Flashes of War, Katey Schultz’s debut short story collection, is an intriguing amalgam of narratives: veterans and military spouses. Civilians of Iraq and children in Afghanistan. Deployments and transitions. Past and present. The future of Schultz’s collection lies in its power—she is an incredible voice. And a civilian. I asked Schultz, via email, about her experience crafting this collection.
You note in your epilogue that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are “[our] generation’s” and, in choosing to explore them through narrative, you looked at the “level of basic human experience.” Your book does an incredible job of highlighting that universal humanity. Did that change your perspective?
Writing Flashes of War absolutely changed my personal beliefs and understanding of war, as much as a middle-class, civilian American can claim do so. For instance, before researching the book, I feel bashful to admit that I struggled to understand why someone my age would volunteer to serve in the military. Now, I understand that there are all kinds of reasons—from family tradition, to ill- or well-intentioned recruiting practices, to a “way out,” to a search for “family,” to a genuine love and skill set applicable in justified warfare. Many members of the military love what they do and are very skilled at it. These men and women are not hungry to kill, culturally dismissive, or unaware. Just like you or me, they’ve found a line of work that brings them fulfillment and they complete their tasks with dedication. Unlike you or me, they often have to do this under extreme duress with less than adequate resources.
Before writing the book, I also did not understand, on any specific level, what it was like to engage in combat using the techniques of 21st Century warfare. Our soldiers don’t always have a place to go to the bathroom (see “Poo Mission”). Weapons fail. Equipment malfunctions. At times, they receive conflicting orders that may appear to threaten their safety or the safety of civilians. They don’t always have access to attentive medical care to address the “accepted” symptoms of war (constant diarrhea, dehydration, or repeated head traumas through direct and indirect blows, to name just a few). On the flipside, Afghan and Iraqi civilians don’t often have access to translators on culturally acceptable terms. Their histories are rich, complex, and just as significant as our own. Yet they must constantly survive and react in situations that fail to respect such history, ultimately compromising clear communication and, in some cases, compromising their lives.
The oft-discussed military-civilian divide is something I, a fellow civilian, ponder. Your book can certainly spur conversation and, thus, be a promising bridge. How have members of both communities reacted to your collection?
I have been so grateful that the veteran community, so far as I know, embraces Flashes of War. I’m sure there are naysayers who have not reached out, but individual service members—authors or otherwise—involved in Iraq or Afghanistan have responded overwhelmingly positively. The Vietnam Veterans of America offered a positive review; Nathan Webster (Army veteran and New York Times correspondent) confessed his skepticism and rounded the corner into full-fledged praise; Words After War invited me to speak on their “Danger Close” panel as the only civilian fiction author present; and, finally, the Military Writers Society of America named Flashes of War Book of the Year in Literary Fiction for 2013.
I remember one public event in Alaska, which is a highly military state. I had not yet received a contract for the book (though I’d amassed plenty of rejections). I thought to myself, “This is it. If anyone is going to stand up and yell at you for writing about war, it’s going to happen here.” Moments before I approached the podium, the sponsor of the program leaned over and whispered in my ear. “Oh, good,” she said, “He’s here.” I looked at her and asked, “Who?” She nodded two rows back and said, “He just returned from Iraq.” During the Q&A following my reading, the veteran was the first to raise his hand. I braced myself and called on him. “Where did you serve?” he asked me. I smiled and told him I hadn’t. The next week, he signed up for my writing class and we remain friends.
In terms of the literary community, more than 75% of the reviews began with the same sentiment, summed-up well by this opening line from The Vestal Review: “I wasn’t looking forward to reviewing a book of short stories about war. And war stories by someone who’s never been to war? […] So I opened Katey Schultz’s Flashes of War with a sigh of resignation and a tinge of resentment…and I didn’t close it until I finished. Katey Schultz has an actor’s ability to slip into the skin of her characters…”
While I’m certainly grateful that the reviews have remained positive, I do confess that I’m disappointed people appear so shocked by a writer’s ability to employ her imagination. Would they ask the same questions of a male author?
Can you describe your writing process?
Especially during wintertime, I rise before the sun to spend several hours reading and writing. I don’t allow myself to use the Internet or phone during this time and I cherish these silent mornings. In the early stages of a project or new task, I may need to read for up to several hours to let my mind loosen and open, taking inspiration from other novelists or even my weekly dose of the Sunday New York Times. If I’m revising, I frequently work by hand with printed pages, cutting and adding, reading out loud, and considering everything from verbs to transitions to character conflict to overall structure and shape. If I’m generating new material, I begin at the keyboard but work very slowly, usually coming up with a strong first draft that is only re-worked several more times before completion. The re-working takes time and is quite surgical, but so far I’ve been really fortunate that my early drafts nearly always contain a seed that’s growing in the right direction.
Flashes of War has an intriguing structure that leaps across points of view, continents and timeframes. What was your approach to this organization?
Initially, I organized the book in two parts: flash fictions and full-length short stories. Eventually, I came to see that this wouldn’t work, as the overarching impact of the book is intended to feel like a series of emotional explosions with lulls of contemplation or breathing room in between. In order to set the narrative pace for the book, I therefore decided to mix the shorter pieces with the longer, creating a rhythmic approach to war that I hope mimics the short and long bursts of action experienced in warfare. This style is unusual and it’s difficult to find other collections that include so much flash, let alone an interplay between the short and the long. I took great confidence and inspiration from Hemingway’s In Our Time, which places single-paragraph fictions about war between longer stories (that have nothing to do with war).
As I reflected on your collection, I noticed two resounding themes: the variances of silence (“Deuce Out” and “The Quiet Kind”) and the specters of guilt (“The Ghost of Sanchez” and “AWOL”); “Into Pure Bronze” is a perfect distillation of the two. What made these ideas particularly interesting to study?
That’s a very interesting observation. No one has picked up on that before, that I know of, and I certainly wasn’t aware of it when I wrote the stories. Because of my research, however, I came to the realization that no matter what side you experience war from, there are all kinds of ways in which you will be stripped of your power and voice. It’s one thing to say that, and many have said it before. But it’s another thing to research that sentiment to the point of obsession, covering your walls with images and words, watching up to 10 hours a week of war films, and writing for 2 ½ years without knowing if you’d ever be published, etc. And of course, it’s another thing entirely to actually live it.
In “The Quiet Kind,” Nathan shutters his emotions for fear of losing his wife and being perceived as a failure following his tours. In “Deuce Out,” Stephanie’s mother is nearly mute as she watches both of her children enlist. Stephanie channels this silence into devotion as she follows the footsteps of her brother, ultimately telling us her story from a different, “silenced” world all its own. In “With the Burqa,” an Afghan woman seeks power through the only method that she can—in her dreams. All of these characters live in situations that apply constant pressure to their lives and that makes for interesting fiction. Even though I write about war, I prefer a subtle plot, therefore tension can be difficult to achieve. These are not “shoot ‘em up” stories. The tiny moments and impossible decisions that my characters have to make are my “plot points” or “climaxes,” but I believe that they resonate without high drama exactly because of this sort of prolonged sense of tension.
In “The Ghost of Sanchez,” Dobson is haunted by a ghost, whose own guilt—independent of the war—informed his every living (and dying) decision. “AWOL” is more of a character sketch, included strictly to call attention to the fact that many soldiers privately consider this and find very few (perhaps no) outlets for discussing their internal conflict in mainstream society. In this way, guilt works like silence. It’s there all along, providing a tenuous foundation to a character’s every move, until eventually something gives.
I hadn’t thought of “Into Pure Bronze” in the terms that you suggest, but I’m persuaded by your insight. I wrote this story when I was looking for a way out of the book. I thought it would be the last story. Ultimately, it was not, but the motivation was still the same: I needed to know that I eventually could find a way out, both as an author and as a citizen who struggles with the fact that we’ve been at war over 1/3 of my life (and most of my little cousins’ lives). I made up those boys in Kabul Stadium because children, and the next generation of Afghans in particular, seem to me our only last hope for redemption. We are so far in, on so many levels. Can change still occur? Perhaps looking to the next generation is our last best shot. By creating two children who still weren’t afraid to dream, I allowed myself to dream as well, gathering strength to believe in the book and see it through to the publication process, despite the fact that, according to some reviewers, a mild-mannered thirty-something white American girl like me perhaps shouldn’t be able to write about war with the precision that I did.
Would it be apt to say each short story captures your characters’ unique war?
YES. I think all fiction deals with a war of some kind, in the looser sense of the word. The best stories in life are ultimately those that deal with struggle shifting to release, unknowns transitioning to the known, etc. That’s going to involve a push-pull. It’s going to require that the way a character sees him or herself at the beginning of the novel can no longer be held to the light at the end of the novel. In other words, someone is going to have to die—metaphorically for certain, and occasionally literally. Who we think we are is never who we turn out to be. It takes a war of life experience to discover that. The best writing never lets us forget this.
This Q&A has been edited and condensed.