MDC: Thank you for this interview, Mr. Lofthouse. I appreciate you taking your time to answer a few questions in general and about your latest book, Running with the Enemy. I have read very little about the Vietnam War, so after reviewing The Concubine Saga, I have been looking forward to reading Running with the Enemy.
As I like to begin most interviews of authors, what is the book you would want to reread? Who are your favorite authors?
LL: The first book that popped into my head was “This House of Sky” by Ivan Doig, and he is also one of my favorite authors. In fact, I recently finished his “The Bartender’s Tale” and highly recommend it for readers of literature. It’s a beautiful story about a father and son.
I have so many favorite authors that I hesitate to list them all because I might never finish so I will focus on a few: James Lee Burke (I’m always waiting for his next book), C.S. Forester (I’ve read many of his books at least twice), Patrick O’Brian (I want to read all of his books again one day), J. R. R. Tolkien (I read the “Lord of the Rings” three times and watched the movies three times)–and this is the short list of my favorite authors.
MDC: Splendid. I have wanted to read the Hornblower series (Forester) for a while now, especially after reading the Sharpe books by Bernard Cornwell because many say if you like one you will like the other character. I never dreamed I would enjoy reading about the Napoleonic Wars as much as I have. But I definitely must check out Doig’s works. Reading about life on the plains is another subject I am interested in as this geographical location has unique issues.
When you are writing a book or novel, what does your daily writing process entail?
LL: I start my work day procrastinating by reading my e-mails first; then the news; next I check what new movies are opening Friday, and that leads to other things that continue the procrastination for a few hours. It’s a horrible habit.
Eventually, I force myself to start writing—usually after 12:00 pm, and then I follow the daily writing goals that I wrote on a slip of paper I cannot ignore. Those writing goals keep reminding me that I’m procrastinating until I feel so guilty I have to start writing.
My rule is that I must check those writing goals off in a reasonable amount of time. Right now, the next goal to check off is to finish a four-part series of posts that I’m writing for one of my Blogs and then start the rough draft of Chapter 17 for my next book, a memoir called “Crazy Normal, a classroom expose”. In the 1990s I kept a very detailed daily journal. That daily journal is providing the material for the memoir—a year in the life of a teacher and his students. Anyone who is really curious about what goes on inside a public school classroom may find the answers in that memoir—some of the scenes may be quite shocking.
MDC: I was wondering what your next project might be. I certainly am looking forward to Crazy Normal. It reminds me of Teacher Man by Frank McCourt.
Running with the Enemy took 22 long years from idea to fruition. Can you talk about what that whole process was about and why such a big gap in idea to printing?
LL: In 1966, I came home from Vietnam with a bad case of PTSD. I drank too much, carried a ton of anger, and that probably wrecked my first marriage. After the divorce, my health was in the gutter and my drinking had progressed to straight Scotch, no ice—sometimes with beer chasers. Mixing Scotch and beer is a fast way to get really drunk and bury what’s bothering you.
I had to do something so I quit drinking—changing my lifestyle drastically—and started an MFA in writing. During the MFA program, I decided to write about my combat tour in Vietnam. A few months into the project, my graduate advisor said I had to get past page 40—I was repeatedly revising the first forty pages. Page forty-one turned out to be the day I climbed down a net into a landing craft and went ashore at Chu Lai, Vietnam. Once I broke through that block, a lot of what happened to me in Vietnam—that I had buried inside my head—came boiling out like a disturbed nest of wasps.
A few years later, I took that raw manuscript to UCLA and signed up for a writing workshop. The professor convinced me to convert that raw memoir into a fictional suspense thriller and for the next five years I worked on this novel. It was called “Better a Dead Hero” then.
After endless revisions and editing thanks to the advice of that UCLA professor and the other authors in that workshop, the professor—after those five years—recommended me to a reputable, well know literary agent in Los Angeles who shopped my work to New York where the manuscript landed on the desk of a senior editor at Random House who rejected the novel saying that he enjoyed reading the book but no one was publishing Vietnam because the market was glutted and readers were not buying books on that topic.
After several more rejections that said the same thing, I set that manuscript aside and moved on to the next project. After I left teaching in 2005, I decided to dust off that manuscript, revise and edit it one more time and publish it.
MDC: I am glad you decided to change your lifestyle and get involved in an MFA program! And I am sure writing about all of your experiences helped as well.
Your next project you mentioned is about your teaching experience, so what subject(s) did you teach and where? How have students changed or not through all of your years of teaching? What did you enjoy most about being a teacher?
LL: I taught English and journalism in the Rowland Unified School District and finished the last 16 years at Nogales High School. I started teaching in 1975, and in the early 1990s I begin to see a difference in my students.
Before the early 1990s, most of my students earned A’s, B’s and C’s and there were only a few failures in each class. But in the 1990s, that changed drastically until by the time I retired from teaching only 5 percent of my students were earning A’s and B’s and 30 to 50 percent were failing. The students that failed refused to read, and refused to do the work.
There was an attitude shift in students after Generation Y—the Millennials—walked into my classroom and President George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) into law. The NCLB Act put all the responsibility of educating America’s children on the teachers and schools and none of that responsibility on parents and students. If a child didn’t do the work, didn’t read, didn’t study and didn’t learn, the child/parents were not blamed—the teachers were blamed. The schools were blamed. The teacher unions were blamed.
What I enjoyed most about being a teacher was to witness the growth of the students who cooperated and studied. It’s amazing what a student can achieve when he or she is a partner in his or her own education. For example, one year a mother came to me and asked what she could do to help her daughter, who was reading way below grade level. I told her to turn off the TV and replace the TV with books. I said that she should also be in the same room where her daughter can see her reading books too. At the end of the year, her daughter had improved her literacy level by 5 years, and that happened because the mother worked with the teacher to make it happen. Education should be a partnership—not a combat zone.
MDC: We could go on and on about the current state of teaching—it is so strange how everything shifted from personal responsibility of students and parents all on to the teachers. I don’t have kids, but I would certainly emphasize books over TV if I did. I can’t believe the mindless hours I spent watching Gilligan when I could have been reading!
I always enjoy looking at the names that authors choose to give their characters. Where do you derive the names of your characters? Are they based on real people you knew or now know in real life? How do you create names for your characters?
LL: The names of the characters in my books are fictional. Even in the memoir I am now writing, I’m changing many of the names. To find names, I often use the second edition of the “Character Naming Sourcebook” by Sherrilyn Kenyon published by Writers Digest Books. If I can’t find a name I want to use, I then turn to Google and search for lists of names. It’s amazing what we can find through a Google search.
MDC: Your publisher is Three Clover Press. What can you tell me about this publisher? Did you find a publisher right away once you started submitting your novel? What was your publishing experience like and what would you do differently if it was not all you had hoped?
LL: Three Clover Press is a small boutique indie publisher that has published only a few authors so far and isn’t open to unsolicited submissions—invitation or recommendation only. I did not find a publisher right away. I wrote my first manuscript in 1968 during my first year in college—on the GI Bill—in a creative writing class after leaving the Marine Corps. Between 1968 and 2005, I wrote about a dozen book-length manuscripts and collected many rejections.
MDC: Do you have a close relationship with many of your old Marines buddies from your military days? Do you attend military reunions with the people you served alongside? What has been your post military life like? Did you easily adjust back to civilian life? Did you or some of your buddies experience PTSD?
LL: I did not stay in touch with the Marines I served with in Vietnam, because after Vietnam we did not stay in the same unit. After rotating back to the States, we served in different units and none of the Marines I served with in Vietnam ended up in the unit I was assigned to at Camp Pendleton near San Diego, CA. In fact, there wasn’t much of an attempt by any of us to stay in touch. I know that many of the Marines I served with in Vietnam ended up being rotated back to Vietnam within a few months. I was fortunate after Vietnam and stayed at Pendleton until my honorable discharge in 1968. I got married a few months before I left the Marines and went to college on the GI Bill. My life revolved around the marriage, college, part-time jobs and our civilian friends. I’m not sure how many of the Marines in my unit in Vietnam came home with PTSD, but I know I did, and it went untreated until I went to the VA for medical care after I left teaching in 2005. My PTSD almost killed me more than once. Drinking and PTSD are a very bad mix. It wasn’t until after I stopped drinking that I started to learn how to manage the PTSD that will be with me until the day I die. The PTSD demons are never far away. I would not wish them on anyone.
MDC: What do you think of the state of today’s military? Of today’s Marines?
LL: I think the government is asking too much of our troops—sending them back to combat zones for one tour after another takes a heavy toll on those troops. The United States has the best trained and best armed military in the world, but we are burning our volunteer military out with these endless wars. I think that the US Marines will always be one of the best fighting forces in the world. Joining the Marines was one of the best decisions I made in my life. The US Marines offered me a great learning experience that has served me well. MDC: Do you think the US being in countries such as Afghanistan is a good idea? LL: I think we couldn’t help but go to war in Afghanistan. With that said, President G. W. Bush should never have started a war in Iraq and should have focused all of America’s military resources and attention on the war in Afghanistan that was mostly ignored by Bush as a secondary combat theater until Obama became president. The US cannot afford to allow fundamentalist Islamic terrorists to have a country to use as a base of operations against America. Afghanistan was that base before 9/11. Iraq was never a real base of operations for these Islamic terrorists. As horrible as Saddam, the dictator, was to his own people, he was never a true friend of fundamentalist Muslims. In fact, the evidence suggests he was their enemy and was a brutal, barbaric one at that.
MDC: Thank you again for letting me interview you here on M. Denise C. I enjoyed reading and reviewing Running with the Enemy. I will say that I enjoyed the suspense and drama of the novel and was rooting for Ethan Card to prevail over his enemies! Also, I want to let my readers know that you are married to a writer (Anchee Min) and that I recently listened to her being interviewed on NPR and they can also listen to her fascinating story HERE.
LL: Thank you, Denise, for having me as a guest on your Blog.