Q&A: To war and back
Storyteller shares life stories, advice on writing
Published: Wednesday, September 25, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, September 25, 2013 15:09
Elizabeth Evans, lifestyles writer, sits down with creative writing professor Larry Heinemann.
THE BATTALION: What was the most life-changing moment you’ve experienced?
Heinemann: I would have to say the most life-changing [moment] happened while I was a soldier doing my combat tour in Vietnam. The night of Jan. 1, 1968, my battalion was attacked by the 272nd NVA Infantry Regiment. The battle began about 11 p.m. and lasted until first light. Later that day we were told the body-count was in the neighborhood of 500 souls. It was the longest, ugliest night of my life. The next morning we buried the corpses, for sanitation’s sake, and it took all morning. We did it like you make lasagna. The bulldozer dug a ditch. We then laid out a layer of corpses, added a layer of quick lime, then another layer of corpses, and so on. That’s the night and the day that snapped my head back plenty.
THE BATTALION: What has been your most embarrassing moment as a professor?
Heinemann: That is a secret I will take to my grave.
THE BATTALION: What is the craziest story you’ve ever told?
Heinemann: Probably the story, “The Thinning of the Squirrel Herd.” It’s a Chicago story. Some years ago, a plague of squirrels chewed their way into my neighbor’s attic and ate $10,000 worth of one-of-a-kind, hand-sewn vintage dresses — a sartorial outrage. She bought a Have-a-Heart trap and asked me to “thin” the herd. I caught the critters one at a time and summarily drowned them. It took forever. I dug holes around the rose bushes and buried them standing up. There were many, many. But the next spring the rose bushes were taller than you could reach, and there were plenty of beautiful roses.
THE BATTALION: What is your favorite novel?
Heinemann: Not an easy question. But after thinking about it for a while, I’d have to say “Moby-Dick” by Herman Melville. Melville’s novel gives you a broad stretch of story and place and character. He nails our character as a people, which, by the way, hasn’t really changed in these intervening years. Anyone who has the ambition to be a writer in this culture must read it.
THE BATTALION: What is the best piece of advice you can give someone wanting to pursue a writing career?
Heinemann: Write all the time. The more you write the better your writing gets. Read everything that comes into your hand — everything. Keep writing. Get yourself a table you can sit and work at, where nothing happens but your writing. Do not tolerate interruption. Get yourself a good machine. Writing is a craft, and like any other craft of the hand, good tools are crucial. Get yourself a good chair. That sounds odd, but you’re going to spend a good deal of time sitting, and you want to mind your back, trust me on this. Good writing always finds an audience, my first editor told me that and it has sustained me more than once. Do not give up.