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Neil Sheehan

Pulitzer Prize-Winning Journalist

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.
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Neil Sheehan

Pulitzer Prize-Winning Journalist

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.
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Neil Sheehan

Pulitzer Prize-Winning Journalist

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.
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Neil Sheehan

Pulitzer Prize-Winning Journalist

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.
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Alan Shepard

First American in Space

When I was finally selected, made the finals, one of seven, NASA folks said, "Well now you'd better call your parents and let them know what you've been doing, because your name is going to be in the paper tomorrow." So I called, and mother was delighted. But my father took the attitude, "Well, what is this you're going to do, son?" Because he could see a deviation in the military career, in which I had been relatively successful up until that point. And even at that age -- gosh, I was what? 35 years old then, give or take. And when your old man says, "You're gonna do what, son?" there is a little pause of reflection. Fortunately, in my case, he lived long enough to see me go to the moon and back. And one evening, we'd had dinner, the ladies had retired, and we were having a drink in front of the fire, and he said, "You remember when I said 'What are you going to do, son?'" I said, "Yes sir, I certainly do." And he said, "Well I was wrong."
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Carol Shields

Pulitzer Prize for Fiction

I read my reviews. I'm very strict with myself. I read them twice and then I put them away. I never look at them again. Because if they're bad, they can make you go crazy. If they're good, they'll make you big-headed and give you false ideas of your powers. So I don't pay as much attention, perhaps, as I did when I was a beginning writer. And I review books, so I understand perfectly well that not everyone is going to like my books. I don't like half the books I pick up. So I suppose I'm fairly sanguine about them. There was one with The Stone Diaries that I find difficult to forgive, and it was a Canadian review, typical Canadian response, "This book is too ambitious." Now this is the kind of thing writers should not be subjected to. So I was rather unforgiving about that one. Other than that, I think reviewers have a right and even a responsibility to go off with their own highly subjective points of view.
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Carol Shields

Pulitzer Prize for Fiction

I didn't write when the children were very small at all. I hardly had time to read a book, never mind write one. But when they all got into school, I thought maybe I could try, and I used to try and catch that hour just before they came home for lunch, between 11:00 and 12:00. I was not terribly disciplined, but I was disciplined enough to ask myself to write two pages. And in those days, I could write two pages in an hour. I can't do it today. And later in the day I could, perhaps, get back to that for a few minutes. And it was a surprise to me. I mean, if you write two pages a day, you have ten pages at the end of the week. At the end of a year, you have a novel, and I did have a novel. All of this surprised me that these writings, these little segments, added up to something larger.
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Carol Shields

Pulitzer Prize for Fiction

There are days I don't want to do it. I don't want to pick up that pen, it feels so heavy, or get myself onto the word processor. And like every writer, I have tricks that I do to get me into that flow. My favorite trick, which seems rather eccentric, is I have a huge dictionary in the room where I write, and I open it at random -- you know, the way people used to open the Bible for inspiration, they just open it -- and I read a page of the dictionary. What that reading does is it puts me into that cool, quiet place of language. Because the problem with being a writer and having a busy life is that it's not just finding the time to write, it's finding the time around the time, where you can be calm, and where you can re-enter that fictional part of yourself. That's one of my tricks. Most writers have a handful of them to get to that place. After 10 minutes, 20 minutes, I'm into it, and I can then proceed into the day of writing. And often that day -- five or six hours, I have much more time now in my life -- it'll seem like 30 minutes. Your whole idea of time becomes distorted, and you know when that happens that you're having a good writing day.
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