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Peter D. Baird
Beyond Peliliu


Original Airdate: April 29, 2008

 

About the Author

Peter Baird has written for The New York Times Magazine, Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, The Chicago Tribune and many other prestigious publications. He served as one of Ernesto Miranda's lawyers in the 1960s and practiced law in Phoenix, Arizona until his death in 2009.

 

About this Book

On the eve of the Second World War, Tom McQuade, a relentlessly driven medical student, and Virginia Russell, an exotic mind-reading magician, get married. The McQuades move to Boston and Tom enters a prestigious surgical residency as they celebrate the birth of their son, David. The war destroys this family's idyllic life together as Tom is drafted and shipped off to the South Pacific. During the Battle of Peleliu, Tom suffers a career-ending gunshot wound that destroys his ambitions and drives his wife and child away from him. Forty years later, when David is a powerful San Francisco trial lawyer and Tom is in the early stages of dementia, father and son reconnect. David then learns the liberating force and redemptive power of truth.

 


Transcript

RON CARLSON:
Hello. Welcome to Books & Co. I'm Ron Carlson, and today our guest is the writer Peter Baird, who's here with his novel Beyond Peleliu. Welcome.

PETER BAIRD:
Thank you.

RON CARLSON:
I'm glad you're here. This is quite an interesting, full-bodied book that goes a lot of places, and one of the places it goes and refers to is Peleliu, and what is that?

PETER BAIRD:
It is an island about 4,000 miles west of Honolulu. It is an island on which one of the bloodiest battles of World War II in the south pacific took place. It is a tragedy because it was an unnecessary battle. My father was an army surgeon who fought there and returned home with a wound that would affect his life and damage his children and grandchildren's lives.

RON CARLSON:
And so this book, then, this novel, takes its germ from real life.

PETER BAIRD:
That's right, that's right.

RON CARLSON:
And is this -- this is your first book, your first novel.

PETER BAIRD:
Yes, yes.

RON CARLSON:
And so what was it about that incident in your father's life that made you -- did this just circle around you and circle around you, call to you, call to you to finally want to be a book?

PETER BAIRD:
Yes, that's a good way of putting it, Ron. My father returned home with a partial claw for a left hand, and he was a brilliant surgeon who had a brilliant future in big-time academic medicine, but with a claw for a left hand. He was devastated by its impact. He had terrible depression, drinking problems, PTSD, or Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, and this is about the generational impact of combat, because as I’ve learned personally, wars don't end when the final shot has fired.

RON CARLSON:
Right. And so you used this moment, which is a little bit shrouded in mystery in terms of what actually happened...

PETER BAIRD:
That's correct.

RON CARLSON:
As the germ, and then this -- what are the other parallels from real life that you used to structure the book?

PETER BAIRD:
Well, the parallels are that my father, who is David McQuade, the surgeon; my mother, who's roughly the female – strong female character, Virginia McQuade; and the son is in some ways me. So it is -- there are germs of truth, or at least what memory thinks is truth, because memory has its own truth. And then it is put together with an enormous amount of research tracking a family from the injury in Peleliu through moving through southern Utah, where my father became a surgeon and a physician, impaired because he was going to go to a major university -- couldn't do that -- and his suffering through Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, which was unknown then and is unfortunately untreated now for so many of our returning combat troops from Iraq --

RON CARLSON:
I think they called it "shell shock" or --

PETER BAIRD:
Yes, they did, they did. He didn't even know it was that. He became an alcoholic, he became very violent, he became a womanizer. And of course, I did not understand then, and indeed not until quite recently, that what had happened to him was not his fault necessarily, it was the war. And so I wrote this book not only of a way of trying to figure out what happened to him but to gain an understanding and to forgive him, and frankly, to gain an understanding and to forgive myself.

RON CARLSON:
So it's a very personal act, this act of writing this fiction.

PETER BAIRD:
Very, very.

RON CARLSON:
You -- one of the narrative designs that the book has is its opening, the whole idea of the structure of the book. Do you want to read the opening?

PETER BAIRD:
Sure. The opening of the book is written by David McQuade, and it is written from --

RON CARLSON:
Who is the son?

PETER BAIRD:
The son, who was -- became a big-time trial lawyer in San Francisco. And the prologue is set at the Utah state penitentiary where David, the son, is incarcerated.

RON CARLSON:
A letter from prison.

PETER BAIRD:
And this is a letter from prison. It was written to his son Jim and his daughter Julie, and it is as follows: "Dear Jim and Julie, thank you for your letters and concerns, but please don't worry about me. It turns out that prison isn't all that bad for a lawyer when his clients are inmates, guards, and the warden himself. Here I'm the 'big-house counsel' and my perks include trustee status, an office, a computer, a law library, and a comfortable cell. Best of all, I’ve had time to do some research into our family history, and specifically, into the World War II battle of Peleliu that your grandfather fought. As the enclosed manuscript suggests, I’ve also done a great deal of writing. You are not the only ones who gave asked why I would risk losing my liberty and my license by taking a life that was, for all practical purposes, over. Even harder for everyone to understand is how I could possibly find peace in a place like this. As with so many of life's questions, there are no answers, only stories. Partly remembered, partly reconstructed, this is mine. Love, your father."

RON CARLSON:
So then the novel starts with this letter, and then we're going to read to find out why he might be there and what he might gave found out.

PETER BAIRD:
Right, it then starts in the early 20th century when he is a child in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, and his parents are Scottish immigrants, just like my father's parents. And his parents die and he is an orphan, and he is driven to become a physician, indeed, a heart surgeon. And just as he hits his stride and ready for his residency, he is drafted into World War II and sent to the south pacific to, among other places, the island of Peleliu, which the allies thought would be a two-day battle, that it would be good for morale, and there were 13,000 Japanese soldiers hidden in the tunnels of the mountain range on Peleliu. So rather than two days, it was well over two months. Rather than a couple of casualties, there were thousands: 9,000 American casualties. It is one of the worst chapters in our south pacific military history because it was unnecessary; there was no reason to fight that. It was thought by the military brass to be undefended, unprotected, maybe 100 or so Japanese soldiers garrisoned there, which was wrong.

RON CARLSON:
Right. Now, did you -- sounds to me like you've done your homework. And so did you do research on Peleliu, the battle of Peleliu?

PETER BAIRD:
Oh, yes.

RON CARLSON:
And was it difficult finding information on Peleliu?

PETER BAIRD:
Not really. Peleliu has been "rediscovered," if I can call it that, and there are now books, quite a number of books recently written about it. Even the military has now taken a good look at it because it is a strategic lesson of how not to fight or invade -- actually, they invaded on the basis of faulty intelligence, and that seems to be something that happens more than once in our history.

RON CARLSON:
Right. Did you -- now, you have a book that is suggested by your life, framed at certain moments -- which is a great help to a writer, I think – obviously colored by memory, its reliability and its unreliability, but you write scenes which probably took place, but you weren't present.

PETER BAIRD:
That's correct.

RON CARLSON:
And so what is the writer's responsibility in a scene, for example, when your parents met, and so on? And you create these scenes, do you just take a deep breath, let go, and do your best?

PETER BAIRD:
No, I did more than that. Of course I did that. A lot of deep breaths. It took me 14 years to write this. But I did research into the times. I would go back and read the microfilm of the newspaper headlines at those times. I knew where they had met. I did research into every aspect that was accessible to me. And it was fun. Also, there were some old home movies that I could watch, and the best part of it was, I could see that my parents loved each other, which was, as I grew up, there was considerable doubt about that. And so as I went along, as I mentioned earlier, I learned as much about myself as I did about my parents.

RON CARLSON:
Right. The -- so you have historical data that you're trying to bring to life via drama.

PETER BAIRD:
That's right.

RON CARLSON:
And you're making these scenes up. You're writing characters, you're writing men, you're writing women, you're writing all of the energy that has fiction. But, you know, Peter, you're a lawyer.

PETER BAIRD:
Right. I admit to that. I waive my Fifth Amendment rights. I'll admit to that.

RON CARLSON:
So tell me, how does a lawyer who deals with deducing from evidence and working and laying things out congruently, according to the facts, then make that leap into fiction?

PETER BAIRD:
I’ve always loved to write, and even when I was a kid, I worked for the small-town newspaper in our hometown. I've always loved to write and write stories -- little stories, ditties, whatever. And I started writing for legal magazines and legal journals that nobody read except the linotype operators. Then I started writing personal things, and I became captivated by the personal essay style from Joseph Epstein, from Phillip Lopate, from Russell Baker, and those, and I was drawn to the personal essay style because it's so authentic. It's short, there's no place for digressionary adverbs and unnecessary descriptions. It's as true, and immediately apparently true, as anything I could imagine. And then I started reading Raymond Carver. I even read Ron Carlson, by the way, just to throw you a rose. But it was helpful.

RON CARLSON:
Then you began reading fiction writers. I see.

PETER BAIRD:
To me, someone like Raymond Carver is so authentic and so basic and so close to the earth with his writing that it rings true without his showing off that he can write with flourishes and turns of phrase, which distract me. So I started writing personal essays. And I was rejected probably about a gazillion times, but finally, I wrote for the New York Times Magazine "About Men" column, I wrote for Newsweek, I wrote for the Chicago Tribune Magazine, I wrote for the Wall Street Journal, and that started to accumulate to the point that...I had an agent who said, "I think you can write a novel," and I'd never thought about that in my whole life. And so at a very despairing point in my life -- my marriage was falling apart, I was seriously depressed -- I've always been able to be energized and my mood elevated by the act of writing and creating. And so when I hit bottom, I decided that I would take the -- by this point, a mass of published personal essays, thinking stupidly that I could connect them by some kind of silly bridge here and maybe a back scene there, and what I ended up with was a total mess.

RON CARLSON:
Sure.

PETER BAIRD:
And so -- but I kept learning by failing and by researching and by getting down to the raw realities of what had happened. I eliminated all flashbacks. I remember vividly doing that, throwing about 200 pages into one wastebasket in the middle of the night. And then I started researching, and the research into the times, into the battle scenes, and into the medical scenes. Because the surgery and the polio and all of these conditions were medical conditions that I knew about, but I didn't know, for example, how a surgeon does a thoracotomy, a thoracotomy. So I had a great deal of fun, it elevated my mood, and eventually, eventually I have a novel.

RON CARLSON:
You wrote your way out of it. Let me remind everyone, we're talking to the lawyer and novelist Peter Baird about his book Beyond Peleliu. One of the most interesting and riveting characters in your book is the mother.

PETER BAIRD:
Yes.

RON CARLSON:
But, you know, she's a magician.

PETER BAIRD:
Yes.

RON CARLSON:
And they meet -- she meets her husband, the father, because she's a magician.

PETER BAIRD:
That's right.

RON CARLSON:
Is this drawn from life?

PETER BAIRD:
Yes, yes, it is. I don't know how they met.

RON CARLSON:
It seems stranger than fiction.

PETER BAIRD:
And I loved doing it because my mother, who died when I was a child, was a magician. She was a graduate of Northwestern University, a social worker. And she worked in hull house in Chicago during the settlement house movement, and then she worked in the Dwight Women's Prison, and she was assigned to what was called the "colored section," whereupon she came in contact with a group of gypsies who were there for bunco crimes: street fraud, swindles, that sort of thing. And they apparently took her under their wing and taught her all of these things that looked like mind reading but are real scams.

RON CARLSON:
Like the trick in the book where she writes the thing in the envelope?

PETER BAIRD:
That's right. All of the magic in the book that Virginia does can be done, and I do it, so that has a certain immediacy to it that it was fun to write about. But it is more than just the trickery, it is also the metaphoric impact of magic, because there is a magic, I think, in fiction that you can achieve by finding and revealing and coming together in forgiveness and reconciliation. The book, in my judgment, what I set out to try to do, as the magic of love as it can finally triumph over pain, depression, hate, and all sorts of scandalous things that happened in my life and in the book that is traceable back to the September 1944 Battle of Peleliu.

RON CARLSON:
Yeah, that's interesting that you've used that as a galvanizing moment. The other moments in the current story are the father's involvement with the polio vaccine. Do you want to talk about that for a second?

PETER BAIRD:
Yeah, my father -- I had had polio, and I was crippled for about three and a half months, and then, shortly after that, the Salk vaccine came out. And my father was one of the physicians who was given the initial batch of Cutter Salk vaccine by the Cutter Laboratories, which had in it live virus. So he was injecting live polio virus into the children of our town. And you can imagine not only the tragedy of these children but how my father felt as having been the one who injected the virus into them. And that was a very poignant time in my life and for him, and it certainly did nothing to improve his disposition or his self-loathing or his depression.

RON CARLSON:
It's a powerful part of the book, too, a very tragic turn. The main character in the book, the person who wrote the letter that you read and so on, is a driven and very highly motivated, bright guy who becomes a lawyer.

PETER BAIRD:
Yes, he becomes a perfectionistic lawyer for whom perfection is absolutely essential in his life. Because his father insists upon perfection and punished imperfection, and so the only way he could remain safe with his father growing up was to be perfect at everything. And you can't do that. And so by the time the son is in practice in San Francisco at a large law firm in the middle of a huge case that goes to trial, he hears about his father, whom he has not heard from in decades -- or about his father. And the last part of the book is the interaction between the son, the lawyer son, and the doctor father. By that point, the doctor father is coming down with Alzheimer's, the son is imploding with his own problems. And then I did something in the book that I’ve never seen before, but I don't claim any insightful creation of it. But I decided that I could use e-mails as a way of creating a backstory to give the lawyer son an e-mail trail with his girlfriend, with his therapist, with his colleagues that would fill him out in terms of an emotionally flawed guy. And so the e-mails became a very important part of the book.

RON CARLSON:
It's an interesting -- e-mails are creeping into fiction more and more. We see it. He gets involved -- how would you describe, in a phrase or two, the father/son relationship?

PETER BAIRD:
Well, I would describe the father/son relationship up until the end to have been one of great distrust by the son, resentment, even hatred, and even a death wish for the father to die because the son couldn't take it anymore. And the son couldn't take what was -- what had happened to his mother at the hands of his father. The father, being the victim, -- unwitting victim – of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, really is unaware of what he is doing to himself or to others around him. He does love his son, but that is not apparent until near the very end.

RON CARLSON:
The son also is a lawyer. One of the big features of this book is this huge case with Shasta natural gas. And it must be very, very tempting, although possibly problematic, for a lawyer to want to use elements of the various cases you're involved in.

PETER BAIRD:
Yeah, well, it was almost irresistible, because I find that lawyers under the pressure of trial tend to expose inadvertently their own flaws, their own sometimes narcissism, sometimes their aggressions in ways that are very telling about what their problems are, what their background has been, and I wanted the crucible of a trial to bring out in the son the inherited, almost genealogic flaws from the Battle of Peleliu, the wound to the hand, and the father who's suffered from it since Peleliu.

RON CARLSON:
Right. The...what -- I meet a lot of lawyers at conferences where I teach and so on. There's always five or six of twelve people, writers, mid-career novelists desiring to write a book. Here you are, you did it. You worked on this book for those years, you've written and published this book. It's full-bodied, it has these characters, it's dramatic. Let's talk about what advice would you give to these people, these men and women -- some of them -- I mean, not necessarily lawyers but people who have had other professions and are going to step into a book. What would you not do again Or --

PETER BAIRD:
Well, there are so many things I would not do again. I would first -- I read probably 100 to 150 books about how to write.

RON CARLSON:
Okay.

PETER BAIRD:
I learned about writing about sex. At first it was "he entered her," or "they did it," "he did it," "they both liked it," that kind of thing. And so I found a book by a professor at Princeton by the name of Elizabeth Benedict called How to Write About Sex, because sex is not, of course, a freestanding thing. It is a deep reflection of the people, their crises, and problems. I would read every book I could find. The next thing I would do is don't sit and try to make up anything. Your imagination needs to be fed. It needs to be fed with research into the people, the scenes, the crises. Even the legal trial that I wrote about just didn't come out of -- I mean, I had to do a lot of research about that and California and pipeline explosions and all of that.

RON CARLSON:
It's quite a drama unto itself, that little case, and the two attorneys, and it's very carrying.

PETER BAIRD:
Well, the courtroom scene was easy because it's Q & A for me, but the creation of the characters and the perjury and the collisions that go on, again, to try to bring out of the character of David McQuade the genealogic, the psychological impact. But I would also emphatically say to any would-be writer not just write what you know, which is an old saying, but to never give up. I wrote a piece for Writer's Digest magazine on "rejectionology," and I am a certified "rejectionologist," having been rejected by so many judges, juries, clients, women, you name it.

RON CARLSON:
I understand that.

PETER BAIRD:
And editors. And to buy a book called rotten rejections. It will help every would-be writer get through the pain and the agony of rejection, because it has all of those wonderful stories about famous, accomplished writers who had their teeth kicked in by editors.

RON CARLSON:
Yep, I’ve seen that book. Well, I'm so happy that you prevailed and I'm so glad to have met you and had this chance to talk to you about this fascinating book. Congratulations.

PETER BAIRD:
Well, thank you.

RON CARLSON:
We've been talking with Peter Baird about his novel Beyond Peleliu. I'm Ron Carlson. This has been Books & Co. We hope you join us next time.

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