Title: Palace Dog
Author Name: R.E. Nelson
Publication Date & Length: February 27, 2015 – 206pgs
In April 1975, as the government in Saigon is falling, Michael Andrews prepares to make his way back to Vietnam to find the love he was forced to leave.
But Michael’s journey begins four years earlier. He joins the Air Force to keep out of the Army and out of Vietnam, but his first assignment is teaching English in Saigon to members of the Vietnamese military in an Army program called Palace Dog.
As an artist, and a man, before his time in Vietnam, Michael found life lonely and unsatisfying. In the midst of war, Michael searches for direction and meaning. He ultimately finds love and hope with Thao, a young Vietnamese art student, only to have their already uncertain future wrenched from them when he is pulled out of the country.
For Michael, his return in 1975 is inevitable and without question, though the outcome he hopes for is anything but assured.
In 1972, a group of drafted US Air Force men with college degrees are deployed to Vietnam to teach English to members of the Vietnamese Armed Forces. Lonely and homesick, Michael ventures into Saigon. When Tuan, a student, takes him home, Michael falls hard for his younger brother Thao. Thao and Michael share a love of art and photography. Slowly, the two men build a relationship that must come to an end when Michael is posted elsewhere.
Nelson shines new light on a war that has faded from memory in the face of more recent conflicts. The sense of place in this story is brilliant; tiny details make the city and the time period come to life beautifully. This Saigon is a complex, confusing place and Nelson’s gay Airman is part of an antiquated military now unfamiliar to us.
The build-up to Michael and Thao’s relationship is long and slow; this is probably very historically accurate, but it doesn’t always make for compelling reading. Likewise, Nelson captures the tedium experienced by the teachers who are caught far from home yet also far from the excitement and fear of battle. Again, this feels very real, but it doesn’t necessarily make for a gripping read.
The ending feels forced. True historical accuracy would make Michael and Thao one of the thousands of couples forcibly separated by the conflict, and Mimi, as the child of an American Airman, would become part of a burgeoning, despised underclass that emerged after the conflict.
But this is a romance. So we take the historical accuracy when it is offered and we suspend our disbelief when we’re told to. What we’re left with is a sweet story of two gentle men caught up in a grizzly, uncontrollable conflict.
The cyclo had bumped across the bridge, following the curve in the road, then moved quickly down the final straight stretch, past houses and shops, past rows of trees and walls and occasional open spaces, past vendors who lined the street’s edge selling gasoline in glass bottles. Motorcycles, Lambretta mini-buses packed with people, cream-and-blue Renault taxis, pedestrians with baskets and boxes—all crowded the street. Noises, smells, and smoke came from everywhere, and as the driver increased his speed, I smiled, gripping the metal frame tighter and pushing slightly with my feet as the moist wind rushed around me. Speeding through the streets of Saigon, wearing the green Air Force-issued jungle fatigues, my life of a year ago seemed unreal.
- Can you describe in detail what your writing environment is like?
When I actually sit down to write, it’s generally at my desk in my bedroom. I write on a computer (currently a Mac, I use Word with it). If I’m alone, there’s usually music of some sort. Otherwise the background noise from the television which is in the living room. It’s kind of a white noise effect that I don’t pay attention to. The desk is a mess of papers—business and writing—but I look at the page on the screen before me, pause to focus (if I can), and just start writing. I actually find the creative process continual and the story often plays out in my mind during the day and at night, even if I’m not at my desk. So I often have scraps of paper (some of which make no sense to me when I read them later) to try to capture what at the moment I’m thinking feels perfect. I sometimes find those random thoughts that pop up at all hours of the day or night are just a clearing mechanism. When I sit down to actually write, often those thoughts mean nothing or have evolved into other things.
- Is there one of your characters that you relate to (from any of your works)? Why?
PALACE DOG is my first published novel, and the main character, Michael Andrews, is very close to me. In my mind, we were both in the same place (Vietnam) at the same time (early 1970’s) doing the same or similar things (teaching English to Vietnamese military, wandering downtown Saigon, hooking up with the same young men—though not Thao!). But Michael’s story is not my story. And his character is not me, though I think most of my friends may think otherwise. As he developed and the story developed, he became someone else to me. It was interesting after the book had been accepted and was in production, the artist (Paul Richmond) sent me the cover and it was a pleasant shock to see Michael. It was then I felt he was really another person—someone I related to very closely, but someone who was also distinct.
Incidentally, there is another book in progress (way on the back burner) called THE GUILT OF MARTHA CROOK, and I feel very close to the title female character.
- If you couldn’t be an author, what would you do instead?
I’ve always thought if I weren’t a writer, I would like to create music—both words and music. It would probably be something like Bette Midler or Barbra Streisand would sing. Words I can probably handle, but the music is something I’ve never done. Marrying words and music and trying come up with a good or great song (even for a lounge act!) would be very fulfilling, I think.
- Is there anything that you learned during the writing process that you wish you had known before hand?
I think the overall lesson I learned from writing is focus and patience. I wrote for many years without being published, or with being almost published and being rejected for reasons other than the writing itself. I have loved writing for as long as I can remember; but also went through periods of frustration at not being published. Now that PALACE DOG is out, it feels like this is the right time. The production (editing especially) was fairly intense but not unreasonable, and it allowed me to see how some alternatives actually worked better. I’m not sure I would have been as accommodating or objective earlier. All the prior frustration, while remembered, no longer feels emotional.
- Is there anything that you wish you could change about your book now that it is out?
Probably I would give more attention to the ending, the last few pages. There were some fairly substantive changes made to the structure of the story (the plot remained relatively stable and in tact, but the structure of the book itself was changed in terms of organization of the material and use of tense). There was a production schedule that I wanted to adhere to, and it was very tight. The ending was revised a couple of times, and nothing really changed, but the way it was described could have been a bit more thoughtful, I think.
- How do you come up with new ideas for your story?
I try not to think too much about coming up with new ideas for stories. I find that they somehow find me. It could be a character, a phrase, a scene, a word even that comes to me and and won’t leave until I do something with it. Usually by the time a full fledged story is in the works, that initial thing that first moved me has changed substantially, and usually for the better. I just try to keep my mind open to these things that pop into my mind and pay attention to them. Then I see where they lead me.
- What’s next for you as a writer?
I have two works in progress that are competing for “next.” One is tentatively called A PARK IN RIYADH, which is about sex in Saudi Arabia in the mid-to-late 1970’s. The other is tentatively called CONNECTING THE DOTS, which is a coming-of-age/coming out story set in two time periods—the late 1960’s and the present. I had pretty much settled on the Riyadh story and have written about half of it, and all of a sudden I woke up one morning with a new character for DOTS pushing it’s way into my consciousness. And he won’t leave. So I’ve been making notes for the past week and need to see if, indeed, that book will win out. They both will be done, it’s just a matter of which will come first. Then, too, it occurred to me as I was driving to my regular job the other morning that the two books may be connected—that CONNECTING THE DOTS may be/should be a combination prequel and sequel to A PARK IN RIYADH. But each a stand-alone, too. I’m just not sure how it will all work out yet!
- Where do you live? Do you think this influences how or what you write?
I’ve lived in San Francisco for most of the past 30+ years (with a more recent 5-year attempt to live in Vietnam again that didn’t work out). Living here is ideal for me for writing, but most of the stories I write take place elsewhere in the world. A few stories, like THE GUILT OF MARTHA CROOK that I mentioned earlier take place in San Francisco, but a decade or more ago. A lot of my writings have exotic settings—Vietnam, Egypt, Saudi Arabia. They are places where I spent a considerable amount of time and had some life-changing experiences. Often looking a personal photographs and listening to music I listened to in those places motivates me. That happens generally in San Francisco, but it really could be anywhere.
- What is your favorite genre outside of the one you write in? Why?
I don’t identify with one particular genre. Maybe that’s why it’s taken so long to get published. I just write the best story I can. And it’s usually character driven rather than plot driven. Several of my unpublished novels have strong gay themes and gay characters, but others don’t. I try to write the story that comes to me and not think too much about restricting it to one genre or another. And I find I read the same way. I like particular authors—Fannie Flagg, Anne Rice (the early books in particular), Kurt Vonnegut, Armistead Maupin, to name a few. But I don’t read only one or two genres. Sometimes I will pick up a book simply because of the cover art and cover blurb. Lately, because of publishing PALACE DOG, I’ve been reading more m/m romance genre. But I like anything that has strong characters and a strong story, no matter the genre.
- Do you have any vices? Shoes, coffee, shopping…etc?
Eating what’s not good for me (especially sweet things). Enjoying classic television and classic movies, even if they are not necessarily truly classic. And looking at vintage porn, which seems more innocent. Sometimes I’ll look at that instead of writing!
R.E. Nelson was born in Texas and raised in Southern California. He has been writing for as long as he can remember. One of his earliest recollections related to writing is winning an essay contest in sixth grade–something patriotic about the American flag. When he travels, his preference is staying in select areas for an extended period of time and learning about that place. He has lived in both Vietnam (twice, actually) and Saudi Arabia, and also spent time in Egypt, South Korea, Shanghai (his only China visit thus far), and Dubai. Now he is happy to call San Francisco home.