I had the pleasure of reading Mark’s new book Quiet Cadence a few months ago. What most struck me most about his work was the extent that his novel about Vietnam helped me relate to what our nation’s finest men and women are experiencing in today’s conflicts. Even after serving 20 years in the military, Quiet Cadence helped me better understand the impact of war and those we send into combat.
I hope you enjoy the interview.
Congrats on your new book, Quiet Cadence! Tell me a little bit about it.
Sometimes it takes years for a combat veteran to understand what his war did to him when he was young, and even longer to explain the cadence he has marched to since then to the people he loves.
A Quiet Cadence is a novel told from the perspective and reflection of a veteran on the cusp of retirement as he recalls his life as a young Marine machine gunner facing booby traps and battles in a war with few boundaries, followed by the years after his war when he struggled to make sense of all he had seen, done and lost. Family and friends know Marty McClure as a kind, peaceful man. They aren’t aware that when he was very young, he plumbed the depths of terror, hatred and despair with no assurance he’d ever surface again. Now he wants, at last, to talk about what happened to him in Vietnam, and how with the help of his wife, Patti, Corrie Corrigan, a disabled vet, and Doc Matheson, a corpsman turned trauma surgeon, he made peace with the ghosts that have visited his dreams all these years.
Though about Vietnam and its aftermath, the themes of courage, honor, sacrifice, resilience and love in the novel apply to veterans of our most recent wars and their families, as well.
Was there an experience that caused you to see a need for A Quite Cadence?
I have thought over the years that war veterans (even despite recent “thanks for your service”) have often been misunderstood and portrayed poorly in both the press and literature. That was in spite of the fact that the overwhelming majority of them – us – fought bravely, served honorably, and after our wars, got on with life as husbands and fathers and productive members of society, even if we wrestled with memories and doubts that we rarely ever told anyone about. I’m not aware of any other novel which combines a realistic story of the brutality of prolonged ground combat with a positive story of resilience, courage and hope as a veteran struggles to deal with his memories of lost and maimed friends and his questions about a war he feels his country abandoned. So, I decided to write one.
It was my hope, as I wrote the book, that Vietnam vets and their families will see the novel as a positive story about them, and that the vets of Iraq and Afghanistan and their loved ones will find affirmation and hope in the story, too.
Is there one short story from your book you would like to share?
I think an excerpt from the beginning of the novel captures not only where the story will take readers, but it encapsulates how many veterans think today.
Sometimes the ghosts talk to me still. Forty years ago, they came frequently; in my thirties and forties and fifties, not very much. They’ve visited some in recent years, and, mostly, that’s okay.
The dream frightened me for a long time. I couldn’t tell if my old friends accused me or wished me well. Sometimes they seemed to look to me for answers I’ve never had. I searched for a long time for a way to make peace with them and what I’d lost. My best friend and my wife helped me with that. Corrie lost a great deal more than me in Vietnam, at least physically, yet helped me remember what was good. Patti lived with much of what I brought home and saved me more than once from the dark.
I’ve spoken very little of my war and the turmoil that followed, and over the years nearly no one has asked. … My decile of the Sixties Generation grows old having said little to our children about times very different for us.
Recently though, even us old guys sometimes hear, “Thanks for your service.” Sort of faint echoes of the well-deserved cheers greeting our troops coming home from our most recent wars. My guess is they’ll find it difficult, too, to grapple with the truths they’ve learned. We have more in common than they may know.
I’d like my kids to understand the events that changed their old man forever when I wasn’t much older than theirs are now. … I remember it all, a gift and a curse. Remembrance across decades is like looking through a telescope; sometimes people and events in the distance come into the sharpest focus of all.
… My family and friends know me as a man whose most violent moments generated fast tennis serves. How do I explain that when I was very young, I plumbed the depths of depravity without knowing if I’d find my way back to sanity’s surface? I can describe the camaraderie of shared misery, but can I also relate the excitement, the pride and the love without downplaying the horror and terror that nearly drove me mad? What about the craziness in the years after the war?
Patti thinks it’s important that I tell the truth. She knows little of my story, but she’s probably right. She’s usually been.
I think it’s time I tried. I know that too many men grow old basking in selective memories of their youth. But I don’t believe much in glory, though I wouldn’t trade anything for my time in the Corps. Unless it was to save the forever young men who march front and center in my sleep.
That dream always begins in silence, an absolute vacuum of noise. Then only a faint, distant sound, the whup whup and thrum of an approaching medevac bird. Quivering in the air, a muted tremor of cries. A shroud of gunpowder-infused fog covers all. Then my old friends emerge from the swirling pall and walk toward me, their eyes never leaving my face. They step to a cadence I sometimes strain to hear.
Lately, Pius John’s spoken for all six of them. “Tell them now, Mick,” he says. “Tell them the truth.”
This, then, is their story, and mine.
It begins on the day I saw the dead man above the trees.…
What can fiction teach us that can not be taught by non-fiction?
I think that good fiction allows a reader to really put oneself into another person’s shoes and consider how one would react in various challenging circumstances. Fiction gives a reader the opportunity to examine the thought processes and emotions of a character more deeply than non-fiction does. Sometimes, too, because fiction can give a reader a more complete picture of all that is taking place in a story, including particularly the internal, often unspoken dialog going on inside a character’s head, it is possible to comprehend a deeper truth in a story than non-fiction can convey.
What are you reading now?
I’m one of those folks who usually have several books going on at the same time. Right now, I’ve got an even larger array than usual that I’m reading in spurts depending upon my moods and interests on any given day: Oliver Wendell Holmes: A Life in War, Law and Ideas by Stephen Budiansky; The American Story by David Rubenstein; On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong; Apeirogon by Colum McCann; Ireland by Frank Delaney; and Inland by Tea Obreht
What books had the most impact on you and your development?
When I was young, I read a lot of biography, as well as popular fiction and history. I think one can learn a great deal about leadership, history and strategy from books like Manchester’s biographies of Churchill and MacArthur, Potter’s Nimitz, Pogue’s Marshall; Ambrose’s Eisenhower; and Morris’ Roosevelt, as well as great novels like Myrer’s Once an Eagle. In recent years, I’ve read a lot more literary fiction as I taught myself to write: novels by wonderful wordsmiths and entertaining authors like Wallace Stegner, Richard Russo, Richard Ford, Kent Haruf, Cormac McCarthy, Walter Wetherell, Colum McCann, and Michael Ondaatje.
Writing a book is tough, were there any surprises as you set out on that journey?
I greatly enjoyed the creative process of writing a novel, but found that it was much harder work than I had anticipated, which caused me to have an even greater appreciation of excellent novelists. I found that to do it right, I had to spend a great deal of time, not just reading good literature, but studying a novel end to end, really tearing apart individual chapters, paragraphs and sentences in works I respected to try and figure out what techniques good authors used to tell the stories they told. And, of course, a lot of getting a book written is simply putting the hours in the chair, writing draft after draft (I think I did nine cover-to-cover) until you feel it’s really done.
What is one of the best investments you’ve ever made in your career?
Making time, almost every single day even if my schedule was really packed, to read – both to learn and to relax, which, if the book is written well enough, can happen simultaneously.
What is next for you?
I’m working on a new novel, a story about parents whose son is an active duty Marine.
Mark is currently Chairman (non-executive) of the Board of Virtus Investment Partners, Inc. (NASDAQ: VRTS) and an Executive Leadership Coach (Cambria Associates). He is the former Senior Executive Vice President and General Counsel of Wachovia Corp.; Senior Partner in the law firm Treanor Pope & Hughes; Partner in Miles & Stockbridge; and Marine Corps infantry and artillery officer.
A member of the Council on Foreign Relations and a Senior Fellow of the American Leadership Forum, he has served as a member of the boards of the National Defense University, the U.S. Naval Academy, the University of Maryland School of Law, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Institute for Legal Reform and as Chair of the Advisory Committee to the Export-Import Bank of the United States and of the National Defense University Foundation, and has participated in Department of Defense – sponsored fact finding missions to Iraq, the Horn of Africa, Yemen, the Caucasus and other locations in Africa and Europe.
His book can be purchased at the Naval Institute or wherever great books are sold.