Dick Pirozzolo has lived in Wellesley for 40 years, but Vietnam has never been far from his thoughts. Awarded the Bronze Star for his service as an Air Force media relations officer in Saigon in 1970-71, Pirozzolo went on to work years later on U.S.-Vietnam reconciliation, including through extensive writing.
Now Pirozzolo and frequent collaborator Michael Morris (a decorated U.S. Army veteran who was awarded the Purple Heart and wound up studying/practicing journalism) have applied their unique perspectives on Vietnam into co-authoring Escape from Saigon: A Novel, which debuts this week. Pirozzolo, who runs a PR firm bearing his name, is getting the word out about the book’s release via an event at Wellesley Books on Thursday, Jan. 12 at 7pm — and by answering my questions below, which begin with something of a humblebrag by me about my sophisticated reading habits…
I just finished reading The Sympathizer, which is about the Vietnam War and won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. I’m going to guess you’re familiar with it and have probably read it, given your great interest in Vietnam. If so, what did you think of that book? And for others who have recently read The Sympathizer, what about your book might compel them to dive into another novel about Vietnam?
I’m partway through The Sympathizer. I did not want to read it while we were editing Escape from Saigon: A Novel. The Sympathizer takes place during the same relative time period and some of the watershed events are covered in both The Sympathizer and Escape from Saigon. Certainly the perspective of a Vietnam refugee who made his way to the States as a child is very different from a couple of Vietnam veterans [in our book]. I love all the plot twists and inner conflict over allegiances (in The Sympathizer). In the long run though, I see The Sympathizer as an allegory for the emergence of a new American tribalism and negative attitudes that seem to be growing toward refugees, in short fear of “the other.”
Escape from Saigon resonates on several levels. It’s a fast-paced story of fear, desperation, courage and love amidst failed politics that hews closely to the historical record.
It’s also a story about people—both ordinary and powerful—trapped in a besieged city over a 30-day period — from April 1 (“all fools day”) to April 30 when the North Vietnamese Army tanks burst through the gates of the Presidential Palace, ending the decades long conflict both in deed and symbolically.
Escape is as much about the war as it is about reporting on the war. It’s a reminder about how much communication has advanced in the four decades since that war ended. Through two of our characters — Lisette Vo, NBS-TV’s first Vietnamese-American war correspondent, and Sam Esposito, the hard-hitting journalist with The Washington Legend who infuriates President Nixon — we are reminded of how grindingly cumbersome it was to deliver the news to the American public 40 years ago. Vietnam was America’s first television war, and there were only three networks, whose anchors were trusted, larger-than-life people we invited into our living rooms.
There’s certainly a great appetite among sectors of the American public for books/movies/TV shows about war, including WW I & II, as well as more recent wars and conflicts. What’s your sense of how great that interest is for material about the Vietnam war in particular, and how have you seen that change over the years?
There is a resurgence of interest in Vietnam. The hit musical Miss Saigon is returning to Broadway in March at the very theater where it opened in the US over two decades ago. Ken Burns has produced a new documentary series on Vietnam that will air on PBS-TV this fall. People seem to have an insatiable appetite for Vietnam War history now. I don’t know what to credit this to, perhaps enough time has passed for Americans to take a fresh look at our involvement in overseas conflicts and to try to learn some lessons from foreign entanglements that lack specific purpose.
I’m currently a member of the editorial board of Boston Global Forum, founded by Gov. Michael Dukakis and Tuan Nguyen, a Vietnamese native who is credited with bringing a free and open Internet to today’s Vietnam. Much of the discussions and a number of position papers produced by this think tank focus on peaceful solutions to tensions in the South China Sea and a resolution to the conflict between China and Vietnam. No small point…Vietnam has become our ally in the Pacific, contributing to America’s ability to project influence and US Naval power in the region.
Is there any sort of active Vietnam War veteran-specific community in Wellesley or the area?
The VFW has become welcoming and supportive of Vietnam Veterans over the years and attitudes toward Vietnam vets, indeed all vets, has become more positive. No one ever said, “Thank you for your service” back in the ‘70s.
When did you first start thinking about writing this novel and how long did it actually take to write? Can you discuss your writing process a bit?
It was evolutionary. Mike and I had produced nonfiction books together on traditional American homebuilding.
We first met while working on an editorial project for Field & Stream, we both were experts on homebuilding and the homebuilding industry. We were also Vietnam vets so our conversation turned to our experiences in Vietnam and we often talked of doing “something” on the Vietnam war. We considered film, a definitive history of the war, and at some point — I don’t recall a eureka moment — we came up with a historical novel, and to make it manageable we decided to focus on the tumultuous 30 days of April 1975. Skyhorse Publishing, in New York, liked the concept, signed a contract, gave us an advance and we were off and running.
As far as writing in tandem — the episodic nature of the novel make it work. The rest was a matter of bringing our unique perspective and knowledge to the work — Mike served in the field, I worked in Saigon.