An Interview with Matt Gallagher
Words By Matt Gallagher, Interview by Dani Hedlund
I loved this book. I haven’t read a war book this good since Tim O’Brien.
I appreciate that. O’Brien is The Godfather of American war literature, so that’s very kind of you.
Can you tell me what it was like to transition from writing nonfiction to writing a novel?
It took a lot of time and care. I decided after writing Kaboom that I wanted to write fiction. So I decided to go the MFA route, because I’ve always been a classroom learner. I had to swallow my pride a little bit, having already published a book, but it was probably the best thing I could’ve done because I got to study with people where, in many cases, I was probably the first military veteran they’d ever known. When I was submitting to workshops, it may have been the first military story they’d ever read. It really forced me to look at my own work from a completely different perspective. Then, making that jump to fiction was a matter of getting out of my own head.
Early drafts of the book were actually third person, but I found that it lacked the deeper emotional texture that first person can get to. So when I decided to write this novel in first person, I knew that the narrator needed to be more engaging than I am, more interesting than I am. So I just started with really basic things to help me learn how to write first person in a different voice. Jack’s a younger brother; I’m an older brother. It’s a very different view, and his relationship with his older brother is important. I called up my younger brother and interviewed him. I asked what it was like being the younger brother. And he was very honest with me. He said, “Oh, you know, it’s hard. Sometimes you were kind of an asshole, and here’s why.” So that was helpful.
I had to do a lot of research. I read a lot of journalism, a lot of oral histories, to find out how the war had changed, evolved—how the country had changed since I’d been there myself. I didn’t want to just be limited by, I think David Foster Wallace called it “our tiny skull kingdoms.” And slowly but surely, I kept writing and rewriting, to the point where I was writing from Jack’s perspective.
A lot of first time fiction writers try to make themselves as close to their first person narrator as they can. But it looks like you went to a lot of lengths to really distance your experiences from that of Jack’s. How important do you think that was to the writing process?
I think it was very important. Not just to get out of my own head, but to get away from my own tour, the limitations of those fifteen months. Certainly I wanted to draw from my own experience, but one of the goals with Youngblood was to write about the war with some fullness, if not the totality of the nine-year conflict—a wider view than just one man’s experiences. I wanted something with some breadth, so setting it near the end of the war was important. It allowed me to explore these corners and crevices of the Iraq war that I’d only read about, that I’d been interested in, that had maybe nothing or very little to do with the experiences of Matt Gallagher but fascinated me as a citizen, as somebody that cares about American foreign policy.
As fiction writers, we’re taught to find the most dramatic moment and then tell a story around it. And, of course, you didn’t do that. You went to the deceleration of the entire war process, and that gave the book a very intimate sort of feel. What was it like to explore the sides of war that we don’t really see?
Early on, as I was still formulating the book, it was less important for me to write about conflict than the after-effects of conflict, and how that lingers within individual souls, how that affects not just the people directly involved, but their friends and family, for years, often decades, after the fact. So often I’d heard, “Oh, war books aren’t for me.” From readers, book people, sometimes friends. I wanted to write a book for those people. And I realized that the best war books aren’t really ever about war. They’re human stories of love and hope and loss and survival. I knew that I needed to include some combat sequences, but I really wanted to spread those out through the narrative—keep them kind of separate. I was more interested in exploring how those things resonated with the people directly involved, both American and Iraqi, and people indirectly involved, both American and Iraqi.
You have a line early on in this book about how this is a “gray war.” I think that is one of the most interesting aspects of Youngblood. What was it like to write characters that were never really black and white, that were always kind of mitigating the middle area?
It was frustrating and challenging, but then fulfilling. I think a perfect example of this is Chambers. I wanted to play with the stereotype that I think a lot of readers—or people in American society—might have: the sociopath, a warmonger. And certainly that’s how Chambers presents himself at first because he’s establishing his own authority within the platoon. But I’d like to think that he’s much more complicated than that. We’re seeing Chambers on his fourth tour. In many ways, he’s the inevitable result of sending young men and women to war over and over again without necessarily a clear purpose or end goal in mind. Of course he’s going to make compromises and perhaps some murky decisions, because that’s how he’s made it this far.
One of my early readers asked me what Chambers was like on his first tour. I thought about it before I went into the rewriting. And I think he was, in his own way, just as idealistic as Jack is. He’s just been through too much and seen too much. He’s had to find his own smaller purpose in the midst of all of this, and that small purpose is a noble one. It’s to bring his soldiers home alive, whatever it takes. But that’s obviously going to conflict with some of the other characters’ intentions.
I found myself completely fascinated by Jack’s older brother. As you’ve said, one of the most interesting aspects of this genre is exploring not what happens during the war, but what happens to the people as a result of it. What was it like to juxtapose Will and Jack together—both their upbringing and how they are as leaders after the war?
Exploring that brotherly relationship felt important, and it was another way for me to get at an earlier phase of the Iraq war. Jack might not be able to clearly articulate it, even to himself, but clearly much of the reason he joined the army in the first place is because of his brother: aspiring to be like his brother in some ways, while also defying and resenting other parts of his brother. It’s a very younger-brother reaction, which is, “I can do the same thing you can but I’m going to do it my own way.” I think that all comes to pass in the letter that Will writes to Jack in book three. I don’t think Will is prone to the same introspection that Jack is, but Will does his best in that letter to open himself up and to really confront his own failures as a leader from his military days—something that he hasn’t yet shared with Jack. And Jack’s reaction to that letter is off the page. I think you can see its impact on his decision making and how he views moral courage going forward. And Will, nakedly opening up, perhaps for the first time to his brother about his own experiences overseas, helps crystallize for Jack what he should do going forward—finding, in his own way, maybe one small thing worth doing in the midst of all this ruin.
I found the always-slightly-present humor in the voice really fascinating, especially given how grim the content is. How did you manage to keep your mind in that lighter lens when looking at things that are really quite horrible?
It felt like an important thing to do—from a writerly craft perspective—to keep the story from becoming dark destruction on every page. But it also felt true to the experience—not necessarily my own, but true to the fact that very young men and women go overseas on our country’s behalf to carry out these wars. Memory can distort, memory can warp. However we spent our early twenties, we look back with a little more self-seriousness than we had in the moment. It’s also the most natural thing in the world, not just for young people, but for human beings, to find lightness in the midst of so much heaviness and darkness. There’s that particularly grisly scene near the end of the book where they come across the remnants of the car bomb and the wild dogs are going through those remnants. Some of the soldiers make some off-color jokes. They don’t do that because they’re inhumane, or because they don’t have empathy for the Mukhtar; they spent a lot of time with the Mukhtar. It’s the most human thing they can do because they have to keep going. They’re there on a patrol. If they were to stop and really brood over what they’re seeing, they’d shut down. It’s not as though that memory won’t stay with them for many, many years after they return home. But in that moment, they don’t have the luxury of stopping and really sharing with each other what they’re really thinking. So it’s a quick dark joke and let’s keep going.
Tell me about the process of taking the plot’s original conception to the final draft. What was the writing process like?
Slow and steady. I think I went through twelve full drafts.
I subjected a couple friends to every single one of them, God bless their souls. The first couple of drafts were very disjointed, but it was just a matter of getting the ideas out of my head and onto the page and things weren’t quite lining up. I’m very much a trial-and-error writer. I can’t say that I actually worked six days a week, three to four hours every day. But I do know that on the days I didn’t spend enough time writing I literally felt bad. Like I hadn’t accomplished something I needed to. So trying to abide by a schedule as much as possible was vital. And then just being truthful with yourself. Knowing when it’s not good enough, knowing when it’s not exactly as you want it to be. I mean, I would’ve loved to have finished this book two years ago but it just wasn’t ready yet.
So how many years did you work on it?
Let’s see. I started it in 2011. So about four, four and a half.
I know you got your start writing a blog, which you turned into a memoir. Do you think that the routine of blogging helped you fall into the routine of fiction writing? Or was there a conflict in the way that blogging depicts a short episode while the novel involves a very complex process of putting pieces together?
A little bit of both. I think the blogging background definitely helped in terms of not being afraid, especially with those early drafts of just sitting down and doing it. But I absolutely had to unlearn a lot of bad habits. There was a point in the early drafts of this book when I’d hit a wall with a chapter at six or seven pages, which was like a lengthy blog post. I had to teach myself how to draw out scenes, how to tease out dialogue, that it was okay to spend—if need be, if it made sense—longer than a couple paragraphs with a character’s thoughts. These were things that I could literally, viscerally feel changing in my writer brain. It was just one of those things that took time, and rewriting, and reminding myself that this is what I wanted to do, that the novel was the right medium for this story.
I was talking with David Abrams, who wrote Fobbit, about how political books written about Vietnam and the Iraq war can usually be distilled down to one main political point. Do you think that’s true? And if so, what do you think you’re saying with this book?
War is inherently political, so I absolutely agree that any war novel or war story is going to be charged with that. It mattered to me that I try not to be politically didactic on the page. I mean, I’m sure it’s imbued in there somewhere because it’s part of the reason you write the book. But that kind of blanket partisanship bores me as a reader. As a writer, I wanted to do something more interesting and more nuanced. If there is one thing I hope readers get out of Youngblood, it’s that the consequences of armed conflicts can never be contained or anticipated. The way they impact people and communities and countries resonates in so many different ways and for so much longer than anyone can imagine. Two words that I kept in mind over and over again were “inheritance” and “legacy”—the way the unintended consequences of that armed conflict linger. Maybe that’s not uppercase political, but I think it’s certainly lowercase political and ideological.
Having written both a nonfiction work and a fiction work in the same sort of sphere, do you feel like you were able to purport that mission and the things that were really important to you better in either your memoirs or in this book?
I’d have to say this book, and that’s probably because it’s the most recent one. If I’d been entirely satisfied with what I’d conveyed in Kaboom and how I’d conveyed it, I probably wouldn’t have written this book. I can’t remember exactly who, but some famous dead writer said, “Well, I’m just rewriting the same book over and over again trying to get it just right.” At least for now, I think I’m good with the topic. But if someone were to say twenty-five, thirty-five years down the line, try to get at Iraq again, I think I’d probably understand because when I’m older I might not be as content with Youngblood as I am today.
That makes perfect sense. So, on that note, what are you going to do next?
Not write about Iraq! I have another novel that I’ve been working on. It’s mostly about post-empire America, set in the center of the storm and what this ever-changing republic looks like from the inside—whereas I think Youngblood’s kind of written from the fringe about post-empire America and about republics. I’d give you more details but frankly, they’re just going to change anyhow. It needs a lot of work but I’m excited about its potential.