I used to be alive. You're going to be dead.

I used to be alive. You're going to be dead.
I was alive. You will be dead.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Bonus material: Breakfast With the Dirt Cult / Samuel Finlay interview

I interviewed Samuel Finlay recently for Taki's Magazine, as I was writing up his hilarious self-published memoir of war in Afghanistan. He generously gave me far more material than a person could ever smash into a proper Internet-length piece. So, in this blog's grand tradition of failing do do the right thing on the Internet, I will print the "overflow" (to use an inappropriately insulting term) in all its I-don't-give-a-fuck-about-your-word-count glory below.

Here's the Taki's piece. (NOTE: Hey, writers. Have you written a book? Is it drowning in obscurity? Send me a review copy! Talk to me at asterzingerzATgmail.com and don't forget the extra z.)

Here's the bonus material:

Sterzinger: So how did your campaign to self-promote for Independence Day go? How many copies have you been selling?


Finlay: As far as my campaign around the 4th, the formal ads barely moved the needle. On the bright side though, around that time some of my previous efforts had begun to pay off with reviews in places like Publisher's Weekly (which frankly surprised me, given the things I wrote). Also, a number of book clubs, bloggers, and veterans' groups I've approached have expressed an interest in reading it, and my Army buddies are always touting it. I sent out some queries to some agents for shits and giggles and some have requested copies. We'll see.

Sometimes I'll send a copy to a mainstream pundit if for no other reason than to put a shot across their bow or to try to engage in some low-level subversion and recruit an ally. Sometimes they even write back. When I sent a copy to a contributor at The Huffington Post she sent a nice email thanking me for my service (one of her exes had been in Iraq). Charles Murray sent a reply last month. I sent a copy to the Republican Party Chairman, along with a note explaining why the Republican Party was no longer an effective political vehicle for middle America or those with Burkean sensibilities, and that as a result of the progressive domination of the cultural institutions as a kind of civil religion, the Republican Party is ultimately an analog version of the Democratic Party. He sent a thanks and said that he'd try to get to it, and that while he understood the cynicism, we mustn't let the liberals destroy the country. So it goes.




Sterzinger: Do you know of any other military fiction writers these days who are doing well? Have you seen the New Yorker round-up? The New Yorker claims today's military writing is apolitical, which seems kind of bizarre considering the military is living at the nexus of geopolitics...


Finlay: I’ve not read any of those in the [New Yorker] and can’t speak of them, but what others I’ve seen often seem to either be kinda jingoistic or gratuitously edgy and MASH-esque. There was a guy from the 10th Mountain named Andrew Exum who did one around the time we came back. It was called This Man’s Army, and I think he’s landed a gig as a military commentator for Fox or something. Another guy named Colby Buzzell did one as well, but I only skimmed them. From what I hear, Sebastian Junger’s book War was pretty badass, but he’s technically a reporter. I think for that sort of stuff you need some years between you and that time in your life to help gain perspective and try to find the words to explain things going on inside, so the really great stories may be some time coming.

(As an aside, I don’t think there’s any such animal as apolitical like the guy wrote; not in this day and age. Even if it’s ironic and cynical, that tends to dovetail into that whole “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel” school of thought. That sort of thing winds up demoralizing a people in their commitment to home and makes them believe there’s nothing worth fighting for; or it serves as fuel for progressivism, which promises an antidote via good feelings and all that shit John Lennon sang about in “Imagine.”)

As to nobody really wanting to touch military stuff right now, I think unless it’s linked to a cartoon, video games, or some supernatural/intergalactic shit, you’re pretty much humped. About six or seven years ago at a writer’s conference in Austin, this guy from one of agencies in New York said to me that there wasn’t much of a market for it. His thinking was that a lot of it had to do with the fact that the current wars were unpopular and that the news was always showing stuff about them and everybody was more or less sick of hearing about it. I see some glimmers of that beginning to change; in my recent campaign, I’d noticed some agents are purposely looking to take on new authors and develop military titles. There was one who even wanted to see a copy of my book. However, this is by no means universal in the way chick-lit is. In fact, just last week an agent sent me the following that I think sums it up:

“Thank you for your query.  I appreciate the opportunity to consider your work for possible representation, but having been sent countless memoirs/”novels” based on war experiences from WWI to Iraq without experiencing any success with them, I’m not the right agent for it, particularly as you’ve already published it on Amazon/Kindle.  Fortunately, there are lots of agents so I hope you’ll find another who will give your book the time and attention it deserves.” 

Frankly, I’m not sure where the guy writing the New Yorker article is getting his info. There really doesn’t seem to be the sort of interest he describes unless he’s trying to prime the pump. An ex-Marine named Chris Hernandez has a funny, angry sit-rep on his attempts at finding a home for his work which seems more like what I’ve seen. He knows the score: http://chrishernandezauthor.com/2013/03/13/every-literary-agents-dream-novel/.

That being said, I think there’s an ex-grunt sub-culture that’s building. It ain’t quite critical mass, but it’s there. After 13 years of this, there’s a lot of us running around who by the nature of the beast are operating off a whole other sheet of music and have tastes, behaviors, and ways of thinking that are completely outside of mainstream SWPL culture. There are guys writing, doing videos, and selling stuff (mostly to each other for right now, I suspect), but they’re all networked together through an informal veterans’ community. A lot of it still seems like a monkey trying to hump a football, but the wheels are turning. It’s still very tongue-in-cheek/Team America, but they’re having fun and have no shits to give. 

As an example, one of my favorites is the OAF (Operator As Fuck) Nation. (Their Facebook page is: https://www.facebook.com/Operatorasphuk.) They’re a bunch of military and private military contractors or “operators” who post all sorts of silly shit, but when they do serious stuff it speaks to a lot of what goes on with usThere's also an ex-Ranger named Matt Best who started a company called Article 15 Clothing who's building traction with barracks humor videos:  




What’s more, there’s still the hangover from the whole Vietnam/Baby Boomer thing. The phenomenon of framing a military story in the fashion that The New Yorker writer describes may be the price you have to pay to get some daylight with the bougies—whom I suspect still have a Baby Boomer center of gravity. "Give ’em a whiff of gunpowder, but don’t push too far and have people think you’re an evil right-wing asshole." 

While drinking and reminiscing one night, my buddy from Staten Island said that before he'd joined the Army, there was this impression that “You have this military, and you know you need it, but that it’s full of guys who kill people and break shit, but not the sort of people you’d necessarily want to know.” 

Professional academics from Walter Russell Meade and Andrew Bacevich to amateur bloggers like Mencius Moldbug have noted that the military is not really seen as the kind of place where the right sort of people go, but is rather the domain of working-class proles, thugs, and patriotic stooges too stupid to understand Kissenger’s dictum that the military is just a bunch of dumb brutes who are pawns for foreign policy. One ex-infantry blogger wrote something in which he speculated that deep down the chattering classes hate us because we’re living reminders of the failure of their worldview; our existence is proof that the world is a mean place full of bad people who would hurt you just to see the look on your face, and they’re not gonna just stop because you ask them nicely. In the end Thucydides still seems right; the nation that makes the distinction between its warriors and its thinkers winds up having its wars fought by fools and its thinking done by cowards. Or some such bullshit. I dunno.

Along those lines, there’s an element that’s a bit more complicated, and that’s the Oath. As you can tell, the military is a moveable feast of bullshit. You swear the Oath, then you realize how the service really is, then you make your peace with the suckitude, and if you’re lucky, wind up being a part of something more and partaking in an experience that’s kind of a mystery cult (hence the title). All that gets bound to the Oath, the country, the Constitution, etc. You get possessive over the old girl, and when people fuck with her you take a personal interest in breaking them of the habit. In fact, I was on CQ with Bronson one night and he saw a picture in the paper of someone burning the flag and he got wildly pissed, which I thought odd considering he’s one of the most irreverent guys I know. (I once heard him say he’d even pull Jesus Christ over and yell at him if he ever saw him driving a Humvee without a K-Pot on. The way he saw it, he didn’t believe in his god, and anyhow if he had to wear one, everybody had to.) When I asked him, Bronson said that it pissed him off because “that’s my goddamn flag!”

Anyhow, the bullshit comes and goes. You go downrange and see whole new flavors of it, and one damned bad idea after another that you get to be in the front seat for; enough to think that the people who make the strategy and orders outsourced the process to monkeys with a dartboard. But in the end you have the Oath; you swore it, you’re there, and people are depending on you. However, if you begin to question those on the other side of the Oath, then that can crack a Pandora’s Box that nobody wants to open, and for good reason. To entertain the notion that while you’re dedicated to following the orders for the good of the country, those responsible for wielding the power inherent to the branches that constitute it don’t even think in terms of the country itself but rather some damned ism or another, then you wind your ass up in a big gray place. When you consider that modern liberal democracy itself may be a sham, and that guys like Edward Bernays were right in that the real power in a polity is in the hands of those who shape the opinions, beliefs, preferences, and prejudices of the electorate, the shit flat out goes plaid. It means we’re fundamentally wrong about a lot of things; that shit has been fucked since way back and that a hell of a lot of people (theirs and ours) have died under false pretenses.

Again, no soldier I know who’s seen The Shit really feels comfortable with that sort of thing. We all know something’s fucked, the question is usually to what degree and where we should go from here. To call the system itself into question as being irreparably broken—which guys like Washington said would happen, and he even alluded to it in his whole spiel about “no mound of parchment” being about to keep a corrupt people from fucking themselves up—is to start a fight. Some guys will reluctantly agree (to varying degrees), while others will say, “That shit’s just politics. It doesn’t matter. We swore an oath to defend the Constitution against all enemies both foreign and domestic, 'cause 'Merica!” 

Point being, to crack that seal, particularly around civilians, most of whom already see us as being damaged goods, is to expose something dangerous. What happens when the rank-and-file of the military cease to believe in the establishment they swore to protect? What happens when Joe and Sarge suspect that the country for which they fight doesn’t really exist, let alone give a damn about them and their families? You hemorrhage legitimacy that’s what.

There’s also the fact that the military, particularly the infantry, is an inherently tribal, male space, whose purpose is tactical violence. This is completely opposite to the cosmopolitan/”Coexist” set. It’s tough for them to relate. It doesn’t surprise me that Jessica Lynch and more recently Kayla Williams and the like have received a measure of mainstream publicity, but a guy like Sgt. Bronson or Benamy simply wouldn’t. 

The ladies by all means have a story to tell, and it’s good to see them lauded. However, they are attractive and nonthreatening and can be easily linked to a victimology that gives the SWPLs the opportunity to get high and mighty and White Knight around looking for a bad guy. Whereas with Bronson and Benamy, nobody gives a shit about guys like them and the feeling is entirely mutual. If someone put them on a late-night talk show to plug something they’d probably start smoking and go on a cussing tirade calling out someone on some bullshit or another, or start telling crazy stories beginning with the phrase, “This motherfucker here...”

I also think there’s a lot of self-censorship due to the ubiquity of PTSD references. (See also “Therapeutic Governance.”) As a vet, there’s a sense that you’re wearing a bull’s-eye. You can’t be mad or sad, let alone openly call bullshit on things, without someone playing the PTSD card and bringing out the McVeighs to ad hominem your ass to illegitimacy. So you try to keep your head down and your shit wired tight so as not make too big of ass out of yourself and wind up being another jackass who makes all of gruntdom look bad.

Sterzinger: So you finished your service in 2005... when did you finish writing the book, and how long did you shop it around? After you gave up and published it yourself on Amazon, how many copies has it wound up selling?

Finlay: As for time to completion, that's kind of slippery. It was a moving target. I began writing it out right around the time of the accident (August 2004) and about 5 months later I had completed a 430-page manuscript or thereabouts. In retrospect, it was good physical therapy. Between the breakup, the crash, being back yet stuck in and out of the hospital indefinitely, I think I just channeled all of it into getting that stuff on paper while it was still fresh. And over the course of it, I was able to get to where I could type one-handed at about the same speed I was formerly able do with two. Since my right wrist and two of my knuckles are fused, I can't type with my right hand. So it was kind of a blessing. Silver linings 'n' all.

I then contacted McKay Jenkins, who was a volunteer with the Endowment for the Arts' Operation: Homecoming; a program which encourages vets to tell their stories, observing that many of the great stories dealt with war, from Homer to Gone with the Wind. McKay teaches (taught?) journalism at university in Delaware. He wrote abook about the 10th Mountain in WWII, and I figured he might have some pointers or contacts.

He agreed to look at it and sit down with me. He brought me back down to earth. He said that what I'd done was great, but now came another part that was in its way just as hard, if not harder; editing. (As a proper editor of a publication and several novels, I can only imagine your world. The horror ... the horror ...) He said that I needed to be ruthless, and that if something wasn't moving the story forward, I needed to cut it. If guy was throwing a punch, that punch needed to be saying something, maybe everything, about that guy. He also encouraged me to describe things. For the most part, I'd tried to minimize the narrative and editorializing, and just set the scene and let my buddies or Amy or whomever speak for themselves. However, he pointed to a scene I'd written about meeting the Hungarian prostitute while on Pass from Bosnia, and liked the romantic way I'd framed it. He suggested that I needed to use my voice more like I had in it. He also gave me the contact to his agent and told me to drop his name.

The agent passed on it months later, saying he tried reading it, but it just seemed like a bunch of drunk guys wandering around New York City. For the next eight years I was in the cycle. I'd shop it around, get rejected, and re-edit it. When I got it to where I swore I'd taken it as far as I could go, I'd start shopping it around in what me and my mom referred to as The Great American Mail-Out. I did it about two or three times a year, hitting up around several dozen or so agents each time. I was literary spam. I'm pretty sure my queries hit just about every agency's slush pile multiple times. Occasionally, some would ask for a sample. I estimate I got somewhere between 500 - 800 rejections. Maybe more. Most were just silence, but that still counts as far as I'm concerned.

Around March or so of 2012, one of my friends had suggested I self-publish. I didn't want to, due to the whole "vanity publishing" stigma, but I'd noticed some bloggers doing it with varying degrees of success, and attitudes seemed to be changing. I thought, what the hell. Be done with it. I finally got it out in October 2012. (Though I'd still wind up finding a typo from time to time and have to go in and update it. The paperback has fewer typos than the Kindle copy but they're working on updating it. I swear, typos are the fucking Vietcong of writing.)

Concerning metrics, I've not sat down to count how many copies I've sold. I kinda don't want to know. I've resolved to just keep pushing the damn thing until I've finally had enough. And anyhow, the terrain is always changing and there's always some new way to promote it. And it's become a means of connecting with a pretty broad spectrum of people.

As I'd mentioned, conventional ads don't seem to do much—at least for my book; it may just be the ad. I usually just use the cover of the book and the words "Boy meets girl. Boy meets Haji. All hell breaks loose. True story." Reviews from bloggers and the like have far and away been the most handy and usually result in the biggest spike, or when my Army buddies wind up posting something about it on Facebook or telling new people. Otherwise it tends to just lie there. Giveaways via Goodreads got me many of my reviews in places like Amazon, which seems to lend a measure of legitimacy. Contests haven't seemed to do much, but you never can tell who's on the other side of them, and anyhow the judges have to read them. 

About four months or so after getting the runner-up for fiction at the New York Book Festival, an award-winning agent contacted me via Goodreads telling me how she'd heard about it from there and how much she loved it and then offered me representation. The agency checked it out and everything. Then after I asked if I could talk to her and ask her some questions about the contract, she promptly flaked out and never said another word. It was really weird. Gave me junior high flashbacks a little bit. 

By the way, I was thinking of great military-related books and literary blind spots, and it reminded me of the book Tom Wedderburn's Life by Theodore Judson. It's gotta be one of the best books I've read in the past 10 years. The fact that nobody's heard of it, yet you can't throw a rock at a bush without hitting some asshole reading 50 Shades of Gray, is a sad indictment. It was haunting, and if anyone has a tendency toward the curmudgeonly or melancholy, it's up their alley. I mention it because the protagonist serves as a ground-pounder Marine in WWII and has a view that's very different from the whole Band of Brothers/Greatest Generation cliché. Also, if I'm not mistaken, Judson is a retired schoolteacher from Wyoming who just up and self-published it (or maybe went with a boutique one) and has battled breaking into the industry as well. The son of a bitch can write like the barn's on fire and no one cares.

One of the things I liked best about it was that the war was just a chapter in his life (which is how real life is). It factors into his world in an important way and leaves a mark, but it isn't the all-important thing. 


I say all that because it made me consider that the unpopularity of the genre may partly be the fault of us writers. Ours is an eggheaded age (yet somehow also utterly vapid); we can get so focused on the tactical/technical aspect of the story that we lose the humanity of it all. And that's where the real juice is. After all, Homer doesn't bore us with the intricacies of Bronze Age tactics and operating procedures any more than Margaret Mitchell did with those of the Civil War or Tolstoy with the Napoleonic War. They instead give us love and war and comedy and tragedy. Which makes for a better read. Just a thought.

Finis.

A couple of reviews of Finlay's work:

Review from Publisher's Weekly : http://www.publishersweekly.com/978-0-615-62299-6