Kaboom, written by a serving US soldier, Matt Gallagher is an account of battle, gleaned from experiences during sixteen months in Iraq. The book dives directly and completely into its story. ( see the review posted on this blog, below)
A clear, honest and ironic confession of his and his comrade’s fears and hopes, the text crams in the experiences of the young American platoon leader whose motivations in-part drawn from meandering through beer binges and ‘war games’ sessions.
Under daily war pressures, Matt manages to stand back far enough to sketch a view point that lifts conversations that were swirling his firebase and on the rutted scarey road remants of the triangular space, that enclosed his forty-five men. His blog-like episodic account grabs unique descriptive episodes and sometimes treks through overblown bursts of wordy mind-mapping. But what divides it from most other eye-witness accounts is that, in the end, Gallagher has drawn out a precise, pungent mini-view of a cruel, relentless, wasteful encounter between two cultures who will, seemingly, never understand one another or the reasons for their conflict.
(Neil McPherson, freelance reviewer)
In the process of preparing his review, Germany-based McPherson was allowed to interview Matt Gallagher who was in New York, pursuing further studies in creative writing.
Here is an un-edited account of the interview via email.
Thank you for agreeing to an interview. I am feeling a little battered right now, after several small medical procedures and more to come next week. I hope in the interim, that you won’t mind considering these questions and comments of mine and then sharing some of your insights, either as email text or audio-recording, say MP3, if that is practical for you. When I am back on deck, we could chat by phone, if you agree. (But maybe we will have covered the ground here.)
Congratulations on your achievement in this book, which to my way of seeing it, breaks fresh ground in war memoirs, especially concerning those semi-undeclared hard-to-define campaigns in a number of Middle East countries.
First then, it’s some time now since the hardcover edition of Kaboom was released.
Has that event made any significant changes for you and – how do you cope with if it has?
“It changed my life” is a bit dramatic, but the truth is, it has. It’s been a slow adjustment realizing that a slice of my life – a seminal slice, but still just a slice – is out there for public consumption. That should’ve been self-evident ahead of time, of course, but it didn’t really hit me until the reviews, be them positive, negative, or indifferent, started showing up. I don’t think I’m either a hero or a dickhead, but I’ve been described as both by complete strangers in newspapers and on the Internet. It’s been an odd transition, coming to terms with the fishbowl aspect of writing and publishing a book.
How did the book come into being, that is, did the publisher come to you or the other way around? How did you feel about the transition from recent soldier to author? (The process of being edited and published)
My publishing process is a bit of an oddity, since I never really aspired to write a war memoir in the first place. When my blog got shut down in June 2008, I swore to myself I’d never write again. (A bit melodramatic, perhaps, but in my defense, I was 25 and emotionally spent.) That lasted about a month, since in July, “The Washington Post” published a story about the rise and fall of Kaboom (the blog) that was very sympathetic to my vantage point and warzone e-decisions. Shortly thereafter, a number of literary agents and publishing houses emailed me, asking if I’d be interested in writing a memoir. I responded to them all the same way – “sure, but I got 9 months left in Iraq. Can we talk then?” I never heard back from many of them. William Clark, my agent, said no problem, let’s stay in touch. We stayed in touch during the rest of the deployment, and when I got back, he guided me through the proposal process. Eventually, he’s the one that got in touch with Da Capo Press, through my editor, Bob Pigeon. Despite an industry that had declared Iraq and Afghanistan memoirs the black plague, Bob took a chance on Kaboom, and for that, I’m eternally grateful.
About the literary device – where you used mainly nicknames.
I seemed unusual to me, and as far as I recall, the substitution of real names for nickname-soldiers (but not Iraqis?), that waited until the final section.
(Hard for me to recheck that: my review copy (living in Europe) is a huge PDF and therefore, very hard to navigate or check for page numbers.)
Some names and some physical characteristics of persons depicted in your book were altered, and in
many cases, nicknames were used to protect the real identities of soldiers with whom you served,
and of most Iraqi individuals that you encountered. Right?
What was the main reason for that decision? Did it relate to the blog and if so, was it assumed that the blog was known to your potential readers? Did the decision introduce later difficulties for your writing task? Was it a legal decision? Have I missed something obvious? If the book could be considered in part as a memorial to dead companions, how did the nicknames device work for their families? I notice the nicknames were used for captions, and wonder how anonymity survived that.
The nicknames originated from the blog, done then for OPSEC purposes. My editor (Bob) and I decided to keep them in the book version, as they added flavor and color to the narrative, not to mention an air of authenticity, since soldiers at the tactical level rarely call themselves by professional titles when out of the wire. I’m sure it made the lawyers sleep easier, but it never came up directly. With regards to the real names being used in photos and in the acknowledgements, I sought and received permission from all involved in those cases. For my platoon especially, including their real names at the end added a special keepsake touch that would’ve been lacking had they just stayed nicknames.
I confess that I skipped when that happened the first few times. I went back later and realized that they contained gems in the text that made moral and very personal observations and admissions which even had a touch of the ancient Greek Chorus about them. At first, I assumed that they were what are now generally called raves or rants. One I remember best comes about the middle of the book just prior to “The Bon Jovi …”
Matt goes to the toilet and muses about iWar:
“Yeah. Fitting, in that succinct, catchy pop-culture kind of way. Perfect for this era of irony and commercialization and technology. Just like iPod, iTunes. iPhone, and iRack.” … ”I (sic)War. Subject. Verb. Where’s the object? We’re still looking for it, some five years later. How’s that for iRony?”
I think that the poets John Ashbery and Elizabeth Bishop and others would both have enjoyed those excursions to the Muse. I did so very much. Could you please share with us, a little about your thoughts on using that approach of yours?
These internal musings/rants are certainly the most debated part of the book. Some love it, some hate it. I’ll admit to enjoy writing like that, in a Faulkner/Kerouac-like stream of consciousness frame augmented w/ an exposure to postmodern culture, as it reminds me of guitar rifingf – something so organic and inherently charged, the creative process literally sheds any semblance of construction while evolving. I felt it important to include some of these pieces in the memoir, as they’re intellectually honest and accurate to the deployment experience. Not every moment while at war over the course of 15 months is pretty, clean, or manageable. Soldiers lose it in such situations, and I was no better or worse than most in this regard. War “memoirs” that carry pretty, clean narratives that fit tightly into a chapter format aren’t honest or accurate, in my opinion. These riffs, as ugly and unintelligible as they were, best reflected the moments when I had to escape to the Port-a-John for space and clarity, and my mind knew no proper construct for language. I didn’t just want to include them. I needed to. War is a dark place, and not just on the outside.
“Savage wars of peace. Kipling’s phrase about insurgencies and counter-insurgencies. Savage phrase, (sic) that war of peace.”
I have some lists like that, but missed the Kipling quote. Then, you dip into your personal horrors: feeling cut-off from reality and flinging anger at the unseeing-unhearing public back home. Or are they just the town-burghers who look forward in awe, to presidential announcements? (Like, Vietnam.)
Ahh, the pejorative “they.” A dangerous thing for a democracy w/ an all-volunteer force and protracted warfare. That “they” leads to a separate warrior caste, and history isn’t kind to societies with separate warrior castes. (God, that’s depressing, sorry for being such a drag.)
Terrific stuff and, as you realize of course, it delves into your poetic gift. I suspect you wrote that material later – or was it blogged? Is poetry where you would prefer to go now, in your next work or do you want work differently altogether? Does that magnificent private rant fit your image as the guy who slept through 9/11? (Was that ‘over the top’?)
“Napped” through 9/11 is more accurate, but still, the broader point stands – I woke up to a brave new world, groggily grasping for the indulgences of the old world I’d left behind. As for my next work – I’m writing non-fiction articles during the days, and taking my stab at the Great American Novel at night. I still believe in the novel as an expression of narrative art, and that deeper, more powerful truths can be found in fiction than in reality. At least that’s what I tell myself when I go home from the bars early to write on my couch. And those poetic divergences are a fusion of then and later – it’d be impossible for me to separate them at this point. I blogged many of those pieces, and even post-blog shutdown, was still writing on my laptop. So maintaining the raw, authentic perspective of a grunt in the thick of it never was a concern; the concern lay with not diluting that voice with a postwar vet’s perspective, while still going through the all too necessary editing process.
Rank and control issues
This aspect caught my eye from the first: how rank works as it does in business and society arts and education, at least in West.
Your descriptions of Major Moe and Major Curly are very much on the money and they fit every story of command in the field that I have worked through – they all reek of those two.
Were your editors happy about the length you went to on that aspect? I felt it was great, but of course it could be a hobby-horse for me and there is a majority who are, uh, Major Moes, and they just may be in tune with the man-in-the-street. I fear that a lot of little guys like him, are some of potential readers for your book, despite the irony of that fact. Want to fight me (educate me – and our readers) on that?
My editor didn’t fight me in this regard. Believe it or not, I self-censored a lot of my anger/dissatisfactions with command, because I didn’t want Kaboom to be about them. I wanted it to be about the men on the ground and our day-to-day lives. The senior command team in my Cav unit sucked, but that doesn’t mean every senior command team sucks, I’ve some very smart, capable friends that have stayed in the Army because of superior leadership. The command team I served under in the Infantry unit was solid, and showed me the danger of prescribing panaceas with anecdotal evidence, as I’d been eager to do after my time in the first unit. But in the end, the military, is just like any bureaucracy – they promote people to positions of power, whether those people deserve the responsibility of that power or not. It’s a dangerous game, having incompetents manage men at war, because it’s not a game at all – something, for whatever reason, the Major Moes and Lieutenant Colonel Larrys never seem able to grasp.
Where does your writing work take you next – or is there more in Iraq?
There are more Iraq stories in me, though I’m still figuring out how to get them out. Historically speaking, it generally takes vet writers 10-12 years to attempt to capture their wartime experiences, and I understand why now, though I can’t really articulate it. But they’re still there, on the tip of my tongue, even after penning a memoir – stories of hearsay, rumor, innuendo, the surreal that only makes sense a couple years later. Conversely though, writing about postwar experiences has been much smoother, even though it’s “newer” and more recent. The novel referenced earlier, the one I work on at night, is about the postwar experiences of two Iraq/Afghanistan veterans in New York City. It’s entitled “In the Meantime.” I have high aspirations for it, and as long as I remember to stay out of the story’s way, I believe it’ll do well.
The impasses that you try to pin down again, at the end of your very detailed, deeply felt book, what do you think about it now, several years later? I felt the Lawrence quote sat very well, but then, I am a fan of his and think of King Feisal every time a flowing flash of white material and head covering swishes past in Dubai. But the golf is good.
I think men are, and always have been, capable of great acts of bravery while finding a greater good in times of madness. Hyperbole and overwrought languaged be damned.
What was the best part of the book, that you felt really satisfied with, but, that no-one else seemed top take not of? Is there anything you would have changed in hindsight?
Tough, probing question. Every time I pick up the book, I find spots, words, I’d wish I could change. But that’s the trick – I’m not who I was when I went to war anymore, nor am I the man writing the book recently returned from war. And that’s why I’m content with leaving it as is, even if the language and writing isn’t always where I’d prefer it to be. At least in war stories, the raw and authentic will always trump the cultivated and refined. I’d rather Kaboom be raw, angry, and ugly than the alternative, because the alternative would be a fraud. And that’s a far greater sin than using the wrong verb in a particular sentence.
Many thanks for tack.ing this load.
Thank you! Wonderful, in-depth questions and dialogue. Best wishes, Matt.
(If you would like to get your hands on this book, note that Amazon may have few bargain copies left today (16 May 2012) before the paperback version goes on sale next week. )
- Left Behind: America’s Iraq Legacy (thedailybeast.com)
- While some fight real wars the rest of us play fake ones (nightmaremode.net)
- “Constant state of violence” (anactofwar.wordpress.com)
- At War Blog: As Social Media Expands, Military Bloggers Find More Outlets (atwar.blogs.nytimes.com)
- Where the wounded are (salon.com)