The Valley: A Talk With John Renehan

03/09/2015 04:03 pm ET | Updated May 09, 2015


Photo: Sobia Deen

John Renehan interrupted his career as an attorney to serve as a field artillery captain in the Army's Third Infantry Division in Iraq.

The Valley, his debut novel, tells the story of Lieutenant Black, whose last assignment before resigning from the Army, is to investigate an incident of alleged misconduct in the heart of the Valley: the most remote and dangerous outpost in Afghanistan. The Valley is so distant, stories about it are impossible to verify. Everything said about it seems to be myth or rumor. When Black reaches the outpost, nothing is as it seems. Confusion exists everywhere. Black will be lucky if he gets out alive.

This is your first novel. How did you learn to write fiction?
I'm forty-two and have probably thought of writing fiction for twenty years. When I was younger, I was just too scattered to turn ideas into actual words on a page. I'd done some magazine and newspaper writing while in the Army; mostly about leaving the civilian world for the military. After our kids were born, I was exhausted, and began reading detective and spy fiction, which was the only thing I felt could hold my attention.

When I got the idea for The Valley, I thought I was writing a police procedural, but one in the mold of the outsider going to an unfamiliar place, where things aren't what they seem. The protagonist must play amateur detective, and becomes obsessed with finding out what's really going on. I thought I was writing a genre novel, set in the midst of war. When it was purchased, the editor said, 'You wrote a war novel.'

So, maybe I wrote a mystery, hiding inside military fiction.

Actually, before writing this novel, I wrote a non-fiction book about my platoon in Iraq. My agent couldn't sell it. Nobody wanted a 347th account of the Iraq War by an unknown writer. While writing it, I realized I was dealing with a plethora of true vignettes, and was trying to craft them into a coherent story. I remember thinking: if this were fiction, I could write whatever I wanted.

You worked as an attorney. How did you end up serving in Iraq?
I was an attorney for the City of New York. Our building was across the street from the World Trade Center; and after 9/11, was closed down for a while. We were put to work with relatives of the deceased, helping them get their affairs in order. It was an eye-opener. The military was a family tradition, so I applied for Officers Candidate School and ended up in the Army for four years. I was in Iraq for about sixteen months during the 2007 and 2008 surge.

Are you still practicing law?
Yes. I'm working for the Department of Defense as a civilian attorney.

The Valley has been compared to Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and to the movies Restrepo and Apocalypse Now. Are those comparisons valid?
Nobody is going to believe me, but I never read Heart of Darkness before I wrote the book. When I told a friend my idea, he said, 'Oh, I get it. It's Shutter Island meets Restrepo.' The real literary source I'm pinching from, isn't Conrad. It's Rudyard Kipling's The Man Who Would Be King. That novella was about the Nuristan Province, and Westerners meddling there. I pinched a couple of characters' names and minor plot points from Kipling's story. It's fun to plant these things in a novel. When my agent read it, he said, 'I like this Heart of Darkness thing you have going on.' I ran out and got a copy, read it, and said, 'Okay, I can see that.'

There's an evocative, geographic feature at the center of the story, but I had no idea about Heart of Darkness. As for Apocalypse Now, I don't know. But maybe it'll help sell some books.

You served in Iraq. How were you able to write detailed and beautiful descriptions of Afghanistan?
The Internet's a marvelous thing. People would ask me 'Why Afghanistan? You were in Iraq.' But my novel was a mountain story from the beginning. The main thing I wanted to bring to it wasn't the location, but the people. I wanted to make them seem like what they are: ordinary people placed in a dangerous and life-threatening environment. I was helped with the physical setting by the Internet, by a lot of travel literature, and by some journals describing the ethnically distinct people in the Nuristan Province.

Is anything depicted in The Valley based on your own combat experience?
I never experienced anything as bad as what happens in the book. Sure, in Iraq, there was gunfire and explosions; but some units in Afghanistan did experience days as bad as what's depicted in the novel. I'm always careful to say that none of what's in the book is meant to be a retelling of what actually happened. It's fiction, although people familiar with Afghanistan will recognize little details here and there. Mostly, my characters are based on interesting military people I've read about, or knew.

I know you're back working as an attorney. Do you plan to continue writing fiction?
Definitely. Once my kids let me sleep a little bit more (laughter).

Will it be military fiction or another genre?
I'll stay with military fiction. Right now, I'm working on a novel about Iraq. After that, I'd like to come back and deal more with Lieutenant Black--if my kids let me live that long (More laughter). When I look back, I realize I began writing The Valley when my son was three and my daughter was three months old. I was completely exhausted throughout the process. I'm working on the next thing, but I'll really have to pace myself.

Congratulations on penning The Valley, a novel that's been described as a psychological thriller, a gripping mystery, a view inside the internal politics of the U.S. Army, and an authentic look at the intricacies of combat in Afghanistan.