Launch: Edward H. Carpenter’s Seven Lives to Repay Our Country
INTERVIEW BY DAVID CONNON
Edward H. Carpenter is a 29-year veteran of the U.S. military, who spent most of his life as a warfighter but chose to finish his career serving as a peacekeeper. An award-winning writer of both fiction and non-fiction, he’s a member of the Washington Post talent pool, and reads for the Harvard Review. A graduate of Harvard’s Creative Writing and Literature program, he enjoys reading, writing, experimenting with visual arts and photography, and adventures involving charismatic megafauna. David Connon interviews him on the launch of his new novel, Seven Lives to Repay Our Country, published by BookVolts. BookVolts have created a 25% discount on the novel for HNS members who buy the book this month.
What is your “elevator pitch”?
On a besieged island in the Pacific, two Japanese soldiers – one cynical, one stoic – face the prospect of certain death at the hands of an overwhelming American invasion force. With the final words of their commanding general still on their minds, the two comrades are driven back to their final stronghold, where in the face of inevitable defeat, there are still choices to be made. Only one path leads to life, and the last man standing may not be able to win the battle, but perhaps, he can still carry out his commander’s final order.
What inspired you to start writing? And how does your occupational background affect your writing?
I’ve enjoyed reading many great stories over the years. I’ve spent my entire adult life in the military, so a lot of my short fiction, poetry, and non-fiction writing has some element of warfare in it. But I don’t pretend that war is glorious. Instead, I write stories at the bloody edge, intending to educate readers and leave them with something to think about.
What attracted you to writing historical fiction?
I’m drawn to untold stories. My goal with historical fiction is to hew closely to facts, while bringing in a little something else.
Or maybe I’m just lazy! With historical fiction, you pretty much know when the big plot elements start and end and what they are – so that gives you boundaries, pacing, and conflict elements.
In the case of a novel, that can pretty much scope the whole book. For example, I’m currently querying a story set in the Irish Rebellion of 1798, so the war has to start in 1798. Battles have to be fought in certain places. The outcome is known, but as an author, I get to go in and fill in details about why things happened the way they did.
Every story has a backstory. How did you come to write Seven Lives to Repay Our Country?
The U.S. Marine Corps Commandant puts out a mandatory “reading list” for officers. In 2007, while stationed in Japan, I read one of those books: T.R. Fehrenbach’s U.S. Marines in Action. I’d also been watching a lot of anime (to improve my ability to hear Japanese). One of my favorite series, Neon Genesis Evangelion, explored the themes of how young soldiers react in the worst situations – physical incapacitation, mental breakdowns, suicide.
When I read the final message of the Japanese general defending Saipan, I realized there was a story to tell. Almost all of the island’s 29,000 defenders died in the battle – 4,000 of them in the last 48 hours of fighting, as they made banzai charges against numerically superior American forces, trying to honor General Saito’s command to each take seven Americans with them into death.
Early in the month-long battle, they probably had hope of winning, expecting the Japanese Navy to support them. But in the final 72 hours of fighting, with supplies nearly exhausted, they must have known that they would all be dead within days. How would these young men react? How would they explain their actions to themselves and to others? Who would live to tell the story?
Character Shinji ends the story with “I am the last man.” Do you have any suggestions for ending a story?
I like to end stories with an element of finality and a glimmer of distant possibility. In Seven Lives, the battle is lost, all his friends are dead, and Shinji is a captive. But somewhere across the waves, two women wait for him. There will be hard choices in his future – and hard work rebuilding Japan. We don’t know what will become of him, but where there is life, there is hope.
There are no hard and fast rules in writing. I have ended some stories with everyone dead, and others where the bad girl gets her happily ever after. Writers – and readers – just know when an ending feels right, and when it falls flat.
What commonalities existed between American and Japanese soldiers during WWII?
Both sides fought well under the worst of conditions. They both felt they engaged in an honorable war. And both sides fought for countries that routinely brutalized civilian populations – the Japanese with brutal massacres in China and Southeast Asia, the Americans with the deliberate firebombing (and subsequent nuclear bombing) of civilian population centers. In addition, Japan and the United States conditioned soldiers to see their opponents as inhuman. The Japanese called Americans “monsters, devils, and demons,” and U.S. soldiers (along with their government and the press) equated the Japanese with animals, specifically, “termites, rats, apes, monkeys, reptiles, and bats.”
In the course of your research, what have you learned about the human condition?
Probably that every soldier (and every citizen) should take a long, hard look at history and ask why the world’s political leaders consistently send gullible young men to die in terrible ways – and to kill in terrible ways – for invented concepts like honor and duty. Moreover, they should ask why the emperors, queens, presidents, and prime ministers are never to be found on the battlefield themselves … and they should ask who profits from the deaths of soldiers.
What is your next project, and how far advanced is it?
I’m working on a memoir of my year as a UN peacekeeper in South Sudan. The finished manuscript is due in July 2023. I’m also querying my completed novel, which looks at the Irish Rebellion of 1798 through the eyes of George Wickham, one of literary fiction’s great anti-heroes. Meanwhile, I continue to write and publish short fiction, non-fiction essays, and op-eds, and I have just edited a journal of arts and poetry to be published as an NFT. No rest for the wicked, I suppose!
What is the last good book you have read?
Jane Harper’s The Dry and Ada Palmer’s Perhaps the Stars. The first book is a stand-alone murder mystery set in a small Australian town. The second is a science fiction finale that offers a discerning look at human nature and our future as a species.