Thursday, July 31, 2014

Writing about an Unloved Era

by Kay Kendall

In the opinion of Alan Furst, he was a hack writer until he found his grand passion, and pursuing it made all the difference. Beginning in 1988 he wrote his way to becoming the now-acclaimed New York Times bestselling author of 13 spy novels.

Furst concentrates on the years 1934 to 1942, when Hitler and the Nazis looked unstoppable. Asked if he would ever show his reoccurring characters coping in the immediate post-war period, he scoffed. “Absolutely not,” he answered—since after the Nazi defeat at Stalingrad, the mood changed among the anti-Hitler forces. Victory became assured, seen only as a matter of time. Lives were no longer lived on the very edge of defeat. Furst has no interest in that.

Write where you find your sweet spot, he said, and do not waver.

People read endless thrillers about World Wars I and II and the Cold War. Bestselling authors John le CarrĂ©, Philip Kerr, and Jacqueline Winspear place their mysteries against backdrops of great turmoil and danger provided by these wars or their tortuous aftermath. They inspired me to find my own sweet spot in the decidedly unsweet years of the Vietnam War—fraught with political and social upheaval.

Because decades have passed since the war ended in 1975, I felt readers would be interested in seeing that period treated historically.

Thus motivated, I set my debut mystery Desolation Row in 1968 among the draft resister community in Toronto, Canada. I knew the subject of draft resistance was problematic, but I felt compelled to
explore it anyway, choosing the point of view of a young Texas bride who followed her husband into exile.

What has surprised me is how deep the antipathy is to the late sixties. Since my book was published last year, I’ve heard many sentiments like this—“Living through that ugly time was enough, and I never read about it.”

When I dropped into the Mysterious Bookstore in New York City during my first ThrillerFest in 2013, I talked to a longtime bookseller there. He nodded sadly and confirmed my opinion. “The Vietnam War era is a tough sell,” he said. (His attire pegged him as an aging hippie.)

Yet there are people still suffering the aftershocks of the war itself—the wounded warriors and their dear ones whose psyches and/or bodies are scarred by fighting in that war in Southeast Asia. Their injuries are so deep and often still so raw that I am reinvigorated to persist in writing about the era.

I don’t think you should glaze over history, try to forget about it, or pretend it never happened. That way lies real danger. I have discovered, however, that readers most directly traumatized are relieved to discuss it. For them it is necessary, therapeutic.

So I was heartened when I heard Alan Furst’s advice: it’s imperative to stick with the subject that “turns you on”—to use a term from the benighted 1960s. I will not forsake those years merely because they are vilified by some. I only wish it were not so.

Who knows? Perhaps a few more of my historic thrillers will succeed in showing readers how fascinating that time was. Rock on, everyone, rock on.

In 1968 a young bride from Texas uses her CIA-honed skills to catch the real killer when her husband lands in a Canadian jail for murdering the draft-resisting son of a United States senator. “Desolation Row hooked me on page one,” says thriller author Norb Vonnegut. “Kay Kendall is one author who knows how to burrow into your heart."

Kay Kendall is an international award-winning public relations executive who lives in Texas with her husband, three house rabbits, and spaniel Wills. Growing up during the Cold War, she gew excited when an ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) was installed near her hometown in Kansas. A fan of historical mysteries and the brilliant spy novels of John le Carré, she set her debut mystery during the Vietnam War, a key conflict of last century not already overrun with novels.


Teri Anne Stanley said...

This TOTALLY appeals to me. I was born in I remember that time in a visceral way--a lot of images from the news, feeling uncomfortable--but I didn't really understand any of it. Now I know the political history (sort of), but the actual thoughts and feelings of "real" people--not idealized hippy musicians--that's something I'm looking for. Good luck, and keep up the good work!

Jenny Milchman said...

I found this so interesting, Kay, right down how it is an unloved era. Glad you took on the challenge!

kk said...

Thank you, Terri Ann, and I will keep up the good work, best I can. I was in the situation you are in--just about--when I began trying to figure out what went wrong after World War I failed to become the "war to end all wars." I was fascinated with the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. Probably that's why I ended up getting degrees in history.
Besides, I get awfully tired of the era we live in now, and reading history--either fictionalized or not--lets me escape. I need that. And then, some of it is just plain silly--so put pretty people in pre-twentieth century costumes on the screen, and I WILL watch them, no matter even if the film is bad.

kk said...

Hi there, Jenny. I remain firmly convinced that it is just a matter of time before the Vietnam War era and its aftermath become major--perhaps never as much was World War II since that effected so many more people--but bigger than now. It's a question of demographics. Aging boomers like me will want to--eventually, even the holdouts, I think--revisit their youth. There's already fashion that proves the younger set likes our old hippie styles. That's what boho chic is all about. I just bought a fringed suede purse from Nordstrom's that I could have used in 1970 and been right in style. Tom Brokaw wrote a book on the era called BOOM. Years before I considered using that title for my first I was just a bit ahead of the curve. (That ms remains in my drawer. The second one sold, thank goodness, but it stole a lot from the first.)

Rhonda Lane said...

Right on, Kay! Fringe is all the accessories this fall. In the late '90s, the "rich hippie" look - oxymoron or not - was featured in the fashion mags. Besides, all the iconic bands came up in the Sixties.

Also, I appreciate certain subjects that popular consensus shuns or considers "the third rail." I loved reading DESOLATION ROW and highly recommend it.

kk said...

Thank you, Rhonda. I'm so glad you enjoyed my first mystery.

jervaise brooke hamster said...

I want to bugger Miley Cyrus.

jervaise brooke hamster said...

Jenny, you and Teri and kk and Rhonda are all gorgeous babes.

Rhonda Lane said...

Jervaise, you`re a cheeky tosser but i like you.

the sayer of the truth said...

Jenny, Wednesday is the 69th anniversary of the day when America was given its freedom, be thankful my dear ! ! !.