'Matterhorn' author never gave up on Vietnam story

Bob Minzesheimer
USA Today
Talk about perseverance.

In 1977, Karl Marlantes, a former Marine and Rhodes Scholar, wrote a novel inspired by his combat in Vietnam.

This week, Matterhorn, rewritten many times, finally is being published — and it's being touted by booksellers as one of the season's top novels.

Marlantes endured three decades of rejections. At times, he says, "I couldn't get anyone to even read it to reject it."

At first he was told: "No one was interested. We had lost an unpopular war."

In the 1980s, "I was told Hollywood had already done it."

In the 1990s, he was told to switch his story to the Gulf War. A decade later, he was advised to set it in Afghanistan.

But Marlantes, 65, a Yale graduate awarded the Navy Cross and Bronze Star, knew what war was like in Vietnam's mountain jungles in a winter monsoon. That's the story he wanted to tell.

He worked as an energy consultant, got married and had five children, now ages 19 to 31. He says he worked on the novel on weekends and late at night. He had put it aside for as long as a year but kept coming back to it.

In 2007, a friend recommended El León Literary Arts, a non-profit publisher in Berkeley, Calif. An editor loved it and arranged to print 1,200 copies of a $25 paperback. Marlantes' only pay: 120 copies that "I could sell."

Before its release, his wife, Anne, suggested sending a copy to literary contests, saying, "at least they'll have to read it." That's how Sessalee Hensley, fiction buyer at the Barnes & Noble chain, ended up being "blown away" by it.

But she thought a $25 paperback was expensive and a tiny publisher couldn't meet the demand created by the chain's Discover New Writers program.

She alerted Morgan Entrekin, publisher of Grove/Atlantic, best known for Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain.

Entrekin ended up buying the unreleased copies of Matterhorn (now stored in a warehouse) and co-published a revised $24.95 hardcover, with 60,000 copies in print. He calls it "the most amazing story" of his 33 years in publishing. "Not just Karl's persistence. But that his book turned out so well. I think it's a classic."

Marlantes' first draft was 1,600 pages. The version for El León was 800. With a new editor, he cut it to 598 pages to speed up the pace of the plot.

Marlantes, of Woodinville, Wash., sees two lessons for other writers:

"Over the years, the book got better. I learned from reading the greats — Tolstoy and Flannery O'Connor and others — and asking, 'How did they do that?'

"And you've got to stay at the table. If you walk away, nothing will ever happen."