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Interview: Timothy Dean Martin, author, Mental Hygiene

Timothy Martin made his first writing mark as a lyricist, penning several national pop hits during the 1970s and 1980s. Now, he returns with his debut novel, Mental Hygiene, based in part on his experiences in a Mental Hygiene Clinic while serving in the U.S. Army in the late 1960s. In this interview, Tim describes not only his novel and the circumstances surrounding it, but also the process of integrating life experiences into fiction — and, most significantly, some of the haunting similarities between what is happening with returning troops from Afghanistan and Iraq, and those who returned from Vietnam. Most specifically, as it concerns post-traumatic stress syndrome and traumatic brain injury.

Q: In what ways did you incorporate your personal experience in the Army with the story of Mental Hygiene?

A: Many of the characters were based on real people with whom I served in a Mental Hygiene Clinic at Fort Jackson, S.C. in 1967-68.  The historical perspective was easy because sociological events like wars, riots, assassinations, and the like, embed themselves in one’s moral consciousness.  Many people have asked me if Michael Murphy, the protagonist, is based on me. Michael and I shared the same experience of losing our innocence, so there is that similarity.    

Q: One of the fun aspects of the book that struck me as really unique — and positive  — was creating a relationship between Murphy and a young hippie woman. In the ’60s, the hippie and military cultures were polar opposites, yet your characters found a common bond: love.  Could you elaborate on what you saw in the hippie culture as a young serviceman?

A: When I was drafted, I considered myself a post-beat era poet.  In my mind, post-beat morphed into the hippie generation.  I was definitely not military material but unwilling to run to Canada. The hippie culture, big on the west coast, was an anomaly in South Carolina.  Nonetheless, thanks to the draft they imported it.  Coffee houses like the UFO in downtown Columbia were magnets for artists, writers, and counter-culture types who were draftees from all over the Eastern Seaboard.  That’s what led to the start of the anti-war movement inside the military.  As the Vietnam War became unpopular, the movement became emboldened.  Peace, love, and rednecks; what a combination.

Q: Mental Hygiene offers a perspective on the Vietnam War that is completely different from other books that have come out on the subject. What knowledge did we have in the psych wards about PTSD, traumatic brain injury and other brain-oriented afflictions at that time?

A: I don’t think it was a matter of knowledge that was the problem, although amateurs like me had no business treating mental illness.  I was an English major, for God’s sake!  Luckily, I had quality psychiatrists to consult with, and a referral procedure.  Mindset was the big issue then and now; the culture of the military.  It’s difficult to diagnose the patient when the beast needs to be fed.  We had half a million troops in Vietnam, so careful diagnosis got put on the back burner.

Q: One thing that’s never talked about, but you subtly alluded to, was the down time between battles in Vietnam — and how that messed with soldiers’ minds. How does the down time in a war affect one’s psyche?

A: The best depiction of down time I’ve read is in the novel Matterhorn by Karl Malantes.  The description of living in the bush in Vietnam is soul eroding.  In the Afghanistan conflict, soldiers in the Korengal Valley go about their daily routine while being constantly attacked.  It’s no wonder that the rates of PTSD and suicide are skyrocketing.  Sebastian Junger wrote a book titled War and made a companion documentary, Restrepo, which deals with the stresses ever present in that war zone.  Imagine a fifteen-month tour of duty waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Q: I find Mental Hygiene to be an important book today, with so many veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan coming home with everything from PTSD to traumatic brain injuries and the like. What are the similarities and differences in the way we need to care for these veterans from what you experienced in the Vietnam era?

A: In the Vietnam Era, PSTD was largely ignored by the military.  We lost a generation of men who have never recovered.  It’s a disgraceful reminder and lesson that we still seem to be ignoring.  Until 2006, when the Hartford Courant published a major news story, PSTD and the alarming suicide rate among returning soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan was largely ignored in the national press.  Today, the military and present Administration are making bolder proposals about mental health treatment.  Whether they will bear responsibility and provide funds for more personnel is unclear, in my opinion.

Q: That’s an interesting point. After otherwise thoroughly enjoying the colorful, entertaining story that is Mental Hygiene, I felt a sense of deja vu, that we’ve been down this road before with PTSD.

A: It doesn’t help that the Army’s stance has been to discount PTSD whenever possible in treatment of returning veterans, according to reliable reports.  Nothing that I know of has been done to address the “culture” in the military that encourages soldiers to minimize mental health problems.  Returning troops are not routinely given a face-to-face interview with mental health personnel, although some reports state that as many as 30% of them suffer from PTSD in some form.

Q: You’ve decided to carry on Murphy’s story in a second book. Without giving up too much detail, where will we find him heading in his post-Army life?

A: Murphy will be heading for the music business circa 1969.  It’s just your everyday story involving sharks in tie-dye, lunatics running the asylum, and staggering one’s way to the top, a perfect Michael Murphy environment.

Q: You’ve got quite a diverse writing background. You were quite successful as a songwriter in the ’70s and ’80s. Who were some of the bigger acts to which you supplied songs?

A: I wrote songs in an era when recording artists weren’t necessarily songwriters.  It gave me the opportunity and privilege of writing for a diverse group of artists including David Clayton Thomas of Blood, Sweat & Tears, C.W. McCall, the DeFranco Family, John Davidson, Cilla Black, the Outlaws, Manfred Mann, and a host of others.  It was a fun ride.

Q: You’re also a very good poet, which I find can work hand-in-hand with strong fiction writing. Could you briefly discuss how the precision, voice and feel of poetry correlates — or differs — from what you’re trying to achieve in your fiction?

A: Poetry has its own language.  For me, there’s no room to maneuver in the heart of a poem.  It’s your entire life on stage alone.  It takes a special courage.  Fiction, at least the way I write it, is like a dance or sometimes like trying to get cats to march in a parade.  It moves outside of me and tells me what happens next.

Q: Tell us about the Wounded Warrior Project how it’s going so far.

A: The mission of the Wounded Warrior Project is to raise awareness and enlist the public’s aid for the needs of severely injured service men and women, It helps those service members aid and assist each other, and provides unique, direct programs and services to meet the needs of severely injured service members.  It’s a great non-profit organization that I can’t praise enough.  81% of donations go directly to their programs.

Q: Writing seems to continue in your family. Your daughter, Alwyn, is a fine up-and-coming short story and fiction writer.  Did you raise her in a household that honored literature and fine writing? Speaking of which, what authors proved to be the greatest influence in your development over the years?

A: Writing and books were always around the house.  Since I was a writer, my children got to see me expressing myself that way.  I think it took away the fear of failure that so many kids have when it comes to exporting their thoughts and feelings onto a written page.  Writers that have influenced me the most over the years: in poetry, Robert Creeley; in disciplined fiction, Hemingway; James Lee Burke for a good story; and the New York Times for great journalism.


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