SYDNEY (Reuters Life!) - When American writer Marti Leimbach’s fascination with female reporters taken captive during the Vietnam War became obsessive, she knew she had her next book in the making.
Her sixth novel “The Man From Saigon,” released this month, can be seen as a breakaway from her previous novels which have tended to focus on family dramas although Leimbach says the theme remains constant — loss.
Her career as a writer began in 1990 with the publication of “Dying Young” which was made into a Hollywood movie starring Julia Roberts. She took a break from writing for several years after finding out her son was autistic but returned to the art with her 2006 semi-autobiographical novel “Daniel Isn’t Talking.”
Leimbach, 46, who has lived in England for about 20 years and teaches creative writing at Oxford University, spoke to Reuters:
Q: Your latest novel seems a breakaway from your other books.
A: “I wanted to write something that was not about me and did not reflect my life experience. I’ve always felt my books reflect myself and how I felt internally at that time although I’ve never lived with a man and had an affair with another (as in one of her books). But something about loss has run though all of my books.”
Q: How is “The Man from Saigon” different?
A: “It is not such a departure. I am not writing about the Vietnam War but about people who are experiencing something in the context of 1967 in Vietnam. The characters are still living their own individual, private lives and that’s no different for someone living in a household or a combat zone.”
Q: Why Vietnam?
A: “I met a man who was a war correspondent, Jack Laurence, and he gave me his memoir “The Cat From Hue” which I read as I knew him. I loved the memoir but early in the book there was a little scene that took place between him and a young woman called Cathy Leroy, a 21-year-old French girl who arrived in Saigon in the 1960s with a camera that she didn’t know how to use and no money but she spoke French, was very bold and learnt to be an excellent photographer. He met her in Hue in this early scene and she came running up and said she was taken captive by the Viet Cong for a day and was released unharmed. But that was the end of the scene and that was the end of Cathy in the book ... I ordered all these books from Amazon and secondhand book stores to find out about Cathy and other women taken captive.”
Q: What was the fascination?
A: “These women kept getting captured and released but very little was written about it. The press did get captured and released quite a lot at first but then the war turned when it went to Cambodia and we had dead journalists... but I found these memoirs and I got addicted. I became entrenched in this and it was hugely satisfying as I was the daughter of a reporter living in Washington in the 1960s and although my mother would not have gone there, there were reporters and photographers in our house talking about the war. It was just everywhere. When I revisited it I could see how it shaped my childhood and the people around me and the parents of the kids around me.”
Q: Did you ever get to meet or speak to Cathy Leroy or any of the other women captured in Vietnam?
A: “Sadly Cathy Leroy died a few years ago. I didn’t contact any of them as many of the people I was reading about have died, some quite famously ... but in part I couldn’t quite bring myself to go up to someone without anything in hand to tell them I was going to write about Vietnam. I couldn’t see why they would want to see me. It is also their job to write about Vietnam. I am a novelist and I dramatize things so I wrote a novel.”
Q: Do you have a routine for writing?
A: “I am pretty casual with myself. I think I am like that because I always had to write in between other things. I was the child of a single parent and had a lot of worries for a young kid. My first novel was written in a computer lab surrounded by noise. I have always multitasked as a writer.”
Q: Did it help having your first novel made into a movie?
A: “It was the best and worst thing to happen. It made sure I had a lot of books sold but it was more problematic being taken seriously in a literary sense. It made people think I am much more commercial but I am delighted to have had a movie made.”
Q: Any advice to aspiring authors?
A: “I think they need to know it is a very difficult career. It is an enormous privilege to be published and you cannot expect it but if you feel you want to do it and you can then you must. You must not let the likelihood of success stop you because it can happen very quickly and after a very long time.”
Reporting by Belinda Goldsmith, Editing by Miral Fahmy