Today, Karl Marlantes's debut novel, Matterhorn, is garnering praise for its vivid, trenchant portrayal of American soldiers in the thick of the Vietnam War. But for more than thirty years, the manuscript languished in literary purgatory, while the author struggled to find an agent—not to mention a publisher—willing to take it on. Published in April as a collaboration between the California-based small press El León Literary Arts and Grove/Atlantic, the book—at nearly 650 pages, including a glossary—owes its existence to people in disparate pockets of the publishing industry, as well as to the extraordinary persistence of its sixty-five-year-old author. "There were many times I would say to myself, ‘Are you crazy, Marlantes? You've been powering away at this damn book for so long. Maybe you don't know how to write,'" he recalls, still sounding slightly dazed by his success.
You think there’s a war between Barnes & Noble and the independents—and on some level there is—but this book wouldn't have gotten published without both of them.
The book's genesis began in 1968, when Marlantes was shipped off to Vietnam as a lieutenant in the Marine Corps. In those days, he explains, "boys did the service, and then they came home and married the girls and had the babies. When I signed up, I had never even heard of Vietnam." He'd joined right out of his Oregon high school, but first served in the reserves under a program that allowed him to attend college at Yale University during the school year and report to boot camp during the summers in between; after graduation, he would still owe the Marines three years of service. Midway through his final year at Yale (where a short story he wrote earned him the Tunic Prize for literature), Marlantes heard that he had been awarded a Rhodes Scholarship, for which he had applied to study politics, philosophy, and economics. With soldiers in such high demand, he was pleasantly surprised when the Marines gave him permission to pursue his scholarship at Oxford University. But once he arrived in England, he couldn't stop thinking about his friends serving in Vietnam. After only one semester, he decided to join them. "I saw very clearly that privilege was getting kids out of serving, and it was not right," he says.
During his subsequent thirteen-month tour of duty, he kept a sporadic journal, dimly aware that it could be fodder for future writing. "Any writer is going to think about people like [Siegfried] Sassoon, [Robert] Graves, and [Norman] Mailer, who went through these experiences and wrote great literature about them," he says. "I guess part of me thought, ‘Oh, when I get out I'm going to write a great novel about the Vietnam War.'" At the time, of course, he had more immediate concerns. "There is no more intense experience that I can think of that lasts that length of time," he says. "But the overall feeling of combat, for me, is sadness. You come away with memories of the intensity and the excitement—you can't deny that it's exciting—but it's just so frightening." Despite that fear, Marlantes's bravery in combat earned him the Navy Cross for extraordinary heroism; the award citation noted his "courage, aggressive fighting spirit, and unwavering devotion to duty in the face of grave personal danger."
Soon after arriving back in the United States, he began writing. "I typed out, almost manically, about 1,700 double-spaced pages of psychotherapy," he says. Once he'd gotten that out of his system, he realized that his stream-of-consciousness ramblings didn't exactly qualify as a literary classic, and "basically threw the pages away." The writing binge, though, had fixed in his mind certain details that would prove crucial during the coming years of rewrites and rejections. "I spent a lot of time trying to come to terms with my own war experiences," he says, both through writing and through therapy. As he did, in the years that followed, he began to consider how he might write about those experiences more constructively and decided it would be most freeing to do it through fiction.