Matt Gallagher just wanted to grow out his hair. By 2009, Gallagher was still a member of the 25th Infantry Division and back home in Hawaii after a tour of duty leading a scout platoon in Iraq. The military service commitment incurred as part of his ROTC training at Wake Forest University had ended, and Gallagher was ready to begin the next phase of life. So, he decided to move to New York City and make a go of it as a writer. First, he published “Kaboom: A Soldier’s War Journal” (Da Capo Press, 2010), which chronicled his experiences in Iraq, and later, after earning a master’s degree at Columbia, the novel “Youngblood” (Simon and Schuster, 2016) about a lieutenant who investigates a soldier’s disappearance while leading his infantry platoon through a complicated mission in Iraq. Both books achieved critical and commercial success. His latest book is “Empire City” (Atria, 2020), a novel set in an alternate United States that shares much in common with present-day America. I spoke to the author by telephone about his books, inspiration, and what he misses about the military.
Your latest book is different from your Iraq War novel, “Youngblood.” Do you call this new book a work of science fiction or speculative fiction?
This is speculative fiction in the tradition of Philip K. Dick’s “The Man in the High Castle.” There is an overlap between speculative and science fiction, but science fiction is geared toward futurism. My book is set in a type of contemporary America, and I'm not super focused on different technologies or things that could be. I'm exploring an alternate world, an alternate America that won the Vietnam war, to distort the reality for readers. I hope that readers enjoy learning about a different world but also seeing things they recognize inside of it. There is a funhouse mirror for readers to see themselves and their own reality. The idea is that matters of war and peace in our current era are still divisive, and maybe by creating this alternate world, people can focus on the story enough to bring out those ideas in a different way because it is still based on what has been happening in America, and that is the relationship between the military and civilian populace in a large republic.
Where did the book come from?
I'm the type of writer who doesn't know the answer to that question until I start to write. “Empire City” was much more experimental for me than other types of fiction, but there are some parallels. I wanted to know if I could make sense of political strife in America through storytelling. Political strife is something I put in that bucket. I'm comfortable writing moral ambiguities, the inherent conflict between practical execution and the ideals we hold inside ourselves. I'm comfortable writing about people who use an institution for upward mobility and then have to determine where and how the institution is using them back -- tension between individuality and a large institution. The driving force for writing this book was answering the question: if we go down this military-civilian divide long enough, what will the world look like?
But after everything, what gets me up in the morning to write is imagination, that I can take the loose and wild thoughts in my head and give form to them. There is a necessity to destroy and tear down the things you've made into something that coheres, but the act overall is building and crafting into something that someone else can make sense of, and that makes me think of ‘revision.' A quote I like to use with my writing students is that good creative writing is not expression but communication; I use that with revision specifically, fashioning language into something coherent and united. You're wrestling with yourself. What Hemingway said about killing your darlings.
Do you like Hemingway?
I have a conflicted relationship with Hemingway. I joined the Army partly because of his novel of the Spanish Civil War, “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” and because idealism is important for a young person in the military. But that is not Hemingway's finest book. I think it gets a little precious in how the American protagonist, Robert Jordan, reconciles that war and his purpose in that war. But that is something relevant for Afghanistan and Iraq veterans in that we join for grand, idealistic notions, but then we’re confronted with the realities and impossibilities of war. Can you find justice? Can you find one good thing you can do or improve in a sea of terrible choices? Those points resonate in “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” I grapple with Jordan's clarity on that because there is so little second-guessing from him. He is Hemingway's perfect type of hero, but the man Hemingway based him off of was a man from Reno, and he was much more questioning of the cause and the justice of the war. The real man had much more trouble.
You are from Reno, Nevada. Tell me a little about your upbringing. How did religion and education shape your outlook as a writer and soldier?
My dad is Catholic, but I was raised Presbyterian. There is something there [in Catholicism] in terms of being a person of knowledge and of action, which Catholic education pushes on people. To be a person of knowledge and a person of the world, learning how to blend those two things. Having a faith that goes above and beyond worldly experience. The Army was appealing for those reasons. There is an idealism there, in faith and in religious school, that permeates our work, and I saw that during the Iraq war in desiring to serve my country. I know that participating in a warlike the Iraq War can change not only the morality of a person but the moral trajectory of the Nation, but still I see young people joining the military with a similar and idealistic outlook to what I had. They've joined an American military that has always had its guard up.
Yes, I'm from Reno, and returning home to Reno has always been a possibility, but I saved some money, and I wanted to live in [New York City] and make a run at writing as a profession when I got out of the military.
Why is it difficult for soldiers to become civilians again?
I think civilian life is very isolating. Everything in the military is about the squad or unit, and there's always someone nearby to watch over you and take care of you. The transition out is lonely. The military's job is to try and retain people. A number of my old guys went back home or someplace new, and they lost their safety net, and it's hard for folks who joined the service fresh out of high school because there is no life experience to fall back on. I think about my own blunders and mistakes, and the things that saved me were my family and my girlfriend, who knew how to save me. The military is socialist; it's about the community and the ‘greater good. Coming into a Machiavellian free-market right away is an icy plunge.
Name one thing you miss about being in the military.
I miss the real physical rush after finishing a long ruck march with your unit, there's so much going on at once. The physical rush, of course, the pain in your calves, feet, all of it. Then there’s the banter of soldiers together having accomplished something. We would do things like that on Fridays, so there's a sense of freedom after accomplishing something challenging and physical. There is a sense of group power that's not invincibility because there's plenty of awareness of death, but still, it's not something you come by very often in ordinary life.
John Waters is a writer in Nebraska.