NBCC intern and University of Memphis MFA student Pat Walters recently spoke with Brendan Koerner, whose new (and first) nonfiction book, Now The Hell Will Start, is fresh out from Penguin. It tells the story of Herman Perry, a black U.S. Army soldier assigned during World War II to a segregated unit on the Ledo Road, in Burma. When he shot and killed a white officer, Perry fled into the jungle. Deep in the forest, he married the daughter of the chief of a fearsome tribe of headhunters. Local black soldiers called him “The Jungle King.”
Q: It’s tough to describe this story in a sentence. The jacket calls it a story of “murder, love and headhunters.” Did the publisher write that, or did you?
A: That actually came from me. I thought that I wouldn’t be allowed to write the jacket copy, but my editor actually wanted me to. It’s such an off-the-wall, obscure story, it would be hard to put it in the hands of someone who only read it once and ask her to summarize it. I also had a say in some of the design choices. In the very beginning, there’s a quote from Midnight’s Children, a map and a wallet-sized photo of Perry in a suit. It’s a way of bringing the reader into this world that’s probably as alien to him as it was to Perry.
Q: You bring the readers into that world pretty abruptly. Perry points a rifle at Cady, the white officer, in the first scene. Why start that way?
A: I think it has a lot to do with my own reading habits. I’m a voracious reader, but if a book doesn’t suck me in early on, I’ll put it down. I have no problem not finishing books. I wanted to capture the reader’s imagination really, really quickly, so I had to drop the reader straight into the action. That first scene almost whips your head around. I wanted a very tumultuous setup. The first chapter is the shortest chapter, and I definitely spent more time on it than any other.
Q: How’d you find this story?
A: I can actually pinpoint the day: It was September 24, 2003. I was writing this Explainer column for Slate. Every morning my editor, Julia Turner, and I would read the paper, and we would look for stories in which there was some kind of fact or assertion that lacked explanation. For this one, an American in the Air Force had been arrested for treason, and the article mentioned, just briefly, that if convicted he would be eligible for the death penalty. We wondered: When was the last time the American military had executed one of its own? So that was my day’s assignment.
I was sitting on the floor with my computer looking at tons of documents that I’d gleaned off the web or that had been e-mailed to me, and one of them was a bibliography from the Military History Institute in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. It was all about court marshalling and executions of American soldiers, and there was this brief little note that said, “Herman Perry evaded capture by hiding out with Burmese hill tribe, 1944-1945.” And I was just like, “Wow, I’ve never heard about that before. He hid out with a Burmese hill tribe?” That knocked my socks off. I immediately pictured a Colonel Kurtz thing going on.
Q: A lot of your stuff focuses on science and technology—you write for the tech blog Gizmodo and WIRED magazine. Why spend five years writing a book about a guy like Herman Perry?
A: I kind of fell into writing about science and technology; it’s not something I expressly set out to do. As a kid, I read mysteries and adventure stories and I knew I wanted to be a writer. But I didn’t really know how to become one. When I got out of college, it seemed like journalism was the best way to make money writing, so I got into journalism. When I went freelance, around 2000 or so, it was the middle of the technology boom, so there was a lot of freelance work in technology, and there were a lot of really great stories there. So it was a little bit accidental that I ended up writing about science and technology. I’ve enjoyed it, but at the same time, I’ve never thought of myself as a science or technology person exclusively. I’m a writer and reporter.
Q: One of the big writing and reporting challenges in writing a book like this one is recreating dramatic scenes at happened 50 or 60 years ago. How’d you handle that?
A: There are several moments in the book where I think a reader will be tempted to think I just made up Perry’s thoughts. I’ll give you an example. There’s a scene where Perry has just shot the guy and he’s running through the jungle. He stops and he feels nauseas. I write that he can’t get the smell of gunpowder out of his head. That fact comes from Perry’s court marshal testimony. He talks about exactly that. He said he was running through the jungle and he couldn’t get the smell of gunpowder out of his head and he thought he’d get sick if he ever smelled it again. It’s straight from Perry’s own thoughts.
There were definitely moments where I would write something and I would get the chapter back from my editor and she would say, “This is one step too much license.” We really wanted this to be a serious piece of history, and that’s why we were so careful about end-noting all the facts. There are 1,248 endnotes. And there’s not a single word of recreated dialogue in the entire book. It all came from documents or interviews with people – almost all documents, including court transcripts.
Q: There also isn’t a single first-person “I” in the book. How come?
A: My editor and I talked about that before I even started writing and we both that there should be no first-person in the book. I really wanted this to be Herman’s story, and I think bringing myself into it would have somehow taken the focus away from him. I was tempted to insert myself in the story at the very beginning though—I had quite a few adventures that were worthy of writing about. I got a tremendous feeling of exhilaration knowing that few if any other Westerners had been to the Ledo Road in decades, but I resisted that urge to write it in the first-person, and I’m glad I did.
Q: The jacket says the book is about “murder, love and headhunters,” but it touches on some heavier issues, too. Inequality? Injustice?
A: I approached it first and foremost as an adventure tale. When I first started, race didn’t strike me as such a significant component of the story. It wasn’t until I really got deep into the research that I realized what a huge element it was, not just among Americans in the book, but also between the Japanese and the Chinese, the British and the Naga. I was fascinated by how such a poisonous mindset could take root. I think one of the biggest themes of the book may be the consequences of irrationality—in terms of the racial dynamics, but also in terms of the road itself. They decided to build this road through the jungle to China and attack Japan. It didn’t matter how many men had to die in the process. There are a lot of parallels about the consequences of irrationality throughout the book.
Q: After so many years working on the book, will you miss Herman Perry?
A: To some extent I will. I’ve dedicated so much of myself to this project, gone so deep, and I’ve actually formed this weird, intimate relationship with a character who has been dead for 63 years. There’s a certain sense of sadness now that our time is over. I think the real ending point for me was moving his body: I helped Herman’s family get his body disinterred from Hawaii, cremated and shipped back to D.C. When his nephew sent me pictures of the disinterment process, there was a certain elation in the fact that I’d helped his sister achieve something she wanted to do for decades. At the same time, I kind of maxed out my relationship with Herman. I think I’ve learned about all I can about him. And in some respect he remains a little elusive. He left such a small written record. You always want to learn more about someone you’ve spent so much time on, and I kind of realized that I probably learned all I could. At this point I’ve let my imagination fill in the blanks.
Q: Your imagination and Facebook.
A: Yeah, I did make a Facebook page for Herman. To me, he’s a very real character. I thought it would be great to make him even more real by giving him a personality online. But also as marketing, sure. I think if people crack the book open and give it a chance, they’ll really like it. The trick is that with so much information out there – so many books and so much writing – you have to find innovative ways to coax people into giving your book a chance.
Editor’s note: Speaking of innovative book coverage, check out Koerner’s recent book photo slideshow on Slate.