Pencils.com spoke with Iraq War Veteran Matt Gallagher, author of, “KABOOM: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War,” about his work on the recent anthology Fire and Forget.
Edited by Matt Gallagher and Roy Scranton, Fire and Forget (Da Capo Press) has launched a preemptive strike on the literary world, collecting the short stories of the principal authors of the Global War on Terror.
As the anniversary of the initial invasion of Iraq approaches, this masterful collection of new fiction is not only timely, but necessary. In the stories contained within, you will find equal measures of levity and danger, punctuated by memories as vivid as they are haunting. This is a book which has chosen not to look away from the trauma of war, but instead, to confront it head on.
Aside from the emphasis on the war itself, you will find yourself captivated by the well-crafted storytelling and inspired by the humanity that was salvaged in the aftermath of these wars. The impact of this book will resound with the force of a 2,000 pound bomb, a testament to life in the midst of the after-war.
Pencils.com will be giving away a FREE copy of Fire and Forget and a surprise Pencils.com package to the reader with the best comment as voted on by our staff. Leave a comment in the comments section below to enter to win. Winners will be announced on the website and informed of their prize via email.
Interview with Fire and Forget Author Matt Gallagher:
In his thorough and thoughtful review of Fire and Forget, David Abrams describes the term as such: “Fire and forget” refers to the type of missile system which doesn’t need any more guidance after launching. Firers can walk away and forget about the pending death on the other end of the trajectory.”
Given the tenor of the stories in this collection, it’s clear that memory is critical to the writing of war veterans. What are your thoughts about the expectations of men and women who’ve served overseas to fire and forget? Do you think it’s really possible?
Matt Gallagher: One of the reasons the title resonates with me is that it’s both earnest and ironic. Earnest because that’s what we as returning veterans are told to do – and often need to do – to return to civilian life smoothly. You know yourself, Victor, that life downrange is hyper-sensual, with everything on full throttle all the time. Life back here operates at a different pace, in a different pitch, with a different purpose. All that said, outright forgetting of one’s experience at war is as unhealthy as it is impossible. War isn’t a thing one goes to and gets through, and then just simply returns from. It’s forever weaved into the fabric of that individual and will be a part of them throughout their life, and likely a part of the lives of their loved ones, as well. The title reflects this paradox of experience, I think, in a complicated, ambiguous manner most reflective of war in general and these wars specifically.
In Andrew Slater’s story, “New Me,” the narrator describes a failure to act on his part prior to entering the service. While recalling the drowning of his girlfriend and how he’d been unable to save her, the narrator recounts the moments of his life leading up to the military.
Many of the stories in Fire and Forget bare witness to the regret associated with not acting, which has been a common thread in war fiction for years. What role do you think regret plays in the reliving of experience, or more directly, PTSD? What is it about what we don’t do that haunts us?
Matt Gallagher: Human beings are regretful creatures by nature. That’s especially true of combat veterans, because decisions made in the matter of seconds echo throughout multiple lifetimes – often without a clear answer. “What if” is a black hole. Mariette Kalinowki’s “The Train” is another example of this phenomenon in war literature; what we think of when deployed as temporary and fleeting is anything but. I too was struck by this recurring theme in the stories submitted for consideration in Fire & Forget. We planned a bit of that as editors, but honestly, most of it was organic. We just needed to recognize that and harness that power in order to attempt to stay true to the young veterans’ experience.
I think one thing readers will notice, aside from the general quality of the fiction in this collection, is the presence of women writers in the anthology. In war fiction of the past, it seemed that many of the accounts of the war were dominated by male voices.
Given the recent statements by Leon Panetta about women serving in combat roles, is it becoming more apparent to people that women have been sacrificing equally in the wars of the past decade? Do you think that we can expect more writing to emerge from female veterans?
Matt Gallagher: Yes, I think Fire & Forget is very much on the forefront of the future in this regard. Both Mariette’s and Siobhan’s stories are classical war stories that concurrently do something yet unseen – they push the topics of conflict, resolution, war and peace in decidedly confident feminine voices. Not that such hasn’t been done before – Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier comes to mind, from WWI – but there’s a violence embedded in both stories that I haven’t seen before in war literature written by women. For this reason (and a couple others) I believe our book is both a cultural and a societal touchstone.
For our readers here at the Studio 602 Blog who are writers themselves, what is it that keeps you writing? Are there moments of lingering self-doubt that you experience from time to time when sitting down to compose a new story?
Matt Gallagher: Oh man, like all writers being honest, I live in that self-doubt. Writing is f’ing hard – and only gets harder the more you do and the better you get at it. I’m in the throes of novel revisions right now, and I quite literally have nightmares about it. But that’s actually a good thing, in a twisted way. It means I’m thinking about it, and thinking about it more than all the other clutter life brings me to and through. There’s so much pithy writerly advice out there from famous dead people I can’t settle on one ideal quote to answer this question, but I will say the only way to do this writing thing seriously is to treat it accordingly. It’s not a hobby, or a pursuit, or even a profession. It’s a goddamn way of life!
What is your preferred method of composition? Do you find yourself writing things out longhand with pencil or pen, or do you write primarily in front of a computer screen?
Matt Gallagher: I’ve had many mentors and friends (to include the indomitable Phil Klay, author of Fire & Forget ‘s “Redeployment”) tell me that they prefer writing longhand, but I’ve never taken to it. I like to research while I write, and the Internet makes that so easy. It’s also easier to get distracted, but that’s where self-restraint comes in – and luckily, we Irish are well known for our self-restraint!
In Jacob Siegel’s short story, “Smile There are IEDs Everywhere,” the protagonist makes a comment that seems to illuminate the difficulty of creating art from the experience of war saying, “How much blood did I need to justify spilling it on the page?”
I think it’s an insightful line, because it not only exposes the internal conflict of the character in the story, but also because it hints at Jacob’s own journey with writing about the war.
Tell us a little about how you’ve dealt with that conflict in your own writing, and perhaps a few words of advice for veterans out there that may be considering crafting their own stories.
Matt Gallagher: There is an inherent contradiction in writing about war, because no matter how well someone does it, they’re never going to get it right. (The same could probably be said of existence, but I’ll spare this conversation of too much existential meandering.) Further, many veterans feel a resistance to putting their experiences out there, even pieces of them behind a veil of fiction, for a variety of reasons. So it’s not easy, but it’s something – if someone decides to do it – that can be both fulfilling and freeing. My road has been the same road for many writers, be them vets or not – a lot of bad writing, too much writing for catharsis, but just enough honest to Allah storytelling and enjoyment of craft to keep me believing that I could do more of those parts and less of the other parts.
What was the editing process like for this collection? In putting the anthology together, what kind of support did you receive? This must have been a difficult task at first, but a worthy one no doubt. Is there anything you would do differently?
Matt Gallagher: Every story in the collection went through an editing process – that was one of our guidelines, though of course the amount of editing differed from story to story. In the end, the preeminent question we had for all 15 selected pieces was “Can we do without this piece in the anthology?” If the answer was yes, it didn’t make the cut. If the answer was no, we worked it with the author until it was ready for publication.
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You’ve been working for the non-profit IAVA-Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America for several years, an organization that has been at the forefront of serving returning veterans. What do you feel has been its greatest contribution? What are you most proud of?
Matt Gallagher: I’m proud of the work I did at IAVA and the work the organization does in general. (I should note here that I left IAVA in January, though remain an involved member.) The most fulfilling aspect of my time there was conducting writing workshops for our members and veterans on staff – it’s easy to forget sometimes just how intimidating the creative process can be to the uninitiated, but watching them time and time again push their comfort zones with themselves and with one another was quite a learning experience for me as a teacher.
I think that often times many people who are not veterans would like to help, but they don’t know how. Beyond shouting the mantra of, “Support the Troops,” or tying a yellow ribbon to a tree, what can people really do to help returning veterans?
Matt Gallagher: Hire them. Pardon the banality, but it’s time for America to walk the walk, so to speak, with regards to the yellow ribbon patriotism of the past decade. Our grandfathers came home from World War II and pushed our country out of the Great Depression with lessons they’d learned from their time in the service. We can do the same with this recession, if given the opportunity to do so. Further, it’s up to us as a citizenry to remember in the future that the true cost of war doesn’t end with a withdrawal date – we’ll be paying for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars for many decades to come. Veteran health care is expensive, messy and too often a moral failure that reflects poorly on us all. Perhaps if we the people demand answers to those ends before a war starts, our politicians will actually have plans to see them through when the time comes to do so.
To learn more about Fire and Forget, check out the Official Fire and Forget website at www.fireandforgetbook.com where you can also find local readings by the authors of the book.
Please comment below and check back to see when the winner of the FREE Copy of Fire and Forget is announced.