Remembering Starlight Author and Vietnam Veteran Scott Ely

Scott Ely's widow speaks about her husband’s experience in Vietnam and how it shaped his life and writing

Scott Ely’s Starlight is a startling novel set in the jungles of Vietnam. I spoke to Scott’s widow, the poet Susan Ludvigson, who lives in Rock Hill, South Carolina, about her husband’s experience in Vietnam and how it shaped his life and writing.

Scott Ely was drafted the day he graduated from the University of Mississippi, at the age of twenty-two. According to Ludvigson, “His first wife says he was a completely different person before the war and after.” Ely’s greatest fear before he was sent to Vietnam was that the war would make him deeply cynical, and sadly, it did, to a degree.

Ely’s experiences in the Vietnam War led to a lifetime of PTSD. Night terrors were common, and that is reflected in his fiction. Starlight can be seen as an exploration of the idea of Vietnam as a nightmare. After his return, Ely had to sleep with a loaded gun close to the bed to feel safe, and would occasionally prowl the house with the shotgun. He thought the episodes were taking place once a year, but in reality, they happened weekly.

Like the main character of Starlight—Jackson—Ely was a radio operator in Vietnam. He received an MA from the University of Mississippi and an MFA from the University of Arkansas, and taught writing at Winthrop University in South Carolina for twenty-five years. Starlight is a highly fictionalized account of his experiences during the Vietnam War. Tom Light, a mysterious sniper in the novel, is purely fictional, but at one point during the war it was suggested that Ely himself become a sniper. The mysterious character of Tom offers an escape for Jackson, but one that borders on insanity.

For Ely, Vietnam was the central experience of his life, and that was borne out in his fiction, even when his subjects were ostensibly other things. Ludvigson recalls that Ely was reluctant to eat outside at the patio table in the backyard. One day he told her, as if he were joking (though he clearly was not), that the big trees surrounding the yard scared him, citing “snipers in the trees.”

Scott Ely died in November 2013 of brain cancer caused by exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam. He experienced several Agent Orange–related cancers, and although the oncologist advised that it wasn’t provable, she was convinced that the tumor was a result of his exposure. Ludvigson notes that not every aspect of his experience in Vietnam was negative: “He valued every day in a way that most people don’t. He felt that surviving the war made every day a gift. He felt that way, too, through all his cancer treatments, and while he was fatalistic about the end result, he really did live every day to the fullest.”

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