The Words After War Interview With Jesse Goolsby By Siobhan Fallon

08/28/2015 07:05 pm ET Updated Aug 28, 2016

Jesse Goolsby is the author of I'd Walk With My Friends if I Could Find Them, which has been hailed as "beautiful and brutal" (Janet Burroway), "a major literary event" (Robert Olen Butler), "a book about the human heart" (Brian Turner), "powerful" (Esquire) and "an earthquake-in-your-soul-novel" (Michael Garriga). Opening in Afghanistan, the book follows three U.S. soldiers as they return to their families in small towns across America. Births, deaths, marriages, friendships and time pass, but the three men are forever connected by one dark moment.

Goolsby, a graduate of the US Air Force Academy and the University of Tennessee, is currently a Ph.D. candidate in English at Florida State University and a U.S. Air Force officer. He is the recipient of the John Gardner Memorial Award in Fiction and the Richard Bausch Fiction Prize, and he is an editor for The Southeast Review and War, Literature & the Arts.

As part of Words After War's August book club selection, Jesse answers a few questions from Siobhan Fallon, author of You Know When the Men Are Gone.

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Siobhan Fallon: One of the elements of your book that I find the most fascinating (and I have to credit the astute professor and war-lit blogger Peter Molin for pointing this out to me during a discussion of contemporary war literature) is how you've created a 'long view' of the ways combat affects your characters. So much of the recent writing about Iraq and Afghanistan focus on narrower margins of time, yet you grapple with years and years, examining how one event can ripple outward to affect spouses, sons and daughters, grandchildren. Did you set out with the goal of writing about the larger picture of America at war?

Jesse Goolsby: I set out with the goal of investigating human yearning for connection, and everything flowed from there -- the setting, structure, point of view, pace. Early on in the writing of the novel I knew that in order to appropriately showcase the depth and desire of the three protagonists I needed to follow them before, during and long after their combat experience, to get to know them as human beings, not just as soldiers at conflict. I also needed to investigate their particular tastes (i.e. Metallica, 49ers, Rocky Mountains) as well as the bonds of family, friendship and community.

All of those things opened up the scope of the book, in timeframe (35 years), geography (across America and Afghanistan) and perspective, where we have chapters that follow Wintric, Armando and Dax, but also spouses, children and community members.

I think that this does create a type of long view, or at least a view where simple binaries of "healthy" vs. "damaged" or "hero" vs. "villain" are absent, and instead, we get to see all of these characters as human beings searching for connection and moments of repose.

SF: You've spent some time teaching in the Department of English at the United States Air Force Academy, do you think you teach literature differently to these young men and women than you would their civilian counterparts?

JG: I've taught both academy cadets and civilian students, and I hope I bring the same passion and enthusiasm to the classroom in each environment. There has been nothing in my professional life more rewarding than challenging students with great literature, requiring them to investigate the range of their individual morality, beliefs and aesthetic joy, and to absorb-consider-react to art like The Illiad, Antigone, Othello, Dracula, Catch-22, A Raisin in the Sun, Dispatches, Beloved, Never Let Me Go, etc. But I admit to answering the students' questions of "Why does this matter?" slightly different in each setting, even though foundationally the answer focuses on living a life well. This is because of the stakes: our country asks our US Air Force Academy graduates to lead and make life or death decisions--in one way or another--to be culpable in the devastation of war. While investigating literature and art is imperative to every student, everywhere, it's absolutely vital that our military members engage in lifelong empathy and critical thinking through the humanities.

SF: What sort of reaction have you received from your fellow military peers? Particularly, have you had any push back about being an Air Force officer writing about Army infantry enlisted soldiers?

JG: The feedback from my military peers has been overwhelmingly positive. Of course, all readers bring their particular sensibilities to the reading experience, so the responses have been as varied as the number of readers, which I love.

Many of the responses I've received focus on an appreciation that the soldiers and the families in the book are not stereotyped, that each character showcases individual and unique hopes, fears, dreams and traumas. A few soldiers have joked about the fact that an Air Force officer would chose to write about soldiers, as opposed to fighter pilots or something, but I appreciate the minor ribbing from my brothers and sisters in arms.

My particular biography gets some attention, but it is largely ignored because readers are so smart. They know they are reading a novel, and they realize that fiction is appropriation. They don't want me to only write about the experiences of a 6'4'' big-nosed Air Force officer, or the Air Force, or war. And, bigger picture, we don't want the limiting view of only the author's self from any fiction writer. Fiction is inherently about imagination and creation and lives that are not our own.

SF: Do you think there is a particular direction current writings on conflict ought to take or areas the military writing community could look at more closely? And are there any exciting new books or writers you'd like to mention?

JG: I love the fact that writers get to follow their creative impulses wherever they lead, so I'm not much for prescribing direction, but I would love to read more fiction that deals with the consequences of conflict that showcase female protagonists. Off the top of my head, your wonderful book does this, Sara Nović's Girl at War is another great one, and O.A. Lindsey has a novel on the way that will also help answer this call.

And wow, there are so many exciting books out! I've been on a roll with great reads lately. Each of these have blown me away and I encourage folks to seek them out:

The Grief Muscles by Brandon Courtney (Poetry)
The Evil Hours by David J. Morris (Nonfiction)
The Animals by Christian Kiefer (Fiction)
Demon Camp by Jen Percy (Nonfiction)
The Longest Night by Andria Williams (Fiction, out in Jan. 2016)

SF: What are you working at now?

JG: I'm at work on a novel, tentatively titled Derrin of the North that will come out with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2017. I'm also in the final year of my PhD in English at Florida State University, and working on my dissertation. Most important, I have a family with three young kids, so I forecast a role of soccer and T-ball coach, and cannon-balling dad at the local pool.

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Words After War is a literary organization with a mission to bring veterans and civilians together to examine war and conflict through the lens of literature.

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