Q&A: Legendary Vietnam War Writer Phil Caputo on His New Novel in Stories

Phil Caputo with English Setter Skye and three dead grouse, in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.  Credit: Mike Ballard

Phil Caputo with English Setter Skye and three dead grouse, in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

Credit: Mike Ballard

A Rumor of War, his best-selling memoir about his experiences as a Marine in the early years of the Vietnam War, was published in 1977 and put Philip Caputo on the national literary map and has been prolific in multiple genres, from the heart of America to Africa. Most recently, he has turned to a novel in stories, Hunter’s Moon (Henry Holt and Company, 272 pp). For The National Book Review, Caputo talked with long-time friend Madeleine Blais. They met after Blais’s husband John Katzenbach wrote a profile of him for TROPIC Magazine of the Miami Herald, and they all became so close that she wrote a chapter about him, titled “Phil,” in her most recent book, To the New Owners: A Martha's Vineyard Memoir.

 Q:  You have had a long and storied career, written sixteen previous books, including one travelogue of sorts The Longest Road: Overland in Search of America from Key West to the Arctic Ocean essays, novellas, two memoirs including the classic “Rumor of War” and a preponderance of novels. “Hunter’s Moon” is a collection of linked short stories. What attracted you to this this form a this point?

A: Short is the operative word — at 78, I haven’t got a lot of runway left, and can’t afford to spend years writing long, intricate novels. But I am also drawn to the compression the form requires, leaving little to no room for subplots, meanders, and the like. It’s likewise pleasant to start a story and finish it just days or weeks later, instead of living with the same narrative and characters for months on end. 

Q:    Can you name names and talk about some of the short story writers who influenced you the most or held you most in their thrall?

A: When I was younger, Hemingway, Sherwood Anderson, Ivan Turgenev (whose “Sportsman’s Sketches partly inspired “Hunter’s Moon.”) But lately, I’ve been captivated Thomas McGuane’s short fiction, and especially by Alice Munro. I have read almost everything she’s written. Munro practices Hemingway’s “Iceberg” theory about writing: as an iceberg derives its power from the parts of it that are submerged, a work of fiction is stronger for what is implied rather than stated directly. She writes a great deal about the Canadian Midwest, whose landscapes and people strongly resemble those of the American Midwest in which I grew up. There is a melancholic undercurrent in her stories, a kind of charcoal tint, and some readers find her depressing. I don’t. I’m a fanboy who thinks her Nobel was well deserved — certainly more than Bob Dylan’s.  

Q:  Tell us about Will Treadwell, the recurrent character who shows up in all the stories, sometimes at a remove and sometimes with a starring role as in “Dreamers”? Is he the moral center of the book and if so, what about his experience makes him the right person for that role?

A: I don’t think of him as the moral center, although you or anyone else has full license to see him that way. Maybe he’s more of a magnetic pole, so to speak, around whom other characters and their stories revolve. Will is somewhat modeled on a real person, but a lot of me is in him, in his interior life, I mean. He was scarred, physically as well as spiritually, by his service in Vietnam; but he constantly struggles to overcome his demons, often successfully, sometimes not. To my own mind, Will reveals his essence in the kitchen scene in “Dreamers,” when his born-again wife states that there is a divine spark in everyone, “even in the worst of us.” Will flashes back to a scene of terrible brutality in the war, and replies, “Yeah, but sometimes it goes out, even in the best of us.”

Q:  It says something about the changes society has undergone since the beginning of your writing career to posit the notion that a man writing about men, especially a white man writing about almost all white men, is committing either a daring act or a kind of literary hari-kari or both. Do you think the current literary landscape has gone to the opposite extreme and at this point stories by white guys about white guys are considered if not marginal, certainly not urgent?

A: I wouldn’t say things have gone to the opposite extreme. People who because of their race or sex were marginalized in the past have now found their literary voice and should be read and heard. Stories about white guys by white guys have become unusual — almost a form of exotica — but they haven’t been relegated to the sidelines.

 Q:  We’re old friends (might as well make that clear) and I once called you a “masculinist writer,” not as a judgment. I did not mean macho. What I meant was that you see the world through a strong male lens the way a feminist might see the world through a strong female lens. Do you think gender is destiny, and what does it mean to take a hard line on that subject in a more gender fluid world than the one you grew up in?

A: Hunter’s Moon is largely about masculine relationships, those between father and son, old friends, and so forth. Yes, because of my experiences and early education — all-boys Catholic high school, U.S. Marine Corps, big city newsroom at a time when most female reporters were confined to the fashion pages or sob-sister roles — I do see the world through what you call a strong male lens. Gender may not be destiny in full, but it certainly determines how we look at things, react to them, as well as how we form our opinions. I’ve occasionally joked to feminist friends that they have to take into account that I was shaped by my father, the Jesuits, and Marine drill sergeants. That said, machismo is nothing more or less than exaggerated masculinity. As for the current notion about gender fluidity, I think it’s mostly bullshit, a novel concept cooked up in academia by academics seeking new ideas for writing theses. I can’t bear atrocities to basic grammar like referring to an individual as “they” simply because a he thinks he’s sometimes a she, a she a he. And incidentally, maybe we could do away with “gender” as a synonym for sex — gender is really a grammatical term.  


Q:   Can you talk about the relationship of place (actually, in your case, places) to your writing. You have set your work in Viet Nam, Africa, the Middle East, and on the border. In this new book one story is set in Alaska, about which you write: “Nature in Alaska is nothing like the housebroken nature in lower Michigan, where we’re from. It’s nature off the leash, stupefyingly vast, and its wild soul whispers that you are a triviality, so you announce your presence, you asset yourself with a yelp, a shout, a howl.” (page 111) Why do some places cry out more than others to make appearances in your work? Is geography as much destiny as gender?

A: Was it Toynbee who advanced the theory that geography plays a critical role in forming cultures and societies? For as long as I can remember, landscapes and seascapes have seized my attention, especially in their power to affect human character. Jungles. Deserts. Forests. Oceans. They have become characters in their own right in my work.

Q:  When did you first visit the Upper Peninsula in Michigan where much of “Hunter’s Moon” is set and what specifically about that part of the world  spoke to you strongly enough to set your work there?

A: I first saw the Upper Peninsula in 1960, and have gone there every fall except three since 1983. I spent an entire summer there while researching my 1987 novel “Indian Country.” It’s beautiful in a peculiar way, at least to me, its beauty harboring a haunted atmosphere, as if its forests carry a memory of the slaughter visited upon them during the logging boom between 1880 and 1920. The grand woods of Longfellow’s Hiawatha were cut down to such an extent that, during the Depression, it was said a crow flying over the remains would need to carry its lunch. Its melancholic atmosphere, at one with its beauty, is what draws me to it (and may account for my attraction to Munro’s writing).  

Q: In Hunter’s Moon, men watch animals kill each other (as one hunter says to another,“”We’re about to watch a nature documentary, and it won’t be heartwarming,” They kill animals, in one story, “Blockers” a character commits suicide and in another story, “Dreamers,” a crazed man kills two innocent hunters.  In “The Nature of Love on the Last Frontier,” a father rescues his son from a terrible death by drowning but only at the last minute. Despite the bloodbath, or perhaps because of it, the stories ache with tenderness, as when a son won’t accede to his father’s unfair demand to let him die alone (Grief”) or when two old friends lie for a dead one to protect his memory and his insurance policy for his widow (“Blockers”). You create a breath-taking trade in “one the one hand” and “on the other.” I guess I would like to know what you think deep down.  Are we hard-wired to destroy or to redeem?

A: The brutality in these stories gives the tenderness meaning. As there can be no faith without doubt, no courage without fear, so there cannot be redemption without sin. The natural world doesn’t sin — it’s morally indifferent. It is no Disney movie with a Doris Day ending. The whole point of “Nature of Love on the Last Frontier” is that it, the natural world, the universe, doesn’t give a damn about us or our fates. But we are the creatures who choose between right and wrong, between creation and destruction, simply because we’re aware of the difference.  

Q: One of the seven stories, “The Guest,” is told from a female perspective. Do you believe that women process the world differently than men? Can you explain why you made this choice in this instance and what was gained (or lost) by it?

A: Absolutely they do, and thank God for it. I chose to write “The Guest” from Lisa Williams’ POV partly as a challenge — could I create a credible female character? — partly because I got bored with presenting every story from a male perspective.  

Q: Years ago, I overheard Tim O’Brien claim that one cannot become a writer in America unless one grapples with the ghost of Ernest Hemingway. Is that true? What female writers have created a similar force field for themselves?

A: I heard that from Tim, too. A certain kind of writer — he’s one, I’m another — does have to wrestle with Papa’s ghost. But another kind, a Jewish writer, say, would have to tussle with the ghosts of Bellow and Roth. I’m reminded of what Flannery O’Connor said about the Southern writer and Faulkner — You don’t want to get caught on the tracks when the Dixie Express comes down the line. Going through the roster of modern female writers in America — Edith Wharton, Willa Cather (one of my favorites), O’Connor, Joy Williams, to name a few — I can’t think of one who has generated a “force field” comparable to Hemingway’s and Faulkner’s. But I’ll bet that Toni Morrison will in the near future, and ditto for Munro.  

Q:  By the way, congratulations.  This book got a rave front-page review in the New York Times by Bruce Barcott in which he wrote. “Few writers have better captured the emotional lives of men, their desperate yearning to improve them and their utter lack of tools or capacity to accomplish the task.” Have you been surprised (and presumably gratified) by this reaction to it?

A: I was surprised, and, of course, gratified. But I try to keep such encomiums in perspective, remembering what Hemingway said about critics: If you believe the good things they say about you, you’ll have to believe the bad things. That said, it’s fun, at my age, to be seen as still relevant. 

Q:   What’s next?

A: To contradict what I said in Q.1, I’m 45,000 words into a novel, which is all I’ll say about it for now. 

Madeleine Blaise is the author of the forthcoming biography ‘Queen of the Court: A Life of Tennis Legend Alice Marble,” to be published by Grove Atlantic in the summer of 2020.