Hannah Kohler on the books of the Vietnam War

Hannah Kohler, author of The Outside Lands, on the books that inspired her portrayal of 1960s America and the Vietnam War.

Hannah Kohler, author of The Outside Lands, on the books that inspired her portrayal of 1960s America and the Vietnam War.

People often say you should write about what you know. I believe you should write about what you love. When you're writing a novel, you go to bed with it, you wake up with it, it's with you when you're in the queue at the supermarket and when you're in the shower. So you have to fall in love with it. You have to fall for the subject matter.

My novel, The Outside Lands, is set in 1960s San Francisco, against the backdrop of the Vietnam War. I'm not American—I'm British—and I was born after the end of the conflict. When I started the novel as part of a Creative Writing MA, I was advised to switch focus and write something closer to home. But my imagination was hooked by sixties America, and I couldn't unhook it.

My interest in post-war American history was sparked at school, in the sixth form. Many of us can name a teacher that made a permanent impression on our imagination, and for me it was my American History teacher—opinionated, passionate, and with a flair for characterization, he brought the post-war era and its players to life in full, indelible Technicolor. I was particularly gripped by the Vietnam War: because of its scale, the vividness with which it was reported in the media (the first “television war”), the poignancy of the draft, and because of its historical proximity. This fascination didn't leave me, and when I did a Masters in American Literature several years later, I wrote my thesis on American literature of the Vietnam War.

Most Vietnam War narratives, fiction and non-fiction, are, unsurprisingly, voiced by men. From the ferociously brilliant Dispatches by Michael Herr and Tim O'Brien's beautifully written The Things They Carried and If I Die In A Combat Zone, to the hard-hitting, unforgettable memoirs by Ron Kovic (Born on the Fourth of July) and Ronald J. Glasser (365 Days), these narratives of the war are told from the point of view of men in or near the theatre of conflict. Each of these books was instrumental in helping me to build an imaginative picture of the war. But I wanted to tell a story of the war primarily from a female, domestic point of view—domestic in the small and large sense: the home, and the home front. And so The Outside Lands is about a young woman, Jeannie, and what happens to her and to her family when her younger brother, Kip, enlists to fight in Vietnam.

A few months ago, I was listening to an excerpt of Steven Boggan's book, Gold Fever, on the radio, and my imagination was lit. In that moment, I knew I'd found the setting of my next novel: the California gold rush. Once again, it's a time and place that's a long way from where I am—which is usually at my kitchen table in the outer reaches of London. And that's my favourite thing about fiction writing: that it's an escape hatch, a time machine, a chance to live another life.

A Vietnam War Reading List


by Michael Herr

Book cover for Dispatches

Michael Herr went to Vietnam as a war correspondent for Esquire. He returned to tell the real story in all its hallucinatory madness and brutality, cutting to the quick of the conflict and its seductive, devastating impact on a generation of young men.

Dispatches is a groundbreaking piece of journalism which inspired Stanley Kubrick's classic Vietnam War film Full Metal Jacket.

The Things They Carried

by Tim O'Brien

Book cover for The Things They Carried

A ground-breaking meditation on war, memory, imagination, and the redemptive power of storytelling.

A sequence of award-winning stories about the madness of the Vietnam War; O'Brien explores America's involvement in Vietnam, and her coming to terms with that experience in the years that followed.

Born on the Fourth of July

by Ron Kovic

Book cover for Born on the Fourth of July

Kovic's anti-war classic details the author's life story, portrayed by Tom Cruise in the Oliver Stone film adaptation, from a patriotic soldier in Vietnam, to his severe battlefield injury, to his role as the country's most outspoken anti-Vietnam War campaigner.

Kovic served two tours of duty during the Vietnam War but was paralyzed from his chest down in combat in 1968.

365 Days

by Ronald J. Glasser

Book cover for 365 Days

Assigned to Zama, an Army hospital in Japan in September 1968, Glasser arrived as a pediatrician in the U.S. Army Medical Corps to care for the children of officers and high-ranking government officials.

The hospital's main mission, however, was to support the war and care for the wounded. At Zama, an average of six to eight thousand patients were attended to per month, and the death and suffering were staggering. Glasser tells the stories of those he encountered there - of lives shockingly interrupted by the tragedies of war - with moving, humane eloquence.

The Last Photograph

by Emma Chapman

Book cover for The Last Photograph

Rook Henderson is an award-winning photographer, still carrying the hidden scars of war. Now, suddenly, he is also a widower. Leaving his son Ralph to pick up the pieces, Rook flies to Vietnam for the first time in fifty years, escaping to the landscape of a place he once knew so well.

But when Ralph follows him out there Rook is forced to unwind his past and to ask himself what price he has paid for a life behind the lens.

The Outside Lands

by Hannah Kohler

Book cover for The Outside Lands

Jeannie is nineteen when the world changes, Kip only fourteen. The sudden accident that robs them of their mother leaves them adrift. Jeannie seeks escape in work and later marriage to a man whose social connections propel her into an unfamiliar world of wealth and politics. Meanwhile, Kip's descent into a life of petty crime is halted only when he volunteers for the Marines.

The Outside Lands is the story of people caught in the slipstream of history, how we struggle in the face of loss to build our world, and how easily and with sudden violence it can be swept away.