In the case of "Hue 1968," my most recent book, the
path took six years. The book tells the story of a monthlong battle at
roughly the midpoint of the Vietnam War. The idea of documenting an
event in a country I had never visited with many thousands of
participants, combatants and civilians, was overwhelming. Where should I
begin? Who should I talk to? What was the best avenue for research?
am fortunate to have a strong relationship with my publisher, Morgan
Entrekin of Grove/Atlantic. He published "Black Hawk Down" and all of my
books since, and he is the one who had urged me to write about Hue. So I
held him up for a contract big enough to finance the various expensive
things I knew the book's research would require.
I began by
checking out what had already been written. There were three books about
the battle itself, and two others by soldiers who had fought in it.
There were scores of other books more broadly about the Vietnam War
that touched on the Battle of Hue in one way or another. I found that
the ones about the battle were aimed primarily at military audiences,
and were solely concerned with glorifying the American fighting man,
which was not at all the kind of book I intended to write.
approach would be to write a book for any reader, to arrive at my own
understanding of what happened, and to tell that story, the good and
bad, from as many perspectives as possible. The earlier accounts gave me
a decent introduction. I took lots of notes about military units,
names, and, where the authors provided it, sources.
Then I started my own reporting. The first interview I did was with Gene Roberts, the New York Times
reporter who covered the battle, and as it happened, purely by accident, I
knew Gene. He had hired me many years ago when he was editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer.
I ran into him at a social event, and he asked me what I was working
on. When I told him, he said, "I was there!" So I flew down to Bath,
North Carolina, where he lives, and spent two days interviewing him.
there I began contacting American veterans of the battle. Once I knew
which military units were involved, I found their websites and began
compiling lists of names. Those who lived close enough to me I went to
interview in person - always the best way. Those who lived farther away I
phoned. The interviews lasted anywhere from an hour to five or six
hours. I tried to maintain a pace of about three or four a week. I
recorded them, and had them transcribed - one of the benefits of my
success as an author is that I can now afford such services. (When I
wrote "Black Hawk Down," I transcribed every one of the scores of
interviews by hand.) At the end of every session, I asked, "Who else
should I talk to?" So my list of interviewees grew and grew.
that list I added journalists, like Gene, who had been there, and
American civilians like Jim Bullington, who had been a foreign service
officer there, and some of the young Americans who had served for the
International Volunteer Service, a precursor to the Peace Corps that
had sent young men and women to teach and work in Hue during the war. I
had come across some of these names in my reading, and, again, always
finished my interviews by asking, "Who else should I talk to?"
by interview, my picture of the battle widened and deepened. One way to
tell a sweeping story is to choose several representative characters
and build the narrative around them. John Hersey wrote his classic
"Hiroshima" in this way, telling the story of the first nuclear bombing
through the eyes of six distinct survivors.
I could not do this with
"Hue 1968." Whereas the atom bomb that exploded over Hiroshima struck
every resident of the city almost simultaneously, so that everyone's
story began at the same moment, nearly all of those I interviewed about
Hue experienced only a small part of the battle, and at different times
and places. Most of the soldiers fought until they were wounded and
evacuated, so it was hard to find those whose experience ran all the way
My account would be made up of many, many individual stories.
The unifying thread had to be the battle itself. I had to know what
happened on a large scale well enough to guide the reader through the
battle chronologically, making sense of it step by step, moving as it
moved, and plugging in the scores of individual stories where they
belonged. The disadvantage was a book with so many characters that few
readers would be able to keep track. The advantage was that the book
would better capture the enormity of the battle, and the wide variety of
ways that people experienced it.