He came upon the idea for R&R in the course of conducting research for his most recent non-fiction book, The Nashos’ War, about the Australians conscripted via lottery to fight the war in Vietnam. A large number were stationed in the southern Vietnamese port town of Vung Tau, and the majority there never encountered the Viet Cong. This was part of the inspiration for the novel.
More significant, though, was a story about coffins rising from the cemetery in the monsoon rain and being washed into the town. It was, Dapin said in the interview, ‘the poetry of the rising coffin story’ that made him write another historical fiction novel, despite saying he would never do it again.
Dapin made some fascinating observations about Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War. That for some people, it was the best time of their lives — not just for the servicemen, but for the nurses, for example, who found it liberating. That for many Australians, going to war was about ‘doing a job’ — which put them at odds with the ideological motivations of their opponents. That Australia lifted the US experience of the Vietnam War and ‘put it on on like an ill-fitting coat’. He also suggested veterans’ politics is largely about a backlash against feminism.
Of the novel, which is told from multiple points of view — Australian, American and Vietnamese — Dapin says, ‘I wanted to create something that looks like pulp but reads like literature.’
If that wasn’t enough to make me want to read the book, he went on to describe a research process for his fiction, which involved reading Vietnamese poetry in order to understand local metaphors. He had only one example where he had used a poetic metaphor directly — the exquisite image, ‘the sky was white with butterflies’. For the most part, he lets poetic metaphors inform the mindset of his characters.
I loved this idea, and fully admitted my intention to steal it. Happy to say, I got Dapin’s blessing.
I’ll be taking R&R with me when I head to Thailand next month for the fieldwork component of my PhD research.
What’s on the top of your summer — or, for those in the Northern Hemisphere, winter — reading pile?