Matt Gallagher On Handling Rejection, Joining The Military and The Importance of Telling War Stories to The Public
Matt Gallagher is a former Army Captain and the author of three books including his latest novel, Youngblood which is a finalist for the 2016 Dayton Literary Peace Prize. He holds an MFA in fiction from Columbia and has written for the New York Times, the Atlantic, and the Paris Review, among others.
In this interview, Matt talks to us about handling rejection, why he joined the military and the importance of telling war stories to the public.
Why did you decide to join the military?
I came from a military family. Both of my grandfathers served in the Navy during World War 2 and Korea and an uncle that served in Vietnam, so I'd been raised with a healthy respect for military service and military members but also a healthy skepticism about how military force is applied. Both of my parents were children of military veterans but had also protested the Vietnam War.
It just was always part of the family dynamic to serve. It was a way to pay for school, I joined the Army ROTC program in college and paying for school was a big part. I was drawn to the idea of being part of something bigger than myself. When 9/11 happened, I was a freshman in college and realized that history was going on and I wanted to play a small role in it. I think there are only a few years where we can pursue what we are being drawn to before we settle down and start families and have to consider other people even more than our ambitions and goals. I realized I was in my early 20's and had the opportunity to go off and do something with that freedom. I graduated in 2005 and was commissioned as an Armor Officer in the Army.
You served in Iraq for eight months as a platoon leader. What was life like leading a unit in a combat zone?
Matt: Gosh, it was surreal. I look at that time, and it was a terrible time for us. I remember not sleeping a lot and being furious all the time. Those two things were probably not unrelated. I had a great platoon and spent some time with them before we deployed so I didn't have the challenge of being the new lieutenant, showing up and they were overseas already. I certainly was atypical as I didn't come from a Westpoint or Virginia Tech ROTC program. I drove a Volkswagon Bus with a George McGovern sticker on it. I do remember back in Hawaii getting to know my non-commissioned officers (NCOs)and sergeants and making sure I wasn't too much of a hippie for them. I was keenly aware that for my soldiers, I wasn't their first lieutenant and thought it was important to remember I was part of a team. It wasn't like a high school sports team; I had a role to play, and my job was not to be the baddest or the toughest. Frankly, I was glad because I wouldn't have been. There were certainly others in the unit. I didn't have to be as they were others in the unit that certainly filled that role.
We got to Iraq in late 2007. Most of the NCOs had already deployed in previous years, but none of them had COIN (counterinsurgency) deployments, so we had to work closely and talk more about how were going to work together in implementing COIN. I tried to be as flexible and adaptable as much as possible.
We decided to take Iraq as it was and not take it as what it was supposed to be.
At that time, the war was going well and looking back; I realized how unique of an experience that was. I had a friend in New York who was in the same sectarian town I was in a year before, and his experience was way different and darker than mine.
You started a blog while you were over there and from my understanding, it was intended for your friends and family. All of the sudden, you had a devout readership base, and eventually, the Army shut the blog down. What was the inspiration behind starting it and did it do anything for you while serving in a combat zone?
Matt: The original story behind it was in those months leading up to my deployment when they started to implement the COIN strategy, you had to go to a lot of briefings, a lot of Powerpoint presentation. A lot of it made sense to me but also a lot of it didn't, and that was a problem because that was my job as a Lieutenant was to be able to explain it to my guys. If it didn't make sense to me, how was I was going to explain it, so it made sense to them? So I started to go online and came across these soldier blogs from men and women who were overseas writing in ways I could understand what COIN was like on the ground. It sparked a storytelling sense in me. I grew up reading and writing as a way to make sense of the world. I worked on the school papers, so definitely there was a part of me that thought this would be an entertaining chronicle of our tour and could make for an interesting time capsule.
When I set the blog up, I don't think I had any idea of how writing about our daily lives would be helpful on a person's psyche. I'd write two, three times a week on it.
I look at the blog now like a jigsaw puzzle. Counterinsurgency was messy and complicated at the moment, but as a puzzle, even if you don't have all the pieces, the pieces you do have will help you have a clearer picture or semblance of what the puzzle is supposed to represent.
Iraq was a crazy puzzle that rarely made sense but the mere act of writing these short blogs, these short dispatches helped me in some way of making sense of our day-to-day life. It must have been cathartic even if I wasn't aware of it at the time.
You've written a couple of books, written for some major outlets and are an established voice for this generation of veterans. But the saying goes you are not a writer until you have been rejected. Tell me about those times where you experienced rejection and what motivated you to keep going.
Man, I have been rejected so many times that I don't even keep track anymore. When I first started getting rejected, as an exercise, I would save all of them as a motivational tool and out of spite. Eventually, it didn't matter. You got to earn you licks. It never gets easy as rejection always hurts, but you have to develop calluses. It'll hurt less. Through a lot of trial and error, an editor will pass on a piece you've written, but that means there is another editor out there that wants it and it's up to you to deliver it.
One of my first nonfiction pieces in a major outlet was about contemporary war fiction. It ended up in the Atlantic, and this was before any of the big Iraq books had been published like Redeployment, The Yellow Birds, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk. The essay asked where was the fiction literature from these wars and I thought it was an interesting question and had been asking myself a lot. I had some editors say I should write the piece and send to them. I think I got rejected 7-8 times from the places that the editors had suggested I write it. And these were people that I knew. This essay was one of the first pieces I had written beyond my personal experience, so there was a lot of moments of doubt. I'd put it away and go back to it thinking this is still good. Eventually, I ended up cold emailing someone at the Atlantic, and they loved it and ended up running a week later. It was the piece they were looking for, and I didn't know anyone there.
But there were plenty of moments in the preceding month that I almost quit on the piece. I thought "To hell with this, " and it was causing me to doubt myself, but it was a key breakthrough for me not just because I could now add the Atlantic to my byline but realizing that editors don't speak for everyone, they're just speaking for themselves at that moment.
All the cliches we've heard about perseverance is not just motivational bullshit; it's true.
What is life like as a writer and what advice would you give to those who want to pursue a creative job and escape from the 9-to-5?
I write because I have to. It's just something that if I don't sit down for an hour or two, and write, I feel less full. It's like the gym; if you built it into your routine and gave it the seriousness that it deserves, the return is there, and the feeling of fulfillment and gratitude is there. I think many people have that creative spark, but often it's suppressed due to stability and routine. I can understand that. The world is a hard place, and there is a lot to be said for stability. I've worked some office jobs to get a steady paycheck and security until I couldn't do it anymore. I left my job as speechwriter a couple of years ago to finish Young Blood because I was worried that if I didn't leave then, I wouldn't carve out the time to finish it. It does require a leap of faith. It does require a combination of confidence and recklessness.
Something I've learned through trial and error is that being a writer is not a traditional 9-to-5 but it still requires a tremendous amount of commitment and routine, and you have to treat it like any other job. I didn't do that that when I first started, and I wasted a lot of hours because of that.
There is the reality that sometimes you are going to write some things that you aren't super-inspired by, but there is a paycheck at the end of it. I never would advise writing something you don't believe in because that's going to have your name on it, but you're not always going to write the dream thing.
Finding some part-time journalism work or advertising work is ok. If it helps pay the bills to pursue those passion projects, then that's the way it is. It's very rare for a creative writer to make a living only on their creative writing. It's a constant negotiation and fight, but it's worth it if that's your personality type and if you seek the freedom outside of the typical 9-to-5 job.
When you wrote Young Blood, was it a hard transition to go from writing first-hand accounts to writing something that is creative but based on your accounts or other's accounts of war?
It was more challenging than I thought it was going to be. I think for me, novels and fiction writing have always been my favorite storytelling mechanism. The non-fiction that evolved from the blog I was proud to do and I thought it was an important story to tell about my Scout platoon and the Iraqis we encountered.
After Kaboom had come out, I made the decision to pursue being a writer professionally, and I was fine continuing to write nonfiction, but I wanted to write fiction because that's what I was attracted to as a reader. At first, it was coming out wrong, and I realized I needed to get better at it. I have always been a classroom reader and ended up going to get my MFA which helped me get out of my head. For example, Kaboom ends on a note of "anybody who knows what they are talking about with Iraq is full of it." Because it was written in the moment and episodic series of dispatches, you could end Kaboom like that, but I couldn't do that with Young Blood.
Young Blood didn't need to have a perfect resolution with a bow on top of it or anything. It needed to be a self-fulfilled story, exist in a world with its mechanisms, myths, and truths. Learning how to build that world from the one we live and inhabit took time.
I'm a little biased, but I think it worked out in the end. It was a windier journey than I planned on it to be.
War literature has become increasingly popular over the last couple years, yet war is still so complicated and challenging to explain. I remember writing my story how much I struggled telling war. When you write about war, how do you attack something so complex in your attempts to tell that story to everyone?
War is such a huge, wild topic especially 15 years of it. Sometimes my great frustration with it is that if it's going to be a rare reader that comes into anything veterans write, It's going to be a reader that comes in with no pre-conceived notions. I try to take that as a challenge because I think it's important that we complicate and dirty up these narratives.
For example, I think American Sniper is an excellent film from a cinematic standpoint, but it's a simple, lazy story that has done the American public a great disservice with how simple and straightforward that story is. Hopefully, in due time, we will have bigger, more ambiguous, better movie that comes in its wake.
With my writing, some tips and guidelines I've to try to adhere to that I hope will bring in readers are starting small. The industry of war is such a massive insane thing that if you can start with a moment or feeling or an idea, something most readers can identify with in some way is good. Then try to branch out to the larger conversation.
We all face adversity whether with work or daily life. What advice do you have for people who are looking to get through the tough times?
"Talent is great; tenacity is better."
We all experience failure and rejection in life often whether as writers or something entirely different. People that I aspire to be like is they don't take failure or rejection personally; they are just able to get back to work. We see this a lot in sports, and it never ceases to amaze me that the great professional athletes at one point were looked down upon or cast aside. Michael Jordan is the most famous example, but he is only one of many.
If you want it more than the other person, eventually it will pay off. For me, I found to turn those dark, lonely nights where you're questioning everything and accept that as part of the process. It's not a temporary moment to overcome or whitewash away; it's part of the course towards whatever you're aspiring to.
Anytime I need a refresher; I reread Orwell's Rules of the English Language which I think is a good Bible for any writer. No matter how successful or if they are just starting out, he lays it all there.