Saturday, March 2, 2013

Author Joe Carvalko on the Magic of Writing and the Strength to Tell Stories

Attorney, musician, teacher and author Joe Carvalko has written his first novel, We Were Beautiful Once, Chapters from a Cold War. He shares how the story came to be and how formal study informed his craft and art.

How did you come up with the idea for the novel?
Attorney, musician, teacher and author Joe Carvalko
Twenty-five years ago, I tried a case against the government demanding an accounting of Roger Dumas, a Korea War soldier [the government] claimed was MIA. The trial followed years of cover-up by the Army and the CIA; however, I won the first, Federal court-ordered reclassification of a U.S. soldier from MIA to POW. The documentary "Missing, Presumed Dead: The Search for America's POWs," narrated by Edward Asner, details my trial efforts. I fictionalized the events drawn around the case as tried, delving into the issues of PTSD, and generally converting it into a mystery with many characters over a wide expanse of time. 

Having tried many cases, I used experiences from actual trials and created a dramatic courtroom testimony that parallels events on the battlefield and in the prison camp. The juxtaposition of the courtroom and the battlefield makes the real seem surreal. In some sense, it has the feel of The Rack, a 1956 movie where Paul Newman portrays an American soldier who collaborated with the Chinese while being held in a prison camp during the Korean War, or A Few Good Men, where Tom Cruise cross-examines Jack Nicholson in defending Marines.

What makes this different from other stories you've written?
In addition to my knowledge of the trial, I researched the Korean War and used this in setting various battles, troop movements and troop surrenders. I have firsthand knowledge of the story's settings, having made visits to Korea, working for a short while with the highest level of the Korean Department of Defense in Seoul. I am also a Cold War veteran of the Cuban Crisis, the Vietnam era and served in the Air Force with veterans of the Korean War. So, my story tracks the Korean War with a high degree of fidelity. There are many books about war, however relatively few about Korea. And the recent success of James McBride's The Miracle at St. Anna (WWII) leads me to conclude that there also may be a sizeable interest in the war that preceded Vietnam.

I have published two other books: A Road Once Traveled, Life From All Sides (a memoir that deals with military service and war) and A Deadly Fog (poems, essays and short stories about war). I also recently published The Techno-Human Shell, a nonfiction book about the future of medical technology and how we may become virtual cyborgs in the future. This is my first novel, so in that regard it is different.

How did getting an MFA help your writing and this project?
Ernest Hemingway once wrote, "There are some things which cannot be learned quickly, and time, which is all we have, must be paid heavily for their acquiring. They are the very simplest things, and because it takes a man's life to know them the little new that each man gets from life is very costly and the only heritage he has to leave." My [MFA] mentors all paid heavily in learning their craft and taught me much about what it means to hear, smell, touch and see through a finer-tuned perspective, a keener sense of what things are, what things mean, a skill still in the making that lets me put finishing touches on thoughts that laid buried for so long.

I came from hard-headed disciplines: engineering, science and law. My career was filled with successful and failed inventors, corporate flights of fancy, mergers, lawsuits and high-rollers who gamed the system. My retreat had always been storytelling, nonfiction, fiction and poetry. I taught college courses and played piano part time. My vocation was a job; my avocations were my passions. But my writing, teaching and music were neither well-schooled nor mentored.  Being around good writers and being piloted to good books helped me improve in expressing my thoughts through the magic of writing, and brought me to the place I am now.

We do not see process; we only feel it. My time spent pulling the oars under the beat of a first-rate [MFA] faculty impressed every fiber of my being with a point of view that gives me strength to tell my story and the stories of others, some mundane, some fascinating, some silenced in pursuit of their own journey. The first journey I wanted to take [as a novelist] was into the plot that became We Were Beautiful Once, Chapters from a Cold War.