Frequently Asked Questions:
Q: Your first book was Once a Warrior King (OWK). There are hundreds of books about the war in Vietnam. What was so important about yours?
A: OWK is not just a story about an American G. I. doing the conventional troop duty in Vietnam, even the usual infantry duty. There are a lot of brave guys who did that, but I was assigned to something different. My job was to carry out counterinsurgency operations in an area the size of many American counties. I didn’t command a platoon or a company of Americans, I and my team of four other Americans led and advised the Vietnamese in their villages. That job had particular challenges that have been little written about. I thought it was important to get those experiences in writing, not only as a tale of war, but as a warning, maybe in some ways a help, to those who would come after.
Q: Why did you choose to use a pen name for OWK?
A: There were two prominent reasons. The first was that I had already done a lot of writing as a scientist and had a scientific career under my real name, Terry Turner. The kind of objective, just-the-facts-ma’am writing required for science is very different from the kind of writing that appeals to general audiences. I wanted to keep those two styles and those two careers separate. The second reason was that I found it much easier to write about myself as David Donovan. I could step under the umbrella of that other name and tell stories that would have been much harder for me to tell as Terry Turner. A mental trick, I guess. Call me crazy. Anyway, having adopted the name, I’m going to stick with it when writing outside the field of science.
Q: Have you been back to Vietnam?
A: Yes. I went in 1991 before you could get there from here. It was one of those I-knew-a-guy-who-knew-a-guy kinds of thing. I had the help of a former interpreter for the 9th Infantry Division. I made it back out to my village and it was a great experience. I’d love to go again!
Q: Murphy Station came out twenty-five years after your first book. Why the delay?
A: I have been an active scientist for a long time and science in the American academy is a challenging and competitive career field. Staying current, staying competitive, and keeping my research funded sucked up almost all my time. I simply didn’t have the time—or was it stamina—to remain both a scientist and an author writing for general audiences. Long story short, I wasn’t going to quit my day job, so writing had to come in second place, maybe even third since I had a family, too! Still, I enjoyed writing and knew I wanted to find an opportunity to do more of it. Retiring from the University of Virginia gave me that opportunity.
Q: Murphy Station was another memoir. Why another one?
A: Murphy Station is a story of the American South during a difficult period in American history. America was facing the challenges of racial integration and the cold war, both things that kept tensions high for twenty or thirty years. As a young boy growing up in the South during those times, I was watching the adults around me. Their ways, their actions and reactions, were the influences that made me who I am for good or ill. There are tens of millions of Americans who were young in those same times, who experienced in one way or another those same tensions. Murphy Station is an attempt at not forgetting. Parts of that world were warm and lovely. Parts were not. Remembrance helps us tell the difference..
Q: In both of your memoirs, you tell us in your introductions that you changed peoples’ names in the books. If you’re telling about real events, why not use real names?
A: I realize that’s a problem for some readers. They fear it can become a license to simply make up stories. I have changed people’s names for two reasons. The first is that I write under a pen name. If I change my name, I think it’s a simple consistency to do the same with others. Secondly, it’s hard to write a nice, tight narrative when you are constantly having to introduce new characters and describe their particular trait or tic that makes them interesting for the point of the current story. Too many characters pop in and out. Too much text is spent explaining nuances that have already been explained for a similar character. My remedy has been to avoid slow-downs and side-ventures by combining a couple of similar, real characters under one name. Perhaps a more skilled writer could do better, but that’s what I decided to do and why I say in the introductions of both books that the memoir is a characterization, not a photograph.
Q: Do your experiences in Vietnam speak to the counterinsurgency efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan?
A: Absolutely. That’s the reason behind my third book. My experience and the experience of thousands of others in counterinsurgency in Vietnam taught us some valuable lessons that seemed to have been forgotten by the American military in Iraq and Afghanistan. That forgetfulness seemed a travesty to me, so I started writing down some thoughts and opinions that turned into Counterinsurgency: What the United States Learned in Vietnam, Chose to Forget, and Needs to Know Today.
Q: How is Counterinsurgency different from other books on the topic or on the conflicts in Iraq or Afghanistan?
A: Counterinsurgency sticks to the central issue in those conflicts: counterinsurgency; and it is a practical, not an academic book. Neither is it just another book of war stories. Rather, the book is about what should be considered before undertaking a counterinsurgency campaign, what difficulties will be faced in pursuing the campaign, and about what the needs are to achieve progress in the campaign. Importantly, the book is also about advice for the individual counterinsurgency operative, which is primarily the military adviser out on the front line with indigenous soldiers. Counterinsurgency comes from practical experience in the field years ago followed by much thought afterward.
Q: Your books so far have been non-fiction. Are you going to stick with that or move into fiction, as well?
A: I have several ideas for fiction. We’ll have to wait and see what happens.