An Interview with Katey Schultz
An author goes into writing about war with the knowledge that she's treading well-worn terrain. Her approach has to be just right, and having a new angle doesn't hurt, either. In her new story collection, Flashes of War, Katey Schultz has succeeded in both. With thirty-one stories (twenty-four of which are flash fiction), she illuminates what it's like for civilians and soldiers to be affected by the War on Terror, from both sides of the fighting lines. Whether in the heat of battle in Iraq or "safely" at home in an American suburb, these tales are startlingly personal and expose the hearts, minds, and often weary spirits of the characters. Schultz writes crisp, unassuming prose and uses stunning imagery to illuminate otherwise foreign -- and even not-so-foreign -- hardships.
I recently had the chance to speak with Schultz about her writing process, her war stories, and how she went about wrangling them into this upcoming collection.
Let's start with something fairly obvious: why did you want to write about war, and in particular, the War on Terror?
My interest in researching and writing about war started because of a number of factors convening around the same time. In early 2009, I was laid off, along with thousands of other Americans, during what we now know as The Great Recession. At this same time, our government was spending roughly $2,600 per soldier per day in two wars, and men and women serving were still ill-equipped for battle and dying (along with civilians) every day. It was hard to reconcile these two things side-by-side: my country telling me to sit tight while I got laid off and that times would get better... meantime, the wars looked worse and worse, costing more and more.
I took getting laid off as an opportunity to make the switch to full-time writing and decided that in order to earn my living as a writer, I would need to diversify my experiences. I ended up spending thirty-one out of the next thirty-six months on the road through fellowships and writing residencies. I felt tremendously fortunate during that time, and it was likewise hard to reconcile that freedom with the struggles that I knew our soldiers and Afghan and Iraqi civilians were having abroad. I could earn my living as a writer without harassment or fear of being shot or having my hands amputated, for instance. I could cross borders without harassment. I could take the best that my country had to offer -- freedom of expression -- and make a living out of it. Meanwhile, men and women in my own generation were fighting and using bullets funded by my tax dollars in wars I knew very little about. None of that sat well with me, and because I am someone who makes sense of the world through story, my natural inclination was to tackle some of my uneasiness by writing my way toward answers I could believe.
Based on all of that, it seems that writing this book was almost inevitable. It also explains why you chose to write about the war from so many disparate points of view. How did you go about deciding whose stories to tell?
It was challenging and invigorating to take on so many different perspectives in the same book. At a certain point, I had amassed enough stories that I realized I was writing a book-length collection. That motivated me to consider where the gaps were and to write stories from the perspectives of characters I hadn't considered yet. By no means did I cover them all, but I wrote where I felt most confident based on my research and where I felt most compelled based on my emotional interest in the work.
Every story starts with an unanswered question for me, without a doubt. So in many cases, it was simply a matter of wondering: What would it feel like to be a capable U.S. soldier and then be sitting in Walter Reed Memorial Hospital with a missing limb? What would it feel like to be hurt by the same people who later tried to help you? How does a small boy in a village elbow his way through a crowd to get free water from a soldier? Why would someone enlist? If someone wants to do what is good and right in war, what does that look like, and is it possible?
Did you find it easier to embody certain characters' voices than others?
I found it easiest to write from the American male perspective. In general, I feel comfortable writing farther away from myself (in real life) because it makes me that much more careful and in tune with innovative ways to imagine a character's life on a deep level. I often joke with people that the hardest story for me to write would be one that features a mild-mannered, thirty-something white girl (me) -- because I simply know that world too well. I'd rather write for discovery!
That said, there were several pieces about war that I ultimately decided not to include in the book -- one from the perspective of an Iraqi suicide bomber, another from an American contract truck driver -- because I never felt I could really get the voice and heart down to my satisfaction.
Well, you definitely cover a wide range, despite the ones you decided to leave out. By the way, have you ever been to the Middle East?
No, and I don't know anyone serving in the military.
So what did you do to ensure that your depictions of the foreign locales were accurate?
I used Google Images and Google Maps on a daily basis. I scanned YouTube for footage of Army bases, raids, excursions, trips to bazaars... anything I could find. I watched dozens of documentaries, often pausing the DVDs in order to get a good look at the inside of a Kabul street vendor's tent or an Afghan general's compound. I also asked my friend Karen Button, a former war correspondent, lots of questions about her experiences in the Middle East. She was able to help me with very basic things, such as what a checkpoint looks like and different methods for eating bites of food with your thumb and forefinger.
The book consists of twenty-four pieces of flash and seven longer stories. Did you know that you wanted the collection to contain both when you began writing?
When I started writing the book, the only thing I could do was write flash fiction. I simply didn't have enough knowledge about twenty-first century warfare, Iraq, Afghanistan, or the U.S. military in order to pull off anything with much length. I found that the flash form got me very far, however, because I was interested in the personal moments in war, not the wham-bam-action and gore, so to speak. I wanted to know how an ambitious Afghan woman could purchase a notebook or how a U.S. soldier went to the bathroom in the middle of a war zone -- the human aspects that, no matter how gruesome the fighting is, never really leave us behind. These moments were very small and short, and the flash form lent itself well to capturing them.
Early on, I wasn't doing anything on purpose, flash-y or otherwise -- I wasn't thinking about a book, I wasn't thinking about being politically correct, I wasn't thinking about making anyone in particular happy. I was just writing, which is exactly what I love to do the most. About a year or so into the work, I wrote my first full-length piece, and at that time, I remember feeling hopeful that I might eventually amass enough pages to publish a book.
And indeed, you have. It sounds like the stories dictated their length as you wrote them. So when you finished, how did you go about organizing them into a book? Did it happen organically, or did it require a lot of rearranging?
I labored over this again and again. Although for a very long time, I did know that I wanted to open the book with "While the Rest of America's at the Mall." That was my first war story, and for me, it represents the beginning of my years-long obsession with this work. What are we doing while men and women are fighting in the Middle East? We're at the mall, just like the soldier-character in the story says. Somehow, that summed up the issues I was having trouble reconciling with these wars, and I wanted to come out swinging, so to speak, with that provocative notion in the opening pages of the book.
Some of the stories also logically flow in a call and response, such as "Poo Mission" (about U.S. soldiers in Fallujah) and "Refugee" (about an Iraqi family returning to Fallujah after the first invasion); or "WIA," "MIA," and "KIA," which represent wounded-, missing-, or killed-in-action as experienced by U.S. soldiers.
Were there any books you looked to as examples for how to structure or even write Flashes of War?
I took a lot of confidence and inspiration from Hemingway's In Our Time, which peppers flash fiction (before it was called that) throughout his collection of full-length short stories. I liked that model and admired the unapologetic nature of his writing (which was also about war) and his structure (which was especially innovative at that time). In one of my stories, "The Ghost of Sanchez," the narrator even uses the verb "potted" to describe soldiers who die, and I stole that verb from Hemingway -- not only to pay tribute to him, but also because I think it is exactly the right word for that character in that moment, as it expresses a sort of suspicious detachment from the horrors of war that the reader immediately knows will catch up with the narrator later on.
Not only do the horrors of war catch up with the narrators, but they also catch up with the reader. As the book progresses, the "flashes" of different lives begin to fill out a bigger picture. Do you feel like this structure tells more of the whole story of war than, say, a novel with a linear structure and a single narrator?
I don't think it's possible to tell the whole story of war. Ever. Presenting an array of perspectives naturally covers more terrain and invites readers to broaden their view -- although it can remain somewhat shallow because of its width, whereas sticking to a linear, single-narrator structure in a novel naturally goes deeper and longer, allowing readers to consider a prolonged moral decision or experience. It leaves out much, but in exchange, it firmly solidifies something almost certainly true. There are pros and cons to each, and what it comes down to in the end, for me, is: What is the best structure for this particular story? How does it need to be told in order to say what it is trying to say?
These stories definitely tug on the heartstrings, but never in a cheap or maudlin way. Achieving that balance is one of writing's perpetual challenges, but did you find it more difficult to achieve in this book due to the loaded subject matter?
This is a difficult question because, if your assessment is accurate, I don't think I did this on purpose. I think what it comes down to is that war is never simple, just as human emotion is never simple. You can never do everything right, and even when it seems like everything is going wrong, there is always more to the story. There isn't a single person to blame or a moment in time that you can pinpoint and say, There, that's the beginning. That's where we really screwed up. So to portray something as purely unjust, evil, horrific, liberating, or hopeful seems like it would have betrayed the very nature of war and therefore the characters I was writing about. It can never be broken down into black and white, and the more I researched that, the more I believed it to be so.
I agree, which is why I was impressed with the way you tackled it all. For one thing, the imagery in these stories is stunning. What do you think it is about metaphor that speaks so loudly and makes even stories that take place in far-off lands hit home with readers?
Thank you. I'm a huge fan of the image-as-metaphor because it always says so much more than words alone can say. It's also the most effective tool I have found for concluding a flash fiction piece, and I leaned on that technique again and again for exactly that reason. I needed to get out of the stories quickly, that's the nature of flash, and the most effective way to do that is through image-as-metaphor. I think one reason this is so powerful is because it takes something familiar and makes it new again, and that's always a great beat to end a story on.