Jamie Corrigan’s troubled yet street-smart New York City upbringing by Irish Catholic immigrant parents shapes him into the hero he becomes, both during his tour in Vietnam and beyond, in Maureen Lutz’s historical novel Hero Can I Be. (Read our review here.)
And where did the author find the inspiration and research for her work? As she says, “I lived it.”
Lutz recently shed more light on the book, its themes and the turbulent time period in our history.
Q: Hero Can I Be is reminiscent of other stories about people from gritty neighborhoods thrown into war, only to return to a turbulent world. Would you liken your book to any other popular book or film?
A: There are too many for me to single out any in particular for comparison. The young men who were drafted and sent to Vietnam were born after World War II and grew up during a middle-class boom in the Fifties. When Korea came along, the country was still weary of war and wouldn’t let another foreign conflict disrupt their lives to the extent World War II had consumed Americans. War weariness morphed into scorn and disregard for the soldiers who fought in Vietnam. Anti-war demonstrations, along with other protest marches and civil unrest, turned all of America into a very “gritty” neighborhood.
Q: Where did you get the idea for the book?
A: I was fortunate over the years to share ideas with another aspiring author and Vietnam veteran, Vinny McGuire, who always wanted to write the great American novel about a New York street kid who lost his soul on the battlefield. As a young woman working in Manhattan during the crazy Sixties, I had firsthand experience with the political and cultural changes taking place in America. After Vinny died from pancreatic cancer in 2011, I decided to honor him and my husband Peter, also a Vietnam vet, by writing a story that would not only recognize them for their service, but offer the children and grandchildren of the Sixties generation a realistic depiction of the human drama of that era and how it impacted our lives then and since.
Q: How did your own upbringing and experiences influence the plot and the characters?
A: I lived it. I grew up in a middle-class New York neighborhood of semi-attached houses, street games, public transportation, big families, and too many kids jammed into small classrooms. Half of my education came from learning to fend for myself. After high school, I got a job, and while my future husband was in Vietnam ducking rockets and sniper fire, I was at happy hour in a Manhattan bar. Over the years I spent time with his buddies from Vietnam and realized that any story I wrote about the Sixties had to shine a light on their sacrifice and the obstacles they faced returning home. Every veteran who has read Hero Can I Be finds something that resonates personally — and I’m proud of that.
Q: It felt like the Roman Catholic influence was nuanced very well in the story, making it a part of Jamie without making it overbearing. Was that difficult to do?
A: The Baltimore catechism was the foundation of my grammar school education in the 1950s. Because of the post-war baby boom, the average class size was between 80 and 100 children. Our Irish pastor, Monsignor Flynn, never turned any child away even if it meant two kids had to share a desk. Catholic school was preferred by Catholic families regardless of whether a public school was just down the street. The high school I attended was an hour subway ride from home, but it was Catholic, and that was that! Catholicism will always be part of my identity, and I felt that it must also be so for my fictional Jamie Corrigan. Incorporating prayers and religious rituals when the story called for it came naturally to me.
Q: The struggle to stay sober, frequenting the bars, it all seemed realistic and very much of the times. It also felt unique to the family. How did you capture that so well?
A: My father was Irish and he had three brothers. When they got together, they would drink and burst into song. To my knowledge, they weren’t bar hoppers, though. A pint or six-pack of beer on payday was more likely. I grew up in an Irish-Italian family and everyone indulged, but I think the Irish liked to drink because it gave them the chance to spin Irish folktales. When I worked in Manhattan, I went on many a three-hour lunch, attended cocktail parties, and came to know several functioning alcoholics. I saw firsthand the dangers of the “demon-drink,” as Jamie called it, and drew upon those experiences for my novel. Sadly, one of my favorite Irish uncles was eventually debilitated by alcohol and died a lonely man.
Q: What would you want readers to take away from this story?
A: There is heroism in compassion. That is Jamie Corrigan’s message and the theme of Hero Can I Be. Even as a child I remember my mother saying at the dinner table that we had to eat everything because “there are starving children all over the world.” I, along with my siblings, was expected to consider the plight of others. The nuns taught us about religious missionaries in third world countries, and President Kennedy created the Peace Corps civilian missionaries. Jamie Corrigan proved himself to be a true hero because he was able to turn his focus from soldier-driven heroism to compassionate heroism, raising a close-knit family and choosing a career path that would help others fulfill their American dream.
Q: Do you have other projects in the works?
A: I have several, including a Christmas novella, which I just finished, a follow-up to Hero Can I Be about Jamie’s wife Maria and her struggle as a Latino woman in America, and finally a young adult novel about a boy and his horse, written in the voice of the horse — and why not?
Hero Can I Be is available for purchase.