Interviews with American
Schroeder:...How would you then describe the point of view in M? It certainly doesn't seem to be that of a twenty-two year-old soldier.
Sack: I'm playing a diabolical trick on the reader of M. In my first three books the "I" was evident throughout. It was always my point of view. In M there is no "I." I never say "I." There's never any suggestion that I'm even there. You can never tell which scenes I witnessed and which were reported to me second-hand. And I don't have my photograph on the book for the same reason: because I want the reader to feel that he or she is being handed raw information, raw facts. "This is the way it is," as the Los Angeles Times, I think, said. That objective facts have just been plunked in front of the reader and haven't passed through anybody else's consciousness. I did not want the reader to see a picture of me on the back of the book and think, "Oh, this is the guy who has arranged and interpreted the facts for me."
This is a shuck. Obviously everything has passed through my consciousness, and I'm just taking advantage of this whole American belief in objectivity. I myself don't believe in objectivity--no New Journalist does. Other reporters feel that they have to restrict themselves to objective facts, although there's really no such thing. So I was going along with this whole newspaper ethic (I don't know how consciously at first) where I report who, what, when, where, and how. A reporter writes, "President Reagan said today in the East Room of the White House that 'Blah, blah, blah.' " He doesn't write, "He looked old and tired" or "He looked shifty-eyed" or "Look, between you and me it's a crock of shit." And like that reporter, I never say "I" in M, but I'm imposing my point of view, my consciousness, by choosing what facts I'm going to report. I'm not being sneaky about this. I'm not thinking, "Oh I won't say this because this is against my thesis; I'll just cut it out." No, I'm merely recounting the incidents that are important to me, and recounting them the way I happened to see them. Somebody else, anybody else, could go through the same experience and see it quite differently.
At the same time, when I was with M and going to Vietnam, I was so wrapped up in the soldier's point of view that I was not yet against the war; in fact, I was probably for the war, grudgingly for the war. I recall feeling that "it's a big messy war, but we have to do it, there's no choice." I knew that when M screwed up on its first operation and killed that girl it was a good story, but I did not believe that it was in any way typical of what was going on in Vietnam. After that operation was over and we were back at brigade, I was talking to the chief of staff of the brigade, Lt. Col. Sam Walker, and I apologized to him. I said, "Look, I'm really sorry about this; my plan was to join this company in training, follow it to Vietnam, accompany it on its first operation, and then the book would end. And they went on this operation and it was a terrible mess. All they did was kill one girl. That's my story and I'm stuck with it. I'm sorry, I know it isn't typical." And Col. Walker said, "It's typical." He said it, but I didn't believe it. It wasn't until half a year later reading a story in the New York Times Magazine by Tom Buckley where I read that the same thing was happening in the Delta that I began thinking, "Maybe it was typical." It took months before I was against the war.
Schroeder: Did you single out Demirgian as your main character for any particular reason?
Sack: No, I didn't single him out. It was not until well along--maybe even during the operation--that I realized Demirgian would be the central character of the book. When I started, I was taking notes on almost everybody--there were two hundred soldiers in the company--and I was taking heavy notes on the ones who I felt had interesting characters, who were different from the mass.
Schroeder: You were conscious of that?
Sack: Well, yes. In the beginning Prochaska was to me the most interesting person. And then perhaps Yoshioka and McCarthy. I don't think I even knew who Demirgian was for about a week and a half. But I must have had my eye on him during their last week before they left to Vietnam because he was the one that I chose to see saying good-bye in Boston. Then again, he was the obvious choice because I didn't want to spend the money to follow Morton back to Texas, and Prochaska and Yoshioka weren't going anywhere, they were just sitting around the base.
Demirgian emerged very slowly as the main character. It wasn't at all (as some have felt) because his name was Armenian and sounded like Yossarian that I chose him. In fact, I thought that that was a disadvantage, that it would seem derivative. But when the soldiers went home on leave, I didn't want to follow Prochaska because he wasn't going to Vietnam; Yoshioka was going to Vietnam, but he wasn't going home to California, he was just going to stay on the base; Bigalow was going up to New York City and wander around--he didn't know what he was going to do, stay at the Y, I think. But meanwhile I had two characters who were friends who were going someplace close that I could fly to--Boston--so it was clear that I should go with them. Not because I had decided that they were going to be the main characters of the book, but because convenience sent me there, and the rest of the people I would just have to pick up later. And somewhere along the way it became clear that Demirgian would be the main character.
Schroeder: In a sense, then, your choice of main character seems to have been out of your own control. As a writer don't you find that alarming: the fact that you're so locked into your characters' actions?
Sack: Oh no, that's the fun part. Every time I've tried to write fiction I've really been unable to do it, starting at Harvard where I got a "C" in fiction. I once tried to write a "movie of the week" for television, and I just couldn't manage to get the characters under control. I just lost all sense of form. I don't know how writers of fiction do it. Finally I began wondering what I was doing, inventing all these characters in order to make a story that fits together.
No, for me it's much more exciting to see real people and watch them behaving in utterly inscrutable ways. "Why is this man behaving in a way that is totally inconsistent with anything that I know about human nature?" Smith's behavior, for example. To try and understand what was going on in his mind when he was charging up the hill and doing the best job he could when he was against all war--to try to figure out what's happening there is fascinating. To get a character, a real person, and start investigating him and to see what makes him work opens up all sorts of boxes. It's an exciting pursuit. But to invent a character is frustrating for me. I can't handle it.
Schroeder: Why don't you think that anybody wrote this type of nonfiction about World War II? All of the major books about that war are novels: From Here to Eternity, The Naked and the Dead, Catch-22.
Sack: That's an interesting question. I guess the closest thing in World War II would be Ernie Pyle's writing, but it's really not the same, is it? Do you know what I think the reason is? In the fifties to be a writer meant to be a novelist. If you thought of writing, you thought of writing a novel. Even now people introduce me as a novelist because to write a book is to write a novel. That's the only reason that I can think of.
Oh, also, I suppose, if you're not writing a novel, you've got to take reams of notes or else have a fantastic memory--or perhaps both, like Truman Capote. I guess that in World War II, the writers weren't taking notes.
Schroeder: Do you see the Demirgian of The Man-Eating Machine as being the logical extension, the natural progression, of the Demirgian of M?
Sack: I do now. I didn't then. I returned from Vietnam in May of '66. Then the book was sold to NAL [New American Library] and I worked all summer to complete it by the October 10 deadline. At that point the guys were still in Vietnam and I felt terrible being in the United States. I felt like a deserter. And I just had to go back, so I arranged with Harold Hayes to do a story on their last month in Vietnam. And at the time I returned, nothing seemed logical to me. Perhaps everything would have made better sense if I'd originally had unlimited resources and had just stayed with M for the year and written at great length while watching the changes come over them. When I went back I was noticing, quite obviously, that the soldiers didn't like the Vietnamese. It got to be overwhelming, how much they hated the Vietnamese. I couldn't figure out why they hated them to such an extent that they were already committing atrocities: for instance, Sgt. Condron shooting those two Vietnamese laundry boys. But now I understand it.
Schroeder: Earlier you mentioned that you identified with many of their experiences. Why, then, was this so difficult to comprehend?
Sack: Because I hadn't been with them during that whole time.
Schroeder: If you had, do you think that your reaction would have been the same?
Sack: If I had been with them for a year, I'm sure that I would have started hating the Vietnamese too. In a sense I did hate the Vietnamese... More
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