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The Boston Phoenix Dispatches

An interview with Ward Just

By Peter Kadzis

MAY 24, 1999:  Facts can be deceiving. The sum of Ward Just's parts don't quite add up the way one might expect. Newspaperman. War correspondent. Writer of short stories, then novels. The years in Paris. The continued ability to appreciate a good drink. The politically challenging taste for tobacco. It all seems too Hemingwayesque.

But as sure as Just admires Hemingway's prose, there is no bluster about the man. He is, to use a word he applies to others, a "gent." When he was severely wounded in Vietnam while on patrol with the 101st Airborne -- taking more than 30 pieces of shrapnel from a grenade -- he declined to be evacuated until the dozens of enlisted men wounded in the action were airlifted out. An act of courage, without doubt. But I wonder if it might not have been something simpler, more elegant: an exhibition, perhaps, of good manners.

Manners, in the literary sense, are important to Just. Writers such as Hemingway, O'Hara, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald are influences and inspirations, but from the start his work had more than touch of a sense and sensibility that might have been admired by Henry James and Edith Wharton. Critics and admirers are fond of pointing this out. And while I don't disagree, I'm not sure that they're precisely on the mark. From the first time I read him -- in the Atlantic, when it was edited by Robert Manning -- I sensed a special sensibility, low-key but unique. The story was called "The Congressman Who Loved Flaubert." I wondered if it would live up to the promise of its title. It did. It was, I'd say looking over my shoulder, Justian.

Now, two years after Echo House (a National Book Award finalist), comes his 12th novel, A Dangerous Friend. It is set in a time when America thought it could win what was to escalate into the war in Vietnam.

His hero, Sydney Parade, like a character out of Conrad, is an anti-hero, destined to fall from a grace he seeks but can never really achieve -- through the sham policies that, in the muscular jargon of the day, were called "nation-building."

For half his life now, Ward Just has quietly plumbed the psyche of a largely Washington-centric world, at home and abroad. He spoke about his life and his art from his house on Martha's Vineyard.

Q: What's your routine? How do you write?

A: I rarely manage to get into my office before 10, and I play a couple games of solitaire until I can get my head together. And then I'll work until lunch and I'll break. My wife and I always have lunch together; I break for about an hour, read the newspaper. Go back, and by the stroke of six o'clock I am up from my typewriter. I just never work after six. I used to, I used to work well into the night, but I've become a little bit more disciplined. I like to think of it as disciplined, anyway.

Q: Not too long ago, in a review of former New York Times editor Max Frankel's memoirs, you wrote, "Experienced newspaper reporters are . . . surrounded by a bodyguard of ironies. The reporter is always on the borders of someone else's country, his papers never quite in order. However much he knows, he can never know enough. The dispatch written with utter confidence turns out to be incomplete or wrong-headed. The dispatch written on instinct alone turns out to be God's truth." This struck me as suggestive. Does it shed any light on why you moved on from journalism to write fiction?

A: I'm not so sure you should take those words so seriously. [Laughs] In another context, I would use those sentences to describe one of my fictional characters. It doesn't apply to me any more. I've been absent from the business for so long. And I think it's more true about the newspaper business than journalism in general. You know, that all happened so long ago. I left the newspaper business in 1969. That's 30 years. It's hard for me to go back and reconstruct what all that was about. Like most things, it's probably compounded of equal parts boredom, futility, and dissatisfaction. I only worked for the Washington Post for four years, for heaven's sake. I was doing what I really didn't want to be doing. This was a time when 90 percent of newspapermen had novels in the desk drawer. Now they have screenplays.

Q: But most of those novels were never finished, let alone published. Did you always have the desire to...

A:Always. It's always what I wanted to do. Journalism was a way station for me. I came from a newspaper family; my father and my grandfather were both newspaper publishers.

Q: Of what papers?

A: A small paper north of Chicago, based then and now in Waukegan, Illinois. It was called the Waukegan News-Sun. And so I grew up in that milieu. From about the age of 10 I wanted to be a writer, and it was natural to begin that process in the newspaper business. Up until the age of about 30 I had a sense that I didn't really know anything. True or not, that's what I believed. I didn't know enough to just sit down and write fiction. I don't mean by that, knowing facts. Facts, Jesus, that's the least of it -- you can find facts out anywhere. But I hadn't gotten the measure of people. I hadn't seen what I conceived of as desperate situations. And that changed after I covered the war.

Q:You mean Cyprus?

A: It's a forgotten war now, but it was interesting while it was going on in 1963 and 1964. It wasn't a full-blown, battalion-size war, but it was plenty vicious enough to the Greeks and the Turks who were on the island. I covered that for Newsweek and I began to get a glimmer of what passion meant to people. And not just a kind of sexual passion or excitement, but sort of a nationalistic, cultural fervor that I had certainly never seen before. I certainly didn't see it growing up in Illinois. You're always better at some things than others. And I found I was good at war correspondence. I was in the London bureau of Newsweek then, and when I got back to Washington I moved over to the Washington Post and very shortly thereafter began to think about Vietnam as a venue. The things that interested me were going on over there.

Q: But those were hot years in Washington?

A: I covered politics and I was okay at it. I wasn't any great standout. I did all right. I have almost no investigative bones in my body. I mean, you can hand me 15 documents that would lead to Watergate and I would never be able to get my way through them. But if it's a situation where you just needed your eyes and your ears, I was not bad at that.

Q:So it was a search for a heightened sense of reality that propelled you?

A: I was over in Vietnam for a year and a half and came back and thought then that maybe I had enough inside my head. I figured I better start writing my novels. I was 34 years old in 1969 and I was getting a little long in the tooth, and I knew that there was much to unlearn.

Q: Before you talk about "unlearning," can you explain what you had actually learned?

A: A background in journalism serves you very well in terms of discipline. You don't wait for muses, you don't wait for the sun to shine. You just get up in the morning and do your gig. But you have to unlearn what to listen for. You listen for one thing when you're trying to write a newspaper story and make notes; you're listening for quite another when you're trying to . . . in essence, when you're trying to hear some music inside your own mind. Faulkner has a wonderful line somewhere that he's worked all day long just putting one hack sentence in front of another; then all of a sudden he begins to hear what he calls his voices. And when the voices in his head begin to speak, that's when the really first-rate material begins to emerge. It's a theory I kind of subscribe to. You sometimes just have to sit in front of a typewriter for hours and hours before something clicks into place, and then you find yourself writing real prose, as opposed to just placing one sentence after another.

Q: I find that you work a discernible landscape in a definable way. Not unlike John Cheever, who wrote about another corner of the world in another sort of way. His was a world of private conflict and tension infused with a gentle but palpable suburban surrealism. If there's such a thing as Cheever country, I think there's such a thing as Ward Just's terrain. By that I mean that there's a certain uniformity of tone, a singularity of point of view, that distills like this: if something can go wrong, it will. If it does go wrong, it's not tragedy, it's almost fate. And that there's a gulf between appearance and reality, and no matter how hard or sharp the surface of that reality may be, there's a certain hollowness to the central experience. Now, am I just blowing smoke?

A: No, not at all. I think you've got me. [Laughs] There's always something around the corner that you don't expect, and sometimes when you put your head over your shoulder, it isn't that somebody's necessarily gaining, like Satchel Paige said. It's that something unexpected is there, too. So one's purchase on this life is often kind of slender, at best. And that's often what happens to my people. My people often don't wise up until it's too late. I'm thinking of Jack Gance, at the very, very end of that book, when he's giving this appalling civics lecture to these youngsters. Then he has this great realization. Washington, he says, it gives and it gives and it gives and it gives and it expects nothing in return except loyalty. Jesus, what a bleak way to look at your career. Yet that's what he does. And just to turn the key in the lock a little bit further: as United States senators go, Jack Gance isn't a bad one. As a matter of fact, he's probably a pretty good one. He just happens to have a couple of people who've got a noose around his throat. Most people do.

Q: I know that you bridle at the suggestion of being a Washington novelist. Washington, or a connection to that world, may be a common denominator, but it's not always a defining one in your books. Let me ask you a question with a historical perspective. Mark Twain and Henry Adams invented the Washington novel. And then years go by and no one writes about Washington. These were the years during which the old establishment's vision of the American empire was taking shape. In England, by contrast, there was a rich literary political tradition. Disraeli. Trollope. And, more recently, C.P. Snow.

A: That's right.

Q: And then all of a sudden, there are again signs of life. Alan Drury's Advise and Consent, Gore Vidal's Washington, D.C., William Brammer's The Gay Place, which, while set in Austin, Texas, clearly derives its inspiration from the power of Lyndon Johnson's personality. And then there's your work. What accounts for the gap? And then the re-bloom?

A: It's really bewildering to me. The closest I can come to it is that it's well to remember that Adams's Democracy and Twain's The Gilded Age are both satires. Frankly, people didn't take Washington too seriously. Then came the 1930s, with the Depression and Roosevelt. Before FDR, Washington was just not perceived as a city that had a tremendous impact on most people's lives.

Q:There was no there, there.

A: Exactly. And I think since the 1930s, Washington has taken on a certain resemblance to Los Angeles, or Hollywood -- the culture of politics so dominates the city, in exactly the same way as the entertainment industry dominates Los Angeles. It is extremely difficult for an essentially realistic or naturalistic novelist such as myself, for example, to move into that society and to write a novel that will encourage people after five or six pages, or 10 or 20 pages, to simply forget what they read in the headlines that morning and accept your view of things. If you look at Hollywood novels, for example, you've got Nathanael West, Scott Fitzgerald's unfinished novel, and one or two of Joan Didion's books. And it about ends there.

So Washington in its own way is just like Hollywood. . . . If the entertainment industry is the dominant industry in America, which in some ways I think it is, then Washington is obviously the dominant government. Particularly as the empire grew and grew and grew. I think for similar reasons, the very serious novelists among us -- and I'm thinking, go all the way back to Melville or Henry James -- they never went near this place. Henry James managed to produce one short story set in Washington, in which the narrator is a German. I mean, that's what Henry James thought of things. . . . I took Washington as a setting because it was one that I knew particularly well. And this is strange because, frankly, I never really spent much time there. In the total of my life I think I've lived seven or eight years in Washington, which isn't very long. But I was there in '61 and '62. I arrived a couple of months after Kennedy was inaugurated and then left to go overseas before the assassination. The period -- the years '61 and '62 were especially vivid. You had a sense, absolutely, of the curtain coming down on one kind of government, meaning Eisenhower; and the curtain being raised for a whole new generation and another government, meaning Kennedy's. It has often been said that one moved from the generals of the Second World War to the lieutenants. I think that's pretty fair.

Q: What do you think of Washington today?

A: I don't know it that well. It's, as best as I can figure, a transient place.

Q: I wonder if that has to do with society becoming less government-oriented and more economically driven.

A: I think that that point is true. And I think the other thing that's true is that the government is less dominated by people who are interested in government. That's particularly true of this current crowd that's in there. We have a government that's dominated by politics. Where everything is with an eye to the next election. Plainly, all politicians have got their eye on the next election; it's what they have to do. But there is a kind of concentration of force in that direction now that was not true some time back. Not true 25 or 30 years ago. It seems evident to me that Clinton and the people around Clinton, what they really love to do is campaign. And indeed, they're very, very good at it. They're less interested in government in the way, let's say, that Lyndon Johnson was interested in government. And, it has to be said, the way Nixon was interested in government, and FDR.

Q: Let's go back to Vietnam and your new novel, A Dangerous Friend. It's full of foreboding.

A: I set it in 1965, which obviously was very deliberately done, and I think it's at the end of the first chapter that the nameless narrator says something like, Well, you know the end of this as well as I do and we can't pretend not to know what happened later. Nonetheless, this isn't later, this is now, and we must look at events as they were in 1965. Once you choose that, the tone of voice that you've got is dictated by the atmosphere of the year, if you see what I mean. Now I suppose that's kind of laconic, but temperamentally, I think, I would be incapable of writing a book about that period in 1965 that was, say, filled with enthusiasm for the effort, as they liked to call it. Because, having set it up that way in the first chapter, I'm quite aware that the reader understands that no good is going to come out of all this. The reader knows perfectly well that at the end of this, everybody's not going to walk happily off into the sunset. This is sort of obvious. Therefore, as you move forward with just the tone of voice of it, just the prose, it's dictated in part by that knowledge. Am I being clear about this at all? And therefore, you end up with this rather -- dry isn't quite the word . . .

Q: Astringent, perhaps?

A: Yes. It's an astringent story. Hopefully the reader will pick up the ironies.

Q: Can you describe the germ of the idea for A Dangerous Friend?

A: I can tell you exactly what it was. I had had it in mind, really for years, to write a novel with the civilians in Vietnam as the milieu. I didn't know exactly what it was, but once I got these civilians I didn't know exactly what I was going to do with them. It was sitting in my mind for many years. Some summers ago I was sitting down on the beach, on the Vineyard, on one of those beaches where there's a dock that goes out -- a rather rickety dock that goes out into the sound. And I was just looking at this dock and all of a sudden I, in my mind's eye, saw a guy at the end of the dock. And he's got a sketchpad in his hand and a pencil. And he is sketching on the dock, looking back in toward the beach. This image formed in my mind. I said, hmmm, that's what he's doing every single afternoon. He's sketching this dock and he's sketching it from a slightly different angle each time. And then it came to me that he was a guy who had been in Vietnam, and something not good had happened to him while he was there. He's now retired; he'd be somebody my age, roughly 63, 64, and this is how he's spending his days, in a beach house in a place like Martha's Vineyard. It didn't matter where. Sketching this dock. And I can remember, the next day I sat down and wrote, really a chapter that was going to be the opening chapter. Then as I began to work on the book, that opening chapter became the last chapter. Then as I worked further and further and further and further, I eliminated that chapter altogether and it only survives now in one line of dialogue from the narrator. It's the end of the first paragraph. He's sitting on the end of this dock, sketching a pier. [Laughs] The dock, of course, it was very much Vietnam in my mind's eye, and the way that over all these years people have come and sketched the same dock, and sketched it differently. I mean, Tim O'Brien is different than I am, is different than Mike Herr, is different than who else. Everybody's come at it in a slightly different way, but it's the same goddamned dock.

Readings From Ward Just's work

"I will insist at the beginning that this is not a war story. There have been plenty of those and will be many more, appalling stories of nineteen-year-olds breaking down, frightened out of their wits, or engaging in acts of unimaginable gallantry; and often all three at the same time. The war stories were from a different period, later on, when the war became an epidemic, a plague like the Black Death. Society was paralyzed by fear. Order broke down. Duty and honor were forgotten in the rush to survive. Commanders deserted their units, friends turned their backs. Among the population, individual burials were replaced by burials en masse. The American morgue was expanded again and again. Aircraft that brought fresh troops returned with coffins. I remember watching a doctor perform an autopsy while humming through his teeth, the identical note repeated monotonously. His fingers were rigid as iron.

"When he saw me, he looked up and whispered, Bring out your dead.

"But that time was not my time. That time was later on, when things went to hell generally, and the best of us lost all heart. My time was early days, when civilians still held a measure of authority. We were startled by the beauty of the country, and surprised at its size. It looked so small on our world maps, not much larger than New England. We understood that in Vietnam Americans would add a dimension to their identity. Isn't identity always altered by its surroundings and the task at hand? So this is a different cut of history, a civilian cut, without feats of arms or battlefield chaos. If love depends on faith, think of my narrative as a kind of romance, the story of one man with a bad conscience and another with no conscience and the Frenchman and his wife who lived in the parallel world, the one we thought was a mirage from the century before, a bankrupt colonial milieu that offered -- so many possibilities, as Dicky Rostok said."

-- A Dangerous Friend (1999)

"He told them to hold all calls, except any that might come from her. There was no reason for her to call, but that was no guarantee that she wouldn't. She often called. Once several weeks ago she'd called and insisted on being put through, and there'd been an awkward five minutes while he muttered into the telephone and the others sat silently looking at their fingernails or otherwise pretending that they weren't listening. Of course, they couldn't hear what he was saying; he normally spoke into the phone in a guttural, a tone so soft that it couldn't be heard more than a foot away. That night when he asked her about it she'd laughed and said her only demand on him was instant access. When she was blue and wanted to talk, he'd have to listen. That was his half of the bargain."

-- the short story "A Man at the Top of His Trade" from the collection The Congressman Who Loved Flaubert (1990).

"The stone mansion called Echo House had been owned by the Behl family since 1916, the last year of the first Wilson administration, a purchase made at the insistence of Constance Behl, who saw for herself a brilliant future in the nation's capital. She saw beyond the dull Southern village that it was to the thrilling metropolis that it would become. With the triumphant entry of the United States into the European war, the wider world was gloriously at hand and her husband poised to embrace it. Owing to the death of one member and the defeat of another, Senator Adolph Behl was suddenly ranking member of his committee and already mentioned here and there as a likely candidate for the national ticket, some day, some way, if the cards fell fairly. Constance craved a particular mansion on Lafayette Square, but that was unavailable, so she settled for Echo House."

-- Echo House (1997)

"In the grammar of their life the honeymoon was an embarrassing solecism, a misplaced modifier or dangling participle remembered forever with a raised eyebrow and a comical shudder. Remember the second day in Sylt? The day you said it reminded you of March in Maine or was it Maine in March, only worse? And that was a carnival compared with Ilsensee and the German mood. They looked on the honeymoon as a writer looks on apprentice work, ambitious and earnest but distraught. They had affection for it, as anyone does for early error, and they would never, ever denounce it; but they did not want to repeat it either. They were trying hard in Sylt and Ilsensee, but they did not know the rules. At the time it looked as if the beginning of their marriage would be the end of it. There was one false step after another."

-- The Translator (1991)

"Half the wised-up population of the United States went to Washington that winter, willing filings attracted to the great magnet, adventurers drawn east as the restless and dreamy prospectors had been drawn west in 1849, infatuated with El Dorado, loving its spectacle, finding prosperity, staying on. A regnant culture was assembled, part clubhouse, part Park Avenue, with the dizzier aspects of Mayfair and Harvard Yard thrown in. In the winter of 1961 Washington was a kind of Forbidden City suddenly liberated, the Dowager Empress exiled to Gettysburg and the eunuchs to their corporate board rooms. Suddenly Marco Polo was in the Oval Office."

-- Jack Gance (1989)

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