1. These are questions I never want to answer – so maybe they are good prompts. And I guess the issues here – political impact, political orientation, is art inherently political in the world as it spins today, and in what ways – are ones that I’ve been thinking about in one way or another almost since I had an »artistic practice« to consider. The idea of writing as discovery of feeling (rather than political act) is something that’s more attractive to me. Maybe that’s a prevalent aspect of American literary writing, to focus on the small detail at the expense of the big idea, with the openly philosophical novel of ideas regarded as a foreign oddity. Anyway, it’s something I have thought about, despite my reluctance.
My first big publication was a story titled »Welcome Home.« The story followed Jim Allen, an Iraq War vet, during his first few days after returning from the Middle East to his Lincoln, Nebraska home. Seeing his wife again, his barely-clinging-to-life German shepherd, his wife’s family, the house he’d moved to just days before shipping out. The major complication in the story is that Jim never fired his rifle while in combat. »[Jim] wanted to be home with [Andrea], tending the garden and making quick love on weekday mornings before school. He worried that Andrea would never touch him again, would never put her hands on his in an assured, lovely way. It made him fear death, the prospect of never again being touched by his wife. Despite the fact that he couldn’t fire his rifle, the army psychologists had assured him that he wasn’t afraid of dying. He knew this already. It was the idea of inviting death nearer to himself, of bringing it into his proximity, that frightened him.«
At the time I tried to write the story as apolitically as possible. This was 2004-07, during the pre-surge days when the U.S. government claims to any kind of military, diplomatic, or humanitarian victory seemed impossible. My thinking was that I wanted the »evidence« of the story to present a tableau of sentiment about the war with varied opinions and hopes. Whether Jim himself, who had volunteered to serve, or his mother-in-law, who spent time with the USO preparing care packages for soldiers and attached pro-war magnets to her car, I wanted to present characters in a complex way without partisan motivation. That decision dictated how the story had to be told. The perspective jumped from character to character, an uncommon strategy for me in short fiction. The narrative voice was dry and removed for the most part. Any commentary had to come from the characters themselves.
I don’t think the story was apolitical, of course. For one, even if I was just presenting evidence, I was still the one picking what evidence was to be shown and what was hidden. And beyond that bias. It’s not possible to write about war without being political. Even just trying to express feeling in words, somewhat naively. Being a man of sentiment is a political act in its own way.
2. That story won a contest put on by Boulevard magazine and was anthologized in Best New American Voices, which at the time was the biggest venue specifically for writers in graduate school (it’s now defunct) and seemed to be something people read. This all felt like a pretty big coup for my career. It was. I found my first literary agent because of the publications. I’m sure other magazines took me seriously in a way they wouldn’t have otherwise, if I was merely »TW, a grad student from a small Jesuit college in Nebraska« instead of a writer with credits to my name. So good things.
The oddest part, after the story was anthologized was that I received a few interview requests to talk about my experiences as an Iraq War veteran. To be upfront, as I was at the time, I have never served in the military. »Welcome Home« is in no way autobiographical – well, beyond geographic similarities, and that, like the fictional Jim and Andrea Allen, my wife and I were also newlyweds, and I worried sometimes that things might not work out between us. My biographical note at the back of the anthology made no mention of being a veteran. I suppose maybe it wasn’t explicit enough, it could have read: »TW, NOT A VET« or something. But writing fiction, people often want to believe that it’s autobiographical. I tend to take that as a compliment – that I’ve convinced them of the reality of the fiction enough that they think it is true. Like being caught in lie that’s too good and is difficult to escape.
I didn’t do any of these interviews, of course, I never actually posed as a soldier. I’m not a real liar, not like that. But it was still strange. Had I been passing as an army vet in some unintentional way? Is that what all the readers thought? In a strict fictional sense I was posing as a veteran – but this was acting, pretending, trying to feel something outside of myself and beyond the meager possibilities of my own insufficient existence. Beyond the political implications of the story – whether or not to go to war, specifically in Iraq, and the consequences of those decisions – I became aware of the political act of posing as a soldier. On a fictional plane, sure. But, should I have presumed that it was permitted to express sentiment from the identity and experiences of PFC Jim Allen in the first place? Honestly, I’m not sure. I was trying to figure out how I thought about a difficult subject, a real-life subject that was much, much bigger than me.
3. In Don DeLillo’s The Art of Fiction interview from the Fall 1993 issue of The Paris Review, the interviewer asks him, »Do you have any idea what made you a writer?«
DeLillo’s answer: »I have an idea but I’m not sure I believe it. Maybe I wanted to learn how to think. Writing is a concentrated form of thinking. I don’t know what I think about certain subjects, even today, until I sit down and try to write about them. Maybe I wanted to find more rigorous ways of thinking. We’re talking now about the earliest writing I did and about the power of language to counteract the wallow of late adolescence, to define things, define muddled experience in economical ways. Let’s not forget that writing is convenient. It requires the simplest tools. A young writer sees that with words and sentences on a piece of paper that costs less than a penny he can place himself more clearly in the world. Words on a page, that’s all it takes to help him separate himself from the forces around him, streets and people and pressures and feelings. He learns to think about these things, to ride his own sentences into new perceptions.«
4. For the nine years I’ve worked as a legal reporter covering a civil law beat in Nebraska and Iowa – though over the past couple years I’ve added some duties as a political reporter as well.
In May, earlier this year, I covered a Donald Trump rally that took place in an aircraft hangar near the Omaha airport. At first I was a little worried about even going, as there had been quite a bit of violence at Trump rallies the month before and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be a party to all that ugliness. But, on the other hand, of course I did. That’s a big part of my job description, the part of the job I like, to be witness to these things.
The rally itself was mostly dull. Trump spoke for a long time about Japanese tariffs without much insight, and the biggest part of his speech was a 20-minute anecdote about this time he handed out trophies at a charity golf tournament. During the rally a few protestors were thrown out. His supporters for the most part looked bored throughout, except at the beginning and end, when his helicopter landed and when they could chant »build that wall.«
I wondered about my feelings of disappointment after the rally. What was I expecting? Wasn’t xenophobia on display enough? Were the protestors dragged out too peacefully? Or did I miss something, the feeling of the event, the undercurrent? Did I feel the way I did because I wasn’t in the crowd? I sat up in the press section – a platform with tables where journalists were corralled behind a fence. By accident I sat between a Fox News anchor and his producer, to comic effect. Seeing their frustration with having to follow Donald Trump made me a little grateful for my obscure lot, for not having to spend all day working a story and then being told to reduce it to a ten-second clip of a long-haired young man shouting »fuck you« at the police.
There’s a corollary here, is what I’m getting at. Much like my early attempts to write an apolitical story (or a political story without political ends) my physical position at the Trump rally removed me from the action. My perception, my body, was placed outside the experience.
5. I have a novel coming out next year. It’s called Kings of Broken Things and sets its characters around the events of a race riot and lynching that took place in Omaha in 1919, the so-called Red Summer of race riots and murders. A big part of the novel (by share of word and sentiment) is spent describing the events of the riot and subsequent lynching of Will Brown, a 40-year-old black man who was dubiously accused of the rape of a young white woman. A lot of my previous work had dark themes and I felt accustomed to portraying violence, the blocking of physical actions in this way. Still, I wasn’t prepared for the experience of researching and writing about a lynching. The darkness caught me by surprise sometimes – maybe because these bad things really happened, where the violence in my previous work was purely fictional. It wasn’t something that could be packed away at the end of the day, going through hundreds of horrific images with a mind toward depicting them, or getting inside the psyche of a mob that would shoot at a hanged man until he was disemboweled then burn the corpse, or trying to imagine what that person who would be lynched might be thinking as their days and hours dwindled, before they were about to die in an infamous way.
The more I read about the lynching of Will Brown, the harder it was to go through the rest of the day – which is as it should be when writing about such extreme dehumanization. Politics have effects, and writing about lynching is a necessarily political act. I had to split up the work, to take days off, to work on unrelated stories, so as to not walk around with a diseased soul all the time.
I visited Tel Aviv that summer and started writing by hand on a legal pad – out of necessity there, as I didn’t want to lug around a laptop overseas – and I continued the practice at home. It was much harder to write inside our house than it was to write outside it. At first I thought it was a product of being bored in my office – like the trip to Israel had helped bust loose some cobwebs – but it was a distancing method from the material on an emotional level more than anything. It made me nervous, or guilty, to write about a lynching across the hall from the room where my daughter slept. I’d saved all the riot and lynching scenes to write last, not really sure how one should go about doing such a thing. Besides writing with honesty and sentiment.
There’s a Facebook group I’m a member of now called Forgotten Omaha. It’s a lot of nerdy fun most of the time and is peopled by a somewhat diverse group of folks. Legit local historians, the middle-aged who want to remember their youth and what the world was like then, younger people like myself who are interested in how our city used to be. On a few occasions a debate has emerged about what kind of content should be shared on the page – usually it’s old photos, newspaper articles – with the most heated arguments coming whenever somebody brings up the Omaha Race Riot of 1919 and the lynching of Will Brown. This was so surprising to me, that so many people passionately believed that bad things from our history shouldn’t be brought up, that we should only care what roller rinks looked like in the 1970s or what funny uniforms the fry cooks at McDonald’s used to wear or how ornate public buildings were in the Gilded Age before they were all torn down. And suddenly all this vitriol over something that happened a century ago. I didn’t think it was such a political thing to write about history when I started writing Kings of Broken Things seven years ago, again, naively. To quote Faulkner: »The past is never dead. It’s not even past.«
6. Being a topical writer is inherently political. In content and as an act.
The short answer to the original prompt? Yes, political. The dimensions? I always have to wait and see.