Flashes of War

>> Wednesday, May 1, 2013

My friend Katey Schultz has a book of flash fiction stories about the recent and on-going wars in the Middle East coming out soon, and I took time recently to ask her a few questions about it:

1) Why flash fiction? How does the form fit the material?

Flash fiction stories are typically 1-3 pages long. They are very short snapshots or moments captured on the page, often showing characters in response to a situation that out-sizes them. (Here’s a recording of one example, titled “Poo Mission.”) At first, I began writing about war using the flash fiction form because I knew very little about how we were actually, physically fighting the wars and how civilians in the Middle East were interpreting our actions. So the size of the story represented my limited knowledge, because I couldn’t imagine much more than a scene or two at a time with much accuracy.

The more I learned, the more I was able to refine my word choice in these stories, and really build momentum and energy on the page. At that point, I still stuck with the flash fiction form because intense, dramatic, or traumatic situations are often remembered only in snapshots—so that seemed right and realistic to me. It was only a year and a half or so into my work writing about war that I had amassed enough information and confidence to begin writing full-length short stories on this topic.

2) How did you research the experience of the soldiers before, during, and after the war in the Middle East to be able to write so well about it?

It all started by making lists of words. I was very interested in the language of warfare and the Global War on Terror in particular. Giving a writer a new word is like giving a painter a new shade of green. I really wanted to play around with things and see what I could do. It felt empowering…but I also knew I needed to be careful with these words, because they came with certain contexts that I had to become familiar with. The stakes felt very high, and that made me even more diligent in my research and also my precise imagining. If I wrote something and it didn’t “feel” true…if I couldn’t put my heart behind it…I deleted it. There was a lot of back and forth of my cursor across the screen, at least initially. Eventually, I found my way in.

To extend my research beyond using the right words, I read twenty or so nonfiction books about 21st Century warfare and our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This was in early 2010, so there weren’t nearly as many contemporary fiction authors publishing about Iraq and Afghanistan as there are today; and that was fine. I wanted to start with the facts. I watched countless DVDs (mostly documentaries) and clips of head-cam footage on YouTube from soldiers in ambushes or civilians in daily life. I really only interviewed 2 soldiers in my research—one, to discuss the day-to-day operations of life on a Forward Operating Base, and another, to talk about the process for enlisting in the Army. Information from the former helped me write “The Ghost of Sanchez,” and information from the latter helped me write “Deuce Out.”

Finally, I looked at many, many photographs using Google Images searches. I printed these and hung them on my walls, or downloaded the images and used them as a screen saver. In other words, I surrounded myself with the words, images, and sounds of war as much as I possibly could without going there…then I began to write.

3) You not only tell stories about Americans, but about people of Afghanistan/Iraq. How did you learn about their experiences enough to be able to write about them?

It took a healthy balance of research and imagination. I didn’t speak to any Afghan or Iraqi civilians while researching the book, though I would have liked to. I did, however, spend three weeks on a self-made writing retreat with former foreign war correspondent Karen Button. Her advice and knowledge were crucial as I began my first forays into writing from a completely different cultural perspective. I think that watching the DVDs and documentaries was also helpful to me here—they enabled me to study gesture, tone of voice, clothing, physical setting, and gendered interactions that I could then bring to life in my stories. Typically, I saturated my mind with information until the only thing left to do was start putting things together and inventing characters that could move around and react within the imagined spaces I was creating in my head.

There are still so many perspectives and viewpoints that I was not able to write. For instance, one of the stories that I chose not to publish in the collection was written from the perspective of a suicide bomber. Try as I might, I just never felt I could bring that piece up to par. It was too far for my mind to go and I didn’t believe my own words as I wrote them. So I cut the story out.

4) You often write about children. Is there a children's book writer inside you trying to get out? ;-)

This has honestly never occurred to me. Wow. I do this? I suppose it takes a strong YA author such as yourself to notice! Thank you! In another life, I was a teacher for five years, so I’m sure that has trickled into my writing some (as well as my work as a waitress). I will say that I find the appearance of children in short stories to be a great source of relief, and when you’re writing about war, it’s only natural to want relief from that. For example, when I wrote “Into Pure Bronze” about two, young Afghan boys playing soccer in downtown Kabul, I was trying to write my way out of the wars. I had been researching and writing about war for two years at that point, maybe longer. I needed to believe my stories would have an end…and that the wars would, also. So I specifically wrote about “the next generation” of Afghan children and tried to imagine what their impressions of their own country and of America would be, given all that has taken place in their lifetimes thus far.

5) You say in your epilogue that you chose to write about war--and this war specifically--because you wanted to understand it better. To get to know what it was like from the inside out. What did writing Flashes of War teach you? What answers did you find?

For me, every story begins with an unanswered question. Why else would I want to write it? Because of this, I did learn a lot while writing Flashes of War. Personally, I changed my views on the military’s recruitment practices, on why an individual may or may not choose to enlist, on our nation’s obligation to our troops while they serve and once they come home, as well as on the use of force in general. There was a time when I didn’t understand why anyone would sign up to serve in the U.S. Military. There was also a time when I believed that problems could be solved without military action. But the more I looked at these wars, the more I understood and became open to the diversity of reasons for serving. I also became supportive of the U.S.’s initial—very early—acts of war in Afghanistan. (Doug Stanton’s incredible book, Horse Soldiers, played no small part in informing and persuading me of this.)

In the end, however, writing Flashes of War was never about who was for or against anything. I felt genuinely interested in examining what those of us alive today could do to help relieve the suffering and bring awareness to the myriad impacts of war. Winning or losing, Republican or Democrat, Sunni or Shiite, Taliban or U.S. soldier—our tax dollars are still funding everything from Taco Bell deliveries on base, to drone strikes, to the rebuilding of schools for Afghan girls, to destroying weapons caches, to providing prosthetic limbs to any one of more than 50,000 U.S. soldiers who are now amputees. As Americans and as citizens of the world, I think that’s worth looking at and responding to. Flashes of War is my response.

Thanks, Katey!

Flashes of War officially pubs on May 27th, but pre-orders begin today. Click here to learn more about pre-ordering the book.


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