Ward Just: “I had always had a novel in my bottom drawer, the way all newspaper reporters of my generation did.”


From The Writer’s Almanac:

It’s the birthday of American writer Ward Just, born in 1935 in Michigan City, Indiana. He is best known for his novels Echo House (1997), An Unfinished Season (2004), and American Romantic (2014), which explore the influence of politics on personal lives. Just was born into journalism: his grandfather, and then his father, published the Waukegan News-Sun in Illinois, and Just began his own career as a journalist for that newspaper. He later became a correspondent for Newsweek and served as the Washington Post’s point man in Vietnam.

Just said, “I had always had a novel in my bottom drawer, the way all newspaper reporters of my generation did.” He attempted to write a novel in the early 1960s, but quit because he felt he didn’t know enough about life. He said: “I think there are great natural geniuses who don’t have to know anything — it’s all in their head. I’m not that way. I have to see things. After I got back from Vietnam, I believed that I really knew quite a lot.”

In 1966, Just was seriously wounded by a grenade while covering a patrol in the Central Highlands. He refused to be airlifted out until all the enlisted men who were similarly wounded were airlifted to safety. He was 31 years old, embedded and entrenched in a war that he found increasingly morally wrong. Vietnam turned him from fact to fiction. He said, “It was an absolute wilderness of mirrors out there.” After he left Vietnam, he published a well-regarded memoir, To What End: Report from Vietnam, about his 18 months as a Vietnam war correspondent for the Washington Post.

On war writing, he said: “You could write stories without going to the front. The trouble is, they wouldn’t be very good stories. You had to see how the thing was done. You couldn’t get that out of a five o’clock briefing.”

His first four novels “came hard” and made little money, until his collection The Congressman Who Loved Flaubert: And Other Washington Stories (1973) changed everything. Just had found his subject and his style, capturing the syntax of Washington, D.C., and the delicate mechanics of politics, beginning a long series of works that became known as the “Washington Novels.”. . .

Ward Just died in December of last year.

Also see a 2015 post headlined “Ward Just continues to write very well, one sentence at a time.”

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