The high school teachers
back in Russellville, Ala., where Gustav Hasford didn't bother to finished,
would cluck their tongues and say "I told you so" if they could see him
Hasford is 31, he doesn't have a job, and he likes to sit around in rumpled clothes and drink beer at noon.
He has also just published a novel that a reviewer for Newsweek called "the best work of fiction about the Vietnam war I've read."
Now Hasford is living for a while in Morro Bay with his wife, Charlene, to insulate himself from other writers.
Knowing other writers, he says, can sometimes be helpful, "but it gets to the point where you just have to write what you want to, regardless of what people say."
In a recent interview, Hasford told about his long apprenticeship as a writer. It began when he was 12, and when he was 14 he sold his first article to Boys Life for $5.
A year later, he was looking through one of the popular magazines that purports to give would-be writers tips and said to himself, "Boy, this stinks."
At the ripe old age of 15, he began sending letters to editors, agents, and writers saying that he was going to publish an honest magazine for writers and would like their contributions.
It was another year before the first issue came out, not mimeographed as Hasford first planned, but professionally printed on coated paper, with respected contributors. Some of them, Hasford says, "did find it a little odd" when they learned the editor was only 16.
Writers liked the magazine and it quickly gained 1,300 subscribers. But Hasford had to end the magazine after three issues. He didn't have time for it between studying and the other things he was doing, mostly writing.
He worked as a reporter for two newspapers in the town of 6,000 in the northwest corner of Alabama and also was editor of the high school newspaper, of which he "wrote about half" for each sporadic issue.
His teachers didn't know what to make of all this activity, especially the magazine. "I guess it was beyond their experience, so they didn't have anything to say about it," he recalls.
Whatever opinion the teachers had of Hasford was probably matched by his opinion of them. "I never had an English teacher I listened to or didn't think was a fool," he says. "Classes tend to teach you to imitate the way someone else wrote, but if you want to be a writer the first thing you have to do is learn to write like yourself."
When it came time for finals in his senior year, he turned in blank examination papers. He had decided that graduation was meaningless. "I guess I was being rebellious."
After that he was faced with the draft. In hopes of avoiding what he feared would be a dreary two years in the Army, he joined the Marines. He ended up in Viet Nam as a combat correspondent.
But a correspondent was just another rifleman when more manpower was needed, and in the Tet offensive of 1968 that was often. Hasford got out of it alive and with all his limbs, but otherwise he was "pretty messed up."
Hasford's father was about to be transferred to Longview, Wash., and he moved along with the family. He began to rebuild his life around writing between a few courses at a junior college and various jobs. Once he went to the Clarion Workshop in Science Fiction and Fantasy at Tulane University in New Orleans, where science fiction writer Harlan Ellison tore up one of his stories and hit him over the head with the scraps.
He went back to Washington and continued to write short stories while clerking at night in a hotel where combative loggers brought their girlfriends, while living in a friend's closet that was eight feet long and five feet wide.
He moved to Los Angeles and wrote articles for the skin magazines and was editor of a few. He took other jobs and went to college on the GI bill to accumulate enough for spells of uninterrupted writing--more short stories, and always another draft of the novel he had started in Viet Nam.
The novel went through more drafts than he can remember, perhaps 25, always growing leaner and more polished. Once it went back to the Civil War and forward to the post-Viet Nam period, but all of that was pared away.
"I learned to write through endless effort," Hasford says.
When the novel, which is not autobiographical, began to take its final shape, he circulated it among a dozen Marines who had been in Viet Nam to check its technical accuracy. He even sent a copy to the Marine Corps.
Then he began sending it to publishers. How many? "All of them," he says, a little wearily. If made the round for three years. Some publishers suggested a happier ending. But finally editors began saying they liked it. They couldn't publish it, of course, but they liked it.
A year and a half ago, Harper & Row bought the book. Hasford took the money and went to Africa and Egypt and Greece in search of new ideas. He has completed a second novel that has nothing to do with Viet Nam, and it has been rejected once.
But a new year has begun and the writing of novel, The Short-Timers, is past history. Bantam will bring out a paperback version. Harlan Ellison bought the first hardback copy.
So far no one has suggested that Hasford write The Short-Timers Return, but he is optimistic that the time is right for a renewal of interest in Viet Nam. "So far," he says, "the aversion is concealing the curiosity."
Other than writing the book, he's not going to do anything to break down the barriers that stand in the way of understanding. Harper & Row asked if he would be willing to discuss Viet Nam and plug the book in television and radio appearances, and he said no.
"If I start doing that," he said, "I'll be in show business."
The Short-Timers | The Phantom Blooper | A Gypsy Good Time | Full Metal Jacket | Stories | Poems
Profiles | Interviews | Reviews | Book Theft | Obituaries | Remembrance | Photos | Links