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Getting graphic about the Vietnam war - AMA!

Marcelino
May 14, 2018

Based in France, I am the author and illustrator of two autobiographical graphic novels in which I explain how my family lived through the Vietnam war. The first graphic novel is called Such a Lovely Little War- Saigon 1961-63. Its sequel is entitled Saigon Calling- London 1963-75. Both were published by Arsenal Pulp Press, Vancouver, in 2015 and 2017.

My father was a Vietnamese diplomat, working for the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam). My mother was a French mother of four children.

In Such a Lovely Little War, I return to the Kennedy years and the beginnings of a war that would have devastating impacts on Southeast Asia and America alike. I describe my family life in Washington DC and then in Saigon at a time when the young Republic of Vietnam was trying to build a nation, while bearing the onslaught of its neighbour Communist North Vietnam.

In the follow-up, Saigon Calling, I recall my youth in the Swinging London of the 60s and 70s, and show how the Vietnam war influenced our lives and how it divided even Western societies. It was uncomfortable to be South Vietnamese at a time when many Western progressives saw the war as a conflict between the Vietnamese David and the American Goliath. It was difficult to explain that the North Vietnam we were fighting was not a pluralistic democracy but a totalitarian state under strong Maoist influence. It is unfortunate that Vietnam's wars of independence (1945-1975) took place in the 30 years period during which Communism reached the peak of its popularity in the West.

ph Marcelino Truong à la table lum par Sébastien ORTOLA.jpg

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How did you try to deal with those different perspectives of Vietnam's history? Did you have a plan or a philosophy for that?
May 21, 12:22PM EDT0

I felt that being half Vietnamese half French, and that having lived in the US, then in Vietnam and then in England and France during the Vietnam war, gave me a certain experience, an overview of things, and a reason to write and illustrate two graphic novels. The first one is about the two eventful years I spent as a child in Saigon, at the beginning of the American involvement in Vietnam. It's called Such a Lovely Little War (Une si jolie petite guerre is the originla French title).

My second graphic novel – SAIGON CALLING –London 1963-75 -, whose original French title is Give Peace A Chance- follws up on the first and tells my family experienced the VN war from afar. We were living in England during the rest of the war but felt great concern.

The Saigon of 1961-63, which I describe in great detail in Such a Lovely Little War was a stunning place.

London in the early sixties and seventies was also a terribly exciting city where we arrived in 1963, at the moment when a real cultural revolution was taking place, in politics, art, literature, design, music, cinema, fashion : the pop counter-culture revolution.

Later, when I moved to France in 1972, I discovered post-May 1968 France, and its hot-headed, often utopian politics.

The Vietnam war was central to most debates in both those countries.

Now we Truongs were on the bad side !

Our father had been a high-ranking civil servant of the Republic of Vietnam (more often dubbed “the Saigon regime”), and he remained faithful – although often critical - to the cause of a non-communist Vietnam. I believed him to be right, and still do, in spite of all the mistakes and shortcomings of the RVN.

My family spent 20 years in England (1963-1983).

I spent 9 years in London (1963-72).

Here is a double-page spread from the original edition in French (Give peace a chance, Denoël Graphic, Paris, 2015):

When I was a teenager in London, nearly all the cool, with-it, progressive beautiful people in the West protested for peace in Vietnam and saw us Vietnamese nationalists as hawks, war-mongers, and ‘puppets of US imperialism ‘… We could well understand the longing for peace of the anti-war movement, as we too longed for peace – probably even more than they did, as we had family in Vietnam (on both sides of the conflict) -, but were not inclined to accept any old peace.

What distressed us - or depressed us - was that some Western anti-war protesters openly sided with the Hanoi-controlled National Liberation Front of Vietnam (the Viet Cong). How can you sue for peace and back an armed resistance movement (the VC) at the same time ? Could they not see that North Vietnam was a Stalinist regilme ?

I felt I had to write about the great confusion which surrounded the Vietnam War and still does. The Vietnam war was often depicted in the West as a duel between the valiant Vietnamese David and the evil Western imperialist Goliath. There is truth in that assertion, however, it was not understood that the North Vietnamese David was a staunch communist along Stalinist and Maoist lines. There was and often still is the assertion that ‘all the people’ (all the Vietnamese) were unanimously hearding behind Ho Chi Minh’s banner.This was not so, and it was not said clearly enough that the Vietnamese were divided, from the start.

Some longed for Vietnam to be unified under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh, and to form a socialist state with strong ties with the Eastern block. Others dreamed of a non-communist democracy, built along Western models. These non-communist Vietnamese who looked to the West for encouragement were all too often just written off as puppets, despicable mercenaries, ‘fascist henchmen of the imperialist West’.

From the very beginning (1945 and earlier), while most Vietnamese of the elites longed for liberation from the French colonial domination, Vietnamese nationalism was a many-sided thing. There were multiple expressions of Vietnamese nationalism. The Communist nationalists lead by Ho chi Minh were certainly important, but Communist Vietnam was but one of several possibilities. It is false to say that ‘all the Vietnamese people’ backed Ho Chi Minh.

 

While South Vietnamese leaders such as Ngo Dinh Diem or Nguyen Van Thieu were caricatured as despots, Ho Chi Minh, the strict authoritarian communist leader of North Vietnam (in many ways a police State), was revered as a sort of saintly icon by many radicals in the West. Many progressives indeed developped a very romantic, idealized view of Vietnamese communism, in the same way that they often idolized Fidel Castro and Che Guevara of Cuba. They were in love with a myth…

The ‘Saigon regime’ was painted black. It was vilified and presented as a corrupt Babylon. It had many flaws, but so did the militaristic, Chinese and USSR dominated regime of North Vietnam.

The reporting on the war was unbalanced. The Western press corps - flowing non-stop into South-Vietnam in cohorts - was able to cover the war quite freely in the South, whereas the totalitarian North allowed only a handful of carefuly scrutinized sympathizers behind the Bamboo Curtain to observe and mostly praise its ‘heroic struggle’. It was like a match in which the referee whistles the fouls of one team only. Quite unfair. How on earth did they get away with it?

We Vietnamese knew that the North was a totalitarian Communist dictatorship and it still is. Although it has turned to market economy - emulating its Big Brother China - it still remains a one-party system that has no intention of sharing its power and of allowing the emergence of an opposition.

Many Vietnamese knew the true nature of Uncle Ho’s regime, for, during the French Indochina war (the first half of the ‘match’), they had sometimes fought on his side, in the Vietminh, or lived in areas dominated by the Communist Party and its Liberation Army. They knew what to expect and had left for the South in 1954 to start anew and did not want to live under a communist dictatorship.

But in the sixties and seventies, it was assumed that if you were for Civil Rights for coloured people in the US, if you were against Apartheid in South Africa, if you were for the extension of gay rights, if you were for sexual liberation, then automatically, it ensued logically that you had to be againt the US involvement in Vietnam, construed as American imperialism or neo-colonialism.

Never was it admitted that these were independant and separate issues. Never was it said – or so rarely – that Ho Chi Minh’s communist regime might not be a paradise for hippy libertarians and free-thinkers.

If we could move away from such caricatures, I would be happy.

I hope that reading my book will help to do away with persistent clichés about the goodies and the baddies in such complex conflicts as the Vietnam war.

I want our story - that of the non-communist Vietnamese - to be heard. We weren't as bad as we were made to look. In fact, our imperfect regime was far more livable than Ho's militaristic, spartan, stalinist paradise. In Ho's goose-stepping legions, no long hair, no decadent rock-music, no pot smoking, no sex, no drugs, no hippies, no pacifists were tolerated…

The US involvement in Vietnam produced a shocking level of highly mediatized violence which created an uproar and in the clamour, the voices of the non-communist Vietnamese were drowned.

I hope to speak out for the vainquished of this war.

 

May 21, 1:02PM EDT0
What do you want to convey through your illustrations?
May 21, 12:15PM EDT0

Well, basically I try to get the illustrations to render the setting authentically and the atmosphere or mood of the place and people I'm depicting.

Here is a page from Such a Lovely Little War -Saigon 1961-63 showing a bomb attack in downtown Saigon in 1962.

May 21, 12:44PM EDT0
How much research did you do for this book? And, if you did conduct research, what did you need to learn about?
May 21, 10:39AM EDT0

For me, writing a story, even if it is my own family saga, involves a lot of research. I will read a lot of books, both nonfiction and novels. I will absorb many articles on the Internet. Sometimes I will seek out very scholarly papers. Additionally, I'll watch films or videos, many of which I find online or on streaming services.

 

 

I try to track down and interview people who have been involved in the events that I’m researching. This is a very important part of my work: meeting people of all kinds, and hearing what they have to say. Usually, they will tell you in a few words what it takes some academics or journalists entire chapters to say.

 

Probably another important thing I do while conducting research is collecting photos, illustrations, paintings, and all sorts of visual documents which will come in handy when I finally reach the drawing stage. I compile scrapbooks -- most of them digital now-- of all the features that will be necessary: faces, clothing, architecture, uniforms, scenery, weaponry, etc. I find these images in non fiction books of course or on Pinterest and many other websites. Sometimes, watching a film, I will make a screenshot and file it.

I compulse many files on all sorts of topics relating to my projetcs.

 

Producing a graphic novel is like performing a one-man-show. It is almost like doing the jobs done by dozens of people on a film set: scriptwriter, director, cameraman, decorator, makeup artist, actor.

This research can extend over a couple of years, during which I am also doing a lot of short-term illustration-for-hire work, promotional work for my previous books, traveling here and there, in France and abroad, to participate at book fairs and take part in panel discussions. I call this doing my Barnum, but I quite enjoy the public component.

After my research is completed, I then write a synopsis, which is like a pleasantly written summary of all the main things that I want to see in my story.

I have no rules for the synopsis. I just play it by ear and try to come up with an interesting text to read. Although short, the synopsis has to give the reader a good alluring whiff of the story.

 

May 21, 12:40PM EDT0
For your writing energy: tea or coffee, sugar or salt?
May 21, 7:36AM EDT0

A bit of that and the other... :-)

May 21, 12:38PM EDT0
How did you immerse yourself in these memories, and were your family helpful?
May 18, 12:34PM EDT0

It wasn't too difficult to immerse myself in these memories as I have been documenting this subject for years now. The early years of the Vietnam war are a fascinating period.

What was extremely helpful was that my French mother Yvette was a profuse letter writer. She would write her parents in France approximately every week from all the different foreign countries we lived in. Luckily, my maternal grandparents in France kept all her letters in their original enveloppes, stamps and all. These bundles of letters, all dated, were easily found in my mother's wardrobe in her old bedroom at my French grand-parents' house.

They supplied me with invaluable information about our daily family life from 1960 onwards (and even earlier). These letters were really useful to me as I was just a little 6 years old boy when we left Saigon in 1963. They enabled me to reconstruct our family timeline in detail, for I had vivid memories interspersed with large gaps.

Mum's letters were filled with details about the end of our stay in Washington DC, which coincided with J.F. Kennedy's election. JFK's election triggered Dad's reassignment to Saigon for he was a a diplomat for the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) and was called back in June 1961, as a result of Kennedy's projets in Asia, announced in his inaugural January 1961 speech.

My mother's letters not only described our daily vernacular : travels, houses, clothing, schools, games, childhood illnesses, etc..., but were also filled with comments about the political and military situation in Vietnam. In these missives, she sometimes gave vent to her anxieties and frustrations, but most of the time, she endeavoured to put up a brave face. It was a difficult and disturbing time for her. The distant Vietnam war wasn't the calmest of settings for a overwhelmed mother of four only wishing to lead a quiet life!

Some of Mum's letters, written later on when we were established in London, England, can be quite funny. In one of them, she describes an outing at the cinema (movies) in London with Dad. Of all the controversial the films of those turbulent days during the 70s counterculture, they chose to see Easy Rider!! She was pretty appalled by the film, all about sex dugs and rock n roll, and especially drugs!

To answer your second question, yes, my family was very helpful.

Even one of my Vietnamese uncles living in Hawaii - a retired university History professor, specialized in Vietnam and Asia - patiently corrected my Vietnamese dialogues, wanting to make sure there were no mistakes there. He showed great tolerance, as he doesn't agree with many of my political views on the VN war.

I answer this point in detail in one of my earlier replies, so I invite you to scroll down to earlier questions. :-)

May 21, 8:01AM EDT0
Did you read other autobiographies, whether graphic novels or texts for inspiration?
May 17, 11:18PM EDT0

Yes, but only a few.

Please read my reply to Prerna_19 bealow (May 14).

And now for a bit of publicity !! :

www.theguardian.com/books/2017/oct/17/saigon-calling-marcelino-truong-review

May 18, 2:42AM EDT0
What is your hope for the future of Vietnam?
May 17, 12:31PM EDT0

I hope that Vietnam will evolve peacefully towards a pluralistic political system.

The one-party system seems quite obsolete to me.

In a truly democratic society, one needs to be able choose one's leaders and to remove the losing team peacefully, without bloodshed. The monopoly of power exerted by the Vietnamese Communist Party should be a thing of the past. This party has given up its Marxist economic doctrine and slided into market economy. It's political institutions should also change accordingly.

This was said  as early as 1999 by General Tran Do, a leading figure of the Vietnam Wars (1945-75) on the Communist side.

www.nytimes.com/2002/08/10/world/tran-do-78-vietnam-s-leading-dissident.html

Last edited @ May 18, 2:37AM EDT.
May 18, 2:36AM EDT0

May 16, 6:47AM EDT0
What are some of your suggestions on how an author can have an organised and successful approach to research and writing?
May 15, 7:47AM EDT0

I have no magic recipees. :-)

The creative process begins with some inspiration and develops only with a good deal of perspiration, in my experience, that is.

I am often asked how I go about creating a graphic novel. A common question is: do you start with the illustrations or with the story?

In my own experience, I find that there are no absolute rules in this domain. Each author has her or his own way of doing things. The creative process is a mysterious alchemy. Images and stories mix in my mind. It’s hard to separate one from the other.

A GHOST OF AN IDEA

I think that in the beginning there is not Light, but what I would call a ghost of an idea. I call it this because it's a vague, blurred, spirit-like idea of a project which forms in my mind. It's exactly the same when I have to conceive an illustration: usually a spirit of an image appears in my mind.

For many years I had yearned to tell the story of the two eventful years I spent in Saigon as a child, or of my subsequent life in England and France as a teenager. Although my Saigon years were troubled and tragic days indeed, I was fascinated by that colourful era. When I started thinking about writing Such a Lovely Little War, ghostly images and events just flooded into my mind. I just had to harness them.

The same things hapened when I began to consider writing about my nine heady London years during the pop counter-culture revolution and my discovery of post 1968 France, when I moved to a new school there in 1972. All my yesterdays took place against the backdrop of the Vietnam war. This is the stuff of my second graphic novel, Saigon Calling.

 

So in both cases, these ghosts of a story had to be fleshed out, which took some time.

 

For me, writing a story, even if it is my own family saga, involves a lot of research. I will read a lot of books, both nonfiction and novels. I will absorb many articles on the Internet. Sometimes I will seek out very scholarly papers. Additionally, I'll watch films or videos, many of which I find online or on streaming services.

 

I try to track down and interview people who have been involved in the events that I’m researching. This is a very important part of my work: meeting people of all kinds, and hearing what they have to say. Usually, they will tell you in a few words what it takes some academics or journalists entire chapters to say.

Probably another important thing I do while conducting research is collecting photos, illustrations, paintings, and all sorts of visual documents which will come in handy when I finally reach the drawing stage. I compile scrapbooks -- most of them digital now-- of all the features that will be necessary: faces, clothing, architecture, uniforms, scenery, weaponry, etc. I find these images in non fiction books of course or on Pinterest and many other websites. Sometimes, watching a film, I will make a screenshot and file it.

I compulse many files on all sorts of topics relating to my projetcs.

Producing a graphic novel is like performing a one-man-show. It is almost like doing the jobs done by dozens of people on a film set: scriptwriter, director, cameraman, decorator, makeup artist, actor.

 

This research can extend over a couple of years, during which I am also doing a lot of short-term illustration-for-hire work, promotional work for my previous books, traveling here and there, in France and abroad, to participate at book fairs and take part in panel discussions. I call this doing my Barnum, but I quite enjoy the public component.

SYNOPSIS

 

After my research is completed, I then write a synopsis, which is like a pleasantly written summary of all the main things that I want to see in my story.

I have no rules for the synopsis. I just play it by ear and try to come up with an interesting text to read. Although short, the synopsis has to give the reader a good alluring whiff of the story.

WRITING THE SCENARIO (PLOTTING)

For my first two graphic novels -- Such a Lovely Little War-Saigon 1961-63, and Saigon Calling; London 1963-75 -- I wrote out the scenario/plot in it’s entirety, and in great detail. I think this took me about 3 to 4 months, with a few interruptions for short-term illustration work (I still need to get paid!).

I felt this was necessary because for a long book-length story,I needed to feel sure that I was going to be able to tell my story and I know where I was going.

In the beginning, I'm not too concerned about the visual aspect. Why?

Because I’m a self-taught illustrator, and for more than 30 years I've covered all sorts of subjects, and I know that I can always manage the visuals, provided I find the proper documentation, and put in the necessary amount of work.

Writing the story is more of a work of the soul. For me the WORD is in the beginning.

I write the story as a scenario, providing all the stage instructions, laying out all the narration and the dialogues in detail, page after page, frame after frame.

I believe the plot is all-important in a graphic novel, as it is in a film. There are so many films or graphic novels that are very pleasing visually and aesthetically, but rather boring in the storytelling. It is the story that'll make the visual art take off, or not.

 

Writing the scenario is not a cozy job. Sometimes things come easily, and at other times I have to struggle with the blank sheet of paper. Writing about my family in my two graphic novels about the Vietnam war stirred many stormy emotions. I felt pain, sorrow and anger. I got quite emotional. I feel this emotion has to transpire in the book. I liked to be moved when I read a story or see a film. I try to instill my own works with controlled emotion.

Don't get me wrong. I hate sentimentalism, but some of the anger still hasn't quite simmered down inside of me, even after the books have been finished and produced.

I had loved the experience of Vietnam. Saigon was a beautiful city, where a century of French presence was still very visible in the architecture and in the culture.

There was a distinct feeling of Independence, but the South Vietnamese were building a country that remained open to Western ideas and goods, while showing great attachment for its own traditions.

Because of the war, it was difficult to venture away from the relatively safe haven of Saigon, but we did manage to go for a holiday on the central coast of Vietnam, in Nha Trang, and there again I was struck by the beauty and genius of the place.

I fell in love with the Vietnamese people, who lived with grace under considerable stress.

 

In my second graphic novel, Saigon Calling-London 1963-75, I was eager to describe my youth in London, at the onset of the great pop counter-culture revolution of the 60s and 70s. Those were extremely exciting days ! London was a very exhilarating and romantic place to live in. Had I had more space, I would've wished to draw more London scenes, but there was a story to tell, and only so many pages to do so.

 

England was such a picturesque country. A constant mix of conservatism and progressive culture. Its music, its fashions, its films and designs were amazing. This was such an arty scene.

I enjoyed all that, but for us Truongs, who were South Vietnamese citizens, there was always the war lurking in the background.

We witnessed the antiwar demonstrations and felt embarrassed.

We were dismayed because although we could very well understand the indignant demonstrators calling for a halt of the war in Vietnam, we knew the inside story, being Vietnamese ourselves. We knew that our Communist opponents, while suing for peace and posing as victims, were using brute force to reunify the divided country under their disciplinarian and militaristic one-party system, which many - if not most - of the demonstrators would have found very unpalatable themselves. Many in the opulent West had a very romantic vision of Ho Chi Minh and his followers. I think they saw them as Robin Hood types, siding with the poor against the wealthy. This was a cleverly contrived façade.

 

Communism was at the height of its popularity in the West, in those days, and Ho Chi Minh came out as a fatherly, goatee-bearded Oriental wise man for well-intended progressives. They failed to perceive the team of ruthless Party bigfishes concealed behind the contrived benign figurehead of Uncle Ho. Many still haven't realized what sort of undemocratic regime the Vietnamese Communist party has produced.

In the 60s and 70s, Ho Chi Minh and Che Guevara were pop icons. In the muppet show of politics, they were the goodies, and Johnson and Nixon were the villains.

On double page 116 and 117, I show my brother Dominique and myself talking to antiwar demonstrators who are protesting in front of the South Vietnamese ambassador’s residence, just off Wimbledon Common, where we would spend long hours playing with our Action Men (the British patent for the G.I. Joe 12 inch doll). I show us clumsily addressing righteous protest marchers who are absolutely certain of knowing the truth about the war and Vietnam.

It was an uphill job defending the non-Communist cause during the war, and it still is.

Westerners were being force-fed with dozens of gory pictures of the war, all taken on the battlefields of South Vietnam, by foreign photoreporters competing to win a Pulitzer Prize. Meanwhile, up north, the Hanoi leaders carefully selected foreign journalists and only admitted progressives who were supportive of their Cause. No wonder they produced beautiful photos vaunting the struggle of the North Vietnamese and of the National Liberation Front. Little did people know that they were held under close supervision while working on the Communist side, whereas they roamed free as a bee, when they were shooting pictures south of the 17th parallel.

 

Of course we too yearned for peace, probably even more so than many of the demonstrators who had no direct link with Vietnam, because our family was out there. For one American soldier that fell, five South Vietnamese combatants were killed, and ten Vietcong were slain.

We were not the hawks that the South Vietnamese were often depicted as being. The people of South Vietnam had no plans to invade or "liberate" - as our opponents would put it - North Vietnam. All we wanted was to be left alone, to live peacefully south of the 17th parallel, just like the South Koreans did.

Many Vietnamese in the South had family up north. Many families were divided, and had a father, brother, sister or a cousin on each side of the fence. We knew our enemy. The most convinced anti-Communists in the South were disenchanted former combatants of the Uncle Ho's Vietminh movement, who had fled to the South in 1954.

The North was a very militaristic society forged by the war against the French, and emulating its Soviet and Chinese models in all things.

 

What sort of peace where we longing for?

We just wanted to live in a non-communist system, just like the West Berliners, or the South Koreans. We could not see what was wrong with that, but many radicals and progressives in the West unfortunately believed the grass was greener in the Communist block. We wondered how they knew that. Had they been to North Vietnam? No, you didn't enter or leave North Vietnam freely. You didn't cross the Bamboo Curtain as you do the British Channel. This was so obvious, it makes me reel with disbelief to think back on that...

 Whoops, I got carried away !!

THE PENCIL ART

For me, the pencil art is the skeleton of the image, all the rest is just cosmetic.

So I set about producing the pencil rough of each and every page, dialogue and all. This work is usually spread out over at least a year. Obviously I cannot afford to do just that, and I must interrupt my long distance running whenever a quick sprint of an illustration job comes up.

 

I have noticed that as a project evolves, sometimes I stick to the plot closely, but at other times I move away from it dramatically. Indeed, the first draft is a bit rough too. It is not the Bible, and I need not follow its commandments blindly.

 

Each pencil art page requires time, in fact, much more time than it takes to write the text. While composing the pencil art, you have ample time to contemplate the form and the content of what you're doing. One has to remain critical throughout the whole process. It doesn't do anyone any favours to be self-indulgent. I always ask myself: “Is this of any interest? Is this clear? Is this boring? How could I say the same thing to make it fun?”

 

Once I have produced the entire story in pencil, I have a clearer overview of it. This is also when I will pass it on to my editor to read. It is invaluable for me to hear my editor's comments before I start on the final art. I know some authors and artists hate any kind of criticism but I'm not like that. When I think I'm right, I will hold my position to the last man. But if I have a doubt, I will pounce on a good idea from my editor and accept it as some free advice.

 

THE FINAL ART

Once I have my publisher's green light, I can then jump out of the plane and open my parachute for a four-month-long clandestine mission in the jungle.

 

For me, producing the final art of a story on paper (I don’t do it electronically!) is something rather like Mao's Long March. It's not particularly romantic, and it is comprised of long hours, a lot of sweat, some tears, and too much worry thinking about deadlines.

For this process, I usually move from my home in Paris to the country, or the sea side, and work from 7:30 or 8 AM till midnight every day, seven days a week, for three or four consecutive months, nonstop.

I will finalize one page and its text in the morning, another one in the afternoon, and yet another one in the evening. That's three a day. I will pause only for a dip in the sea and a 30-minute siesta on the beach, if the weather is pleasant. Is very important to stay fit! This is a marathon, after all.

 

Each night, I send the finalized art and the finalized text of my three completed pages to my publisher. Once he has collected a few chapters -- after having pointed out any mistakes he spotted to me, which I correct immediately -- my publisher sends a batch off to the graphic artist who completes the lettering in the dialogue boxes. (Thank goodness I don't have to do that too!_

 

The act of producing a graphic novel is rather like going underground for many months. I disappear from the world. I dive into the depths. I do nothing but work, eat and sleep. But I know of no other way.

A graphic novel, as I see it, is the fruit of emotion, of passion : love, hate, anger, joy, loss, pain, sorrow, happiness. All those ingredients have to be there. I went through all those states when writing and illustrating my personal and family story. :-)

These are pencil art roughs of pages in my second graphic novel Give peace a chance (Denoël Graphic, Paris, 2015), which first appeared in France, and was later released in English under a new title: Saigon Calling-London 1963-75 (Arsenal Pulp Press, Vancouver, 2017).

Last edited @ May 18, 5:26AM EDT.
May 18, 5:24AM EDT0
What was it that spurred you into creating Such a Lovely Little War- Saigon 1961-63 and Saigon Calling- London 1963-75?
May 15, 4:38AM EDT0

I was spurred by many different emotions.

Most of all, I wanted to speak out for the non Communist Vietnamese, who have often been misrepresented and even caricatured.

I had loved the experience of Vietnam. Quite the most exciting (and sometimes scary) period of my early youth. Saigon was a beautiful city, where a century of French presence was still very visible in the architecture and in the culture.

There was a distinct feeling of Independence, but the South Vietnamese were building a country that remained open to Western ideas and goods, while showing great attachment for its own traditions.

Because of the war, it was difficult to venture away from the relatively safe haven of Saigon, but we did manage to go for a holiday on the central coast of Vietnam, in Nha Trang, and there again I was struck by the beauty and genius of the place.

I fell in love with the Vietnamese people, who lived with grace under considerable stress.

The end of the Ngo Dinh Diem presidency (1955-63), which I describe in great detail in SALLW, is a little-known period in the West. Vietnam really only hit the headlines (unfortuntely) after 1965, when President LB Johnson sent draftees to that distant war. Before JFK's term in office at the White House, we had only had a few dozen military and civilian US advisors.

 

In my second graphic novel, Saigon Calling-London 1963-75, I was eager to describe my youth in London, at the onset of the great pop counter-culture revolution of the 60s and 70s. Those were heady days !

London was a very exhilarating and fun place to live in. Had I had more space, I would've wished to draw more London scenes, but there was a story to tell, and only so many pages to do so.

 

England was such a picturesque country. A constant mix of conservatism and progressive culture. Its music, its fashions, its films and designs were amazing. This was one of the main arty scenes of the pop counter-culture of the 60s and 70s..

I enjoyed all that, but for us Truongs, who were South Vietnamese citizens, there was always the war lurking in the background.

We witnessed the antiwar demonstrations and felt embarrassed.

We were dismayed because although we could very well understand the indignant demonstrators calling for a halt of the war in Vietnam, we knew the inside story, being Vietnamese ourselves. We knew that our Communist opponents, while suing for peace and posing as victims, were using brute force to reunify the divided country under their disciplinarian and militaristic one-party system, which many - if not most - of the demonstrators would have found very unpalatable themselves. Many in the opulent West had a very romantic vision of Ho Chi Minh and his followers. I think they saw them as Robin Hood types, siding with the poor against the wealthy. This was a cleverly contrived façade.

 

Communism was at the height of its popularity in the West, in those days, and Ho Chi Minh came out as a fatherly, goatee-bearded Oriental wise man for well-intended progressives. They failed to perceive the team of ruthless Party bigfishes concealed behind the contrived benign figurehead of Uncle Ho. Many still haven't realized what sort of undemocratic regime the Vietnamese Communist party has produced.

In the 60s and 70s, Ho Chi Minh and Che Guevara were pop icons. In the muppet show of politics, they were the goodies, and Johnson and Nixon were the villains.

On double page 116 and 117, I show my brother Dominique and myself talking to antiwar demonstrators who are protesting in front of the South Vietnamese ambassador’s residence, just off Wimbledon Common, where we would spend long hours playing with our Action Men (the British patent for the G.I. Joe 12 inch doll). I show us clumsily addressing righteous protest marchers who are absolutely certain of knowing the truth about the war and Vietnam.

It was an uphill job defending the non-Communist cause during the war, and it still is.

Westerners were being force-fed with dozens of gory pictures of the war, all taken on the battlefields of South Vietnam, by foreign photoreporters competing to win a Pulitzer Prize. Meanwhile, up north, the Hanoi leaders carefully selected foreign journalists and only admitted progressives who were supportive of their Cause. No wonder they produced beautiful photos vaunting the struggle of the North Vietnamese and of the National Liberation Front. Little did people know that they were held under close supervision while working on the Communist side, whereas they roamed free as a bee, when they were shooting pictures south of the 17th parallel.

 

Of course we too yearned for peace, probably even more so than many of the demonstrators who had no direct link with Vietnam, because our family was out there. For one American soldier that fell, five South Vietnamese combatants were killed, and ten Vietcong were slain.

We were not the hawks that the South Vietnamese were often depicted as being. The people of South Vietnam had no plans to invade or "liberate" - as our opponents would put it - North Vietnam. All we wanted was to be left alone, to live peacefully south of the 17th parallel, just like the South Koreans did.

Many Vietnamese in the South had family up north. Many families were divided, and had a father, brother, sister or a cousin on each side of the fence. We knew our enemy. The most convinced anti-Communists in the South were disenchanted former combatants of the Uncle Ho's Vietminh movement, who had fled to the South in 1954.

The North was a very militaristic society forged by the war against the French, and emulating its Soviet and Chinese models in all things.

 

May 18, 2:56AM EDT0
How did this journey into your past alter your perception of the events that occurred during your youth?
May 15, 2:46AM EDT0
What was one of your worst creative failures during the process of creating your graphic autobiographies and what was it that motivated you to move forward?
May 15, 2:32AM EDT0

I had wanted to tell my family story for quite a few years, but had to acquire the needed skills beforehand.

I'm a self-taught artist and had to catch up with many very talented Franch artists in order to enter the arena. Making a 260 pages graphic novel is rather like a marathon and it required for the likes of me a long preparation, I suppose.

So I had made several failed attempts at telling my family story.

These didn't go much beyond the writing of a mere 20-30 pages, but they did get me researching heavily and this patient gathering of info was useful.

Sometimes a failure occurs because one is not ready for the task. Too immature ? Not ripe yet ?

It is a daunting task, and I had to build up for it for years, I suppose.

What motivated me to move forward was that in 2009 or 2010, the Chief-Editor of Denoël Graphic, Paris - Jean-Luc Fromental - approched me at some cocktail or other venue, and asked me if I had a comics project I'd like to tell him about. I did, indeed: a long, pent-up project.

And so we met several times in a Parisian bistrot called Le Métro and the project gradually took form.

That is the function of a publisher. He must have the flair, the intuition of a story and his job is to help the author give birth to his brainchild.

A page from Such a Lovely Little War-Saigon 1961-63 (Arsenal Pulp Press, Vancouver, 2015) :

May 18, 5:10AM EDT0
How emotional was the process of developing your autobiographical novels and what was the psychological impact its development had on your parents and siblings?
May 14, 8:16PM EDT0

Writing the scenario is not a cozy job. Sometimes things came easily, and at other times I had to struggle with the blank sheet of paper. But most of the time, there was almost too much to say, and I had to hone my writing down.

Writing about my family in my two graphic novels about the Vietnam war stirred many stormy emotions. I felt pain, sorrow and anger. I could get quite emotional. I sometimes behaved a bit like Captain Haddock in the Tintin comics, ranting and raving privately.    :-)

I feel controlled emotion has to transpire in a book.

I like to be moved when I read a story or see a film. I try to instill my own works with controlled emotion.

 Don't get me wrong. I hate sentimentalism, but some of the anger still hasn't quite simmered down inside of me, even after the books have been finished and produced.

My parents were quite old when I started working on my first graphic novel - Such a Lovely Little War - which was released in Oct 2012 in France. My father died in June 2012, before the book came out. He was only able to read the first 150 pages of the pencil art rough (see a pencil art page below). I was afraid he might disapprove of my display of our family life and of his own private life as a husband, but he showed no such thing and although he was already very ill, he took care to correct all my mystakes in the Vietnamese dialogues of the book. We had had numerous discussions about the Republic of Vietnam (1955-75) and the war in the years preceding the making of my books, so I think he knew that I had given much thought and research to this matter.

Many friends have said to me that the book gives a fair picture of his life and endeavours. I have followed in his footsteps, after many years of questioning. I believe he made the right choices and that the non-Communist cause was legitimate.

My mother, I chose not to inform of the details of my story, as she suffered from bipolar disorder, and memories of the Vietnam war could have triggered an unpleasant episode. But she rejoiced to see that I was achieving some success when I showed her a few favourable reviews of the book. We got on well, but politics was not a subject which she favoured. The only thing that mattered to her in her old age was that her children and grand-children were faring well.

My elder brother Dominique Ai My died in 1979, and so of course could not be associated with this project. I show some of his drawings in Saigon Calling, as he was a talented and gifted artist.

My sisters Mireille Mai and Anh-Noëlle were very supportive and helpful. I exchanged numerous e-mails with my elder sister Mireille, then living in Toronto, asking her about this and that, especially about our Saigon and London years, as she is by a few years my elder.

I was very lucky to get no flak (anti-aircraft fire) from my family. Quite the opposite. :-)

Here is one of my brother Dominique's paintings (circa 1970):

Last edited @ May 18, 3:29AM EDT.
May 18, 3:27AM EDT0
What are some of the elements important for developing a successful and intriguing graphic novel?
May 14, 5:21PM EDT0

Oh dear, if only I knew the recipee !! :-)

Well, first, I think one has to have something worthwhile to say.

I have no recipee. Just use my commen sense and intuition, I suppose.

I am often asked how I go about creating a graphic novel. A common question is: do you start with the illustrations or with the story?

In my own experience, I find that there are no absolute rules in this domain. Each author has his or her own way of doing things. It’s a mysterious creative process. Images and stories mix in my mind. It’s hard to separate one from the other.

A GHOST OF AN IDEA

 I think that in the beginning there is not Light, but what I would call a ghost of an idea.

I call it this because it's a vague, blurred, spirit-like idea of a project which forms in my mind. It's exactly the same when I have to conceive an illustration: usually a spirit of an image appears in my mind.

For many years I had yearned to tell the story of the two eventful years I spent in Saigon as a child, or of my subsequent life in England and France as a teenager. Although my Saigon years were troubled and tragic days indeed, I was fascinated by that colourful era. When I started thinking about writing Such a Lovely Little War, ghostly images and events just flooded into my mind. I just had to harness them.

The same things hapened when I began to consider writing about my nine heady London years during the pop counter-culture revolution and my discovery of post 1968 France, when I moved to a new school there in 1972. All my yesterdays took place against the backdrop of the Vietnam war. This is the stuff of my second graphic novel, Saigon Calling.

 So in both cases, these ghosts of a story had to be fleshed out, which took some time.

 For me, writing a story, even if it is my own family saga, involves a lot of research. I will read a lot of books, both nonfiction and novels. I will absorb many articles on the Internet. Sometimes I will seek out very scholarly papers. Additionally, I'll watch films or videos, many of which I find online or on streaming services.

I also try to track down and interview people who have been involved in the events that I’m researching. This is a very important part of my work: meeting people of all kinds, and hearing what they have to say. Usually, they will tell you in a few words what it takes some academics or journalists entire chapters to say.

 Probably another important thing I do while conducting research is collecting photos, illustrations, paintings, and all sorts of visual documents which will come in handy when I finally reach the drawing stage. I compile scrapbooks -- most of them digital now-- of all the features that will be necessary: faces, clothing, architecture, uniforms, scenery, weaponry, etc. I find these images in non fiction books of course or on Pinterest and many other websites. Sometimes, watching a film, I will make a screenshot and file it.

I pile up many files on all sorts of topics relating to my projetcs.

Producing a graphic novel is like performing a one-man-show. It is almost like doing the jobs done by dozens of people on a film set: scriptwriter, director, cameraman, decorator, makeup artist, actor.

This research can extend over a couple of years, during which I am also doing a lot of short-term illustration-for-hire work, promotional work for my previous books, traveling here and there, in France and abroad, to participate at book fairs and take part in panel discussions. I call this doing my Barnum, but I quite enjoy the public component.

SYNOPSIS

After my research is completed, I then write a synopsis, which is like a pleasantly written summary of all the main things that I want to see in my story.

I have no rules for the synopsis. I just play it by ear and try to come up with an interesting text to read. Although short, the synopsis has to give the reader a good alluring whiff of the story.

WRITING THE SCENARIO (PLOTTING)

For my first two graphic novels -- Such a Lovely Little War-Saigon 1961-63, and Saigon Calling; London 1963-75 -- I wrote out the scenario/plot in it’s entirety, and in great detail. I think this took me about 3 to 4 months, with a few interruptions for short-term illustration work (I still need to get paid!).

I felt this was necessary because for a long book-length story,I needed to feel sure that I was going to be able to tell my story and I know where I was going.

 At the outset, I'm not too concerned about the visual aspect. Why?

Because I’m a self-taught illustrator, and for more than 30 years I've covered all sorts of subjects, and I know that I can always manage the visuals, provided I find the proper documentation, and put in the necessary amount of work.

Writing the story is more of a work of the soul. For me the WORD is in the beginning.

I write the story as a scenario, providing all the stage instructions, laying out all the narration and the dialogues in detail, page after page, frame after frame.

I believe the plot is all-important in a graphic novel, as it is in a film. There are so many films or graphic novels that are very pleasing visually and aesthetically, but rather boring in the storytelling. It is the story that'll make the visual art take off, or not.

Here is a China ink and watercolour on paper painting I did on the side, after completing Such a Lovely Little War :

May 18, 3:40AM EDT0
What are some of the unique marketing and promotional strategies you plan to utilize to reflect the uniqueness of your work?
May 14, 4:15PM EDT0

Nothing unique in my strategy, dear Mawadah.

I just do my best to produce nice books and hope to get good reviews which I post on my facebook page.

Here's one :

KIRKUS REVIEW

The second volume of the author’s critically acclaimed graphic memoir of the Vietnam War era.

The son of a French mother and a Vietnamese diplomat father, Truong combines powerful visual imagery with deft narrative as he recounts his teenage years in London and France while developing mixed emotions and allegiances about the war tearing his homeland apart. Like the masterful Such a Lovely Little War (2016), the story benefits from the author’s unique perspective, formed by the very different perspectives of his parents (whose marriage seems to be disintegrating), by seeing the war from afar while surrounded by those of different nationalities, and by maturing from childhood through adolescence during a turbulent era. As a teenager, Truong saw the war escalate on TV while experiencing the foment of Beatlemania, psychedelia, and the protest movement as the culture swirled through waves of upheaval. “Blimey! The VC don’t mess around,” he responded to a letter from home that reported of Viet Cong activity. Military uniforms mixed with those of Sgt. Pepper in his imagination, while playing soldier got confused with the real thing as filtered through the media. The author couldn’t resist the influence of the peace movement, the vitriol directed toward the United States and their South Vietnamese puppet regime, or the romanticizing of the Viet Cong as guerrilla freedom fighters. Yet he understood the implications a vindictive totalitarian government would have in South Vietnam, and he feared for the safety of family and friends. (He didn’t know until later that some of his cousins had joined the National Liberation Front and were killed in the warfare.) The young man who would become the author felt confused by the cultural barrage from different sides, and both the war and his responses to it are more complex than those who would simplify it into good-and-evil, hawk-and-dove can recognize.

An excellent combination of personal insight and historical sweep.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 2017ISBN: 978-1-55152-689-8Page count: 280ppPublisher: Arsenal Pulp PressReview Posted Online: Aug. 29th, 2017Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15th, 2017

May 18, 3:44AM EDT0
What did you learn about the time period in which your graphic novels are set that you did not know previously?
May 14, 2:47PM EDT0

I learned lots of things and keep learning all the time.

What was very helpful was that many Vietnamese people from the diaspora offered their help and I was able to learn many things from them. They were often my age or older and had lived the VN war as insiders, on the spot, North or South, whereas I left VN in 1963.

After having produced the first graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War, a few Vietnamese, or French, or American persons came up to me at book fairs, or wrote me after having read my book, to confide in me they had recognized their own experience in my work.

We became pen friends and they supplied me with much first-hand experience of events which I had only lived from afar, after having moved to London, at an early age, in 1963.

May 18, 4:02AM EDT0
What was it about writing and illustrating your personal story that affected you the most and in what ways did it permanently change you?
May 14, 9:34AM EDT0

A graphic novel, as I see it, is the fruit of emotion, of passion, -and of a great deal of research ! - : love, hate, anger, joy, loss, pain, sorrow, happiness. All those ingredients have to be there, as in good cuisine.

What affected me most ? In what ways did it change me ?

I think that telling my family story was an opportunity to make sense of our lives, of all this "sound and fury" that we had been through. At least, "all my yesterdays" offered me the material for two graphic novels.

And an author, an "idiot telling a tale" needs a good story. :-)

Of course, I'm referring to Shakespeare's famous MacBeth's solliloquy:

Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

And then is heard no more.

It is a tale told by an idiot,

Full of sound and fury

Signifying nothing.

— Macbeth (Act 5, Scene 5, lines 17-28)

I describe the emotions which I went trough while making both books in my replies to other questions, so I invite you to read those, Nour. The creating process aroused many strong feelings. A lot of hard work too.

Hard work, I think, gets you into shape. It makes you a better person, hopefully. Prolonged idleness does not bear many fruits. :-)

Hard work often does some good to your bank account, incidentally.

These books changed me, in a way, because they made me a full author of some sort. Indeed, for 30 years I had had to learn my trade as a self-taught artist, illustrating other people's texts, just like a professional musician plays a score written by a composer. Nothing wrong with that, but there comes a time when you feel like writing the score yourself. You then become a composer and musician, like an artist who writes and sings his own songs.

These books gave me the opportunity to say what I had not found the proper words to say when I was younger, during and after le VN war.

For years, we were lectured by (often) armchair observers, East and West, about who the goodies and who the baddies in this distant conflict. They knew who was right and who was wrong. It's still going on...

The Vietnam war was a one of those political events which would enable people to position themselves, as the Spanish Civil War had been in the late 30s. You were for the Republic and against Franco, the rebel. You were for Franco and against the left-wing Republic. Obviously, it was more popular to side with the Republic, than with Franco, who was supported by Nazi Germany and Fascists Italy.

George Orwell's marvellous Hommage to Catalonia revealed what nasty side-effects Soviet Russia's support to the Republic produced...

During the VN war, it was obviously more comfortable to be for peace and against the war, and indeed against all wars, when you were living in the West. You were seen as a nice person, a gentle dove, a brave progressive. It often takes great courage to advocate peace, I know.

It was more of an uphill job when you tried to explain that there were legitimate reasons for not wanting to live in a Communist State, where there are no fredoms of speech, of thought or movement.

What sort of peace where we Vietnamese non-Communists longing for?

We just wanted to live in a non-Communist system, just like the West Berliners, or the South Koreans did. We could not see what was wrong with that, but many radicals and progressives in the West unfortunately believed the grass was greener in the Communist block. We wondered how they knew that. Had they been to North Vietnam? No, you didn't enter or leave North Vietnam freely. You didn't cross the Bamboo Curtain as you do the British Channel. You couldn't avoid military service in North VN. You were not allowed to protest for peace in NVN.

This was so obvious, it makes me reel with disbelief to think back on that...

 This is the sort of thing I will say when invited to sit in panels at book fairs and the like.

May 18, 4:50AM EDT0
To what extent has creating these graphic novels inspired you to do further research on the Vietnam war and the time period each spans?
May 14, 9:29AM EDT0

I have been researching about the Vietnam wars (1945-75) and Vietnamese history from as long ago as I can remember. My father was a great scholar and he had all the books you could read on the matter, ranging the whole political spectrum.

Of course while writing and illustration both my graphic novels, I conducted laods of additional research, often checking on facts or looking for the right visuals. All this research is filed. Only the tip of the iceberg appears in my books.

What was very helpful was that many Vietnamese people from the diaspora offered their help and I was able to learn many things from them. They were often may age or older and had lived the VN war on the spot, North or South, whereas I left VN in 1963.

I try to track down and interview people who have been involved in the events that I’m researching. This is a very important part of my work: meeting people of all kinds, and hearing what they have to say. Usually, they will tell you in a few words what it takes some academics or journalists entire chapters to say.

A page from Such a Lovely Little War (Arsenal Pulp Press, Vancouver, 2015):

May 18, 3:52AM EDT0
Have other writers of historical fiction or historical non-fiction influenced your work and, if so, how have they influenced you?
May 14, 5:27AM EDT0

Yes, I was impressed by Art Spiegelman's Maus, and by Marjane' Satrapi's Persepolis, but I read very few graphic novels.

Much of my time is spent documenting my next story.

I will absorb many articles on the Internet. Sometimes I will seek out very scholarly papers. Additionally, I'll watch films or videos, many of which I find online or on streaming services.

I try to track down and interview people who have been involved in the events that I’m researching. This is a very important part of my work: meeting people of all kinds, and hearing what they have to say. Usually, they will tell you in a few words what it takes some academics or journalists entire chapters to say.

 

Probably another important thing I do while conducting research is collecting photos, illustrations, paintings, and all sorts of visual documents which will come in handy when I finally reach the drawing stage. I compile scrapbooks -- most of them digital now-- of all the features that will be necessary: faces, clothing, architecture, uniforms, scenery, weaponry, etc. I find these images in non fiction books of course or on Pinterest and many other websites. Sometimes, watching a film, I will make a screenshot and file it.

I compulse many files on all sorts of topics relating to my projetcs.

Producing a graphic novel is like performing a one-man-show. It is almost like doing the jobs done by dozens of people on a film set: scriptwriter, director, cameraman, decorator, makeup artist, actor.

This research can extend over a couple of years, during which I am also doing a lot of short-term illustration-for-hire work, promotional work for my previous books, traveling here and there, in France and abroad, to participate at book fairs and take part in panel discussions. I call this doing my Barnum, but I quite enjoy the public component.

May 16, 6:44AM EDT0
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