By Patricia Ann McNair
Flashes of War launched at Malaprop’s in Asheville last May, and has since received high praise from literary critics and veterans alike. Although each story features characters in and around the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Schultz’s writing has been described as “people stories” that focus on the tiny moments and human elements of this last decade of war. Far from a shoot-‘em-up, Flashes of War has been featured on NBC, Tolo News (in Afghanistan), and NPR’s Morning Edition on WNCW. To learn more about how Schultz wrote these stories without serving in the military or traveling to the Middle East, author Patricia Ann McNair interviewed Schultz during her summer book tour. What follows is an excerpt of that interview, originally published by Apprentice House.
Patricia Ann McNair: Much of this book was written while you were on the road, moving from place to place, in temporary housing, away from your own home in Yancey County. Do you think your own experience of being relatively “homeless” has influenced your writing of these stories in which people are driven from their homes, are dropped into places that are not their homes, and are returned to the homes that are no longer the places they remember?
Katey Schultz: I do think that being “homeless” while I wrote Flashes of War influenced the work, but I’m not sure it was in the ways that you suggest. I can say, however, that there are several stories where a sense of longing for the familiar is pervasive. In “Getting Perspective,” Lillis struggles to identify herself and relate to her Appalachian surroundings in the absence of her husband. In “The Quiet Kind,” Nathan misses home so badly, the implication is that he loves Indiana as much as (or perhaps more than) his own wife. In “Deuce Out,” Stephanie takes loyalty to her brother to an extreme, no matter the cost.
I think the feverishness of some of the situations these characters face was informed by my own impatience to get wherever I was trying to go as I journeyed from state to state, writing gig to writing gig. Where was I going? To actual, physical places—sure—but I was also on a more metaphorical path of my own self-discovery as a writer, learning how far I could push myself creatively and financially in order to make a life doing what I love.
PMc: Past wars were more obviously reported (complete with many images) in mainstream media than these current wars seem to be. It was not unusual for the nightly news on any network to show footage of combat and its aftermath during the Vietnam War; images from the atrocities of WWII were in all of the newspapers and shown in news trailers at the cinema. While the images from today’s wars are available on-line and in other places, it can take some searching to get any sort of accurate picture of what is really happening. Did the absence of easily accessible information affect your desire to tell these stories?
KS: Sixteen years ago, I made a conscious decision to live my life without television. Since that time, I have occasionally kept up with the news through NPR and BBC radio broadcasts, or subscriptions to the print editions of The Week and The New York Times. Perhaps because of this, I was doubly separated from even the mainstream coverage being offered about these wars. I didn’t see footage of the two planes flying into the World Trade Center until a week after 9/11. I found out about Osama bin Laden days after he was killed. All of which is to say, I guess, that I’m not the best judge of what is “easily accessible” information and what isn’t—because I’ve consciously chosen to remove myself from very large parts of mainstream or popular culture.
But your question about what affected my desire to tell these stories is a good one, and for me, I suspect that it has more to do with a sense of justice than anything else. I had been told that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were “my generation’s.” This confused and interested me, as I did not feel a part of them in any way, although I very much wished that we could resolve our conflicts without going to war. So my desire sprung, in part, out of a sense of duty to understand what going to war could possibly mean, and furthermore, to understand something that was being called “mine.” I needed to get at the human component of war, and in order to do that, I had to dig much deeper than anything the media was offering me. I pushed my research to a certain point, and then I let imagined stories take over.
The more I wrote, the more I realized that you can never really point a finger at the starting point of war, nor can you blame one side or one person any more than another. The causes and conditions that create war seem so intricate and complex, that no matter what angle I took through fiction, the answers were never going to be direct or without realistic, complicated implications. That’s rich terrain to explore when it comes to narrative, because there are countless outcomes and layers and each one is pertinent. So my job became not only to explore these possibilities, but to do so with heart and accuracy.
PMc: In past conversations about the book, you have said that part of what drew you to the topic of war was that the contemporary language of war had become part of everyday use–particularly among your young students who have lived most of their lives while the United States has been at war. This precision and attention to language in connection with dramatic scene, story, and story movement must affect your revision process as well. Would you mind talking about that some?
KS: When I’m revising flash fiction (very short stories), I get pretty surgical. I lean most heavily on my verbs, because they are the only part of speech we have to move a story forward. Verbs are action, all stories need action, therefore in flash especially, the verbs better be pulling their weight because there is only so much space to get the job done. In “Amputee,” for example, the tall day lillies “wave their petaled hands in the breeze.” Every word there matters to Becca, whose own hand is missing from an IED blast and will never wave again. In that line you have the verb (“wave”) and the noun (“hands”) really working double-time. Or in “Into Pure Bronze,” when the sky over Kabul Stadium looks “star-pocked.” “Pock” is a bit more aggressive than, say, “twinkle.” Creative decisions like that matter, whether they happen in first drafts or later on in revision, because the individual words add up over the course of a story to imply deeper meaning.
After zeroing in on my verbs (and sometimes the nouns that they refer to), I look at unnecessary words—fillers that destroy rhythm or get in the way of urgency—and I cut those out. Finally, I consider voice, which is where a lot of my stacked adjectives, use of slang, or decisions about punctuation come into play.
In terms of scene, I’m a big fan of clarity. I want to know when something starts and when it ends. There’s no time in flash to wait for the reader to figure things out. That being said, you’ve always got to be a beat or two ahead of the reader, because part of the momentum of flash fiction stories is dependent upon on the reader’s own experience of putting things together as the story unfolds on the page. So I try to be clear where it matters—scene, time, physical movement—but I’m plenty confident being creatively unclear where it matters as well. For example, the opening line in the first story of the book, “While the Rest of America’s at the Mall,” starts readers en medius res: “It’s not quite sniper fire but it isn’t random, either.” What does “it” refer to? My copyeditor got all over me for that, and rightly so (in a way), because how can you start a book with a pronoun that doesn’t refer clearly to a noun that hasn’t been mentioned yet? But the move is effective, I think, because it both realistically conjures the surprise elements of warfare while also jump-starting the story as it gives the reader just enough of a clue to realize we’re off and running.
PMc: I imagine it would be difficult to leave these characters with whom you have lived for quite some time. Are any of them still in your head, giving you more stories to tell?
There there were two stories in particular that stayed with me as I traveled. Those were: “The Quiet Kind” and “Aaseya & Rahim.” I can tell you where and how I was sitting when I wrote the opening pages to “The Quiet Kind” (propped up on two pillows in a stiff-backed chair at Madroño Ranch in south-central Texas) and “Aaseya & Rahim” (in a derelict steel, swiveling office chair tucked into the corner of an off-the-grid, hike-in-only, rustic cabin near Fairbanks, Alaska).
I remember this because I think some part of me knew that I had stumbled upon characters that were going to make me work really hard for them, and I felt invigorated by that challenge. For days after starting these stories, my world shrunk to just a few square feet: the distance between my hands and the keyboard, my computer and my research notes, and my desk and the bathroom. I felt if I strayed too far mentally or physically, I’d lose them. Later, during those long driving days or flights and layovers, I was able to conjure the intimacy of that foundation for each of these stories and roll ideas around in my head—sometimes writing, other times just considering the ins and outs of what made Nathan tick, or what Aaseya’s innermost desires were.
As it turns out, these two stories feature characters who now appear in my novel-in-progress. Nathan is the main character, with numerous appearances from Aaseya and Rahim, and a few mentions of Tenley. The entire novel takes place in one day, set in the imagined village of Imar, in the real province of Oruzgan, Afghanistan.
PMc: Thanks, Katey Schultz, for this insight into this very fine story collection. I am eager to read more from you.
Katey Schultz writes full time from her home in Celo, NC, where she lives in a 1970 Airstream trailer bordering the Pisgah National Forest. Learn more at www.kateyschultz.com.
Patricia Ann McNair is the author of the award-winning story collection The Temple of Air. For more information: www.PatriciaAnnMcNair.com.