Declassified: An Interview with Jessica Pearce Rotondi




JESSICA PEARCE ROTONDI’S first book comes gift-wrapped in some pretty sparkly paper: a starred Kirkus review; glowing blurbs from renowned literary truth-tellers Sebastian Junger, Ron Chernow, and Salman Rushdie.

The praise is well deserved. Everything about What We Inherit is unexpected and compelling, starting with its multi-genre crossover appeal, encompassing true crime, war story, historical investigation, and family memoir.

The backstory dictated the book’s structure, and its thriller-like narrative tension. Now 34, Rotondi grew up knowing only one thing about her mother’s brother, Jack, whose name seemed to make the air sizzle on the rare occasions it was spoken: Uncle Jack went MIA in the Vietnam War in the early 1970s. 

In 2009, when her mother died of cancer, Rotondi found boxes of CIA reports, letters, and maps that told a different story about Uncle Jack. Turns out his plane had gone down over Laos during the secret American bombing campaign. Unbeknownst to her, her family had been engaged in their own campaign, trying to wrest the truth of Jack’s whereabouts from the US government.

Realizing that her mother’s entire life had been absorbed by this secret, Rotondi took up the torch of her forebears’ obsession. Clues lead her, and the reader, to the ultimate revelation of her uncle’s fate.

“Jack came surging back into my life hours after Mom left it,” Rotondi writes in the book’s opening pages about the discovery of the documents that changed the course of her life. “There are quotes from Mom in these pages, photos of her holding signs about her missing brother as she marches in Washington. How had I never seen these before? […] The closest I thought I’d been to the CIA was watching spy movies on TV.” 

As Rotondi draws closer to the deceptions not only of the CIA but of her closest relations, she weaves a tale as breathtaking as any spy movie — and with deeper questions asked, if not answered.

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MEREDITH MARAN: Your book — and years of your life — center on the mystery of your uncle’s disappearance during the CIA’s “secret war” in Laos in 1972. Describe the moment when you first decided to make this mystery yours to solve. Was that the same moment when you decided to write the book? 

JESSICA PEARCE ROTONDI: I lost my mother when I was 23. The day she died, I found myself staring into her closet. When I moved some hangers aside, I found boxes of declassified CIA documents and letters about her brother Jack, all pointing to her obsessive hunt for him that occupied almost 40 years of her life. My discovery made me realize that while my mother was teaching me to walk, then drive, she was carrying this unresolved grief about her brother’s disappearance — and also her hope that he would be found. The fact that she’d kept such a huge part of her life from me was astounding. This was the bolded message I had been looking for, and I knew instantly that I would do everything in my power to complete her search.

How much of your uncle’s story did you know before you found the documents?

I grew up knowing one thing about my uncle Jack: that he disappeared during the Vietnam War and never came home. Once I learned about my family’s 36-year battle with the government for answers, I was even more determined to find out what really happened to Jack.

What We Inherit is an incredibly ambitious journalistic and literary undertaking. How did your previous writing and editing projects prepare you, and not prepare you, to take this project on?

The book spans four decades and follows three generations of my family in our hunt for Jack: my World War II veteran grandfather; my mother, protesting in Paris and Washington in the ’70s; and my modern-day trek across Southeast Asia. I never would have been able to present these multiple perspectives if I hadn’t been a reader and editor first.

My time as an editor at HuffPost was critical to my development as a writer. I published a chorus of women’s voices — voices I wanted so badly to hear. The more time I spent among their stories, the more fully I was able to inhabit my family’s. In 2006, I received a research grant to launch an oral history project on World War II. I spent a summer in the homes and nursing homes of veterans. I drew upon that time heavily when I began interviewing Vietnam-era veterans and writing investigative pieces for The History Channel, where I’m now a regular contributor and editor. The years I spent writing in these seemingly disparate genres helped me create a book where three narratives could coexist and fortify one another.

Was there a point in the research when you realized the magnitude of what you’d taken on? Did you ever consider stopping?

The research took 10 years and was the most rewarding part of the process. I found 13 declassified reports about Jack, many of them contradictory. I embedded them throughout the book, so the reader comes upon a newly discovered passport photo or censored CIA document when the characters do.

Much of what happened in Laos has only recently been declassified. Getting CIA officers, refugees, and former soldiers to talk about their roles in the war was a slow exercise in trust-building. It also led to some incredible conversations. A former CIA officer described parties in Vientiane where representatives from warring countries would drink whiskey at night, then try to kill each other the next day.

What made you decide to follow in your grandfather’s footsteps and go to Laos?

I never learned about Laos or even much about the Vietnam War in school. So in 2013, when I found photos of my grandfather that had been taken in 1973 in Thailand and Laos, I decided to go. I cashed in every US savings bond my grandfather had ever given me to buy the plane ticket. I had done hundreds of hours of research, but they didn’t prepare me for what I saw there. Americans call the bombing of Laos the “Secret War,” but in Laos, the evidence of it is everywhere. Museums are dedicated to the Lao victory. Bomb craters pock people’s front yards. Undetonated American bombs left behind still kill 50 people a year, many of them children.

Going to Laos and asking questions was risky. Reporting news that “weakens the state” carries a jail sentence of up to one year. Defamation is a criminal offense punishable by imprisonment or death. European journalists reporting on the war in 2003 were jailed for it. But the American government had sanitized their story about US involvement in Laos, and I was determined to learn the truth.

What was the highest moment of writing the book? The lowest? 

The best moment was when I was going through old documents and Jack’s dog tags slid out from between the sheets of paper. I knew Jack had touched them, and so had my grandfather and my mother. It was such an incentive to keep going and tell this story.

The lowest point was in October 2014, when my agent, Allison Hunter, came close to selling the book, but one by one, the bidders pulled out. We were told that books about war by women don’t sell, and that a book couldn’t be both a memoir and a reported war story. Luckily, Allison never gave up on the project. She sold it to Unnamed Press in October 2018.

What do you hope readers will take away from the book? 

I have a friend who’s an ER doctor in New York City. Her job these days includes holding iPads for dying patients so they can say goodbye. As isolated as we are today, I hope the book will encourage readers to talk with the people they love about things that really matter.

How do you feel about the years you spent trying to bring closure to your family’s story?

My 20s and the first part of my 30s were devoted to this book. I felt enormous pressure to finish it before I could start anything else. I used to be hard on myself for not finishing sooner, but now I believe that all those years of struggling and failing made the book stronger. Learning how Mom dealt with Jack’s disappearance gave me the chance to “meet” her at my age. Understanding who she was at 21 helped me deal with losing her when I was 23. When I was recording the audiobook, I felt a tremendous weight lifting from my body. As if, in speaking the story out loud, I was free to start the next chapter of my life.

How did researching and writing this book change you as a writer?

I wrote multiple, very different drafts of this book. Sometimes I made changes because new information was declassified or I got a new source — which felt crushing after investing so much time in each draft, but also necessary. While working on the book, I supported myself writing copy for brands like SoulCycle and P&G. The copywriting taught me not to become too attached to a single line or phrase, to get comfortable changing point of view and tense and structure. That freedom has stayed with me.

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Meredith Maran, www.meredithmaran.com, is the author of a dozen books including The New Old Me and Why We Write. She’s a contributor to The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and many other publications. 

 

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