By Christine Sneed
Prediction: this will be a year to remember for Matt Gallagher and his publisher, Atria Books. Gallagher’s debut novel, “Youngblood,” has already reaped incandescent endorsements from several literary titans, among them, Tim O’Brien, Phil Klay and Ben Fountain. A former U.S. Army captain, Gallagher is known to many readers as the author of a well-regarded memoir published in 2010, “Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War.” “Kaboom” was based on a blog that Gallagher wrote while serving in Iraq. It was lauded for both its acerbic humor and its honesty–the blog was so candid that the government shut the site down in 2008. Gallagher is also the co-editor, with Roy Scranton, of the 2013 anthology, “Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War.” From his home in Brooklyn, the debut novelist was kind enough to answer a few questions for Newcity recently about his writing process and “Youngblood,” published this month.
Aside from the need for truth in nonfiction, how has writing fiction been different for you than nonfiction?
So different and yet so similar. That’s not a coy writerly answer, it’s the truth! On one hand, the challenges of fiction are immense: everything is possible, so figuring out the specific story you want to tell takes time and care. Also, literary war fiction has such a proud, vibrant tradition, you want to honor that and be mindful of it while also contributing something new, something distinct. On the other hand, good writing is good writing, whatever the genre, and good writing can only happen with a lot of work and rewriting.
Place is so visceral and immediate in “Youngblood.” How do you approach descriptions of setting as opposed to scene and dialogue writing? (I’m asking this because I often find setting to be the least interesting part of fiction-writing for me, e.g. with “Paris, He Said,” I had to try hard not to write boring, setting-based details and am not sure how successful I was.)
Iraq was so wild and arresting in terms of physical environment–conveying that to readers felt essential. Not just the endlessness of the desert, but what the streaks of sun at dusk looked like, what a field of poppies smelled like at night… the absurdity of wealthy sheiks having “lawns” of green turf in the midst of miles of brown earth. Place was very much an active and dynamic character for this book. It had to be.
Was this novel always first-person point of view or did you begin it in third-person, for example?
Early drafts of this novel were written in third-person, actually, and they just read more like craft exercises than the correct prism for this story. Through rewriting I found this book needed the deep, fiery emotional texture that first-person can provide.
The inevitable question: how much of you is in your main character, Lieutenant Jack Porter?
Probably a bit more than I think, but much less than my mom will! You know, I’d already written a book from the perspective of Matt Gallagher, so I knew the narrator for this story needed to be more interesting than I am, more discerning. Jack’s a seeker at heart and that informs not only how the novel is told, but the trajectory of it. There are pieces of me in Jack, sure. But there are pieces of me in every character in the book, from the Iraqi mother Rana to the grizzled veteran Sergeant Chambers to the mythical ghost character known as The Shaba. Part of being an author is breathing life into your characters at the expense of yourself.
How many drafts did you write of “Youngblood” and did you show anyone pages as you progressed through its writing?
Twelve. Two friends and fellow writers, Ted Janis and Phil Klay, read every single one, bless their souls. I had various other readers throughout, from my wife to grad-school classmates to pals from my Army days. This never would’ve come to be without every single one of them.
What are some of the books that have most influenced you, combat-related or not?
“Moby Dick” changed the way I interacted with literature. I grew up out west, so Joan Didion and Katherine Anne Porter were staples of my youth. I came to Márquez late, but I’m glad I did. As for “war” stories: Herr’s “Dispatches,” Adichie’s “Half of a Yellow Sun,” Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant,” O’Brien’s “Going After Cacciato”… oh, and Tolstoy. Can’t leave out that guy.
What are you working on now, if you don’t mind telling us?
A second novel, centered on post-empire America. It still needs a lot of work, but I’m excited for its potential.