Inspiration or Insomnia? – An Insight into The Agent Orange Trilogy

Perhaps like most people who love to read, many times I have thought, “Gee, I’d like to write a novel.” But where would I find the time? I had heard of people who wrote their first novel in the middle of the night because that was the only free time they had. Well, I thought, I’d like to write a book but not enough to give up sleep. I mean, life is busy. Being a single mom with a very demanding, full-time career I really need my seven hours of nightly downtime. Why would I add writing a novel to the mix? 

But then a story that just had to be told fell into my life. I am a red-headed girl from Mississippi. My ex-husband, the father of my sons, is Vietnamese. Because our heritages are so different, I thought it would be interesting for all of us to have our DNA analyzed. Four AncestryDNA kits later, we found a lot more than we ever could have anticipated. A new relative looking for his birth mother. He had recently learned that the woman who had raised him was not his biological mother. The story that unfolded began in Vietnam in the sixties and ended with a mother and son reunion in France more than 50 years later. 

It is an incredible story, and one I thought the world might want to hear. It weighed on me and woke me up in the middle of the night. I felt a need to write it down, but it wasn’t my story to tell. Finally, with the permission of my newfound relative, I began writing Time Intertwined, a novel that was inspired by the events in his life. I decided it would be historical fiction and largely set during the Vietnam War, but I didn’t want it to be a typical war novel. Instead, it tells the personal stories of people who were touched by the war, both soldiers and civilians. 

As so often happens, the story evolved and became far more complex than I originally envisioned. My career—my life’s work—is in medical research. Specifically, reproductive pathology. Why are some people infertile? Why do some women have endometriosis? Why are some babies born preterm? These are the questions we are asking, and we have found some answers. Dioxin is an environmental contaminant that was present in Agent Orange, an herbicide used extensively during the Vietnam War. Many soldiers and civilians present in Southeast Asia during the war were exposed to dioxin via Agent Orange. Its effects linger even today. In our experimental studies, using a mouse model, we have linked dioxin exposure to a number of reproductive diseases and conditions. And not just the mice that were directly exposed—at least four generations of their offspring. Four generations. We stopped looking after that.  

So why do I mention my research (other than the fact that I find it endlessly fascinating)? Well, as I wrote the story of Anh and Mikayla, two of the characters in my novel, I realized that they too would have been exposed to Agent Orange. How could I write a story partially set during the war and ignore Agent Orange? On the other hand, half the book is set in 2020 and I completely ignored the Covid-19 pandemic. So, I suppose I could have pretended Agent Orange wasn’t a thing. However, including it, at least a little, seemed like the right thing to do for all the Vietnam veterans as well as the Vietnamese population. But, have no fear—it’s a novel, not a scientific thesis. The characters experience many things: love, loss, joy, sadness—and for some, health effects that may or may not be a consequence of Agent Orange exposure. That’s left for the reader to decide.  

But the story doesn’t end there. After I finished Time Intertwined—largely the story of a woman searching for answers when she learns she is not genetically related to her family—I wanted more. I wanted more of those quiet, early morning hours that I had carved out just for me. And I wanted more untold stories from the war. Soldiers, civilians, orphans, and, yes, Agent Orange. And so, in the middle of the night a month after the first novel was published, the Agent Orange Trilogy was born. I don’t recommend deciding to write a trilogy after the first book is written and published, but when inspiration grabs hold of you, sometimes you just have to give in to it and see what happens. Even if it’s 3 A.M. 

Kaylon Bruner-Tran holds a PhD in reproductive pathology and is an active medical research scientist with a laboratory at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee, USA. She is best known for her studies examining the relationship between environmental toxicant exposure and development of endometriosis and diseases associated with prematurity. She is particularly interested in how such exposures may lead to disease and dysfunction across generations. Kaylon has always loved writing and has published numerous scientific papers as well as several non-fiction essays. When her sons were little, she was annoyed that so many cartoons included an evil scientist. In response, she started making up stories about good scientists to tell them at bedtime. Now she is weaving the personal and professional struggles of good scientists into stories for adults. 



Instagram: kaylon_bruner_tran 

Amazon author page

Link to Time Intertwined (book 1)

Link to Lives Intertwined (book 2)

Darkness and Light Intertwined (book 3) Anticipated summer 2022. 

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