So Many Names, So Many Lives Lost. An Interview with Elizabeth Partridge
“The memorial emerged out of the grass, then as I walked alongside, it rose higher, and higher still. 57,939 American names inscribed on it in 1982 when it was dedicated, arranged by casualty date – the day the person was killed, or sustained wounds that led to death”
Okay, so Elizabeth is an acquaintance and, seeing the name of someone I knew on our hibooks audiobook list did inspire me to get started. But I was pretty sure Boots on the Ground would be a compelling listen as Elizabeth is well known in writing circles as a master storyteller. Her YA nonfiction books are written in ways that interest both high schoolers and adults alike. The list of awards she’s received for her previous books are a testament to how accomplished she is at telling the stories of real people. She’s received a Printz Honor Book from the American Library Association; been named a National Book Award finalist; received the Golden Kite, an award from her writing peers; as well as gaining accolades from virtually every Best YA Book of the Year list for her past books.
Boots on the Ground is no exception. It was recently longlisted for the 2018 National Book Awards for Young People’s Literature. But, what makes it special is its accessibility. It is a story of war, but more it is a story of people – the people impacted – the draftees, the enlistees, the nurses, the people of Vietnam, and their families. It is about people like you and me, who had real life experiences.
As readers and listeners, we often neglect to think about the effort of the authors to bring forth a book. It often takes years.
Q: Nonfiction writing is a special labor of love, packaged up with an author’s personal inclinations and skills. What brought you to nonfiction writing?
I love listening to people’s life stories. As a nonfiction writer, I interview people, and hear their stories first-hand, or I go on a hunt for primary source materials where I can listen to interviews, and read oral histories and speeches. Then I like to place the personal stories in a greater social context. What was happening around this person that they were reacting to, or influencing?
I think growing up in an extended family of photographers was a huge factor. Photos were always all over the place. Just by osmosis all of us kids were being trained to look carefully at the world around us, and to note details, and try to understand what those details meant.
[Elizabeth is the goddaughter of the famous photographer Dorothea Lange.]
Q: When did you first start thinking about doing a book on Vietnam?
I think I am obsessed with the Vietnam war. Several years ago I wrote a middle grade novel, Dogtag Summer, about a Vietnamese – American orphan adopted by a Vietnam veteran and his wife and how their PTSD explodes in the middle of the family. I thought I had written all I needed to about the war, but I decided I wanted to write a nonfiction book about real people and the politics that were going on in America.
Q: How did you decide on the people you chose? Was it serendipity? Or, did you find specific things that led you to these people?
I had only a couple of requirements for how I chose people. I wanted to interview people who came from different parts of America, and from different races. I was really curious how race played out in people’s experience of the war, and I learned so much. Then there was a certain measure of serendipity. My husband Tom told me about a veteran he knows who works in the lumber store where Tom buys his building materials. Tom warned me that the vet looked like a street person, but was really a great guy. Both were true.
Besides the veterans, I interviewed an amazing woman who was a refugee. She was in her late teens when she and her family had to run from Da Nang as the communists swept south. Her family was separated, but she got her mother and three little siblings out of Vietnam the day Saigon fell.
I have so much respect and admiration for everyone I interviewed. They were all in terrible circumstances not of their own making, and had to meet incredible challenges.
Q: How long did you actually work on Boots on the Ground? Doing the research? Doing writing?
Boots on the Ground took me longer than anything else I have ever written, maybe a total of six years. But life was also somewhat complicated in those years as I was living with and caring for my dad who was in his nineties.
Q: If we went to your office to see your research for the book. What would we see? How much do you rely on electronic files vs. physical hard copies?
What you would see would be a mess. A giant mess. I seem to like a lot of paper around me. First, I read dozens of books, many of which I bought second-hand, so there were LOTS of books. Three of the walls of my study are covered with giant bulletin boards, and I toss up photos I like, sayings that mean something to me, beautiful or funny images… all kinds of things. Then there are the papers I generate. At a certain point in the writing process, I have to see things on the page to really know what I’ve written. So flat surfaces have stacks of my writing, interspersed with speeches and magazine articles. And I have most of my brainwaves when I am not at a computer, so there are lots of handwritten notes… kind of all over my desk.
Q: Do you measure the physical research in boxes, or linear feet, notebooks, or just time?
I try not to measure too much!
Q: You’ve been on a launch tour with your book. Many people must come because of their own personal stories relating to the war. What has touched you most from meeting those people and hearing their stories?
Yes, there are many wonderful stories I hear. Some are tender, some are heartbreaking, some are inspiring. I hear about uncles who served and came home different, I hear about sons and daughters in the military now, grandfathers who went to jail rather than fight in a war they didn’t believe in. A woman recently told me that she was only a few months old when her father was killed in Vietnam, and she has never dared to go to the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial (“the Wall”) in Washington DC. Now she is almost ready. She planned to read my book and then take a trip to Washington DC to find her father’s name on the memorial.
As I interviewed people I asked about friends whom they had lost during the war. I included their locations on the Wall. I hope it will help personalize the names on the Wall for people who go visit.
Q: Are you on to writing your next book? Maybe a light, fiction?
Light fiction would be a good idea! Right now I am working on a picture book text on Frederick Law Olmsted. I thought it would be very simple. He designed urban parks like Central Park, but what is most interesting is to see his vision of how democracy would be strengthened by everyone sharing parks. This is making it a little more complicated, because democracy is always a complicated work in progress! And then it all has to be boiled down to picture book length. But I’m having a good time.
Many people were impacted by the war in Vietnam. Fathers, uncles, and grandfathers were lost. Mothers lost husbands. Children lost fathers. Injuries both emotional and physical became a lasting reminder of the war.
I was lucky. I didn’t lose anyone in my immediate family to the war, but still I have three brothers-in-law that have clear memories of that time and three very different experiences. One joined the Marines out of high school, shipped to Vietnam, and came home; one got a high draft number associated with his birth date and didn’t get drafted; one was convicted of draft evasion and was only later pardoned by President Carter, when the President pardoned all draft dodgers in 1977. Others at hibooks are from families directly and personally impacted. They’ve heard the stories from their Vietnamese parents, parents who were displaced. People who were protecting children in-tow and in-utero, who spent time in immigrant camps, and who made “super-hero” efforts to gain safety on ships and only later told their children of missing aunts, pirates, and uncles vanished.