In the long and varied history of wars in general and the Vietnam War in particular, Sergeant Adlai Malick, United States Marine Corps, knew his experience to be no more or less surreal or psychically taxing than anybody else’s. Every soldier with a functioning brain had surely, at some point, looked around the field of battle—such as it was—and thought to himself, This isn’t actually happening. The zip of bullets, the foreign terrain, the mud, the twinned odors of gunpowder and human blood, all of it occasioned by an enemy who knew him no better than he knew them: man is not equipped to believe in such chaos, perhaps especially when it is manifest before his face. Every grunt who humped a weight half his own over many miles had learned that the limits of the human tolerance for pain lay much farther afield than he had before realized. And though Sergeant Malick had never left Oregon before boot camp; though he had never left the States before being dropped in the fetid jungles of Southeast Asia; though he couldn’t have told you the distinctions between Vietnam and Thailand and Laos and Cambodia before or truly after he went there; though all of these things were true of him, he knew them to be true of a great number of other people, including some of his personal friends, including some who had had the misfortune to die bleeding in that hateful place.
C. Joseph Jordan
C. Joseph Jordan is an MFA candidate at the University of Minnesota, where he is currently toiling on a novel set during the recent financial meltdown. He was born in a small town in Oregon and grew up in Portland. When he was a boy, he once dug a neck-deep hole in his mother’s garden and filled it with water. He then stood in it until all the water had seeped into the earth. This experience prepared him in untold ways for life as a fiction writer. He can be found at cjosephjordan.tumblr.com.
Q&A by Hannah Tinti
- HT: Where did the idea for this story come from?
- CJ: In the most direct sense, I knew a couple of guys who came home from Iraq and Afghanistan—and while I wouldn’t say that either of them was what you would call “shell shocked”, per se, neither was totally all right, either. I knew I wanted to write about that, and coming home after a long time away more generally, and I had this character lying around who had been a part of a much longer piece, so I decided to use him as a way of backing into the subject.
- HT: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
- CJ: The research. Not the big stuff—I find history interesting, and am kind of fascinated by the political milieu of Cold War America—but the piddling little things that I would look up and then forget: what would a Marine have called his rations? His time away from his unit? What was the name of the local high school in that part of Oregon in 1965? Where might a working class guy from Edinburgh have worked in the 1950s? I would learn it, and then it would be gone as soon as I sat down to write. I ended up having to write with internet windows open and books scattered around my desk a lot of the time.
- HT: Why did you choose to set “The Quiet” during Vietnam?
- CJ: Two major reasons. As I said before, Adlai is a character I had from a much longer piece that I wrote a long time ago, in which he appeared as an older man. His backstory in that was that he was a Vietnam vet and had been in the Marine Corps. So he was kind of ready-made. But I also have this sense that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are both so close to the skin of today’s America that the people who have been there themselves haven’t really had the chance to say what they have to say about them yet—like I should lay off, and let them talk about their experiences themselves. Vietnam has been so chewed over by the whole generation that fought there that, perhaps paradoxically, I felt like I could approach it cleaner, and more honestly.
- HT: This story feels very current, because of the situation of soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Did you do much research on Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome?
- CJ: A bit, though I didn’t want to get bogged down in a situation where I had put my character in some sort of “illness” box he couldn’t get out of. But I did talk to at least one person I know who has gone through PTSD, and my ears pricked up every time the subject came up in the newspaper or on the radio. Honestly, there were a few interviews on Fresh Air and This American Life that were invaluable on that subject. I suppose I’m pegging myself pretty obviously on the socio-political spectrum by saying that, but it’s true.
- HT: Why does Sergeant Malick’s name change throughout the story? At times he is Sergeant Malick, other times Corporal Malick, and later, at the end, he switches to Adlai.
- CJ: That’s a trick that’s been in the story since the first draft I wrote of it, which was half as long as the final one and in many respects a different story. The basic idea, for me, was that as long as Sergeant Malick is in the Marine Corps, he operates with a whole constellation of assumptions about the world and himself that are based on his identification with the Corps, and his identity within the Corps. He becomes Adlai at the end because it takes him that long to realize that he’s no longer a part of that—he no longer has the constraints and dangers that go along with being in the military, but by the same token he no longer has the structure or the intellectual safety net that that provides. His life has become a lot less hazardous and a lot more complicated now that he just has to be Adlai Malick, and no more.
- HT: What’s next for Adlai Malick? Do you think he’ll ever find a sense of home again, after all he’s been through?
- CJ: I think he’ll get there after a while, though I do think that he’ll never completely stop feeling like the world is a little farther away from him than it used to be. Like I said before, he was a character in another piece I wrote, and in that piece he was a much older man—so I kind of have the next 35 years of his life planned out. Long story short, he becomes a doctor and has a couple of kids. But he kind of develops into much the same distant dad that his own father was.
- HT: Can you tell us a little about the title?
- CJ: Now and again, I get these overwhelming feelings of unreality that just overtake me and make the whole world feel miles away. I wanted to give that to a character in a story, so I gave it to Adlai. Seemed appropriate. Anyway, as I was writing the story, I realized that Adlai is ultimately trying to exchange the bizarre, unreal quiet for the calm, good quiet, and that seemed like a good idea for the title.
- HT: How long did it take you to complete this story?
- CJ: For-e-ver. I believe I began writing it in either December of 2007 or January of 2008, and have been slowly plugging away at it ever since. I can look at the story and see the stages of my life in it, even. In that time, I’ve lived in four cities, made and lost innumerable friends, and kind of had my own coming-of-age along with Adlai. I was 27 years old when I started it, and now I’m almost 32, which feels significant to me.
- HT: What are you working on now?
- CJ: A story set on a space station, and a novel about a very tall, gay investment banker who loses his job in the great financial meltdown of 2008.
- HT: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
- CJ: “The next thing always fits.” It’s from Richard Hugo’s book, The Triggering Town, which is nominally about poetry, but it works for fiction too, at least when writing a first draft. Don’t fret about why you’re going where you’re going—just go there. Having things make sense is what revision is for.