Welcome to the Mixed Up Files of Middle Grade Authors, Elizabeth, and congratulations on your new novel for middle grade readers, Dogtag Summer.
Elizabeth is the acclaimed author of more than a dozen books for young readers, including Marching to Freedom: Walk Together, Children, and Don’t You Grow Weary, as well as biographies of Dorothea Lange, Woody Guthrie, and John Lennon. Her books have received many honors, including National Book Award Finalist, Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, Los Angeles Times Book Prize, a Michael L. Printz Honor, and the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award. Elizabeth is on the faculty of the Vermont College of Fine Arts, MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults.
Dogtag Summer centers around Tracy–or Tuyet, during the summer before junior high, as she struggles to reconcile her harrowing memories of Vietnam with her life in California. The novel asks–where is home when you’re a child of war, caught between two countries, two identities? When is love enough to carry you through what you’ve discovered about your past? About your father’s past?
Tracy, your protagonist, breaks stereotypes of Asian females—passive, calm. Instead, we find out that the first few days when she was with her adoptive family, she bit her father. And then later when her best friend Stargazer first met her, she had stolen a baloney sandwich. How did you create Tracy’s personality?
This question gets at the heart of my fiction writing process. First, I did a ton of research on the Vietnam War. I read books and interviewed Vietnamese who were refugees here after the war. They had vivid memories of their time in Vietnam during the fighting, and what it was like for them after the war. They were dislocated from their homes, often from family. Perhaps the most difficult position of all would be to be someone like Tracy – pulled away from everything you knew as a young child, with no one able to explain what was happening to you.
I knew Tracy had to be a really tough kid to have survived everything she had already gone through, and to meet the new challenges she faced in America. She knew adults could be dangerous, so she fought and bit if she had to. She’d known real hunger, so of course she would steal food.
After immersing myself in research, Tracy sprung into life. She started showing up in my dreams and my daydreams. Her actions and reactions came tumbling out of my fingers as I wrote. This is a hard state to get in as a writer, but isn’t it what we long for?
You chose to make Tracy’s adoptive family, a working class, struggling family. Why did you choose to make them struggling versus a more suburban middle class setting?
Dogtag Summer came from a conversation I overheard many years ago, in the mid-eighties. An electrician, Jim, and my husband, Tom, were doing some rewiring at Tom’s family ranch on the Northern California coast. Afterwards Tom and Jim, a Vietnam vet, sat by the fire and talked. Tom asked him what it had been like to serve in Vietnam. Stories came pouring out of Jim. How he always walked point, because he’d learned to hunt as a kid and he wasn’t going to trust his life to a city boy. What it was like to fight. What he saw, and heard. And the fear, always the fear he carried with him.
Tracy has a hippie best friend, Stargazer. Why did you choose to make Stargazer from a hippie family?
I liked the contrast of Tracy’s working family and Stargazer’s hippie family. It was sheer fun to write about Stargazer and his family. No research required. I was raised in the San Francisco bohemian art world, a precursor to hippies. And probably I was a hippie myself. I just loved Stargazer’s family, and honestly, I loved exposing some of the contradictions in Stargazer’s father, Beldon. He was all about peace and love, but he could be a scary, angry person in defending his idea of peace and love.
Your setting seems to be very important; you have the vivid setting in Vietnam by the river and then the setting in Northern California by the Pacific Ocean. How did you choose your settings?
I love setting. It so totally informs everything – who the characters are, why they react the way they do, where the story goes. I have always traveled to where a book is set, fiction or nonfiction. It helps me to see how things relate to one another geographically. I like to smell the air, feel what the rains feel like on my skin, see how people move in their environment. In Vietnam I spent time by the rivers, at the markets, in small villages, talking to anyone who would talk to me, soaking up stories. In Da Nang I visited an orphanage.
You used a series of vivid and emotional flashbacks that unravel the mystery of Tracy’s story. Why did you choose to structure the book this way?
Tracy starts having flashbacks that give her increasing bits of information about her early life, which she had totally suppressed. I put them in as she was remembering them. It’s almost a feeling of vertigo, which PTSD sufferers have told me about. These images or sounds or smells come at them in pieces, at difficult, vulnerable times.
Tracy’s best friend Stargazer is intent on making a funereal Viking sailing vessel. Why did you choose for Stargazer to focus on this project?
Every year on the fourth of July our extended family makes Viking funeral ships out of wood and paper-mache, with cloth sails. We fill them with flammable stuff like pine needles, bark, and twigs, and haul them down a steep cliff to the Pacific Ocean. Just as the sun is about to set, we set them on fire and launch them into the water. It’s a spectacular sight as the sun falls into the ocean and the burning boats rise and fall on the dark blue waves. I just had to write about it. Also, Stargazer is so beautifully oblivious – he’s busy making a ship that commemorates dead warriors with someone who has actually lived through war. I liked the irony.
There are several symbols in this book. But the dog tag really resonates. What do you want middle grade readers to take-away from that symbol of the Vietnam War?
This was a highly personal symbol for me. I had read and thought a lot about dogtags – they are so loaded. While I was working on the book, a friend and I were cleaning out an old, unused burn barrel on the property of our summer cabin, a few miles away from Tom’s family ranch. She dug her shovel into the ashes and something shiny came up on the shovel. “What’s that?” she said, and held the shovel out to me.
It was a dogtag belonging to Jim, the Vietnam vet. I held onto it the whole time I was writing the book, often wearing it on a chain around my neck. When I finished the book, I called him (I hadn’t seen him since the fireplace talk) and told him I had his dogtag. His response: “No you don’t.” I read him his social security number, second line on the tag. Silence. “Yes,” he finally said. He came to my cabin to pick it up. As a kid he’d learned to hunt on our property with his father, and later was friends with the guy who owned it before us. Jim had no idea how his dogtag had ended up in the burn pile.
I was trying to figure out for myself all the complicated ways people survive, and love, and do their best.
This story is set not too long after the Vietnam War. Why did you choose to write about this period of history?
I thought this was a perfect way to explore how the war had affected everyone who was caught up in it, and how it kept reverberating in their lives.
Thank you for asking me such interesting questions!
Hillary Homzie writes books about tween girls because she has three sons and a husband and has to get girl time in somehow! To find out about Hillary and her books go to www.hillaryhomzie.com