Sunday, March 20, 2011

An Interview with "An Irreverent Goldbrick"-- Gary Alexander, author of the Vietnam novel DRAGON LADY

Dragon Lady, Gary Alexander's evocative and absurdist tale of the early days of the Vietnam War is a page-turning read that will make you laugh and cry. Told from several vantage points in the protagonist's life, Dragon Lady seamlessly shifts from Saigon in 1965 through to the present day...and beyond... as the narrator tells the story of his obsession with a Vietnamese girl named Mai, his increasing unease with the U.S's involvement in Vietnam, and his reflections on his own life since his tour in Saigon. (For a brief synopsis, see the end of this post.)

DRAGON LADY IS AVAILABLE NOW -- ! Click here to go to Amazon or here to buy at Smashwords. (Get on the Istoria Books mailing list to learn of discounts, if you missed the preview discount on this book.)

A Q and A with Gary Alexander:

IB: You served in Vietnam. Could you tell us a little about that experience?
Most of my Army career was spent in clerical duties. Like Private Joe in the book, I preferred a roof over my head, and a big, clunky typewriter was my weapon of choice. Even in 1964-65, many of us had doubts about the Domino Theory. Not that we had extensive knowledge of that region and its history. It was because we learned early to doubt the wisdom of those above us. As the saying went, "There's the right way, the wrong way, and the Army way."

IB: Did you get a chance to come home on leave during your Vietnam tour?
I returned home to Bremerton, WA on leave from Vietnam in mid-1965, expecting some buzz on the rapidly-escalating struggle. The big story in the papers was Namu the Killer Whale. GIs were dying at an exp
onential rate, and the big deal was this critter caught in a fisherman's net. I had to hunt past the society page and the sports to find a column or two on Vietnam.

IB: Because you served before the big troop buildups, did you experience any of the fighting?
Like Private Joe, I still have a piece of shrapnel in my arm and a Purple Heart. But I'm no war hero. I was minding my own business, sound asleep on 2/7/65 when the VC mortared our compound. I was damn lucky. Two guys on the other end of our hootch were killed and a mortar that didn't explode landed two feet from my head. They were aiming for the guard tent, where troops not on guard duty sleep. It was across the
sidewalk from us. The absurdity of Dragon Lady was partly "inspired" by the fact that our M-14 rifles were chained and locked under our bunks. The powers that be felt we were more dangerous to ourselves than the enemy was. Victor Charles could've walked in and slaughtered us. That attack was kind of Vietnam's Pearl Harbor; it snapped everybody out of their complacency.
Gary Alexander

IB: Could you tell us about some of the men and women with whom you served -- do you stay in touch with any of them?
Gary: This was not an all-volunteer Army, so we had plenty of folks like myself who were civilians at heart. My best buddy throughout the Army and I kept in contact for years afterward. We lost touch about 20 years ago. I regret that.

IB: Have you visited the Vietnam Memorial?
I did. I saw the name of a kid I'd known before Vietnam, but hadn't known he'd died there. I broke down.

IB: Have you ever gone back to Vietnam? Again, if so, could you share some of that experience?
Gary: I haven't gone back, but I bought a travel guide while working on Dragon Lady. It was very strange reading about train travel from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi and guided tours at the tunnels of Cu Chi.

IB: What elements of your protagonist do you think you share, if any?
Plenty. We were both irreverent goldbricks. I didn't have the stones to do some of the things he did, though.

IB: Were you a big fan of the Terry and the Pirates cartoon, as your protagonist is? If so, tell us a bit about that fascination.
Gary: I'd outgrown the comics, but Pvt. Joe wasn't the only GI who went to Vietnam with fantasies of the exotic Orient and Dragon Lady types. I hunted in vain for her.

IB: The quirky love story between Joe and Mai is at the center of Dragon Lady. Joe comes to have grave doubts about her, yet continues to pursue her. Was this typical of GIs who fell in love with Vietnamese girls?
Gary: That love story is pure fantasy, although many GIs (usually young virgins) fell hard for Vietnamese women, many of whom were prostitutes hoping for a ticket to the Land of the Big PX. The Army wisely created enough bureaucratic impediments to fizzle out the romance.

IB: You started writing Dragon Lady some time ago. Could you tell us about that process, when you started it, how many iterations it went through? What did you keep changing, trying to "get right"?
Gary: Dragon Lady took many forms over the years, so many that I can't remember the exact chronology and iterations.

IB: What inspired you to include an afterlife component to the story - what did you want the reader to think or feel during those sections?
Gary: That was the breakthrough that satisfied me, that told me I had the novel nailed. It happened when I had an MRI a few years ago. The technician asked if I had any metal in my body, saying that if I d
id I might feel a tug. Sure enough, I did. I was taking the test for something relatively minor, not Joe's problem. I made up the afterlife as I went. It was the most fun I had while writing Dragon Lady.

IB: Have you read any Vietnam literature yourself? If so, what and what was your reaction? What movie or book about the Vietnam war captures it most accurately for you?
Gary: A couple of movies. Don't recall the names, but remember them as Hollywood dreck. On the other hand, the books, Fire in the Lake by Frances Fitzgerald and The Best and the Brightest by David Halberstam and Robert Stones's Dog Soldiers are incredible. I've reread them so much, I have them held together with rubber bands. Graham Greene's The Quiet American should be required reading at West Point.

IB: Before
Dragon Lady, you wrote mostly mystery. Is mystery your reading preference? Tell us a bit about your favorite books.
Gary: My reading tastes are eclectic. I'll read most anything except romance and lawyer novels. I love Elmore Leonard. Don DeLillo too.

IB: You mention the American fabulist and satirist Ambrose Bierce in Dragon Lady. I take it you're a fan.
Gary: I picked up one of his books full of quotations and couldn't put it down. As a fellow absurdist, I felt he deserved some space in DL.

IB: Overall, what do you hope people take away from Dragon Lady?
Gary: Novelists are no different than tap dancers and opera singers and the guy they shoot out of a cannon at the circus --- we're entertainers. I want people to enjoy Dragon Lady. I've long since given up the notion that it'll change anybody's views on tilting the wrong windmills.

Istoria Books Presents...
Dragon Lady
by Gary Alexander
April 2011
Available in paperback and as an ebook

In 1965 Saigon, Joe, a young draftee, becomes obsessed with a Vietnam girl named Mai, his own "Dragon Lady" from his beloved Terry and the Pirates cartoon strips that his mother still sends him. As he pursues a relationship with her, Saigon churns with intrigue and rumors--will the U.S. become more involved with the Vietnamese struggle? What's going on with a special unit that's bringing in all sorts of (for the time) high tech equipment? Will the U.S. make Vietnam the 51st state and bomb aggressors to oblivion? But for Joe, the big question is--does Mai love him or will she betray more than just his heart? Gary Alexander’s intelligent voice, filled with dry wit, and his own experiences give this story a sharp sense of truth, recounting the horror and absurdity of war. Reminiscent of books such as Catch-22, Dragon Lady serves up equal measures of outrageous humor and poignant remembrance. Gary Alexander was one of 17,000 US soldiers in Vietnam that spring. When he left in the fall, there were 75,000 troops in-country.

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Dragon Lady by Gary Alexander

Dragon Lady

by Gary Alexander

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