Interview with Mark Tawen, author of Hustle the East

What was the inspiration for Hustle the East?

I was living in Laos in 1975 when I discovered the book Voices from the Plain of Jars; Life under An Air War. The stories and drawings from adults and children collected on the Plain of Jars brought home to me that the United States was engaged in a horrific air war against villagers not very far from where I was. My idea was to reveal details of the illegal and immoral U.S. bombing campaign in a novel that would shock Americans. By the time I got around to finishing it 43 years later, the Secret War was no secret.

Why did you use three first-person narrators?

My first draft was written entirely in the third person. Then I decided that Benny Bendit, the American college grad, should tell his story from his own perspective. But Benny never set foot on the Plain of Jars, so I let the orphaned Lao monk Sangkhom tell that part of the story. Then it occurred to me that both narrators were male, and that a younger, female point-of-view would add another dimension, so Chansamone gets to explain for herself why she made the life-changing decisions she made.

Why is the last part of the book in the present tense?

I borrowed that device from Anthony Duerr, the master of present-tense narration. In this way, events of the 1970s move into the new Millennium.

Are you a veteran of the armed services? Have you ever killed anyone?

Like Benny Bendit, I was in a draft lottery and the ping-pong ball with my birthday came up toward the end, meaning I escaped the draft. Unlike Benny, who is fictional, I never killed anyone.

How does it feel to be a pen name?

If I said it posed a problem, I’d be lying. As my namesake Mark Twain once said: “A man is never more truthful than when he acknowledges himself a liar.”