Welcome once again to The Author’s Tent! We’re interviewing Susan VanHecke today, and wow, are you in for a treat! A successful author of several nonfiction and fiction books for grown-ups and young people, Susan will talk with us about writing memoir for publication. We’ll also shine the spotlight on ROCK ‘N’ ROLL SOLDIER, the memoir she coauthored with Dean Ellis Kohler.
Nominated for the 2009 Cybil Award for nonfiction, ROCK ‘N’ ROLL SOLDIER is receiving accolades from all corners. And no wonder: In the words of Graham Nash, it’s “a remarkable story about the transcendent power of music."
Take a peek at this book trailer, and then hurry inside. From Act One to final encore, you won’t want to miss what Susan has to say. And at the end of our interview, I’ll announce the lucky winner of my ONE WORLD ONE HEART blog contest giveaway.
ACT ONE: ROCK ‘N’ ROLL SOLDIER
Melodye: I met you on Facebook, which is also where I first heard about ROCK ‘N’ ROLL SOLDIER. I’d love to know how you came upon—and became coauthor of—Dean Ellis Kohler’s remarkable story.
Susan: I met Dean about ten years ago when I was an arts and entertainment reporter for the daily newspaper here in southeastern Virginia. I’d been assigned to write a story on a CD compilation of garage rock bands from the ’60s that included a few of Dean’s groups. During our interview, he told me about the band he’d put together in Vietnam – teaching soldiers how to play, building mike stands from bamboo stalks, even cutting a record in a supply tent on a mountainside. I was fascinated. I knew his story would make a great book!
Together, Dean and I crafted a proposal and sample chapters and found an agent. That original proposal didn’t land us a book deal, but a revised proposal and chapters did many years later. You can read more about that here. Several houses were interested; HarperCollins acquired the book in a pre-empt. I’m glad we never gave up!
Pretend for a minute that we’re broadcasting this live via Twitter. If you’ll tweet a 140-character summary of ROCK ‘N’ ROLL SOLDIER, I’ll add a Twitter-style pitch for CAN I GET A WITNESS, my memoir-in-progress.
@Susan: Teen guitar prodigy is drafted and sent to Vietnam where he forms a rock band and discovers his true self through the power of music.
@Melodye: The daughter of a faith-healing evangelist pulls back the tent flap on her itinerant childhood, revealing all. CAN I GET A WITNESS?
ROCK ‘N’ ROLL SOLDIER has its own website, where readers can browse a fantastic collection of 8mm film footage, photographs, andaudio clips from Dean’s tour of duty in Vietnam. These memorabilia certainly help lift his story off the page, and I suspect they helped you reconstruct his story, as well. What tips can you provide for memoirists who are writing their own experiences from memory, without the benefit of audio tracks or visual aids?
I think one of the keys to writing good memoir – to good writing, in general – is to include sensory details. You know how emotions and memories can be triggered by certain smells or sounds? Trying to reconstruct how things looked and felt and tasted will aid the memoirist in not only telling his or her story more effectively, but in also possibly dredging up pertinent material that may have been forgotten or repressed.
With ROCK ‘N’ ROLL SOLDIER, as with my other coauthored memoirs, I was at a definite disadvantage. I was the writer, but I didn’t have the benefit of the experience. So, yes, I relied heavily on Dean’s archival material – thank goodness he kept all that stuff! I also did loads of research, reading as many accounts by Vietnam vets as I could. And I asked Dean a zillion questions during extensive interviews and daily e-mails, sometimes dozens in a day. I remember at one point, he even sketched out the layout of the bar where he met his Vietnamese girlfriend for me, just so I would know how he and the other soldiers moved in and around the place.
It’s those kinds of details that help me envision the story as a sort of movie in my head, and then I write it all down. And I think it’s those kinds of details that really help to bring a story to life.
You’ve described yourself as a “research-aholic.” We have that in common—I fancy myself a Nancy Drew, too! In digging through the archives, how did you decide what to include and what to omit?
Even though a memoir is a portion of a life’s story, it still needs to have a dramatic arc – a beginning, middle, and end, a challenge that needs to be overcome or a problem that needs to be resolved. Unfortunately, life rarely unfolds in the classic three-act story structure. There’s a lot of extraneous, tangential stuff that sidetracks us while we work at accomplishing our goal or making it over the hurdles.
In Dean’s case, there were countless anecdotes and vignettes that, while interesting or humorous or poignant on their own, just didn’t serve the dramatic arc of the story we were trying to tell. When we first started working on the book, Dean made a long, long, long list of all these episodes. One by one, he related them to me. Then I cherry picked those I thought would best fit into our story. As it turned out, our editor cut even more of those scenes away. It was hard to see some of that stuff go, but, in the end, I think it made our story stronger.
ACT TWO: WRITERLY STUFF
This is your second coauthored memoir. Please describe some of the challenges of writing collaboratively, from first inspiration to the date of publication.
Actually, I consider it my third coauthored memoir, as THREE STEPS TO HEAVEN is actually a twining of biography – of rock pioneer Eddie "Summertime Blues" Cochran – and memoir – of Cochran’s nephew Bobby Cochran, the cowriter.
I’ve found that every coauthor is different in both the degree to which they want to get directly involved in the writing and their ability to write. One coauthor preferred that I do all the writing, so I would interview, write a section, and he would read what I’d written and offer suggestions. Another was a fabulous writer himself, so I functioned largely as an editor, weaving together bits and pieces he’d scribbled over several decades, then prodding him to write more (or more deeply) by, again, asking tons and tons of very specific questions. The third didn’t start out involved in the writing, but many parts of his written responses to my endless questions wound up in our project.
One of the most difficult parts of collaborative memoir-writing is when I have to nudge my coauthor to recall difficult or painful memories. That’s definitely no fun.
When you write memoir, do you feel you are dipping into a different well that when you write fiction? And to delve a little deeper, how does writing young adult (YA) memoir compare to writing memoir for grown-ups?
I’m much more comfortable writing nonfiction than fiction. I like having that foundation of facts and truths to support my story. Fiction – well, anything goes. You have to make it all up, and that can be so daunting! Historical fiction is a happy medium, I think; I have a couple of historical fiction works currently in progress.
I’ve found that writing memoir for young adults and adults is basically the same, except for the handling of sexual content and profanity. We didn’t get too explicit with ROCK ‘N’ ROLL SOLDIER, depicted the sex stuff mostly with inference, and used four-letter words sparingly.
What can you tell us about your writing rituals and routines? For example, do you have a daily writing schedule? What sparks your creativity, and what keeps you writing when your confidence falters or inspiration doesn’t come?
Oh, how I’d love to have a daily writing schedule! Unfortunately, with two kids, a young dog, volunteer work, and promo and marketing of my published books, a daily writing regimen is pretty near impossible. I write whenever I can grab a couple of free hours. If I’m on a deadline, the kids go to grandma’s or hubby takes time off from work and I hole up in my office and pound it out.
When I am writing, or trying to, and things aren’t flowing the way I’d like, I find it’s often helpful to switch gears and dive into a different sort of project. So I always have a variety of manuscripts going at all times.
I’ve also found that I need brain- and heart-recharging time after completing major projects. For instance, I worked on ROADWORK, the memoir of rock photographer Tom Wright, and ROCK ‘N’ ROLL SOLDIER, Dean Kohler’s Vietnam experience, back to back. Both are powerful, deeply emotional stories; it was like living both of these guys’ lives, one after the other. I literally felt drained and totally empty after completing those books. It was several months before I even wanted to think about writing anything again.
For those who might want to write their own memoir, can you offer a few suggestions and/or recommend your favorite writing resources? What should they consider before getting started, for instance, and what challenges might they encounter?
My favorite writing resources are other books. I’d suggest reading as many memoirs and autobiographies as you can. Analyze what you think works and what doesn’t, what you might apply to your own story, what you might want to stay away from.
And before you embark on the memoir-writing journey, realize that you’ll likely be revisiting some not-so-pleasant memories. You’ll need to consider if you’re ready to face those feelings again. But also know that just writing things down can help sap the power from bad memories. Of course, it can’t erase them, but I think when they’re on paper or the computer screen, it can help you to look at them in a more objective way.
What’s next for you, and how can we keep track of your writing projects?
I’m excited about STRIKE UP THE BAND!, my nonfiction for middle-grade readers about the history and cultural impact of American musical instrument makers like Steinway, Fender, Ludwig, Moog, and others. It pubs in the fall with Boyds Mills Press, an imprint of Highlights for Children magazine.
And, as I mentioned, I’m working on some historical fiction projects, including one inspired by my family tree. Turns out my ancestors were abolitionists in northwestern New York. When a pregnant fugitive slave arrived in their town with her young daughter, then died after giving birth to a son, the white townspeople rallied around the two children and raised them as their own. It was totally against the law at the time, and incredibly dangerous, given the ruthlessness of slavehunters. It’s an amazing story, and I’ve been turning up incredible materials to document it, including what I believe is the runaway slave notice for the mother and daughter from 1850. Research makes me smile!
I blog about writing and a lot of other stuff at www.susanvanhecke.blogspot.com and maintain an author website at www.susanvanhecke.com. I’m on Facebook at www.facebook.com/susan.vanhecke.
ACT THREE: LIGHTNING ROUND
Snow sled or surf board? Snow, beautiful snow, please!
Bach or Bono? Tough one. Gotta give the edge (no U2 pun intended) to Johann Sebastian, though.
Snark or sweet nothings? Definitely snark.
Apple pie or red velvet cake? Apple pie. Love, love, love it so much I wrote a book about it.
Bella Swan or Scarlett O’Hara? I’m a Scarlett kinda gal.
This is so much fun, I hate to see you go! Before you leave, would you please answer one more question about ROCK ‘N’ ROLL SOLDIER—maybe something you haven’t yet been asked?
I’m surprised that no one’s asked what the reaction has been from the other "characters" in the book – Dean’s bandmates, the rest of the 127th MP Company, his old girlfriends.
Thankfully, we’ve had nothing but positive comments. That’s gratifying for me, as I had to realistically portray these people that I’ve never met from just a few photos and what Dean could remember of them. And their enthusiastic response to the book is especially satisfying for Dean. From the very start of the project, his primary concern was to tell things as accurately and truthfully as possible. Dean shared with me an e-mail he received the other day from his company captain’s driver – the guy said that reading the book was like being on This Is Your Life! We’ve gotten scores of similar comments, from those who served with Dean and elsewhere in Vietnam. It’s very cool to know your book touched soldiers who lived through that challenging time.
Thank you, Susan, for joining us in the Authors’ Tent, and for bringing Dean Kohler’s remarkable story to a wider audience. As you know, my ONE WORLD ONE HEART blog contest giveway item is an autographed copy of ROCK ‘N’ ROLL SOLDIER. Congratulations to the lucky winner, mostly_Irish!
Susan’s adult books include Race With The Devil: Gene Vincent’s Life In The Fast Lane; Three Steps To Heaven: The Eddie Cochran Story, with Bobby Cochran; and Roadwork: Rock And Roll Turned Inside Out, with rock photographer Tom Wright, foreword by Pete Townshend of the Who. For her younger audiences, Susan wrote An Apple Pie For Dinner; Strike Up The Band, Amazing American Instrument Makers From Ragtime To Rock (Fall 2010); and ROCK ‘N’ ROLL SOLDIER: A Memoir, which she co-authored with Dean Ellis Kohler.
If you like this book, you may also enjoy THE SANDBOX: Dispatches from Troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. For more book reviews and author interviews, please visit The Author’s Tent archives.