Instead, Gallagher went back to school, literally and figuratively. He worked on politics and policy as a fellow at Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. He got an MFA at Columbia University. He co-edited an anthology of short fiction written by veterans, the critically-acclaimed Fire and Forget, and currently teaches a series of writing workshops in Brooklyn for the non-profit Words After War. He also serves as first-reader for a number of veteran authors, myself included.
In short, Matt Gallagher put in the work, and his debut novel, Youngblood, is the result. It tells the story of Lieutenant Jack Porter muddling his way through the final stages of the post-Surge Iraq War, when we thought we had won and were just mopping up the last of the insurgency. Porter is challenged by a platoon sergeant who may be a war criminal, investigates a soldier’s mysterious death from a previous tour, and (in a nod to Gallagher’s own passion for the video game) plays Big Buck Hunter with a local sheik. Author and protagonist share plenty of biography — young officers of Irish descent who were raised on the West Coast and deployed from Hawaii — but Gallagher told me the similarities end at the superficial. “I hope and believe Jack is a more interesting and engaging person than I am,” he said. “He’s certainly more conflicted.”
We began our conversation talking about what Gallagher has learned since writing Kaboom, but, as will happen when discussing a book about the Iraq War, we quickly got to those conflicted feelings.
BRIAN CASTNER: What did you learn in the six years between books? And was there anything you felt you had to learn before tackling this novel?
MATT GALLAGHER: There’s been a variety of educations in that time, certainly. Some were intended, others a product of time, environment, luck, growing up, getting married, getting a dog. Just life.
I was 25 when I wrote Kaboom, filled with a lot of youngness and brashness and was still more cavalry officer than writer. Sometimes I miss that kid — he didn’t know what he didn’t know, and he loved writing for the sake of itself. It’s a job now, a job I adore, but still, there’s more grind involved than there is shine, most days.
And that’s okay. It means I’m better at this now than I was then, I think, and hopefully it means I’ll be better at this six years from now than I am today.
The MFA decision came about when I realized I wanted to write fiction and I needed to improve at it. I had to swallow my pride a bit, going to grad school after publishing a book, but it’s something I’m glad I did. Two years in a structured environment, devoted to craft, surrounded by smart writers and keen readers did a lot for my development and creative process. I studied with professors whose life didn’t include writing, it was writing. MFAs aren’t for everyone, and they certainly don’t make or break a writer, but Youngblood is better because I decided to go that route. It was there that I learned to value the work in a way I’d only feigned at before.
That may sound like some ethereal pseudo-Jedi crap, but it’s what pushed me to write and then rewrite and then rewrite again the novel I’d had in my head some years ago.
The novel opens with the question of "what was it like?" over there. Porter promises us he’ll tell us, but says that the answer will be confusing. This "what was it like" question is very prevalent in war literature, but especially so in writing about Iraq and Afghanistan. Why start this way?
The prologue of Youngblood was rewritten about 40 times or so, and was the last part of the novel penned. With each draft, I kept circling the “What was it like?” question, but also kept trying to be clever about it, both in how it’s asked and how it’s answered. Eventually I realized I hadn’t written a clever book, I’d written an earnest and sincere one, and the prologue needed to reflect that. “What was it like?” seems a prevalent part of the post-9/11 veteran’s journey, and a telling marker of how contemporary America relates to the armed violence carried out in its name. Jack Porter might not be able to answer that question cleanly, but he still feels compelled to try to answer it honestly — even as he begins “Hell if I know.” It’s part of what makes him an engaging narrator, I hope.
Why start that way? Because the novel is complex, conflicting and a bit messy, much like the Iraq war itself was and is. I was less interested in being different for differences’ sake than I was in telling this story as well as I possibly could. That meant being exact with language, being purposeful with the narrative structure, and taking a wide view to America’s terror wars and Iraq so this would be much more than just one man’s thoughts and experiences. Asking “What was it like?” on page one wasn’t just an honest framing device. It was the right one.
That’s a tough balance, though, creating a central engaging narrator, but also trying to tell a story that speaks to more than one individual’s experience. Why write the book from the first person then?
Early drafts of this novel were written in third-person, actually, and they just kept reading more like craft exercises than the correct prism for this story. Maybe some critics or writing profs would’ve preferred narration in that form, but through rewriting I found this book needed the deep, fiery emotional texture that first-person can provide. Part of Jack’s purpose is to serve as a conduit into this land and conflict at that tail-end of America’s involvement in it. Much like most of our nation, he’d been allowed to be morally and ethically detached for the duration of the war. He feels that he’s been connected through his brother’s deployments, but he knows that’s not the same, and is part of the reason he joins up himself. Then he’s there, in Iraq, and part of the withdrawal. He’s confronted with all that entails — the legacy and inheritance of a near-decade of conflict and occupation and loss and ruin. “The Iraqi people” aren’t a phrase or ciphers or a faceless collective to him, they’re the people and families he’s interacting with every day. Jack’s like a lot of us, I think, or could be, if we were in this time and place and world.
You said part of telling this story well was realizing it was an earnest book. I agree, and maybe the best example of that is the love story at the center of the novel. The central premise, of a soldier falling in love with a local girl and wanting to stay, is an old American war story trope, but one that is virtually unexplored in this war’s literature. Were you consciously updating the old story?
Henry James referred to the ideas that led to his stories as “germs,” and the germ for this particular thread didn’t come from literature. It came from the real war. By the time my scout platoon and I arrived to Iraq in late 2007, the tales and rumors of American soldiers with Iraqi girlfriends were many, but always indirect, a couple years or another unit away. The whole thing had a surreal, foggy feel to it, and assuredly was bullshit 99 percent of the time, but there were just enough news articles out there about soldiers and Marines marrying Iraqi women that some of the rumors maybe, just maybe, carried truths in them.
The love story in Youngblood centers around a sheik’s daughter, Rana, and a legendary soldier named Elijah Rios. It mattered less to me that the stories the Iraqi townspeople tell of them did happen than did the idea that the stories could’ve happened. That possibility is what draws Jack to the tale a few years later — he walks the same alleyways and desert roads Rios did, but it’s a different time, a different war, a changed town. He certainly doesn’t see how an American soldier and a sheik’s daughter could fall in love in the midst of chaos and ruin, which makes the possibility of it happening all the more alluring.
Once this all became foundational bedrock for the novel, yes, I turned to other texts for guidance on the mechanics for “how.” Some were literary — the character Sarkin Aung Wan in O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato comes to mind — but mostly I read a bunch of news articles and oral histories to get a fuller feel for American soldier/Iraqi women interactions. There are obviously a bunch of complications — societal, religious, and cultural. I had a few of my own experiences with that to call on, but didn’t want to be limited by my own skull.
What struck me most about the book is this foggy surreality you just described. You evoke a depth and sense of history in the war, the feeling that the Invasion (always capitalized) happened another lifetime ago, another war ago, even though, chronologically, it had only been a few years. Sergeant Chambers, the grizzled veteran, is revered by his men because he served during the dangerous Surge, as if he’s a generation removed. Is this why you set the book during the final act of the Iraq War, to give yourself an opportunity to look back?
It was one of the reasons, for sure. What better place to get perspective of something than near the end of it? I’m a believer that the “high” literature of the GWOT [Global War on Terror] era is just now beginning to find itself — sorry, book industry prognosticators who feel war lit is, like, a total bummer — but the slice-of-life, soldier-at-war micro story has already been done very well. One of my ambitions with Youngblood was to tell an Iraq war story with breadth. Maybe not a novel about the totality of the conflict, but something with roots and understanding and empathy and fucking range. Maybe I accomplished that, maybe I didn’t, but it mattered to me to try. The war novels that taught me something about peace, something about life, the ones that resonated with me as a young reader, have that kind of fullness. All Quiet on the Western Front, Democracy, The Caine Mutiny, The Naked and the Dead, Dog Soldiers, Half of a Yellow Sun. On and on.
There’s a saying in the cavalry: Go big or go home. I didn’t want to write a small, tidy novel. I strived to write a big, complicated one.
One example of that big and complicated ambition is that you put the recent Iraq War in the context of the West’s historic involvement in the Middle East. At one point, Porter thinks "TE Lawrence had been stationed in the outpost of Cairo only because his superiors had deemed him a goof and a nuisance. I belong here as much as anyone." How does Porter belong?
You know, no one impacted my treatment and use of Jack as much as Detective Jimmy McNulty did. For the uninitiated, McNulty is a primary character from the television show The Wire, for my money the gold standard in that medium. For all the differences in characters — McNulty is older and more confident than Jack, not to mention way more self-destructive — I love how the show used McNulty as a searcher, as a seeker. Viewers are right there with him through much of the series, exploring the many dark corners of Baltimore. Like McNulty, that seeking burns within Jack for much of Youngblood, though exactly what he is seeking changes over the course of the narrative. First it’s Chambers’s past in Ashuriyah, then it’s the rumored love between Rana and Rios, then it’s Rana herself. Both Jack and McNulty want truth, I think, even if they don’t always believe in it.
As for how Porter fits within the grand mosaic of the Western world’s involvement in the Middle East? He’s a piece. A small piece, compared to someone like Lawrence or even Rios. But a piece, because like many of the Iraqis and Americans he encounters, fights with or fights against — he’s both a witness and a participant to it all.
That war keeps changing after Porter leaves. You said you started writing this novel years ago, and the Iraq War has morphed a lot since then. We left, ISIS came, we’ve gone back in. How did the changing reality of the present war affect the writing of this novel, if at all?
It’s a tricky thing, writing in the now, about something that just ended, or is still ending … or maybe is just getting started. Including an ISIS reference in the epilogue was something I wrestled with. Deep down, all writers want their work to ultimately be like that Fitzgerald quote, I think: “An author ought to write for the youth of his own generation, the critics of the next, and the schoolmaster of ever afterward.” How can something that grand ever possibly happen if you write about something happening that doesn’t end up mattering, or plays out much differently?
But good writing has bite, I’ve found, and bite requires risk. All a writer can do, or all I decided I could try to do, is write with fullness and generosity of spirit, for the characters created and the world described and the story told. As for the rest of it — Insha’Allah.
Brian Castner is the author of The Long Walk and All the Ways We Kill and Die, which will be published in March 2016.