture book form, as well as nonfiction for adults, specializing in histories of the Carolinas, where she has called home for many years. We’re going to talk mostly about her YA novel, Firefight on Vietnam Brown Water, which was her master’s thesis.
1. What drew you to this era, the Vietnam War?
I’ve long wanted to write about the Vietnam War. The war was a huge threat when I was in my teens. By the time I graduated from high school, there was a definite fear for the lives the the guys I had grown up with. I grew up in a small town with only one high school. Most of the kids I attended school with lived in my neighborhood, attended the same church, sang in the youth choir. Some of us also participated with youth groups and scout troops in other churches. Many friends from my neighborhood served in Vietnam. A few attended West Point and one attended the Naval Academy. Most did not want to be drafted and attended college and still ended up serving in Vietnam. When you’re 18 or 20 and learn that your friends have been killed, it changes your life.
2. How did you research for this project?
My research began and I didn’t realize I was writing a book. I completed a book of essays based on oral histories of elderly people whose ancestors were among the first people to settle on the chain of islands known as the Outer Banks. My husband and I were discussing how lucky I was to meet these people and how the struggle of their families living in a hostile environment in the 1700s and 1800s made us appreciate how we lived today. Burke said, “I’ve been thinking that I need to tell you about some of my experiences in Vietnam so our children will know how I was a part of history.” I purchased a black and orange hardcover notebook and kept it in the car. For the next few months, Burke talked about Vietnam as we drove to various places throughout North Carolina promoting books. Then, the natural connection was attending Navy reunions. I sat for hours listening to former Navy men talking to one another about where they were and what they did in Vietnam. As they talked, I took notes. As time went on, they got used to me hanging around and gave me their phone numbers in case I wanted to ask further questions. All of this required a trip to Norfolk, Virginia, two trips to San Diego, and two trips to Texas. When I realized I had more material than I could handle, I put it all away in a large Rubber Maid container in the foot of the closet and spent time mulling over how I could write just one story.
Further research came when I started writing the book and consulted Bob Shirley, a World War II and Vietnam scholar. He had been an OinC on a Swift Boat and answered many of my questions concerning detail. Obviously, my husband provided much of this information, but when writing a novel requiring vast detail, it is necessary to have many experts. I was also lucky that my husband was in contact with his OinC, Tom Hovland, and several crew members. I spent hours with Tom in Greenville, South Carolina, and talked with Bill Kelly in Washington, D.C. All of these men were available to me by phone as well.
3. What was the one piece of interesting information you had to leave out of the finished book?
I had to cut 10,000 words from the original manuscript. The publisher didn’t want to publish more than 60,000 words. They thought that anything longer would be too much for a young adult book. It took a few weeks. Then, on the reread, I ended up adding in about 5,000 words. I left out a scene on the Mekong River when some of the guys were fishing off a barge and caught some amazing things. There was a scene in Saigon. Since it was mostly detail and setting, it got axed. However, I thought it added to the overall flavor of the story of a young man so far from home. Since the most interesting aspects of the book include action and the details of firefights, I would have liked to have expanded several of those scenes.
4. What challenges did you encounter when researching or writing this novel?
The biggest challenge was having so much information. It took weeks to organize the notes. Just a few months ago I uncovered two large files of information that I overlooked. I think I have enough notes to do a non-fiction book.
Finding the financing necessary to interview veterans one-on-one was a challenge. That’s why I attended every reunion and conference possible. Also, when meeting a crew member in Washington, D.C., I went to the Navy museum for further research about the overall history of the war. I read every book about the era that I could find. After I had the storyline set, I spent nearly two days reading Vietnam era newspapers in the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh. I felt I had to go to that extra length since the protagonist in the story is from that area. I needed to read the war news that Al Lupo’s parents would have read.
5. What do you hope readers take away from your novel, particularly in terms of the time period?
The book is framed exactly in the period from 1965 to 1970. The story covers many of the trends of the day, especially the music, fear of the draft, the importance of staying in college, and the treatment returning soldiers received. I went to great effort to also include points about politics in general, headlines from newspapers, and responses from folks back home. Veterans from the Vietnam War were the most under-appreciated members of the military ever in the history of the United States. This, too, is part of the narrative in the book. Overall, the text should be seen from one young man’s point-of-view. That too, is the reason I wrote in first person. Anyone who has researched any part of the Vietnam War knows that each man has his own story about where he was and what his responsibilities were. Since Vietnam was about guerilla-style fighting, there were no huge battles like seen on television and movies about World War II. The Navy boats had such small crews of only five to seven men, that each man had a different position and a different type of weapon in a Firefight. Therefore, there could be five points-of-view from the crew of a single boat. Al Lupo had to have his own story to tell. He like Odysseus went on the journey of a lifetime and lived to tell about it.
For more about Lynn, visit www.lsalsi.com.