David Adam Edelstein (davadam) Mon 21 Jul 08 11:32
We're pleased to welcome Brendan I. Koerner to Inkwell to discuss his book "Now The Hell Will Start". Brendan is a contributing editor at Wired whose work appears regularly in The New York Times and Slate. He has won a National Headliner Award for magazine feature writing, and he was named one of Columbia Journalism Review's "Ten Young Writers on the Rise." Please visit him at www.youthrobber.com. Leading the conversation with Brendan is our own Cynthia Barnes. Cynthia Barnes is a long-time WELL member whose work has appeared in National Geographic, Humanities, Voyaging and Salon. Her Slate series, 'Timbuktu for the Timid' was listed as "notable" in Best American Travel Writing 2006. A graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia, she is currently bouncing between Bangkok, Thailand and Boulder, Colorado. Her online home is www.cynthiabarnes.com Welcome, Brendan and Cynthia!
Brendan I. Koerner (brendankoerner) Mon 21 Jul 08 13:09
Thanks a million for the warm welcome, David. And thanks to everyone for being here to discuss my little 386-page labor of love. Really looking forward to the back-and-forth over the coming weeks. Before we get going, folks might want to check out the book's website, which has plenty of photos and ancillary details about the creative process: www.nowthehellwillstart.com Onward, y'all.
cyndigo (cynthiabarnes) Mon 21 Jul 08 13:58
Welcome, Brendan; we're glad you're here! I've just finished NTHWS and join the chorus of reviewers who've likened it to "a real-life The Fugitive." I'll start at the beginning: How did you come across this story in the first place, and what made you realize it would be such a compelling narrative?
Brendan I. Koerner (brendankoerner) Mon 21 Jul 08 15:19
Thanks for the kind words, Cynthia. It all goes back to September 24, 2003. At that time, I was writing Slate's "Explainer" column. Every morning, my editor and I would get up bright and early and comb through the day's newspapers, looking for stories that demanded further exploration. On that particular day, we both noticed the big to-do over an Air Force translator who'd just been arrested for espionage--he was accused of spying for Syria. (The charges never went anywhere.) The news reports all mentioned that the man would be put to death if convicted of espionage. And that got us thinking: When was the last time the American armed forces had executed one of its own? So my day's assignment was to delve into the history of military executions. Somewhere along the line, I got a hold of a bibliography from the Military History Institute in Carlisle, Penn. It was pretty useless for the most part--lots of obscure sources about the War of 1812. But just as my eyes were about to glaze over, I noticed a small, fragmentary note wedged beneath an entry. It read: "Pvt Herman Perry, murderer who long evaded capture by living with Burmese tribe." That just stopped me. It sounded so very Mr. Kurtz, and thus right up my alley--"Heart of Darkness" is one of my all-time favorites. So I flipped open my Palm Pilot (remember those?) and jotted "Herman Perry?" in my Ideas folder. At that point, I really only thought of Perry's tale as a straight-up adventure. And to be honest, I kind of figured that the story couldn't possibly be as interesting as the bibliographical note made it sound. But it ended up being far wilder and richer than I ever thought possible.
cyndigo (cynthiabarnes) Mon 21 Jul 08 15:56
Having lived in Thailand, I'm familiar with Burma, which is notoriously difficult, even when one is NOT a journalist. Can you tell us a bit about your travel there?
cyndigo (cynthiabarnes) Mon 21 Jul 08 16:04
I remember my dad forcing me to watch "The Execution of Private Slovik" when it came out! For further background, here's the Slate piece on military executions that started it all: http://www.slate.com/id/2088854/
Brendan I. Koerner (brendankoerner) Mon 21 Jul 08 17:49
People often forget that a young(-ish) Martin Sheen played Pvt. Slovik in that movie. It was actually a TV Movie of the Week, back when such things flourished--roughly 1977. I took an unusual route into Burma, traveling over from the Indian province of Arunachal Pradesh. The Ledo Road, the construction of which is much discussed in "Now the Hell Will Start," still exists in North-East India, and runs approximately 39 miles from the Assamese railtown of Ledo to the Pangsau Pass. It's a short distance, but it took my guide and I a while to traverse--in large part because of the strong military presence. There are a lot of militant group in NE India, most notably the violent United Liberation Front of Asom, and the Indian Army (as well as its paramilitary offshoots) are a force in the region. We paid a lot of bribes to get over the border, but once we crossed we traveled a bit more freely than I had anticipated. It was quite a moment, descending the Patkai Mountains along the old Ledo Road, just as Herman Perry did some 62 years earlier. When I first saw the Lake of No Return, which is a landmark much remembered by Ledo Road vets, I nearly burst into tears. The Burmese, for their part, were rather mystified by my presence--I reckon they don't get many tourists in that part of the world. That said, I'm not sure I would recommend this travel gambit to most folks. We did run into some problems with the Burmese military, and it was only by virtue of my guide's supreme intelligence and wit that we were able to make it back to India without gross difficulty. BTW, I have photos of my Ledo Road journey up on Flickr, if anyone cares to take a peek: http://flickr.com/photos/nowthehellwillstart
cyndigo (cynthiabarnes) Mon 21 Jul 08 23:38
Great photos! Were you on a journalist or tourist visa? At what point in the writing of the book did you make your research trip?
Brendan I. Koerner (brendankoerner) Tue 22 Jul 08 06:14
I was on a tourist visa to India, but had no papers for Burma. It is virtually impossible to get a visa for that part of the country--the authorities occasionally let people up to Shingbwiyang, about 64 miles southeast of the Pangsau Pass, but they're pretty strict about the area above there. That's largely because of the insurgent and criminal activity in the region, but also because they don't want outsiders to see how they treat the hill tribes. I heard some horror stories, as you might imagine. I started actually writing the book in June of 2006, but didn't travel abroad until November of that year. I had a huge hole in my first chapter as a result, which was a little tough to deal with. But once I got back, it all flowed--thanks in large part to those pictures I took. I filled up nearly four gigabytes worth of space on my Canon PowerShot G7 while I was over there. The visual aids really came in handy throughout the writing process.
cyndigo (cynthiabarnes) Wed 23 Jul 08 11:30
I rely on tons of (usually not great) pictures as well ... so helpful especially for a writer who's not a "visual." What was your contingency plan if you were detained without a visa, and how did you hook up with your fixers, translators, etc?
Harmless drudge (ckridge) Wed 23 Jul 08 11:57
I was put off by what a generally bad guy Perry was, but was very taken by the two groups of people who protected him: the black road builders and the Naga headhunters. I kept wanting to hear more about them, but it must have been fearfully difficult finding about either group. Could you find anyone from either group who was around back then and would talk to you? Were they forthcoming?
Brendan I. Koerner (brendankoerner) Wed 23 Jul 08 12:27
I did, indeed, interview several veterans of the Ledo Road. Most are quite aged, of course, and their memories generally weren't the sharpest. But those interviews were integral to helping me describe the day-to-day life of an Army roadbuilder in Burma. A lot of the jungle horrors that I described came directly from the mouths of living veterans--one that sticks out in my mind is the passage from Sgt. Mahon East, who described how his comrade's head was sliced off by Japanese sniper fire. I wasn't able to locate any Nagas old enough to have first-hand recollections of World War II. I did meet a few who were a generation younger, and thus could relate their parents' memories second-hand. It was a Naga elder, for example, who told me about how the American GIs gave away their firearms to the "tribals," and thus inadvertently fueled much of the violence that ensued after the end of the British Empire. Also, I think you raise an interesting point: Perry may be the book's protagonist, but he's certainly no conventional hero. Readers have had very different reactions to Perry, and many share your viewpoint. It's a valid one, for sure: Thousands of other GIs endured the hardships of the jungle and Jim Crow without killing unarmed superiors. That said, I personally never thought of Perry as a truly malicious man. He was young, sensitive, and foolish, and he certainly suffered from genuine psychological trauma (abetted, of course, by his own drug abuse). To me, the fact that Perry is a morally questionable protagonist is part of what made him such a fascinating character to explore. Along the Ledo Road, some men revered Perry as a hero, while others reviled him as a villain. I always expected that readers of "Now the Hell Will Start" would be similarly divided.
Brendan I. Koerner (brendankoerner) Wed 23 Jul 08 12:35
Ah, Cynthia, apologies--just saw your question. Contingency plan? There was none, really. I just made sure to travel with lots of cash, aware that bribes can usually fix any situation in that part of the world. I did have one panicky moment, though, when I first arrived at Dibrugarh, India. That's where I was supposed to meet my guide, the incomparable Oken Tayeng (who I had reached through a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend reference). I got off the plane, walked through the shack of an "airport," then looked for someone who would introduce themselves as Oken. But no luck--all of my fellow travelers piled into cars, but I was left there alone. I sat down to wait, when an Indian Army soldier (armed with a really high-tech submachine gun) came up and started berating me in Assamese. I had no clue what he was saying, but it didn't sound good. I got the impression that Westerners were a rarity in those parts, so he was immediately suspicious of my motives. Fortunately, a slender, gap-toothed kid came out of nowhere and said in passage English, "He wants to know what you're doing here." The kid talked the soldier down, got me into town, and acted as a translator when I tried to reach Oken (who, it turns out, was stranded down in Nagaland due to a faulty car). And when I tried to give him 100 rupees for his troubles? He turned it down. Without him, my trip would have been over before it even started. I thank him in the Acknowledgements--"the gap-toothed kid at the Dibrugarh airport." (Alas, I never did catch his name.)
Harmless drudge (ckridge) Wed 23 Jul 08 13:09
Some road builders thought him a hero, did they? I suppose that many of them had wanted to shoot a lieutenant, and, besides, even if he was a fool, he was their fool. What bothers me is that Lieutenant Cady, though very imprudent in trying to take the rifle from Perry, was imprudent in the direction of lenience. He would have been perfectly justified, it seems to me, in shooting him. Certainly that is what most civilian police officers would do under similar circumstances. Perry shot a man who was going to some trouble not to shoot him, and who he could have laid out with the rifle butt. To my mind, the road builders are the heroes of the story. That road was quite an engineering feat. It was pointless and doomed, but that takes no honor from the guys who built it. They built a road to nowhere under the most difficult circumstances imaginable, and then they rebuilt it again and again, as it washed away in monsoons. It's a wonder that more of them didn't lose it. Is there anything in print on the daily life of the Naga at that time? In the book, we get them mostly from Perry's point of view, first as a danger, then as a refuge. I wonder what they were like when they weren't out taking heads.
Brendan I. Koerner (brendankoerner) Wed 23 Jul 08 13:43
We can certainly all agree that Lieut. Cady didn't deserve what he got. But when I interviewed Bernard Frank, the man who prosecuted Perry, he made an interesting point: Perry wasn't out to hurt anyone that morning, but simply wanted to talk to the battalion's commander, Lieut. Col. Wright Hiatt. True, he was technically breaking arrest to do so, but I don't think an AWOL soldier could be construed as a life-or-death matter. Since Perry posed no immediate threat to anyone--and remember, he was sobbing and trembling throughout the encounter--I don't think Cady would have been justified in using lethal force. Yes, Perry could have used non-lethal force himself. But he was in the throes of a serious emotional collapse, so logic wasn't really his strong suit at that point in time. Your words of admiration for the Ledo Road's engineers are wonderfully moving, and entirely accurate. They are, indeed, the book's real heroes. It's a shame that they received so little gratitude upon their return back to the U.S. in 1945. In terms of day-to-day Naga life in the 1940s, I highly recommend Ursula Graham Bower's "Naga Path." J.H. Hutton also has a fine body of anthropological work on the Naga, but most of it dates back to the 1920s and '30s. Also, you should really pay a visit to the Naga Database--an indispensable resource for serious researchers: http://www.alanmacfarlane.com/bamboo_naga_front/front.htm I tried to pack a lot of anthropological information into Chapter Nine, but I'll confess that I probably spent an inordinate amount of time discussing headhunting techniques. Apologies--ritual decapitation is just an endlessly fascinating topic.
Linda Castellani (castle) Wed 23 Jul 08 13:49
Those photos are fascinating, Brendan. Did you ever find out who Mr. Accident was?
Brendan I. Koerner (brendankoerner) Wed 23 Jul 08 14:04
Mr. Accident is everywhere! Seriously, that specific photo was taken at a coal mine in Tipong, just outside Ledo. It was a real spooky place--the mining equipment all seemed to predate World War II, and there were obviously some very young kids working there (esp. piloting the canoes that carried lump coal down a stream). You should check out this gallery if you're interested in seeing the Tipong Colliery in all its Dickensian glory: http://www.irfca.org/gallery/Steam/TipongColliery/ The colliery is apparently a big draw for British train buffs, due to its ancient coal-powered locomotives. Some of my own photos of the place are available on the "Now the Hell Will Start" website: http://www.nowthehellwillstart.com/
cyndigo (cynthiabarnes) Wed 23 Jul 08 14:07
I want to know about Mr. Accident, too. Here's Jonathan Yardley's review in The Washington Post: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/07/10/AR200807100233 8.html I unsympathetic to Perry, but found the whole story fascinating ... and especially the info on the SEAsian theater during World War II.
cyndigo (cynthiabarnes) Wed 23 Jul 08 14:22
Here's more on the book from BoingBoing: http://www.boingboing.net/2008/05/29/now-the-hell-will-st.html
cyndigo (cynthiabarnes) Wed 23 Jul 08 14:42
(Those of you following the conversation who are not members of The Well can e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org and we can post here for you.)
Brendan I. Koerner (brendankoerner) Wed 23 Jul 08 14:55
I really like that we're discussing the notion of sympathy. There's no question that Perry's tragedy was partially attributable to forces beyond his control: Jim Crow, the cruelty of the Indo-Burmese jungle, the egoism and bungling of the military brass. But at the end of the day, it was Perry, and Perry alone, who pulled the trigger and ended the life of a 28-year-old husband and father. No matter what led up to that event, some readers are bound to find Perry off-putting. But others won't. In fact, I've had several people write to me and laud Perry as a hero, a symbol of resistance to tyranny. They endorse his lethal actions as justified, given what he was made to suffer through. As is usually the case, I think the truth is somewhere in the middle. I have sympathy for Perry because of what he endured, simply due to the fact that he was deemed less than fully human by virtue of his race. On the other hand, I've never bought the justification defense. Lieut. Cady may have been guilty of bad policework, but that obviously shouldn't be a capital offense. The bottom line is this: a war was raging, a man's psyche fractured, and a series of flawed judgments led to a split second that ended two young lives and ruined many more. It was a senseless tragedy, plain and simple, and one that would have been lost to time if Perry hadn't embarked on such a grand post-crime adventure.
cyndigo (cynthiabarnes) Wed 23 Jul 08 15:24
Beautifully put, Brendan. I found the initial description of Cady's murder off-putting, not knowing that it would be gone into in detail later. But the remaining chapters put things in context, while by no means justifying Perry's actions. Did you consider including more personal info on Cady? What (if any) response have you had from his family?
Steve Bjerklie (stevebj) Thu 24 Jul 08 04:25
While you're mulling over Cynthia's question, I've got one that's about the business of the book: How did you and your agent pitch this book to potential publishers? Was it the WWII angle -- the War still being a hot subject right now? Or: Lost story of proto-hippie? Interesting story from little-known WWII front? Investigation of effects of a Jim Crow military? All of these? Or some other angle?
Mark McDonough (mcdee) Thu 24 Jul 08 04:48
The photos of the Tipong Colliery are amazing.
Brendan I. Koerner (brendankoerner) Thu 24 Jul 08 05:17
Cynthia, I tried my best to contact Cady's family, but I never quite made it work. I reached out to a local historian in his hometown, and she said that he had a sister who was still alive. But she had apparently had a major stroke a few months before I made my inquiry, and was in quite grave condition in a nursing home. So, alas, no interview was possible. I knew that Cady left behind an infant daughter named Paula Jean, but I wasn't able to locate her. If anyone out there might have a lead as to her whereabouts, I'd be much obliged--I would very much like to get her a book. Thankfully, I had much more luck getting in touch with Perry's family. The interviews I conducted with his sister, Edna Wilson of Washington D.C., were critical to the book. She really helped me round his character into shape, by providing details of his pre-Army life in both North Carolina and Washington. And she was extremely generous in sharing some of Herman's letters from overseas, as well as photographs from his youth. It took me about a year to track her down and set up our first interview, but, boy, was it ever worth the effort.
Brendan I. Koerner (brendankoerner) Thu 24 Jul 08 05:36
Thanks for the excellent question about the business aspect, Steve. I recently took a look at my proposal, which I wrote toward the end of 2005. I was surprised by how different it was from the finished product--the focus in the proposal was much more on the "forgotten history of World War II" angle than I remembered. And there really wasn't much in there about the effects of segregation--that's a theme that didn't blossom until I went hammer-and-tongs into the research. When I first stumbled upon Herman Perry's name, I viewed his saga purely as an adventure story--or, perhaps more accurately, a rollicking culture-clash story. But I knew the simple strangeness of the case probably wasn't enough to justify a book. So I started thinking of Perry's flight as a way to tell the story of the Ledo Road, which is a project I hadn't been aware of until I started my research. And then, while studying the Ledo Road's history, I became aware of the toxic effects of Army segregation. And that's how the book came together, with one theme layering atop another--systematic racism, Naga anthropology, military drug use, the jungle's brutality. It's a texture that didn't really come across in the proposal, mostly because I just hadn't done enough research at that point. Fortunately, my dynamite editor, Vanessa Mobley at The Penguin Press, saw the potential. Very few other editors did.
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