Monday, April 18, 2011

Author Gary Alexander On Vietnam And Writing

It’s my pleasure today to welcome ‘new-to-me’ author, Gary Alexander, as the special guest blogger here at Thoughts in Progress as he tours blogdom with his latest release, DRAGON LADY.

Here’s a brief synopsis of DRAGON LADY (which was recently acquired by Istoria Books):  In 1965 Saigon, Joe, a young draftee, becomes obsessed with a Vietnam girl named Mai, his own "Dragon Lady" from his beloved Terry and the Pirates cartoon strips that his mother still sends him. As he pursues a relationship with her, Saigon churns with intrigue and rumors--will the U.S. become more involved with the Vietnamese struggle? What's going on with a special unit that's bringing in all sorts of (for the time) high tech equipment? Will the U.S. make Vietnam the 51st state and bomb aggressors to oblivion? But for Joe, the big question is--does Mai love him or will she betray more than just his heart? Gary Alexander’s intelligent voice, filled with dry wit, and his own experiences give this story a sharp sense of truth, recounting the horror and absurdity of war. Reminiscent of books such as Catch-22, Dragon Lady serves up equal measures of outrageous humor and poignant remembrance. Gary Alexander was one of 17,000 US soldiers in Vietnam that spring. When he left in the fall, there were 75,000 troops in-country.

Gary has answered some questions about his book and his writing.

In DRAGON LADY, you used your own personal experiences in Vietnam to craft an absurdist love story. In a previous interview, you mentioned visiting the Vietnam War Memorial. Could you tell us a bit about what that experience was like - did you go alone, how long did you stay, what were your thoughts as looked at the wall?

Gary - My wife and I visited the Memorial about 20 years ago. I remember it as an overcast day. Lots of visitors. Lots of folks were taking rubbings of names. Not too many dry eyes, including mine when I discovered a name of a good friend I hadn't known had succumbed. The Memorial itself was stunning because of its stark simplicity--a low, black V with 58,000 names on it.

Do you stay in touch with other Vietnam War veterans? If so, could you tell us a bit about that?

Only one, but one of my best friends ever. We lost touch about 20 years ago. Kenneth Ralph Brown, 1959 grad of Severna Park, MD high school, are you there?

Do you read any literary fiction yourself? If so, what kinds?

Yeah. Some fiction crosses over between literary and genre; almost anything by Elmore Leonard qualifies in that regard. I've probably read MAXIMUM BON four times. I like Don DeLillo, Graham Greene, Nick Hornby and Ron Hanson a lot too.

What makes up the ideal story for you, one that keeps you reading and involved?

I teach writing at a local senior center. I'm often asked what's the most important--plot, character or setting. I tell them they're like heart, lungs and liver. You ain't gonna make it without all three. I suppose a terrific character is numero uno, somebody you can ride along with, so long as he isn't a serial killer. There's just too much of that.

Tell us a little about your writing process now -- how much do you write every day, whether you set page quotas, if you think of your characters first and flesh out the story, or if you plot the story first and plop the characters into it, etc.?

I treat it like a day job, though, unfortunately, there isn't always a pay envelope on Friday. I'm an early riser--downstairs, breakfast, serious caffeine, physical and mental calisthenics. The last involves reading the paper and doing the puzzles. I have a serious sudoku jones. I do it and the Jumble, then I’m upstairs at the keyboard by six. The writing process, I can't really pin it down, things just evolve, but I always have at least one project going. Probably the most successful genesis of a project is a story line "what-if.” A good example is DISAPPEARED (a Buster Hightower mystery published by Five Star/Cengage). What if there was a hit man who wasn't, who collected from those who assigned him the hit and the victims who paid him not to do his job, and what if they reappeared? This developed from a short story to a novel.

What are you working on now?

I'm going back into LOOT, the fourth Buster Hightower Mystery. It's based on a true unsolved crime that occurred in Seattle in 1954. I've accumulated a pile of research material on it and have tried to figure out how to use that crime for 25 years. Buster and Carla are finally going to solve it, and it's about time!

Gary, thanks for guest blogging today and sharing your thoughts on your writing. Though I’ve never seen the Memorial Wall, I’ve seen the Moving Wall and it is heart-wrenching.

Now a little background on Gary. He enlisted in the Army in 1964 and served in Saigon. When he arrived in country, there were 17,000 GIs. When he left, 75,000. DRAGON LADY is Gary’s first literary novel. He is the author of several mysteries featuring stand-up comic Buster Hightower--DISAPPEARED, ZILLIONAIRE, and INTERLOCK -- published in hardcover by Five Star/Cengage. He has had short stories published in several mystery publications, including Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. He resides in Seattle.

For more on Gary, check out his website at You can also read an interview with Gary about his Vietnam experiences at the Istoria Books blog at:

To read excerpts from DRAGON LADY, click on this link: ISTORIA BOOKS - eBooks You Want to Read at Prices You Want to Pay ™

Here are what reviewers are saying about DRAGON LADY: 

“…a refreshing book… DRAGON LADY is a highly entertaining book that I heartily recommend…It’s one of those books that grabs you and doesn't let you go and leaves you thinking about it even when you are finished.  So run, don't walk, and try this author out, see if DRAGON LADY grabs you like it grabbed me.” Crystal Fulcher, My Reading Room blog

“Positioning the narrator in the afterlife gives DRAGON LADY a third dimension that elevates it above a simple boy-meets-girl story... But his love-sick pursuit of his impossible dream is entertaining.”  Bill Furlow, Great Books Under $5 blog -

What are your thoughts on using personal experiences in writing? As a writer do you do that and as a reader do you enjoy reading books that incorporate them?


  1. Gary, thanks again for guest blogging and sharing your thoughts on writing. It's interesting when an author takes a bit of their own background and creates from that. Wishing you much success with your writing.

  2. Mason - Thanks for hosting Gary.

    Gary - I really like your analogy about plot, character and setting. You're right about the importance of all three. And I'm fascinated by the way your own experience informed Dragon Lady. I wish you much success with it!

  3. Pamela, I appreciate you asking me to spend the day with Thoughts In progress.

  4. And pardon my typos. It's early and I'm not fully caffeinated yet:)

  5. What an interesting plot. I think you're right, you need character, setting and plot. You need them all and in your book, you have them. I want to try your writing schedule.

  6. Oh, interesting interview! Thanks for hosting, Mason!

    I use Sudoku for mental calisthenics, too--I have a day job and find that helps me sort of let go of the daily minutae. Finally lets me tap the story.

  7. Thanks, Clarissa. Let me know how it goes.

  8. Hi Hart. Yeah, sudoku is a real addiction. Our Seattle Times has Jumble on the puzzle page too. There're 2 words in today's I can't unjumble (a word?) and they're driving me nuts!

  9. Enjoyed the interview very much and am intrigued by the book. Will be checking it out and probably making my TBR pile even higher. LOL

  10. Fascinating! Thanks, Gary and Mason. I think writers can't help but use personal experiences. They just creep in there!

  11. No way to avoid it, Talli. A novelist is a professional liar,but true experiences do creep in there.


  12. Thanks again for having me, Mason!


I'd love to hear your thoughts on today's post. Thanks for dropping by.