Interview with fiction and non-fiction author Walter Dean Myers

09/21/10 By Dawn Morgan Elliott
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Walter Dean Myers is an award-winning author of young adult fiction and non-fiction. Born in West Virginia in 1937 and raised in Harlem by family friends, he didn’t know his biological parents until he was a teenager.

WMNF’s Dawn Morgan Elliott spoke with the author today about his novels that cover the wars in Vietnam and Iraq, how his family has been touched by war and his impoverished youth in 1950’s Harlem.

"You had black people who could afford to live other places, but were not accepted. So you would have, 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. There was a model in my building and janitors. The church I went to, which was a Presbyterian church, we had people like Josephine Baker come to the church, 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 always lived closer to the people than actually occurred."

How was it that you came to join the military?

"My family was poor and parts of the family actually became dysfunctional after a while. My mom was an alcoholic, my uncle was murdered, my father went into a very deep depression which made the family even more dysfunctional. And I realized that they were struggling just to keep me in high school. Eventually I just dropped out of high school and I joined the Army. I didn’t see anything else for me to do?"

Did you actually go to Vietnam yourself?

"No, no. What I ended up doing because even though I hadn’t finished high school I had a really good education. And I was a good test taker. I was a trainer. I was training people to do the technical kinds of things they did in Vietnam, and I trained a lot of Vietnamese."

Can you talk about the research that went into Fallen Angels?

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

"And I went through an entire period collecting the newspapers and seeing what happened every day, what was happening in Vietnam and what was happening in the States. I also know that after every firefight, after every battle, no matter how small, there’s usually an after action report. And the after action report is an officer writing up the account of the battle. What happened and how it happened and what the mistakes were, what have you. So I went to those after action reports which were invaluable.

"When I was really ready to begin writing, I took a cross country trip from New York City to Seattle, WA, by train and back again. Stopping at Galesburg, IL, I stopped off in Kansas City, small little towns along the route. I hung out in bars and talked to veterans, really a very, very moving experience."

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

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

"So I did interviews with these people, again, the after action reports. And then my grandson was in Iraq as well. The personal stories were the strongest, were the best. But also, you know, what was good;the blogs. I found the sites with Americans with backgrounds in Iraq, their parents or grandparents were from Iraq. And their perspective of the war, and how badly they felt, about what was happening.

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

That was WMNF’s Dawn Morgan Elliott interviewing author Walter Dean Myers. For the second part of this interview, please stay tuned to tomorrow night’s newscast.

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