Dr. Richard Siebert knew for years that somewhere in the landscape of his Vietnam War experience lay the contours of a novel.
Then suddenly in 1996, on the eve of his retirement and three decades after his return from the war zone, the bits and pieces of "Personal Wars" came together, he said in an interview.
The inspiration for character and plot arose from the pages of his personal diary that catalogued his 1966-1967 tour of duty as a U.S. Navy doctor in South Vietnam's Central Highlands.
But "Personal Wars" takes the reader far beyond the first-time author's wartime experience, posing ethical quandaries and emotional fallout he never faced as part of a medical team that treated mostly civilian Vietnamese.
"I wondered what could have happened to a doctor in Vietnam that could have been more hazardous than what I went through," said Siebert, swept into the unpopular war a year into his surgical residency at a St. Paul hospital.
"The hypothetical I set up (examines) how a doctor with delicate sensibilities feels about shooting people."
The novel's central theme -- the causes and effects, as well as treatment, of post-traumatic stress disorder -- emerged from Siebert's firsthand observations of his patients, both as a wartime and peacetime physician-surgeon, he said.
"I have studied the disorder and have seen patients with it," Siebert said. "In my medical practice I was always very aware of the psychological problems keeping people from getting better."
In 1997, Siebert closed down his private neurosurgery practice in the Twin Cities and moved with his wife, Karen, to the couple's Sylvan Lake home in East Gull Lake. "Personal Wars" was ready for publication last December.
Then the toughest part began. The couple -- Karen Siebert collaborated on the project as book editor -- set up Sylvan Arts to publish, market and promote the novel, tasks that neither was well-equipped to do, Siebert said.
"I'm a poor publicist in that I'm pretty introverted," he said with a chuckle, adding he's "not the kind of guy to make those hard phone calls" to book distributors and sellers.
The couple retained Bang Printing Co. of Brainerd to print the 517-page trade paperback, with an initial run of 1,670 copies. Siebert, an avocational artist, provided the cover art and more than 50 pencil drawings that illustrate the novel's inside pages.
Richard Siebert did more than 50 pencil drawings that illustrate his novel's inside pages, including this drawing of an eagle.
But sales have been slow to materialize, the author-turned-publisher said.
"I've been working so hard on marketing and publicity but it's not what I like to do," he confessed.
The couple's strategy so far has depended on direct mail appeals to Minnesota's medical professionals, hoping doctors, nurses and psychologists would be "empathize with the book's main character."
Siebert even sent a solicitation to the 1954-1956 alumni of Edina High School, thinking his former classmates might be interested in his latest project.
He did the same with the University of Minnesota medical school alumni. Siebert, the son of the university's longtime baseball coach Dick Siebert, earned his undergraduate and medical degrees at the U of M, where he also starred as a baseball pitcher.
"'Personal Wars' is a novel of adventure and romance, but more than that it is an appraisal of conflicts generated by the war, both immediate and long term," his letter to classmates said. "The medical care (described in the book) is authentic. Many of the story events are real, creating a fiction of cause and effect."
Discharged from the military, the book's central character, in fact, isolates himself from his past, retiring to a Sylvan Lake cabin to grapple with his demons. His conflicts are resolved through a friendship he strikes up with a neighbor, a Korean War veteran who suffers from similar emotional baggage.
Their common bond is the warriors' return home without a hero's welcome.
"One of the themes of the book is that you need someone with the same context before you can really talk about things," the author said. "In a sense these two neighbors act as each other's support group, allowing their stories to come out as though they are sitting down with a psychologist."
The story line appealed to a book buyer for Barnes and Noble, where "Personal Wars" is now available. But even that seeming marketing success had its drawback, Siebert said, explaining sales were hampered by a misspelling in the bookstore chain's computerized inventory listing for the book.
But the author remains optimistic about the book's long-term success.
"It's got everything in there that I like in a novel," he said. "It focuses on a central character with a problem and how that person deals with it. There's some adventure and choices to be made.
"I purposely gave it a generally happy ending because I have an optimistic view of life," he added, "but there are still some things to work out, as in real life. The ending I like is one where one can say it is all set up for a sequel, a good set up for act II."
Siebert already is at work on just that.
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