Larry Heinemann, a Chicago-born novelist whose book Paco’s Story won the 1987 National Book Award for Fiction, died Wednesday night at CHI St. Joseph hospital in Bryan. Heinemann had worked as a writer-in-residence at Texas A&M since 2005. He was 75.
The cause of death was chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, his partner, Kathy Favor, said Thursday.
Heinemann, a U.S. Army veteran, wrote extensively about the Vietnam War and its effects, both in novel and memoir format.
In the foreword of the 2005 edition of Paco’s Story, a novel that chronicles a wounded Vietnam veteran’s postwar anguish, Heinemann wrote that he became a writer “because of our war in Vietnam, not in spite of it.”
“There are a number of writers who emerged from the war who feel the same,” Heinemann wrote. “I was a soldier of the most ordinary kind and the war took much away from me, but the war also gave me a story that simply would not be denied, as well as a way of looking at the world.”
Born on Jan. 18, 1944, Larry Curtiss Heinemann served in the U.S. Army from 1966 to 1968, and was in Vietnam for one year, from March 1967 to March 1968. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree at Chicago’s Columbia College in 1971.
In a Thursday interview with The Eagle, Favor described Heinemann, a big Chicago Cubs fan, as “the consummate storyteller” and said that teaching writing at Texas A&M was one of his greatest joys.
“If we were sitting around the table somewhere, he always had a story to tell,” Favor said. She said that they met in 1996 and had been partners since 1998. “He was, for the most part, a very gentle person and very much a pacifist. Even being that way, he had very definite opinions.”
In the 2005 foreword, Heinemann described Paco’s Story as “a ghost story.”
“As a story teller, I know I will always be able to reach around behind me, touch the war, and find a story — whether it has anything to do with that time in my life or not,” Heinemann wrote. “Stories, let me assure you, are everywhere, even in our dreams.”
Heinemann’s Paco’s Story received the 1987 National Book Award over four other finalists, including Toni Morrison’s acclaimed novel Beloved — which stunned many observers and stirred much debate, according to contemporary reporting from numerous media outlets.
“Toni Morrison, was, I think, shocked — and quite honestly, Larry was shocked, too,” Favor said.
Heinemann also wrote Close Quarters, a novel about a young man from Chicago who is drafted directly out of high school into the Vietnam War in 1977. He published Cooler by the Lake in 1992, and a memoir, Black Virgin Mountain: A Return to Vietnam, in 2005, along with numerous short stories and essays.
Favor said Heinemann came to know Vietnamese soldiers and others and made perhaps a dozen trips there beginning in 1990. They traveled together there in 2010.
“He loved going over there — loved the Vietnamese food, the culture, the people and they were always gracious,” she said.
Heinemann is survived by his daughter, Sarah Heinemann, her husband, Ted MacLeod, and their daughter, Clementine, and by his son, Preston Heinemann.
He worked with a number of universities in the U.S. and abroad, including stints as a writer-in-residence at Northwestern and the University of Southern California in 1996. He came to Texas A&M in 2005 and worked as a writer-in-residence for more than a decade.
“He loved teaching. He was real proud of his students and their accomplishments,” Favor said.
Florence Davies, program coordinator at the Texas A&M University Writing Center, said she met Heinemann in an upper-level creative writing course of his that she took as an A&M student.
“He had this incredible storytelling skill,” Davies said. “As a professor, he had this immediate larger-than-life presence. You just felt that you were in the presence of a truly vigorous personality. He had a great booming belly laugh that emanated from his gut and immediately made you smile.”
Davies said when she came back to A&M as a staff member, she got to know Heinemann and Favor as friends.
“His legacy will definitely be felt through his work, but also through his former students, many of whom have gone on to publish or take part in the creative writing world, myself included,” Davies said.
Lowell Mick White, a creative writing and American literature professor at A&M, said Thursday that he appreciated Heinemann’s wry sense of humor and his ability to apply that to his teaching.
“He helped his students see the world from a different perspective — and he was a terrific writer,” White said. “He brought a strong sense of craftsmanship to his teaching.”
“On a personal level, everybody really liked him,” White said. “He really was quite inspirational for a lot of students.”
"I wouldn't be a novelist without Larry Heinemann," said Daniel Peña, an assistant professor in the department of English at the University of Houston-Downtown. "He gave me everything. He was the first writer to take me seriously and the exact writer I wanted to be — still want to be. He was a lifeline for a lot of writers of color and marginalized writers in general. Not many people know that, I think. Before anyone else saw us, he saw us. And fed us and mentored us and broke open our worlds and minds with his wit and compassion. His passing is a true loss to literature."