I met Matt Gallagher in Brookfield Place, a glittering cathedral to globalized capitalism in downtown Manhattan. "Kiss from a Rose" pumps softly through hidden speakers in the ceiling, and you could kneel at the altars of Equinox, Umami Burger, and Prada in quick succession, if you wanted to. Its indoor palm court could be in Dubai or Beverly Hills — it was a bizarrely fitting place to discuss Gallagher's debut novel, Youngblood, which is set during the final chapters of the Iraq War, in an isolated town trying to recover from the devastation. Gallagher is a veteran of the war himself, who returned home with a viral blog turned nonfiction book, Kaboom, and planned to get an MFA at Columbia and write a novel. The product of that work is Youngblood, part love story, part mystery, and part war chronicle that has had reviewers praising Gallagher’s ability to vividly re-create the life of an American soldier, both the banal and the unavoidably dramatic.
Youngblood's protagonist is a young Californian, Lieutenant Jack Porter, who attended Iraq War protests before joining up himself. If that sounds like a contradiction, so is much of Youngblood, which is mired in the utter confusion, morally and psychologically, caused by the invasion, occupation, and withdrawal. In addition to IEDs underfoot and scheming fallen sheiks, Jack has to contend with a new sergeant, a hardliner on his fourth tour who Jack suspects might have committed a war crime, and the legend of Shaba, an American soldier who supposedly married a sheik's beautiful daughter. I talked with Gallagher about romancing the desert, creating American and Iraqi villains and heroes, and how to make art, if not sense, out of war.
When did you know you wanted to write a novel, and why?
I was at Columbia; I was halfway through another novel that had nothing to do with Iraq or war. It was maybe a little about veterans, but mostly it was just about New York, because I just didn’t want to write about it anymore. This is late 2011, when the American military withdrew from Iraq, and I was staying up at night, watching the news — that lasting image of the last Stryker, which was the type of armored vehicle we were on when I was over there, going over that berm into Kuwait — and I realized that maybe I wanted to be done with the subject, but the subject perhaps wasn’t done with me. I put that other novel in a drawer and started this as a short story, and it kept expanding. I'd already written from my perspective about my time, so it was very freeing in that way. I didn’t feel the impulse that a lot of first-time novelists do to write close to reality, I didn’t need to. I could create this world, create this story, the way I wanted to. And then of course, in the ensuing years with ISIS rolling in, it gave me more of an imperative to see it through. I wanted to accomplish maybe not the totality of the nine-year American occupation, but something with some depth and fullness.
Maybe you don’t want to talk explicitly about your politics, but how do you employ a critical gaze without feeling like you're betraying something?
I think you try to capture that emotional truth and that emotional texture that good fiction can. War is inherently political, it’s charged with politics and ideology. It may not be overt — I'll say, "Fuck Bush" at the pub, but as a reader I’m not interested in that overt political message, at least in my fiction. So I didn’t want to do that as a writer. There are probably coastal political sensibilities in the book, but that also comes from perspective, from knowing how our war played out. If I had written this in 2010, we came home thinking the surge had worked, we thought we’d won the war. Which seems crazy to think of only five years later, but there was a real sense of optimism. How hollow would that ring now, if that was how Youngblood ended. I don’t think I’m giving too much away when I say things end poorly. There are so many other ways to cripple yourself when you’re writing a book. Worrying about how something might be received because of political lenses — it’s just something I couldn’t concern myself with. It’s hard enough returning to a draft every day.
You met Iraqis and worked with locals while you were there, but in a different capacity. What did you research? Was it difficult for you to imagine because you were in a more combative role when you were there?
I was there for 15 months — the first six months were more combat oriented. And then the last — it was right when the violence numbers plunged. The surge "worked." So we did start to do some of this stuff. But I did a lot of research. It got me out of my head, my Iraq, and into a different Iraq. Maybe some of the same towns and neighborhoods, but it was very different. A couple of books had an immense impact me. There's Nick McDonell, who's a friend, who wrote a book McSweeney's published called The End of Major Combat Operations, which was hugely instrumental in getting a feel of the more — it was more administrative than my Iraq was. But the tensions there are lingering in the air, are less overt than it was during the surge. And also Jim Frederick's Black Hearts, which is about a war crime carried out by American soldiers on an Iraqi family. He did such a wonderful job interviewing the local Iraqis. I found it helped get an honest feel of what the occupation looked like through their eyes, and how it would affect them. It reminded me during early drafts that I needed to empower them. They were going to be three-dimensional characters. They couldn’t just be backdrops or victims, although clearly their country has been victimized. But like anyone else they’re going to be active and smart and engaged because this is their home.
Do you read any Iraqi writers?
Hassan Blassim, who had a short story collection called The Corpse Exhibition last year. Which was really good — but I'll admit, it was deeply uncomfortable as an American veteran to read. It reminded me that intentions are great, but intentions have no bearing on how something is carried out. It did not matter to him that we were young, that the veterans of my generation were young idealists who joined after 9/11. All that mattered was that we played a role in the collapse of his country. Those stories still linger with me. There’s also Sinan Antoon’s The Corpse Washer. He's a contemporary Iraq writer, and that was excellent. Those are both fiction. A couple of years ago there was Riverbend, she was an Iraqi female blogger who came out with a nonfiction set of dispatches that was fascinating. I actually remember reading it before we went to Iraq to try and get some sense from the other side of what it looked like. But there’s not a lot out there published in English. Hopefully that changes. I think it's going to.
Do you think there are surge guys, or people who don't subscribe to that kind of reflecting on the war, who would read Youngblood and be uncomfortable?
I hope so, I think good books challenge. I hope whatever a reader's background is or perspective, that the book does more than just fulfill their preconceived notions. I know when I finish a good book I feel fuller because of the experience, I feel like I know something else about the human condition or a part of the world. So if it makes you uncomfortable, that probably means it made you think much in the same way that The Corpse Exhibition made me think. Being comfortable with being uncomfortable is an important thing for both a reader and a writer.
Obviously writing was important to you as a veteran in coming back and synthesizing your experience. There's the blogging that you were doing during, but going to a workshop — what’s the emotional benefit, what’s the mental benefit? Not everyone is going to want to be a novelist.
There's definitely a cathartic aspect, and that's why veterans-only writing workshops have found success. I wasn't aware of it at the time, but I look back on the blog and that was probably perfect. It forced me to try to make sense of the world even if it wasn't going to make sense, even if I was missing a jigsaw piece, at least attempting to put that puzzle together was important. But I got out of the army and moved here in 2009 and I wanted to be a writer, and those other workshops, they weren't for me. They were helping people come back. That just wasn’t for me, though they do a great thing. Somebody recommended the NYU MFA program that hosted a veteran's workshop, and I said, "Ok, I'll give it a shot but it will probably be like those others." Then, day one I show up and I don't know anybody, and it turned out Phil Klay was arguing about Flaubert with Jacob Siegal, who is an editor of the Daily Beast now. And I'd only pretended to read Flaubert, so I thought, "Okay, maybe I'm in the right place." Some weren't in MFA programs, some went onto MFA programs like me, and we pushed each other to call each other on our bullshit. We wouldn’t let each other skirt on the issues. Something that maybe a civilian reader would let go by or wouldn’t even notice. That said, then, when I went back and got my MFA, working with civilians was instrumental because for some people I was maybe the first veteran they'd ever met, this was their first war story. Little things like, "Well, why did you call it IED here instead of roadside bomb?" lingered with me.
Then when my friend Brian started Words After War, the literary nonprofit, and asked me to teach, we wanted to do something different. We knew we wanted to do something with a literary bent, and so we decided to open the workshop to veterans and civilians. It’s been going on for three years now and it’s been some of the most fulfilling work I've ever done. It's important to remind people that your experience doesn't give you authority on a topic. Somebody like Ben Fountain has written arguably one of the best war novels of the last hundred years, and he was just a lawyer in Texas who was super interested in the subject and had something to say. So he did the research, he put in the work to get it right. When I first read it I just assumed he was a vet because it was so pitch perfect. But no, he just put in the work. If you look at Katherine Anne Porter's Pale Horse, Pale Rider, it's about influenza in Denver but it’s also about World War 1.
I was interested in the very small glimpse we got into one female soldier. When we're talking about the emerging canon of Words After War novels, there aren't a lot of women right now. Is that also something that’s going to grow?
I know a few great women writers: Mariette Kalinowski, Teresa Fazio, Kristen Rouse. Some of them are Words After War people. I think it's just a matter of time. I don’t know why it’s taken this long, it shouldn't. I have friends in publishing who said another war book would never sell, so there are challenges in that way. A war book written by a woman veteran really isn’t something we see a lot of, so I think it's going to take the right editor and the right house to take a chance and do it right. I know those women writers and I'm sure there are many others out there elsewhere in the country who just need a chance.
Are you worried about becoming more fully a writer and leaving your identity as a veteran behind? As you're walking around Brooklyn and being a "writer" and you move onto your next project, which might not have to do with Iraq, do you feel ever guilty?
I think all human beings, but especially writers, hate being pigeonholed, reduced.