Z.O.S. - KAY MERKEL BORUFF
Z.O.S.is a memoir of Sex Blood Money and the CIA in Southeast Asia. Kay Merkel Boruff tells the story from her perspective of wife and widow of an Air America pilot killed during covert operations in Laos. She takes the reader there as only one who has been there can. You experience the highs, understand the efforts to escape the constant fear of the dangerous reality these American heroes face daily, feel the anguish of her loss and the isolation of the “zone of silence” she is required to live in for the rest of her life.
MM:Thanks for joining me for another interview. This time we're talking with the author of Z.O.S., Kay Merkel Boruff. Kay, welcome to MartinMatthewsWrites.
KMB: Thanks, Martin. What a pleasure to be at Martin Matthews Writes!
MM: The pleasure is all mine, for sure. Tell us a little about yourself, Kay.
KMB: I was raised in Wichita Falls Texas and went to school in Fort Worth. I had a nervous breakdown my junior year at TCU. Then I married and moved to a War Zone. Merk and I lived in Sai-Gon May 1968 after the bad TET to Nov 1969. The chopper pilots were transferred to Udorn Thailand where Merk was stationed in the AF. He flew in Laos, but his career was classified. His career with Air America was not classified. We lived three months Nov to Feb 1970 when Merk was killed flying in Laos. I returned to Dallas, taught Middle School English 1973 to 2010 at The Hockaday School, a 104 yr old girls’ school. I taught the Perot daughters, Stanley Marcus granddaughters, and the Bush twins. Then I volunteered 6 years at the Veterans Recovery Center. A fellow Viet-Nam Veteran and I created a Drama Therapy Program for Veterans with PTSD and drug addictions. I was fortunate to go to Angkor Wat in 2002, to Israel, Paris, and Amsterdam in 2010, to study with Robert Olen Butler in France 2011, attend Burning Man in 2012, and climb Machu Picchu and Wayna Picchu in 2016.
MM: So your book, Z.O.S. has just been released not long ago. The title means Zone of Silence, right? It's a deeply personal book. Tell us a little about it.
KMB:Z.O.S. is a genre-bending memoir about being the wife of an Air America pilot killed during the Vietnam conflict. The major themes are love, loss, recovery, and carpe diem—be joyful and eat chocolate every day.
MM:What was it like, living through that time period?
KMB: My husband, Merk, and I lived in Sai-Gon May 1968 after the bad TET to Nov 1969. I taught school. We went to church. We gave dinner parties and Halloween parties and flew to Con Son Island for a Sunday afternoon beach party. We gave and went to parties—because death and the war and monks, immolations were all around us. We traveled throughout Southeast Asia, to Hong Kong, Singapore, where I had my first sling and chicken Kiev, and often to Bangkok, where I’d lived 2 months alone, riding city buses, washing sheets and towels by hand. I attended a Buddhist cremation with a Thai friend. My friend and I helped burn her nephew’s body.
MM:So, you're very much the lead character in this book. Give us a taste of some of the people we meet and some of the places we visit.
KMB: I’m the protagonist, the good, bad, and beautiful. My motivation is to love and support my husband and stay sane & alive while enjoying the adventure. Of course my husband Merk is also the good, the bad, the beautiful. His motivation is loving me, making a living, saving the flag, and enjoying the adventure. In Sai-Gon, the Air America couple who shared a house with us, a couple from Phoenix Study Group, my school, students from Phoenix Study Group characters; and in Udorn, Thailand, characters are another Air America couple and a close Air America chopper friend. Later my brother Frederic and my best friend who died are characters. Their motivation is friendship. The antagonist is my emotions and my perfectionism. The setting—Texas & Southeast Asia–is a character.
MM:Tell us a little bit about your writing style, and what inspired you to create the unique structure of the book.
KMB: As a 12-year-old, I typed a 10 page letter to my quadriplegic favorite cousin Don. The letter is the basis of Z.O.S. Pain. Loss. Redemption. Joy. I write from an Asian circular structure, not a Fichtean straight line structure with a denouement/climax & resolution. I write from a "necklace & beads & a clasp closing each circle” structure. The topic sentence summarizes the chapter/book/ and the concluding sentence “wraps” and closes the circle. Beads/leitmotivs on the circle’s first half reflect back to the second half and create a spider web/flashbacks. Beads are loss, love, joy, beauty, adventure and gold, red, science, & literature. Each circle continues into a spiral, forward unending.
MM:What would you say are the main messages behindZ.O.S.?
KMB: "Yes, I say, Yes." (James Joyce ULYSSES) CARPE DIEM Tomorrow you may be run over by a bus. The Teakettle Theory: Don’t pull phones out of the wall. Anger Management to let off steam daily. Exercise. Meditation. Balance. The Ladies Don’t Have any Fun Theory. (I took that one to heart.) Then I learned to say, No thank you, Ela Hockaday style rather than F*** you. The Fall Off the Horse Theory: You get back on and soldier on—You eat chocolate & are joyful.
MM:Well, I certainly concur with the chocolate part. What and who are some of your biggest influences, in life and writing?
KMB: A grade school 4-6 teacher. Katy Merle Sumerall Vogel: To love of beauty, music, literature. Robert Olen Butler (A Good Scent of a Sacred Mountain): To scan every sentence like poetry; to write from dreams; to soldier on (Perfume River—too upsetting to read now) James Joyce, TS Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Zadie Smith: To write literary fiction. Apocalypse Now: To embrace the Heart of Darkness. Deer Hunter: To survive. Platoon & Born on the Fourth of July (Oliver Stone): That War Is Hell. Pulp Fiction: To appreciate Dark Humor. Zero Dark Thirty: To at strengthen my Females in War Philosophy
MM: What are you currently reading?
KMB: The Emperor of Shoes (Spencer Wise) for its brilliant writing and plot. Perfume River (Robert Olen Butler ) for its brilliant writing and plot. Augie’s War (John H. Brown, a Veteran & Black Rose Writing friend) for its writing and point of view.
MM: What's your next project, Kay? Are you working on anything else?
KMB: Yes, my next book is titled “Green Parrott, Chocolate Soufflé, and Rocks in my Pockets.”
It’s a Nonfiction 150 word essay.
MM: Well, that's all we have time for. Kay Merkel Boruff, thanks for stopping by and chatting.
KMB: Thank so much, Martin, for inviting me. Thanks to the audience for stopping by and chatting. Most of all—thanks to the readers—Enjoy the journey on the “write” track. Leave an intriguing review!
Kay Merkel Boruff lived in Viet-Nam 1968-1970 & was married to an Air America pilot who was killed flying in Laos 18 Feb 70. She returned to Dallas, a Gold Star Family widow with PTSD. As a teacher at The Hockaday School 1973—2010, she studied with Naomi Shihab Nye, Li-Young Lee, Tim O’Brien, Madeleine L’Engle, and Robert Olen Butler in France in 2011. She unveiled the Air America Memorial at UTD with CIA Director William Colby. She and fellow Veteran Willie Minor, Jr., created “Vets Helping Vets,” a drama therapy project at the Veterans Recovery Center/VA/North Texas, where she volunteered for 6 years. KERA/NPR interview Minor & Boruff in 2016 regarding their “Vets Helping Vets” program. She has a Bachelors from TCU and a Masters from UTD. Her work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Vanity Fair, Suddenly, and Texas Short Stories 2. In addition, she has work in Soujourn, Grasslands Review, Behind the Lines, Fifth Wednesday, Adanna, Stone Voices, Adelaide, The Healing Muse, McGuffin, Rowagat, Turk’s Head, Calyx, Meat & Tea, Adrianna, Concho River Review, Five: 2: One, Offbeat/Quirky, &Paper Nautilus. Letters of her husband’s and hers were included in Love and War, 250 Years of Wartime Love Letters. She saw Angor Wat in 2002, attended Burning Man in 2012, & climbed Wayna Picchu on her 71stbirthday, chasing another adventure in the “zone of silence.”
“From a rare and resonant point of view, Kay Merkel Boruff’s memoir offers an utterly compelling and smartly written tale of the Viet-Nam War and its aftermath. Z.O.S. is a necessary work for a full understanding of the human toll of those times.”
—Robert Olen Butler Winner of the Pulitzer Prize A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain
“In Kay Merkel Boruff’s book Z.O.S.A Memoirwe follow a young and emotionally fragile new American bride as she joins her pilot husband in Viet Nam during the war only to become a widow shortly thereafter. Told in lyrical and vivid style that is at times dazzling in its specificity and intensity, the memoir traces Kay’s arduous path through a lifelong grieving process spent coming to terms not only with the death of her husband but also with the spiritual demons she lived with as a younger woman. This account fills a gap in the story of our national experience in Viet Nam.”
—C.W. Smith author of Steplings, Buffalo Nickel, and Understanding Women.
“While women throughout history have had to be both flexible and strong in order to both live up to society’s expectations while managing the world’s extreme circumstances, very few books ever dive into the mental and emotional gymnastics required for survival as Kay Merkel Boruff’s Z.O.S. A Memoirdoes. Her words come across authentic, raw and relatable, offering insights that any woman from any time and place could relate to, bringing not just history to life in the voice of a girlfriend sharing confidence over coffee, but will invite all those born after the war to have a deeper understanding of the social complexities of the time. I strongly recommend her book to any Gen-X or Millennials seeking an understanding of friends and family who survived Vietnam and especially to any women struggling to balance society’s traditional expectations within the context of extreme situations. Kay Merkel Boruff is a survivor, a fighter and an elegant voice whose story is one of strength, resolve and reflects the complexity of a woman’s experience in Vietnam with unyielding truth that will both shock and validate the readers’ own deepest life questions. Read this book if you want to encounter a bold new voice!”
—Mary Ann Thompson-Frenk President The Memnosyne Institute,
The Hockaday School Graduate ‘96