Mark and I have been assembling, discussing, ordering, and editing his writing about his two tours in Vietnam for a little over a year now. We have taken care of the thorniest problems, come to agreements about what to leave in and what to delete, and now it is mostly a question of me working my editing magic on the rest.
Our friend Fred has asked us several times how we make it work and I haven’t known how to answer. Any successful collaboration – which I define as one in which the partners manage not to kill each other while producing a finished project – capitalizes on strengths while finding ways to defuse weaknesses. Of course, by that definition, the jury is still out.
Mark lives two days drive from my house. He makes that drive every month, more or less, and stays for a week. When we started doing this, the work was highly emotional. He was entrusting a story to me that he had kept mostly to himself for decades. I was being handed a project unlike any I had ever done before, one that was difficult for me to engage. He had lived the story and now had to re-live it. As an editor and storyteller, I had to learn how to take the story on without taking it in. I had to come to know the story so well I could spot inconsistencies or errors in chronology and at the same time respect that the story was not mine.The process meant learning to trust – on both our parts. I had to trust that Mark would respect my opinion, even if he disagreed with it. Mark had to trust that I would at all times have the best interest of the story at heart.
So how have we done it?
We laugh a lot. I can’t over-emphasize the importance of this. We laugh about wordplay, about the cats, about shared experiences that are now in-jokes, about each other’s foibles, about the foibles of people in the story. We see the humor in life, from the grimly absurd to the suddenly delightful.
We take things seriously. We laugh, but we are not trivializing. The issues we are dealing with are sober, horrifying, maddening, chaotic. Sometimes the story will take one or the other of us by surprise, ambush our vulnerabilities, make us cry. We just accept that when it happens, bow to it, honoring it. We don’t live in that past now and yet that past still lives. We don’t just “put it behind us.” We think about it.
We take breaks. We visit friends, drink wine under the arbor, go to Wegmans. We drove over to Seneca Lake once, had lunch, and then drove north and back down the east side of Cayuga. Another time we made a day trip to the Erie Canal.
We watch movies. I have seen more movies since this project began than in the whole of the rest of my life, it seems. Mark comes with DVDs, enough for the week. We have seen classics – Maltese Falcon, From Here to Eternity, Blow-Up. Once we watched Seven Samurai one night and The Magnificent Seven the next. But there are also science fiction movies, some of them surprisingly wonderful and others … well … Devil Girl From Mars, for instance…
We cook together. In many ways we have very different ways of eating. Mark doesn’t eat breakfast unless I put it in front of him. I have to have protein. I eat just about every vegetable there is (with the possible exception of okra). Mark has a short list of approved veggies and he wants nothing to do with mustard. But we share a passion for curry. At least once, usually more, we make curry for dinner. Indian, Vietnamese, Sri Lankan, Burmese – just about anything with spices. We find most ingredients at Wegmans and most of the rest at the Asian market. Occasionally we have to make substitutions or wait to find something – kaffir lime leaves, for instance, or curry leaves. Mostly we make dishes that are about as good as anything we have ever eaten – like the Ginger Chicken in the picture. I believe that food is a universal language, bringing people of different cultures together. Now I think food also has the power to balance out intense emotions. Garlic, chilis, ginger, and cumin root us again to the earth, get our feet back on the ground.
We keep going. Somehow we decided to start this and now we have decided to finish.
Ginger Chicken from Real Vietnamese Cooking: Homestyle Recipes from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh, the new cookbook by Tracey Lister of Hanoi Cooking Centre. Photo by Mark.