Saturday, October 1, 2011

Mitch Cullin on Wartime Atrocities and Memory in "The Post-War Dream"

(This interview originally appeared in the Newark Star-Ledger in March 2008)

In his seventh novel “The Post-War Dream”(Nan Talese) Mitch Cullin explores the effect of terminal ovarian cancer on Debra and Hollis, an newly retired couple who have just moved to Arizona. Debra asks Hollis “to tell us about us,” so he starts writing his memoir, detailing his horrific experiences in the Korean War and how the war led to his meeting with Debra, the love of his life.

In 1950, as American soldiers in Korea were routed by North Korean regulars. Hollis is a witness and participant to the massacre at the Bridge at No Gun Ri, where American troops slaughtered hundreds of Korean refugees, including women and children. Hollis is in conflict with Creed, a West Texas soldier who kills with glee, and the violence immediately after the massacre has a direct effect on Hollis’ life. Cullin tells a tender story of of Debra and Hollis’ love, and every effort by Debra to live with dignity and courage, while juxtaposing it with three weeks of three brutal weeks of combat in an almost forgotten war.

Cullin, 39, was raised in West Texas and educated at the University of Houston. He is the author of “Tideland” and the acclaimed “A Slight Trick of the Mind,” which imagined Sherlock Holmes in his nineties. Cullin and his partner, the artist Peter Chang, split their time between Tokyo and the San Gabriel Valley in California, where he spoke with freelance writer Dylan Foley by telephone

Q. How did you wind up melding the two parts of the novel, Hollis’ combat in the Korean War and his wife Debra’s terminal ovarian cancer five decades later?

A. The genesis of the novel happened a long time ago. I had published a narrative piece about the massacre at the Bridge at No Gun Ri. Then I’d published piece on William Levitt and the Levittowns. I often have a series of things that I am interested in, so I try to find a way to work them into a larger narrative. When I decided that this project was going to be a novel, my mother was already a year into chemotherapy to fight her ovarian cancer. I was stuck. I was so worried and I couldn’t work. I either had to put the novel aside or incorporate the things that were on my mind. I was learning a lot about ovarian cancer and the workings of the female body at the same time as I was having these long dialogues with my mother.

I was able to draw the two pieces together by using my parents. My father had joined the military during the Korean War, though he was stationed in Europe. That was his war, though he didn’t fight in it, and my mother was having her own struggle with ovarian cancer.

Q. How does Hollis cope with the atrocities he witnessed at No Gun Ri and the combat he saw?

A. What people do, when faced with their own culpability, is to create their own narrative. They alter what might be really hard to live with in order to get by.

Q. For Debra and Hollis, their five-decade love affair has turned them into a family of two people. Why did you write about this?

A. I can tell you it is always personal. My relationship with Peter is in some ways like Holiis and Debra’s. You are always afraid of losing your spouse, especially if there is no safety new of children or a larger sense of family. For a lot of us, our sense of self is defined by who we chose to love. It is how we often redeem ourselves, through the relationships we make. Hollis came through this short, horrible experience and was looking for someone to give him a sense of redemption. He chose Debra for this.

Q. Is the title ”The Post-War Dream” a reference to American prosperity and the nightmares that plague Hollis?

A. Yes. To some extent, the post-war dream is that we are building a better world, not necessarily for Korea, and it will be a better America because of the things we’ve done. We still have this idea. All the sacrifice and all the questionable things we do as Americans, there is some kind of reward at a later stage in life, and that should make everything seem worth it.

Q. After the war, Hollis is followed by a doppelganger of himself, a vision of a man who ages faster and fall apart before his eyes. What does this symbolize?

A. Max is a metaphor for the guilt that Hollis feels, and a ghost from the past of what Hollis was. He’s also the thing that Hollis would have been if he hadn’t met Debra, or if he’d done something else with his life. I had that question, is this a crazy idea? Should I put it in the book?

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