Dennis McDougal, award winning journalist and prolific author, agreed to an interview on the blog Literal Exposure. It’s always interesting to find out about an author, why they write the books they do, how they choose the subject matter, and what is their process. Dennis gives readers an insight into the makings of THE CANDLESTICKMAKER, his latest book and first novel.
Can you please tell us a little about “The Candlestickmaker”?
“The Candlestickmaker” recounts the lives and loves of three sailors during the height of the Vietnam War. It’san adventure story, weaving in and out of ports of call, from Hong Kong to Australia, the Philippines to Japan. But it is also a romance about the guy who went down to the sea in ships and the girl he left behind; a mystery filled with intrigue over the clandestine drugging of the military by its own government; and a bildungsroman chronicling the path from innocence to manhood of an unlikely trio of friends.
Were you in the military? If so, can you tell us a little about it?
I was in the U.S. Naval Reserves from 1966 to 1972, on active duty from ’67 through ’69 aboard a spy ship in the Tonkin Gulf. Is “The Candlestickmaker” autobiographical? In a word (make that two): uh huh.
What made you write a book that focuses on what effect war has on friends?
Friends find each other in odd and unpredictable ways, and the best of friends last a lifetime. As a crucible, war tests and tempers loyalty, compassion, empathy, and brings out the best as well as the worst in human beings. What better setting for a close study of the ties that bind than three guys from three different segments of the culture, strung out on grass, booze, women or ‘60s rock and roll, trying to hold on to reality long enough to get themselves safely back home?
What was the hardest part of writing “The Candlestickmaker”?
Revising, revising, revising….
And then, revising some more.
How much of the book is realistic?
If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in your latest book?
I don’t believe that I would. It is far from flawless, but the story, the characters and the evocation of a time and a place in our collective history is solid and compelling…and an author can ask for little more in achieving a level of personal satisfaction.
Do you follow a different writing procedure when writing fiction and non-fiction? If so, can you explain what it is?
Yes and no. Yes, in that I rise before dawn daily, toil ‘til breakfast, read, answer email, then write some more. In other words, writing for me is all about routine and discipline. But, “no” in that fiction is a more visceral than nonfiction. Writing nonfiction requires a more careful attention to the facts, and by that I don’t just mean dates, places, times, and people. Nonfiction has to be as exact as the author can make it on all levels – any failure to do so reduces it to a work of fiction which might make for great reading, but misses the whole intent of nonfiction, which is in my humble opinion (IMHO, rite?) to inform as well as to entertain. Both successful fiction and nonfiction tell a compelling story, but only the former relies chiefly on imagination.
Do you miss writing for the Los Angeles Times? What did you like most? What did you dislike?
I was back at the Times on a visit recently and, given what it has become, I would have to say that I don’t miss it. I do miss the Times of the ‘80s, which I regard as its golden era. Beyond the camaraderie among a community of some of the brightest men and women I have ever known, there was a collective spirit that sprung from Watergate, My Lai, and a wave of investigative journalism that has seldom been matched in the years that followed. America – and California – were booming, dominant, eager for truth and achievement. Celebrate the new and progressive; root out the old and wrongheaded. I can’t put my finger on a moment or an event where it all went haywire, but the Times began a long, slow decline in the 90s and has never recovered.
Ok, I have to ask. Being a Buddhist by nature, what was it like to be in the presence of the Dalai Lama?
Tenzin Gyatso is funny, centered, charming and guileless. He exudes a very easy grace, both calming and provoking. You breathe easier listening to his trilling accent, but you also remember the words of that other great Buddhist of our era, Rodney King: Why can’t we all just get along?
You have had the opportunity to meet many famous people. Do you have a favorite? Is there someone you would like to meet?
By its very nature, the pursuit of fame is corrosive. Few who seek the spotlight are not damaged by the journey. Lord Acton’s famous quote about power applies equally to fame: fame corrupts; absolute fame corrupts absolutely. That said, among those celebrities I’ve encountered who seem to have best retained their humanity and their humility are actor Jeff Daniels (who purposely raised his family a thousand miles from Hollywood), singer Rita Coolidge (who remained a mother first and a performer second), comedian Wavy Gravy (a truly soulful and deeply spiritual man), announcer Gary Owens (a funny, acerbic raconteur), Gov. Jerry Brown (the one modern politician who speaks truth to power), and Harry Belafonte, who stood up for basic decency in human rights long before it was fashionable or politically expedient to do so and, now pushing 90, has never stopped being an angry young man.
I would have liked to have made Studs Terkel’s acquaintance before he left the planet (and I’m sorry I missed Woodstock), but as far as living men or women I would like to meet, they dwindle with the years. I’m down to Pete Seeger and Jimmy Carter at the moment.
Thank you so much for the interview! Is there anything else you would like to share?
I used to think children were the ticket to immortality – not books or music or art or grand political gestures. Certainly not religion which only seems to wreak havoc, distrust, rancor, violence and all the other stuff that Jesus, Mohammad, Siddhartha, Zoroaster and the children of Abraham told us at one time or another we needed to avoid and/or overcome. Lately, I’ve revised my opinion. It’s grandchildren, not children, who are our true legacies.
For more information about Dennis McDougal and to follow his blog, visit his website: www.dennismcdougal.com
Read more author interviews and guest posts at Literal Exposure