Tuesday, February 06, 2007


It was the best of days and the worst of days.

Tipping out of a hotel room at midday, we made our way - via a quick lunch in a Greek restaurant - to the studios of Capital Public Radio in Sacramento to be interviewed live for the "Insight" programme hosted by Scots exile Jeffrey Callison.

Sitting in the green room, nervously clutching the extract from "Extraordinary People" that I was to read during the interview, I got distracted listening to the guest ahead of me. Her name was Kim Phuc. You might never have heard of her, but you've almost certainly seen her. She was the little girl on fire in the photograph taken during the Vietnam war following a napalm attack. She was running down the road towards the camera, arms raised, trying to escape the fire and the pain.

Miraculously she survived, but only because the man who took the photograph, Nick Ut, got her to a hospital. She had burns across nearly two thirds of her body, had something like seventeen operations, and was in hospital for a year-and-a-half. She was nine years old when it happened. The photographer now lives in Los Angeles, and they still keep in touch, talking by phone at least once a week.

When the Vietnamese government discovered some years later that the girl in the photograph was still alive, they attempted to exploit her for propaganda purposes, interrupting her medical studies at home to send her to Cuba to train in languages. There, she met her future husband - also a Vietnamese. They were told that they had to honeymoon in Moscow, but when the plane stopped to refuel in Canada, they took their chance to seek political asylum.

She has lived there, ever since, raising children, and only recently taking them back to Vietnam to visit the spot where she was pictured in flames.

As I sat listening, she recounted the story of her meeting with the man who had coordinated that napalm bombing mission in 1972. He asked if she could ever forgive him, and without hesitation she told him she had already done so.

She now runs an organisation that works to help children who are the victims of war.

There was something extraordinarily moving in her simple articulatation of the dreadful pain she suffered, and the difficult journey of her life from that moment to this. Her courage and suffering reduced my nerves at speaking on live radio to something considerably less than inconsequential.

So it was without fear that I read my piece and did my interview, reducing Jeffrey to open-mouthed amazement at the story of my pathology adviser, Dr. Steve Campman, and the French woman whose life he saved - all because of a scene I had written in "The Firemaker".

Off then, to a wine bar in downtown Sacramento called 58 degrees to discuss the promotion next year of the follow-up book to "Extraordinary People", which is set amongst the vineyards of southwest France. The book is already written, and plans for a uniquely different tour to promote it are fermenting nicely. And just to keep our discussions well lubricated we had a glass or three of excellent wine to wash down the words.

The book event at the Avid Reader in Davis that night was seriously quiet. The town was deserted. Monday evening, the day after the Super Bowl... maybe not the best time for a talk on mystery books set in France and China.

So we turned it into a drop-in signing, and I signed all the copies of "Extraordinary People", "The Fourth Sacrifice" and "The Firemaker" that the store had got in stock for the event. A signed book is a sold book, so all in all, we did not too badly.

And, you know, each time I think of that little girl, arms outstretched, running down the road, it puts all my troubles, whatever they might be, into their proper perspective.

(Copyright, Nick Ut/Associated Press)

1 comment:

Bacon Man said...

What a story. Bravo.