Wednesday, February 2, 2011

About the Writer - Bob Sharlet

Bob in Tribute to Brother Jeff, 2010

For decades I labored in the groves of academe. The Soviet Union and then Russia were my beat. Fascinating journey, lived in Moscow, conferenced all over Europe, wrote a great deal about it all. Though limited expertise, always interested in Vietnam. Taught the war for many years at Union College, a kind of memorial to Brother Jeff. How did my books prepare me for doing a memoir on Jeff? Not at all, that was social science, law no less. Well at least I was a skilled researcher, right? Wrong. Studying Soviet law meant reading treatises, monographs, and occasionally talking with jurists on trips back to Russia. Those conversations, welcome reader, didn’t resemble anything you’re familiar with. No personal questions allowed, just law and jurisprudence, and even then no attribution by name.

Sure there was information about Jeff in print out there, not a great deal, mostly about his endgame --editorship of Vietnam GI. But what were his hopes and dreams as he finished school, what about his Vietnam tour, SDS days at Indiana, grad school in Chicago? How did he create and sustain VGI?

I soon realized I’d have to talk to people who knew him, lots of them since no single individual knew Jeff’s whole story. That meant ‘interviewing’, something I’d not done much of in the past. It was like an archeological dig except through words, collecting shards of memory to reassemble into tales of Jeff. Often a seemingly insignificant detail became a key piece in the mosaic. Needless to say, I made rookie mistakes in early interviews.

As the story of my brother’s short but interesting life emerged, I began thinking how to write it up, how to make a book out of it, to give Jeff his niche in the history of the Vietnam antiwar movement. A glance at my academic resume told me there were no role models there. During college years, I wanted to be a writer, but ended up a political scientist. Now was the time to again try my hand as a story teller.

I started reading memoirs to see how it was done. Calvin Trillin’s 'Remembering Denny' made a big impression. Like Denny, there were two Jeff’s, the younger brother I remembered, then Jeff the soldier, radical, GI activist others knew. Another model I found promising was Hilary Masters’ 'Last Stands: Notes from Memory' about growing up with his older father, the poet Edgar Lee Masters. Even more striking were the memories of his grandfather, beginning with the tale of his burial at Arlington as the last of the frontier cavalrymen – “His eyes were … cornflower blue … his hands were steady.” And of course, one of the first memoirs on Vietnam and for me still the finest, Phillip Caputo’s 'A Rumor of War'.

Then one day the problem got solved. My brother’s namesake, my son Jeff, a non-fiction writer joined the project as co-author. With a best seller to his credit, I now felt assured my brother’s story would not just be told, but written with literary merit as well.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, interviewing Jeff’s contemporaries was one thing, but finding them 40 odd years later another; hence “Searching for Jeff,” selected stories of how Karen Grote Ferb, my estimable assistant, and I reconstructed Jeff’s story and his times piece by piece.

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