Walter Dean Myers Extended Interview

12/27/10 by Dawn Morgan Elliott
WMNF Drive-Time News Monday | Listen to this entire show:

Walter Dean Myers is an award-winning author of young adult fiction and non-fiction. His novels cover serious topics like poverty, incarceration and the wars in Vietnam and Iraq, all from the perspective of a young protagonist enduring the experiences. Dean Myers was born in West Virginia in 1937 and raised in Harlem by family friends. Raised in poverty, he join the Army in the late 60’s and was touched by the war in Vietnam. He begins the interview talking about his home in 1950’s Harlem.

"You had black people who could afford to live other places, but were not accepted. So you had in that black community in Harlem, you would have writers and poets, and doctors and lawyers, and that really stabilized the neighborhood.

"In the building next to mine, some members of the Count Basie band lived. In my building there was a model and janitors. The church I went to had people like Josephine Baker come in, and Langston Hughes. You could see Joe Lewis walking down the street.

"I didn’t realize that all life wasn’t like that. I thought celebrities lived closer to the people than they actually do."

How was it that you came to join the military?

"My family was poor and became dysfunctional after a while. My mother drank, my father suffered depression. They were struggling to keep me in high school. I didn’t see anything else for me to do?"

Did you go to Viet Nam?

"Even though I hadn’t finished high school, I had a really good education. And I was a good test taker. I was training people to do the technical kinds of things they did in Viet Nam. I trained a lot of Vietnamese."

What kind of research for Fallen Angels?

"One of my younger brothers joined the Army. I think, sort of looking at me like an example. And he went to Viet Nam and was killed very first day in country. They sent them out on a patrol inside Saigon. And that was the genesis of Fallen Angels.

"And then I went through the entire period collecting newspapers and seeing what happened every day in Viet Nam and the States. I also know that after every battle, there’s an after action report that is an officer writing up the account of the battle. What the mistakes were. So I went to those after action reports which were really invaluable.

"And when I was really ready to start writing, I took a cross country train trip from New York City to Seattle, WA, and back again. Stopping at Galesburg, IL, Kansas City. Small towns. I hung out in bars talking to veterans. A very moving experience."

Was there about 20 years between writing Fallen Angels and Sunrise Over Fallujah?

"Yes. At that point, my oldest son, a major in the Air Force, had been to Qatar and the Gulf. Local things were from him. Another member of the family was also an officer, a trauma counselor. She was counseling young people in combat with awful, awful trauma from IED’s. So nerve racking because you never know what’s going to blow up in front of you.

"So I did interviews with these people. My grandson was in Iraq as well. The personal stories were strongest the best. You know what else was good was the blogs. I found these blogs with people who had a background in Iraq, their parents or grandparents were from Iraq.

"Most of them were for the demise of Saddam Hussein, but they were hating Americans not because the Americans were doing the killing of their people so much rather the Iraq that was being created was havoc. It’s just havoc there now."

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