George Saunders interviews writer Will Mackin about the power and pain of war fiction
Will Mackin’s penetrating story collection Bring Out the Dog is one of the most anticipated debuts of the year. Based on its author’s many deployments with a special operations task force in Iraq and Afghanistan, these stories began as notes he jotted, in grease pencil, on the inside of his forearm and, later, on the torn-off flaps of MRE kits. During breaks, he incorporated those notes into his journals. Years later, he used those journals to write this book.
Selections from this book have been published in The Atlantic and The New Yorker, but at long last, earlier this month, they were published as one in Bring Out the Dog. And it’s a book that has already drawn the attention and passion of a long-acclaimed and -lauded short story writer: George Saunders.
“Mackin avoids a common pitfall of war writing; any ostensible glamor falls away,” Saunders writes in his intro to the book. “Fighting a war is…a job. Sometimes dull, sometimes manic, fraught with human error and the clash of personalities, but with a terrifying, additional caveat: sometimes this job kills people, dehumanizes civilians, forces the individual to make choices that will stay with him forever.”
In an interview exclusive to EW, Saunders interviewed Mackin about the process of writing war fiction, his background in the military, and the difficulties of authentically channeling his experiences. Read on below, and purchase Bring Out the Dog here.
GEORGE SAUNDERS: You’ve had a long and interesting career in the military, served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Could you quickly summarize this part of your life? How did you find your way into the military life and what has held you there?
WILL MACKIN: Seeing the movie Top Gun in the spring of my senior year of high school (1986) was what propelled me into the Navy. I remember walking out to my car after the show, overhearing guys giving each other callsigns while talking about how cool it would be to fly jets, etcetera, and I thought, Only I have what it takes. Ridiculous as that sounds it carried me through ROTC to flight school, where I trained to be a navigator/weapons system officer. I wound up flying the EA-6B Prowler, essentially the minivan of jets, and a far cry from Maverick’s F-14. The Prowler had two seats up front and two in back. The pilot always sat in the front left seat behind the only set of controls, while navigators rotated through the other three seats. Sitting up front next to the pilot we assumed more of a co-pilot role, which turned out to be good writerly training because, in order to anticipate what the pilot needed, I had to imagine how to fly the plane. Visualizing how to fly while experiencing the actual sounds, accelerations, and smells of flight, helped me to develop what I think of as a “seat-of-the-pants” aspect to my imagination. In 2003 I deployed with my Prowler squadron to Afghanistan, where we flew missions for a special operations task force. I wound up joining that task force a few years later. What kept me in the Navy was the people that I worked with, who really gave a damn about one another. That plus the fact that I didn’t have the skills to do anything else.
When did you first start writing fiction? What were the circumstances of finding your way there? Was that early work concerned with the wars, or does it predate that time?
As a teenager, I had this setup: HiFi tuner with headset and rocking chair. I’d sit in the chair for hours on end, rocking back and forth, listening to music, and daydreaming. Naturally shy and introverted, I’d dream up heroics for myself. For example, me sliding a dirt bike under the trailer of a rolling semi, set to Jackson Browne’s “That Girl Could Sing.” Understand that this was radio so I had to take what I could get. During commercial breaks, I’d wonder how to make that dream a reality. How could I earn the money to buy the dirt bike, and more importantly, the motocross boots whose buckles would spark against the pavement as I slid under the semi? How might circumstances conspire to make the girl of my dreams witness to my derring-do? These were my earliest experiences “writing” fiction.
Initially, I wrote nonfiction about the wars because I thought that others did the real work and who was I to take liberties. I suppose that I wanted everybody I’d served with to read what I’d written and been like, yup. It wasn’t until “getting it right” proved impossible that I started tweaking the details.
That’s really interesting. In what way did “getting it right” come to feel impossible? I know we’ve talked about your feeling of responsibility, as you went down the road of using certain real-life experiences as fodder for fiction. How did you finally get in relation to this?
I felt a responsibility to the people I served with, i.e. to not misrepresent them or the things we’d been through or what it had all meant to any one of us at any given moment. And I think you correctly pointed this out to me at the time–that I’d imposed those limits on myself in order to keep this perfect, unwritten thing forever in the safe and distant future. I suppose if I’d chosen to continue down the non-fiction road I would’ve had to get all my former teammates in a room and somehow explain myself to them, then ask for their collective and unqualified thumbs up. Fiction helped alleviate that constraint.
I get the sense that to make these stories sing the way they do, you had, at some point, to make the agreement with yourself to depart from the “merely” documentary, as needed. Given that a lot of the stories’ considerable power comes from their connection to the actual, was that a weird moment, when you had to say to yourself: This part, I am making up, in order to get to the real and deeper truth of this thing?
As a kid, I used to get this really intense deja-vus that would last like five or ten minutes, during which it seemed like everything was connected and all the secrets of the universe were revealed. It was an incredibly soothing phenomenon while it lasted, but then toward the end, as it started to fray, I’d undergo a concentrated internal freak-out. You wouldn’t have known by looking at me because I’d learned to control it. I could go on dribbling a basketball or buttering my toast despite experiencing what amounted to a debilitating level of despair. That deja-vus stopped happening somewhere in my late teens. However, throughout my time in the Navy, I went to great lengths to mask the continuing anxiety that, come to find out, had fueled that childhood deja-vus and freak-outs. The weird part about writing the book was unmasking that anxiety.
The stories feel so new and original, especially in their shape and form. Were there ways in which working with “real” material informs your approach to, say, shape or structure?
One of the shared realities of both wars (Iraq and Afghanistan) was that they were cyclical, with faster circles spinning inside slower ones. In Iraq, we’d clear an area of insurgents only to return to the same place six months later in order to clear it again. Every winter the Taliban would cross the border into Pakistan where we couldn’t pursue them, then return to Afghanistan to fight us in the spring. Our operational schedule was divided into recurring phases of Train, Alert, and Deploy. Even the everyday mission–to hunt high-value individuals–was broken into sequential steps: Find, Fix, Finish, Exploit, and Analyze. Analysis would lead to discovery, or Find. In other words, the end was the beginning and the beginning was the end. I think that some of that rotational velocity, and perhaps its resulting dizziness, worked its way into my stories.
Do you see the book as being in a certain lineage or tradition? Does it owe a debt to certain writers or books?
I wouldn’t have guessed that Denis Johnson wrote Jesus’ Son with Issac Babel’s Red Cavalry in mind, but as soon as I heard Denis say so in an interview it made perfect sense. Both of those writers inspired me. The story that kept me honest however was Barry Hannah’s Midnight and I’m Not Famous Yet. I love how the narrator’s voice projects authority over chaos.
I’ve often thought that if a person really wanted to understand a culture, he’d need to go to the outposts of that culture – the place where that culture goes to exert itself on another culture – which you certainly have done, in life and in this book. So now, for a simple question (ha): What is your understanding of America? Who are we? How are we better than other countries? How worse?
I had a commander in Afghanistan who, whenever it seemed like we Americans were getting in our own way regarding the mission, would remind us of what he called The Great American Theory. This meant that none of our fellow countrymen, no matter how it may have appeared, actually wanted to screw things up. Instead, they did what they did with the best of intentions. This made sense back then, but I have a harder time believing it now.
In terms of progress through an individual story: How many drafts? How radical were the changes one would see from draft to draft? Do you spend more energy on line-to-line changes, structural changes?
Each story had at least fifty drafts. Sometimes changes were fundamental, as in two or three stories combining to form one, or vice versa. More often though changes were gradual. I tend to work line-by-line, and I’ve been known to waste an entire week or more on a single goddamn paragraph only to cut it. I gave a reading in Marfa, Texas, of an early draft of a story that was cryptic and confusing. Afterward one of the listeners, who was reaching for something nice to say, told me, “It’s always exciting when something comes out of nothing.” I guess that’s the beauty of it.