Give us the elevator pitch for your book.
In the wake of my mother’s death, I uncovered boxes of letters, declassified CIA reports, and newspaper clippings that brought to light a family ghost: my uncle Jack, who disappeared during the CIA-led “Secret War” in Laos in 1972. The letters led me across Southeast Asia in search of the truth that eluded my family for decades.
On the night of March 29, 1972, Jack’s plane vanished over the mountains bordering Vietnam. The crash eerily echoed the one his father, Ed Pearce, survived over Germany in WWII, when Ed parachuted out of a burning plane before being captured and sent to Stalag 17 prison camp.
Years later, Ed will become convinced that his son is still alive and that the U.S. government he fought for was lying to him. An excavation of intergenerational trauma on a personal and national scale, WHAT WE INHERIT reveals the power of a father’s refusal to be silenced and a daughter’s quest to rediscover her voice in the wake of loss. As I near the last known place Jack was seen alive, I come closer to understanding the mystery that has haunted my family—and the lasting
What were your plans for book launch pre-COVID?
This pandemic has impacted so many lives and I worry daily about friends working in hospitals to keep us all safe. The amount of checking in that loved ones have been doing is inspiring, and I hope we all continue to support one another like this once it’s over.
My first job in New York City was in book publicity at St. Martin’s Press, and my favorite thing to do for my authors was plan their book tours. I was so excited to finally be going on my own! For my debut, my publisher and I planned an 11-city tour. We had a dream launch planned in The Strand Bookstore’s Rare Book Room with Kate Bolick, an author who, like me, lost her mother at 23 and who grew up in the next town over, reading Wharton and dreaming of being a writer. I had listened to so many of my idols speak surrounded by those leather-bound books, and I hope I’ll get the chance to greet readers there one day when this is all over.
I was supposed to be on a memoir panel at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books with Pico Iyer, Brandon Shimoda, Susan Straight, and Victoria Redel, which I’m hoping still happens in October during the rescheduled festival.
My hometown was hosting an event at Town Hall put on by my public high school and local library (shout out to the G.A.R. Memorial Library in West Newbury!). Many of those people knew and loved my Mom, and I’m looking forward to reading her story aloud and reliving some of her best days with them in the future.
I had plans to crash on the couches of friends in Nashville for an event at Parnassus Books, in D.C. for an event at Politics & Prose, in Chicago for a reading at City Lit Books, in San Francisco for a night at Green Apple Books, in Philadelphia at Shakespeare & Company, and in Boston for a reading at Trident Booksellers. I’m hoping that some of these gatherings can still happen for the paperback next year, because there are a lot of people I want to hug and thank.
My publisher, Olivia Taylor Smith at Unnamed Press, has been incredible at booking a virtual tour for WHAT WE INHERIT. I’ve gone live with Zibby Owens, am talking to you here, and will be on Janklow & Nesbit TV on Thursday, April 23rd (follow along @JanklowNesbit). I’m excited to be part of the now-online-only Newburyport Literary Festival on April 25th with Kate Bolick and the Living Room Sessions LIVE on April 26th. I’m also thrilled to be part of the first-ever Together-Remotely, an international literary festival headlined by authors like Colum McCann and Andrew Sean Greer, on Thursday, May 14th. I’ll be giving a special pre-pub day preview with giveaway on 4/20 over at @SpiveysBookClub, and am taking over the Instagram account for the Chicago Review of Books from 4/30-5/5 (follow along @ChicagoRevBooks).
Where were you when you heard your book tour/ launch was cancelled?
I was in bed and received a phone call from a friend. My phone was lighting up with texts.
“I’m so sorry, Jess.”
“That your launch has been cancelled.”
“It’s likely going to be, but we haven’t heard back yet.”
I logged onto Facebook, a site I’d been trying to avoid for the past few days. The event invite was cancelled with no note. I received messages from friends with questions about rescheduling and refunds and delivering books to those who ordered. I then saw an article saying that most of the store’s staff had been laid off. I was heartbroken for them. So many independent bookstores have been impacted by this, and I don’t think we’ll know the full effect on them for some time.
What went into writing and selling your book?
I spent a decade researching and writing WHAT WE INHERIT. Much about what happened in Laos has only recently been declassified, and getting CIA officers, refugees, and former soldiers on the record about their role in the war was a slow exercise in trust-building. Between 1964 and 1973, the United States dropped two and a half million tons of bombs over Laos, or a planeload of bombs every eight minutes, twenty-four hours a day, for nine years. My uncle was one of the Americans dropping those bombs. Meeting with people who survived the attacks drove home for me the need to make this book reach as many people as possible so that what happened in Laos does not remain shrouded in secrecy, like it was in my own family.
My family’s letters became a road map through my own grief, leading me to parts of Laos rarely seen by Westerners, a place where unexploded bombs still lurk in the soil fifty years after my uncle left them there. My friend Liz and I got into unmarked white vans with strangers and snuck into parks off-limits to foreigners in search of my uncle’s crash site. We made unlikely allies in the descendants of the villagers my uncle was bombing, saw prosthetic limbs sized for children, and were struck by seeing laundry lines with children’s Superman pajamas strung across bomb craters—uneasy reminders of the American presence there.
The path to publication was long. My agent, Allison Hunter, came close to selling the book in 2014. We had seven meetings with major publishers in New York but were ultimately told that books about war by women don’t sell; that it couldn’t be a memoir about a secret war and grief at once. But my grandfather didn’t give up easily, and neither did I. I reworked the books’ structure, alternating between my modern-day trip across Southeast Asia and my grandfather’s David and Goliath battle with the government in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Allison never, ever gave up on me.
The book found a home in 2019, and I’m so grateful that fate brought me to Olivia Taylor Smith and Unnamed Press. The best day was getting a blurb from Ron Chernow, the author of Alexander Hamilton, who completely got what the book was trying to do: “A beautiful amalgam of memoir, travelogue, and investigative report that moves with the propulsive forward energy of a thriller. WHAT WE INHERIT is a haunting chronicle of loss and redemption.” That blurb went on the cover! We were lucky enough to also earn blurbs from Salman Rushdie, Kate Bolick, Sebastian Junger, Jennifer Pastiloff, Eva Hagberg, Joel Whitney, and Claire Bidwell Smith, all authors I admire and reached out to personally.
I recorded the audiobook the week before New York City shut down and feel grateful that I was able to narrate my family’s story.
Spending ten years not giving up on a project, then having it come out during a global pandemic initially felt like another type of loss, but if I’ve learned anything from my family, it’s that in challenging times, it’s more important than ever to engage with the world. It’s the stories of strength that keep us going, and my grandfather and mother’s determination lives on in this book.
What is the weirdest job you held on your path to publication?
When I made the trip to Laos to research the book, I was an editor at The Huffington Post. I spent ten-hour workdays submerged in editing pieces by women about everything from dating advice for twenty-somethings to parenting and aging to tips on Alzheimer’s caregiving. My special area of coverage was breast cancer, the disease that killed my mother. I would edit story after story about women losing their mothers, about sisters getting sick. I digitally cropped photos of women in soft hats, stopping myself just short of imagining Mom’s.
On good days, those women felt like family. I worked with them on their stories of IVF and childbirth and rediscovering their spouses once their kids moved away. It was a chorus of women’s voices I wanted so badly in my life. It was only when I stopped working that I realized the stories were not mine; that, cut off from my mother, I felt unable to advance in anything but work. The privilege of getting to edit those strong women drove me to keep writing WHAT WE INHERIT. I’d wake up at 5 a.m. to work on my mother’s and grandfather’s story before switching to editing the stories of my writers at 7. Several of them—like Glennon Doyle and Aidan Donnelly Rowley—are now successful authors, and it’s been exciting to cheer them on and celebrate their achievements.
What do you want readers to take away from your book?
I’ve thought of my grandfather often during the current pandemic, vacillating between wanting to know how he would have reacted to all this and being grateful he did not live to see it. (The Great Depression, World War II, and losing a son in Vietnam seemed to be enough pain for several lifetimes.) Still, I keep returning to a story he told me about Stalag 17. Grandpa Ed was confined to a cell packed with starving men, little food, and facing frostbite. Each night, my grandfather read to his fellow prisoners from a prayer book, the same one my mother would later hold in her hands as she underwent treatment for stage IV cancer. Mom underlined one line that reverberates across the decades: “Fear thou not; for I am with thee: be not dismayed… I will strengthen thee.” I don’t know if Mom read those words to feel closer to God or closer to her father; all I know was that they drew her out of her ailing body and into a place of hope. My grandfather could have been killed by his captors for reading aloud, but in a landscape of so much death, his actions were a defiant reminder of life. He’d later fight for his son as hard as he fought for his own sanity and the sanity of the men confined, like him, to an uncertain future.
The present moment is full of anxiety. It would be easy to turn to alcohol or anger—or angry tweeting, an outlet that was not available to my grandfather. But there is another way, a way that reminds me of what my grandfather did in World War II.
When asked about why he continued to picket the White House years after the war, my grandfather would say: “I want to do something for our grandchildren, so they’ll never have to deal with something like this.” My grandfather could no more protect his grandchildren than he could protect his own son. Each generation has to face its own fears, though we can draw on the people who came before us for strength.
What’s your favorite Indie Book store?
I’m lucky enough to live within walking distance of three incredible bookstores in Brooklyn: Books Are Magic, The Center for Fiction, and Greenlight Bookstore. I often write from The Center for Fiction and love the intimate readings at Books Are Magic and Greenlight. When I first came to New York, I’d go to every single reading I could; I was 21 and hungry and they were free (and often had free snacks!). On a more serious note, coming from a small town, it felt like impossibly good luck that so many of my literary idols were in the same place. I spent any extra money I had on books, and I cherish the signed copies from those early days from Toni Morrison, James Salter, and Umberto Eco.
Can you recommend one other debut?
My friend Melissa Rivero’s The Affairs of the Falcóns. It’s a timely, gorgeously written novel about an undocumented woman who fled Peru with her family and the lengths she goes to build a life for them in New York City.