Sunday, March 3, 2013

Interview with Author Joe Carvalko

We Were Beautiful Once is a psychologically complex courtroom novel that builds an intriguing web of events, creating a sustained sense of anticipation from chapter to chapter in the mold of John Grisham’s The Pelican Brief, where trial lawyer Nick Castalano tries to uncover the fate of Roger Girardin, MIA during the Korean War, and discovers he may have been murdered in a POW camp by Trent Hamilton, a politician (sights on becoming governor) and businessman. Before the war, Jack O'Conner, Hamilton, Girardin and Julie, Girardin's girlfriend and Jack's sister, hung out. In part the story follows the lives of the survivors, who after the war, with Roger's disappearance and Jack and Trent having spent years in a North Korean hell-hole, change dramatically, notably Jack goes through life teetering on the edge of insanity (believing he may have killed Girardin) and that his murderous act will be discovered by his sister, who waits her entire life for Roger’s return.

What inspired you to write your first book?

Twenty-five years ago I tried a case against the government demanding an accounting of Roger Dumas a Korea War soldier it claimed was MIA. The trial followed years of cover-up by the Army and the CIA, however, I won the first Federal court ordered reclassification of a U.S. soldier from MIA to POW. A documentary "Missing, Presumed Dead: The Search For America's POWs" narrated by Ed Asner details my trial efforts. I fictionalized the events drawn around the case as tried, delving into the issues of PTSD and generally converting it into a mystery with many characters of a wide-expanse of time.

Do you have a specific writing style?

Here is what Da Chen wrote: “Carvalko writes with such convincing realism and lyricism that I was at once brought into the landscape of his literary vision and grip of his storytelling.  His prose is wiry and wise, steely yet soulful. His tales are tethered to real life, lived and thoroughly pondered.  In right light, he is a cross between James Patterson and Scott Turow, only wiser and much more generous.”  Chen is New York Times bestselling author of Colors of the Mountain, a memoir, Brothers, a novel, and My Last Empress, a novel.

How did you come up with the title?

It speaks to the deterioration in body and soul of those silently ravaged by war.

Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?

We abandon our children to demands that draft them into senseless wars and use their hands and minds for mayhem’s sake, and only in the accounting of those who survive into old age does it become apparent how beautiful they once were.

How much of the book is realistic?

Having tried many cases I use experiences from actual trials and create dramatic courtroom testimony that parallels events on the battlefield and in the prison camp. The juxtaposition of the courtroom and the battlefield makes the real seem surreal. In some sense it has the feel of The Rack, a 1956 movie where Paul Newman portrays an American soldier who collaborated with the Chinese while being held in a prison camp during the Korean war; or A Few Good Men where Tom Cruise cross-examines Jack Nicholson in defending Marines.

In addition to my knowledge of the trial, I researched the Korean War and use this in setting various battles, troop movements and troop surrenders. I have firsthand knowledge of the story’s settings, having made visits to Korea, working for a short while with the highest level of the Korean Department of Defense in Seoul. I am also a Cold War veteran of the Cuban Crisis, the Vietnam era and served in the Air Force with veterans of the Korean War. So, my story tracks the Korean War with a high degree of fidelity. There are many books about war, however relatively few about Korea. And, the recent success of James McBride’s The Miracle at St. Anna (WWII) leads me to conclude that there also may be a sizeable interest in the war that preceded Vietnam.

Are experiences based on someone you know, or events in your own life?

Base on the search for Roger Dumas, my experience growing up in the 50-60s in a rust belt town, my life as an 80s trial lawyer.

What books have most influenced your life most?

Jose Saramago’s the Blind, Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude

If you had to choose, which writer would you consider a mentor?


What book are you reading now?

Saramago’s The Elephant’s Journey

Are there any new authors that have grasped your interest?

Da Chen

What are your current projects?

Writing a memoire in Poetry—The Interior

Name one entity that you feel supported you outside of family members.

MFA program at Fairfield U.

Do you see writing as a career?


If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in your latest book?

Would have pared down a few pages, would have been even more lyrical, but many publishers apparently do not prefer it as much as they prefer pulp.

Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?

I came from hard-headed disciplines, engineering, science and law. My career was filled with successful and failed inventors, corporate flights of fancy, mergers, law suits and high rollers who gamed the system. Since I was a very young man, my retreat had always been creative nonfiction, fiction and poetry.

Can you share a little of your current work with us? Here is a short poem from The Interior


Odysseus and Penelope

At nineteen, rebellious, blackboard jungle funk, joy
rheostat—zero. Dig-it Daddio?  Cool gloom,
smog in the noggin, stumblin’ through soda-jerk jobs,
joined Uncle Sam. One last time, me, my Chevy,
Penelope, blue ’52, skirts, whitewalls,
’47 Caddy V-8, two glasspacks, cruised
the drag, leavin’ behind drive-ins, S.S. Kresges,
the spent on Railroad Ave., the rich on Country Club
Road, landmarks memorized so like Odysseus,
I could return to the familiar and old, but
after “the War” it took fifty years to come back by
then town’d vanished in the wake of pot-holes, fifty
gallon drums, fast food wrappers, my Penelope,
raindrops streakin’ her windshield on a cloudless day.

Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?

Every piece of it is a struggle!

Who is your favorite author and what is it that really strikes you about their work?

Do you have to travel much concerning your book(s)?

Not now, having traveled to every continent except Antarctica and Australia. I anticipate traveling to venues to roll out the book.
Who designed the covers?

Eugenia Kim at GKGraphics

What was the hardest part of writing your book?

There are a lot of characters, lots of time periods, many settings, so getting the main character to come out of the weeds was hardest.

Did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?

Do you have any advice for other writers?

Ernest Hemingway once wrote,

"There are some things which cannot be learned quickly, and time, which is all we have, must be paid heavily for their acquiring. They are the very simplest things, and because it takes a man’s life to know them the little new that each man gets from life is very costly and the only heritage he has to leave."

I believe in perseverance, seeking help, reading about and practicing what makes writing come to life--it takes one's entire life before we can measure just how far we get.