Reading War: Brian Turner’s MY LIFE AS A FOREIGN COUNTRY


It’s weird, but for a guy who read nothing but chronological nonfiction for decades, you’d think my writing style would be more linear. It’s as if all that reading was mere foundation, but what I exposed myself to during my MFA has turned into the real reading that has whittled my writing style into some kind of form.

I was pretty happy when the news of this book hit the wire, especially after having read Turner’s book of poetry, Here, BulletAnd not because I enjoyed Here, Bullet so much (I did) as much as the advanced reviews were already talking about the radical fragmentation of My Life. Imagine me: looking for fragmented narratives and finding not just a fragmented memoir, but one written by a fellow veteran.

[insert sound of blown mind]

The book began as an essay of the same name for Virginia Quarterly Review (I know that thanks to an awesome Dinty Moore interview with Turner on the Brevity blog.) If you haven’t read the book, but want to take it for a spin first, read the essay. It’ll have you running for the “buy this book” link below.

The idea of breaking apart a narrative in memoir is a relatively recent phenomenon, especially in war memoir. Only Herr’s Dispatches fits the mold; the riskiest form anyone else reaches would be memoir-in-essay (Wolff, and he didn’t do it until the 90s.) The Forever War has produced far more traditional memoir structures than it has open forms. So, it’s hard to overstate the importance of an example of something you’re trying to do, by a writer who kind of looks like you, related to an experience you both share to a certain degree. Which isn’t to say that I want to write books that look just like Busch’s, Castner’s, or Turner’s. I don’t, but it’s also helpful to see what works/what doesn’t.

There’s not much of the latter in My Life as a Foreign Country. Perhaps the most postmodern of war memoirs to date, it has, as Charlie Sherpa put it in his review of the book, enough poetry, fiction, and nonfiction within its pages to satisfy a reader of any genre. And it’s that pastiche of genre that I took to be the most important craft takeaway.

I put the technique to work in an essay that I was working on when I read My Life as a Foreign Country. It’s probably not writer-cool to say, but fully half or more of my essay “Calling Jody with the Ghost Brigade” for The Normal School was inspired by Turner’s example of allowing room for imagination within a nonfiction narrative. It’s certainly not for everyone, as evidenced by the twenty-odd rejections I received before The Normal School accepted the essay. But I was happy to get it out into the world, and I think it’s a fine example of being inspired by a technique enough to try it out, and experiencing some success with it.

I have Big Opinions on the unacknowledged link between postmodernism and contemporary memoir that I hope to publish somewhere tweedy in the months to come, but that’s for another today. Today, it’s enough to say that My Life as a Foreign Country is a great book, and genre-challenging example for any writer looking to push the form. Oh, and you should totally buy the book.








Writing War: The Veteran Writer Box


“Soldier Antlers” by Lydia Komatsu

Identity has been on my mind the past few months. Some of it has to do with writing a memoir, and the surprising turns this second draft has taken. Some of it has to do with what’s going on politically, and the debate in this country over the efficacy of identity politics. And then some of it has to do with attending AWP, and seeing the writing industry’s approach to identity. I know. That’s a lot of “identity”s for just a few sentences.

As a writer, I have identified myself as a veteran writer. It’s in all my bios — hell, it’s right there on my “About” page on this website.  And there was a time when I thought this was useful, that it might help me stand out in a crowd, keep things cold for my snowball’s chance at publication. But lately, I’ve wondered. On one hand, there appears — and this is purely a non-scientific observation — to be a desire across the reading public for the veterans of The Forever War to represent their experiences. But on the other, the last thing any writer wants is to be pegged as The Writer Who Writes One Thing. Especially if the one thing turns out to be something that doesn’t sell all that well.

During one of my MFA Residencies, a friend said, “You only write about war.” I reacted predictably, which is to say, I was a self-righteous jerk about it. Truth is, if you expand the war category to include general purpose military experience, I’m pretty much in a box of my own making.

Of course, I’m not alone in this. In fact, the company is fine, and as I discussed in my post on AWP, it’s an honor to work alongside all of them. We support each other the best we can, whether through introductions to agents and editors, manuscript reads, and encouragement through whatever means at our disposal. This, of course, is the happy upside. We do not, in my experience, view each other as competition. It’s a strong bond, one of the things that makes us unique.

Smarter folks than me have already weighed in on this subject. Matt Gallagher wrote a great op-ed for The Boston Globe that considered the issue of veteran identity following WWII versus today. And while he doesn’t address veteran writing specifically, his final words seem to imply that he believes it’s best not to make an enduring thing of it. Luckily, the irksome sense of entitlement that has begun to accompany what some call “professional veterans” has not shown up in the writing crowd, to my knowledge anyway. Quite the opposite, as a matter of fact. To a person, everyone I’ve interacted with has been humble and thankful.

I think so long as we all understand that our writing is what matters, that no label an an author bio can elevate a story that is not well-crafted, we’re going to be just fine. For the time being, many of us are just writing what we know, which is always good foundational advice. If this is the box we find ourself in, I’m pretty sure it’s got great big, airy windows and doors that open both ways.

Reading War: Matt Gallagher’s YOUNGBLOOD

Reading War: Matt Gallagher’s YOUNGBLOOD

Note: I reviewed Youngblood for Foreign Policy last year. If you’re interested in that take, which had to conform to Tom Ricks’ lethal editorial pen, you can view it here.

I had room to cram two books into the survival ruck I jumped onto the Polar Icecap last year. One of them was Matt Gallagher‘s debut novel Youngblood (I’ll get to that other one in another post.) I’d begun the book a few weeks earlier, so it was a bit of a risky move to bring a half-read book knowing I might be stuck on the Beaufort Sea for longer than expected. But I owed a review, and Gallagher is a damn fine writer, so it made sense on a lot of levels. The gamble paid off, big time.

In the space of one claustrophobic and very cold afternoon, I tore through the rest of the book. And cutting right to the chase: it was the Iraq novel I’d been waiting for.

Now, feel free to take all this with a grain of salt. I am, after all, a nonfiction writer, which means the lion’s share of my reading is nonfiction. But story is story. The Yellow Birds (Kevin Powers), Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (Ben Fountain)Redeployment (Phil Klay): they all filled a need. Namely, the desire to clear a guilty conscience. Respectively: the individual soldier’s, a nation’s, and the outsider’s. I take nothing away from each of those excellent books. They were necessary. The writing was outstanding. But they were also well, kind of depressing. 

Youngblood, by contrast, is best described as vibrant. It’s a technicolor story, complete with engrossing action and heartstopping literary value. Having met Gallagher now, and read just about everything he’s written, there’s a lot of the guy I had the pleasure of sharing a couple of drinks with in Youngblood. Which is not to say it isn’t a serious book — it is — but it’s also a hell of a lot of fun.

The basic premise is Iraq sometime during the Surge. Lt Jack Porter stumbles upon information about a troublesome NCO assigned to him, which leads Jack down an ill-advised investigative path that will twist and turn him on a plot line like something out of a hardboiled detective novel. Oh, and there’s that war-thing going on as well. And that’s about all I’m willing to share with you, because I want you to pick up a copy and read it for yourself.

I’d, of course read Kaboom, Gallagher’s memoir. So I was familiar with his wit, ability to turn a pretty phrase, and capacity for laugh-out-loud humor. But with Youngblood, you can sense Gallagher at a blank canvas, creating a world grounded by experience but broadened by creativity. What I took away from the book was a lesson in storytelling on the extended arc that a novel requires. Writing essays, longform, memoir, it took me a few years to come to grips with the idea that a writer must answer the pesky question, “what’s this about?”Not what happens — that much will be evident — but the thing that changes, the question that is answered, and so on. You must be able to answer the question as the author, or the reader will never have snowball’s chance in hell. That essay I’ve written about previous, “Calling Jody with the Ghost Brigade”: it wasn’t until I’d already begun submitting that I realized I’d written a lot of pretty sentences, compelling scene and assembled an interesting structure. But I couldn’t tell you what it was about. Once I decided that it was about the process of grief and memory, it made things a whole lot easier. I was able to dial things up here, eliminate dead weight there, so that once the reader hit the last sentence, they would be able to answer the question (I hope, anyway.)

One one hand, short stories and essays are disadvantaged by what must be an economical approach. A couple thousand words goes by pretty fast and you have to get to the point. Novels like Youngblood have the luxury of time and length to get the reader there. But the flip side of this is that length is no cure for inefficient and bloated writing. We’ve all been there, laboring through an extraneous chapter, wondering when we’re gonna get to the good stuff. But Youngblood had none of that. Gallagher keeps the story tight, clipping along, to the point that backstory feels less like a side-trip than it does a necessary pause.

So, there you go. Turns out novels can be good for your nonfiction. Especially if the novel you’re looking at for inspiration just so happens to be Youngblood.