by Susan Tepper
Susan Tepper: You wrote a fiction collection based on your personal experience of being a nurse in Viet Nam during that war. It is titled “Don’t Mean Nothing.” Can you explain this choice of title?
Susan O’Neill: “Don’t mean nothing”— as spoken, was actually Don’t mean nothin’— an omnipresent catch-phrase. We used it whenever we were frustrated about anything, but in particular with the craziness of the war, and how it didn’t square with any known logic. It was our generation’s FUBAR (Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition) or Catch-22. A death, a broken heart, bad news from home, an operating room full of broken bodies after you’ve spent the night on call. Hell, even finding that they’d run out of SOS at Midnight Breakfast (yes, creamed beef on toast, and there really was breakfast at midnight at hospitals) could elicit a “Don’t mean nothin’.” Nurses, techs, soldiers, pilots, whatever— we all used it roughly the same way, as a faux-offhand reaction to just about anything that happened, on a scale from annoying to disastrous. It was probably the second most popular expletive in Viet Nam.
ST: SOS to mean ‘shit on a shingle.’ I remember that usage from my youth, too. Sue, this collection hit me in two ways: First, personally, because I had some ‘minor’ experience of Viet Nam having flown in with the troops as a stewardess. And most of all because of the power of these stories, put forth in straight, simple prose. Was it an emotional experience for you writing this book decades after the war was over?
S.O.N. Initially I didn’t even consider writing about Viet Nam. I had tried to keep a journal, but dropped it after about a week. I wrote an essay for RN Magazine while I was in-country, about a kid we “adopted” at one of my hospitals, but that had been horribly re-edited (or maybe just horribly written and badly re-edited), and I’d hated the final edition.
When I got back to the States, I was exhausted, depleted to the depths of my soul (which, at that point, I wasn’t sure I even had). Nobody really wanted to hear about Viet Nam, as I discovered when I got in people’s faces— as I too often did— about the tragic craziness and injustice of it. I got married, had my first child, traveled a bit with Paul and Kym on money Paul and I had saved in Viet Nam, marched on Washington, spent a year in the now-defunct Peace Corps Family Program, sang in bars, wrote funny columns for local newspapers, did the occasional nursing gig, and took the odd college class. I had a lot to do, and a lot to adjust to. And I was still too angry about the war to even consider putting it down on paper— not that I would’ve known how.
ST: You came home and had a child. That is a way of starting the healing. In this collection there’s a story about a Vietnamese boy child called Butch.
It begins: “Spec 4 August Wray met his son— the child of his heart, if not his loins— in June of 1969.”
What was the genesis of this particular story?
S.O.N. Ah. That’s the boy I wrote about for RN Magazine. The child himself was pretty much as I described him in the story. A few men casually spoke about adopting him, but nobody I know pursued it. But…here’s where fiction raises its foxy little head: what if somebody did?
In that story, Auggie Wray (Spec 4 August Wray, the character) simply suggested himself for the job, then grew to fit the picture. I intended him to be married, and to live in Maine— I was comfortable with Maine because I’d lived there for ten years— and I intended him to be a quiet man. I was actually surprised when he turned out so shy. Ultimately, I followed his lead as he worked to adopt Butch. Most of the story was his doing: he took over that “what if.”
The story was also greatly influenced by a sense of futility I’d developed from volunteering at an orphanage.
The orphanage was in Hue, and I used it in the story even though I’m really not sure where the docs who brought Butch in had found him. Each week, on my day off, I showed up in the courtyard with two or three other volunteers, and the kids would swarm all over us. There was an absolute herd of kids, desperate to be noticed, touched, hugged. Many— maybe even most of them— were half-American or half-Korean or half- whoever else was soldiering in their country; many of them, I learned, actually had living mothers. Their mothers had left them at the orphanage because they couldn’t afford to keep them, or because the child’s different look could mark a mother as consorting with the enemy. Which, of course, could be fatal. The place broke my heart every time I went there.
Orphans, demi-orphans, mothers— they are all casualties of war. A reporter might write the odd feature story in the news about an orphan, but if you’ve been on the ground in a country where war is being waged, you realize at a gut level how many, many children are left like litter by the wayside. How can their lives ever be “normal,” during the war or after it? It’s just so horribly unfair, so horribly wasteful. So much damage for the innocents— all because politicians who will never meet them work their strategies and alliances and games against other politicians, all at a safe, insulated distance.
So in a very small, micro-vision way, this book is a story about all that. And about caring about it, and getting your heart broken.
I might note, also, at the time I met Butch, we all assumed that he suffered from malnutrition— that was why his legs were deformed, and his belly so round. Maybe that was true. However, a few years after I got back to the States, I was watching a report on TV about the effects of Agent Orange on the population of Viet Nam, and one of the children in the documentary had the exact same deformity as Butch.
S.T.: Kirkus Review wrote: “M.A.S.H., with lots more sex and cursing.” A Kirkus Review is a great thing to have on your book. You told the stories straightforward and therein lies its power.
I also have to mention your book cover. The photo is compelling and rather heartbreaking in that it sums up a lot.
S.O.N. It’s a picture of Nancy Jones Johnson, taken by Eileen Hotaling, who served together in Viet Nam and are still friends. I’ve never met either woman; I found it through a mutual friend back when Ballantine (who first published this book) was looking for an appropriate cover photo. Ballantine didn’t want it, and solved the relevance problem by turning most of the cover into whitespace, keeping the helicopters on top. I later offered the picture to UMass Press when they made their paperback edition of my book, and they used it as the whole cover— rather dully, I thought. My current editor at Serving House Books loved the picture and coupled it with a letter he had from the era.
I’ve sent the two nurses copies and small “rights payments” for the last two copies, and received pleasant notes in reply. I confess that I don’t know the specific story behind the picture. But children were far from unusual in Army hospitals— I wouldn’t be surprised if civilian death and injury tolls were substantially higher than military. You can aim an M16, but bombs, mines, grenades, napalm and mortars aren’t magnetized to hit soldiers alone.
Sometimes I think we are cavalier about waging war because we haven’t had it on our soil— not intense, prolonged, possessive war like those we fight in other countries— since the Civil War. We have no memory, no knowledge of the real damage and chaos it wreaks beyond that affecting the soldiers we send to fight.
Susan O’Neill has also written Calling New Delhi for Free [and other ephemeral truths of the 21st Century] (Peace Corps Writers, 2013), and her book Don’t Mean Nothing: Short Stories of Viet Nam (Serving House Press expanded edition, 2010; Ballantine 2001; Black Swan [UK] 2002, UMass Press 2004) can be found HERE. You can also read more at her website http://susanoneill.us.
Susan Tepper is the author of four published books. Her current titles include The Merrill Diaries and From the Umberplatzen (Wilderness House Press, 2012) – a quirky love story set in Germany and told in linked-flash. Tepper has received nine Pushcart nominations, and one for the Pulitzer Prize for her novel What May Have Been (with Gary Percesepe) published by Cervena Barva Press in 2010. Tepper created the Monday Chat Interview series at Fictionaut, and the reading series FIZZ at KGB Bar in NYC. Her work appears in hundreds of print and online venues. www.susantepper.com