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If you like Neil Sheehan's story, you might also like:
Sam Donaldson,
Doris Kearns Goodwin,
David Halberstam,
Nicholas Kristof,
David McCullough,
Colin Powell,
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Michael Thornton
and Bob Woodward

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Neil Sheehan
Neil Sheehan
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Neil Sheehan Interview (page: 3 / 8)

Pulitzer Prize-Winning Journalist

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  Neil Sheehan

In your book, A Bright Shining Lie, you talk about John Paul Vann's career in the Vietnam War. Could you tell us something about the significance of his actions there?

Neil Sheehan Interview Photo
He stopped the North Vietnamese offensive of 1972. The whole thing would have come down in 1972 if it hadn't been for John stopping them in the mountains. The country would have disappeared then, because it was falling apart, and he, by sheer force of will, held onto this town in the mountains which became a focal point, and the Vietnamese didn't go around it. They fought in there, and he defeated them with B-52's and everything he could bring up there. Plus, he managed to get a Vietnamese division. He had been there so long that he could take a Vietnamese division whose commander he had maneuvered into place, a Vietnamese, and fly them into that town, and they'd fight. There was the Vietnamese commander, and the officers would stay there, because they figured John would get them out at the last moment if things failed. In fact, he wasn't planning on getting them out on that occasion. This was the end, because if he lost that, he'd lose his reputation and everything. So he had come to personify the American venture in Vietnam.

When I went to the funeral, it was an extraordinary experience to walk into that chapel at Arlington, that red brick chapel right outside the gate to the cemetery at Fort Myer. It was like a class reunion. They buried him as a general officer, with the horse and the caisson and all the trappings. The chief pallbearer was William Westmoreland, who had been the commander-in-chief in Vietnam, and William Colby, who had been the CIA head at one point, was another pallbearer, and here are all these others. Edward Lansdale, who put the Diem regime in power in the 1950s for the Eisenhower regime. He was there. Richard Holbrooke, who had been a young foreign service officer in Vietnam and went on to become the youngest Assistant Secretary of State for the Far East. All these faces. I'm saying, "Hi." It was extraordinary. I realized that only this man, Vann, could bring all these people together, because he was such a unique figure. So I decided if I write a book, a biography of John, I can reach out to the larger history of the war and to whom the Vietnamese are, et cetera, and I can bring them into the story, and that's what set me off writing the book.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

I came back from the funeral, and I called my wife, who is also a writer, Susan. Susan won the first Pulitzer in the family, not me. She won it for a book on mental illness called Is There No Place on Earth for Me? She wrote for The New Yorker. She called me from the Library of Congress, where she was working, writing, and she said, "How did the funeral go?" I explained this extraordinary funeral to her, and she said, "Maybe that's your book."

I started to write. It took me a long, long, long time. I had some problems. I had an auto accident. I lost a year over that. I lost a year over something else, but it basically took me -- if you added it up -- it took me 13 years of research and writing to get the book done. A Bright Shining Lie, that is, John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam. But I'm glad I did it, because I wanted to leave a book behind. I wanted to record this experience for those who had been there, for those who had fought there, for the general public at large, and for the generations to come, and also, I guess for myself. I wanted to get it down and convey it, because it had been the experience of my life for ten years.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

How did you persevere that long? You had an auto accident during this time that almost killed you.

Neil Sheehan: Eleven broken bones.

Didn't you ever feel like giving up?

Neil Sheehan: I almost gave up at one point because I ran out of money, and Susan couldn't support the family by herself. We had two daughters going to private school. It was 1979, and I had enough of the book done so that I knew I had solved my problems. I had a lot to write, but I had solved my problems. I knew where this thing was going, and that I had a vision of the book now, and it was working, my vision, but I was going to have to stop to support the family, go back to reporting.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

I had a friend who had been a reporter in Vietnam. His name was Peter Braestrup. He was an ex-Marine, and he was running the Woodrow Wilson Center's Wilson Quarterly at the Smithsonian. I ran into him in a supermarket, and he said, "How's the book going?" and I said, "Well, I finally found my way. I can see the way ahead, and it's working, but I'm going to have to quit because I've run out of money." He said, "Why don't you apply to the Wilson Center for a fellowship?" I said, "Peter, nobody is going to give me another fellowship. I've been at this thing since 1972. I lost time over the accident and stuff, but nobody is going to give me another fellowship. I had two or three." He said, "I'll put an oar in for you. Apply." So I applied.

The current Librarian of Congress, James Billington, was then head of the Woodrow Wilson (International Center) for Scholars, and he got me a fellowship for one year, which was a good fellowship then. It was the equivalent of a salary, and that year tided me over, and then we had another slim year, and then I had about two-thirds of the manuscript. I was able to go back to Random House and say, "Okay. Here is what you are going to get if you give me some money, enough money to finish this thing," and they read it and they said okay. Now they could see what they were going to get, because we had to renegotiate the advance, and they gave me a bit of money. And then I ran out of money again, because it went on for some more years longer, and William Shawn, who was head of The New Yorker, was going to take 125,000 words. He gave me $40,000 advance, and so I was able to keep the family going. I finally finished it in 1987. We published in '88. I finished it. I basically finished the manuscript in '86, and then it took me a year to cut. It was too long, much too long. It was 475,000 words, and my editor and I had agreed that 375,000 was the limit. So I got a computer, learned how to use a word processor, and I took 100,000 words out of the manuscript with the help of my editor, Robert Loomis.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

Neil Sheehan Interview Photo
He would read it and approve it, and then it took about a year to go to press because they did a very good, very careful job of going to press. We had maps and photographs and all this sort of thing.

How hard is that for a writer, taking 100,000 words out of your manuscript?

Neil Sheehan: When you've written much too much, as I had then, and you've got a vision of your book, it's hard work, but it's not heartbreaking, because I was producing a better book. It was going to be better. It was a long book. It's a big book. Harrison Salisbury was a friend of mine who wrote that wonderful book on the siege of Leningrad, The 900 Days. I was in New York and I sent him a copy. It weighed three-and-a-half pounds and he said, "If you're stopped by a mugger, drop it on his foot." But I knew I was producing a better book, so I was not unhappy cutting those words. They had to come out.

While you were doing it, were you aware of just how important a book you were writing?

Neil Sheehan: Not really.

I wanted to write a definitive book on the war. I wanted it to be definitive. I wanted it to encompass not just the American side, but also the Vietnamese, who they were, what had happened. I wanted it to be definitive. I hoped it would be widely read. I couldn't have known the reception it would receive, no, but I was putting everything I had into it. I mean everything I had learned, all my skills that I had built up over the years were going into that book. It was exhausting. I thought I'd never write another book afterwards, because it was exhausting. I got so tired by the end. You'd get up in the morning -- and you'd be exhausted -- to start the day. You'd be so nervous, my hands would shake until I got the manuscript going again, my next segment, the segment I was working on. You'd get nervous. I had terrible stomach cramps for a long period of time from nerves of the whole thing, because your nerves get to you. You think, "When is this going to be done?" You see the end, but to get there! You know the path. What I should have learned was you don't look at the top of the mountain, just look at the step in front of you, but it's hard to do that. You keep seeing the top of the mountain. Jesus! Mother of God, it's a long way away! I'm glad now I did it. It took up all my middle years. I started it in 1972, and I published it in 1988, and my middle years all went into it, but I am glad I put them into it.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

Otherwise I'd have just been writing newspaper stories. It's a worthy profession. It's a good profession, but the newspaper, after it's published, is something to wrap the fodder in the next day. It's a worthy thing. Don't get me wrong, I'm not denigrating it, but it's not the same as a book. A book sits on the shelf, and I really wanted to do this. I'm glad that I had done it.

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