Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Q&A with Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is the author of the new book Ashley's War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield. She also has written The Dressmaker of Khair Khana. She is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and a contributor to The Atlantic's DefenseOne site.

Q: How did you decide to write about Lt. Ashley White and her unit, CST-2?

A: I was at an event about women in combat…in 2012. [Someone mentioned] the story of Lt. Ashley White, who was killed in a night raid. I knew a lot about Afghanistan, night missions, Rangers—but I did not know women were there. [I wondered,] Who are these people? Why are they out there? Why didn’t we know?

Q: What were the rules on women in combat at the time Lt. White was serving, and how have they changed since then?

A: The combat ban was still in place. In 2013, when it was lifted…the battlefield reality had overtaken the rules. Commanders were not worried about the rules but about getting all their [troops] through [the battles]….

A year and a half after Ashley White died, the ban on women in combat was lifted. [On] January 1, 2016, officially all jobs will be open to women unless commanders write to the secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Q: How open do you think it will end up being?

A: I think conversations are going on now; it’s too early to tell. We will have a much better sense later this year.

Q: What was the role of Afghan culture in creating some of these changes relating to women in combat?

A: Afghanistan is a very conservative, traditional society, particularly in the places where the insurgency is strongest. The idea that [Afghan] women be seen by [U.S. male troops] was not part of the culture. If there was to be access to half the population, you needed women soldiers to talk to them.

Male soldiers couldn’t talk to them, search them, search their quarters….that’s why the culture demanded women soldiers be out there. That served as an opening for American women soldiers to go out there and show [what they could do].

Q: This book includes incredible details about the CSTs, cultural support teams. How did you research the book?

A: This is the product of two years and thousands of miles of travel across the country—a large number of Holiday Inn Express stays. They are details you can only learn through primary research, and [talking with] some of America’s most seasoned military leaders and those charged with [implementing] the details. It was a privilege for me to tell their story.

Q: What particularly surprised you as you conducted your research?

A: Almost everything—I had no idea, and I had followed [related issues] pretty closely. I felt ignorant. I had to report—the first seven or eight months, I didn’t write a word. Every interview would lead to more questions. Then, I saw how active some military leaders were in seeing we needed the capabilities, and getting women out there.

The second thing was that these Rangers—some were on their 11th, 12th, 13th deployment. How did we not know them better? They started as skeptical as anyone could, but now they are the staunchest backers of these women….Even Rangers who say they don’t think women should be Rangers would talk to me about the values these women would bring every night [to the missions].

Q: What has been the reaction to the book from Ashley White’s family and those with whom she served?

A: They’ve all spent a lot of time with these pages. The Whites are the best of American values at a time when we could use a reminder of the power of character. They taught their children the best values.

For them, it’s about remembering Ashley. Mrs. White said if Ashley’s legacy is helping Americans know what these soldiers did, maybe that will be part of how she is remembered.

Anybody [I talked with] talked with me because they did not want their teammate forgotten. Ashley didn’t make it home, but the memories are for her life, not her death. She was incredibly kind, and incredibly fierce. She was a loving wife, and she could put 30 pounds of rocks in her rucksack and march.

Q: Is there anything more you’d like to add about the issue of legacy?

A: It wasn’t just Ashley, it was a team of all-stars…you would want to put on the battlefield alongside America’s toughest….

Ashley’s legacy will be that she and her teammates were part of quietly proving that women could bring value out there.

Q: Are you working on another book?

A: Potentially, but I gave my word that I would be doing everything in my power to make sure this story went out to as many people as [possible].

Q: Anything else we should know about the book?

A: It’s a story of battlefield friendships, camaraderie born of war, the unbreakable bonds of combat. They will forever be one another’s career counselors, priests, confessors. They are bound to one another in ways no one else [can be].

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

April 21

April 21, 1816: Charlotte Bronte born.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Q&A with Michael Shnayerson

Michael Shnayerson is the author of the new book The Contender, a biography of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. Shnayerson's other books include Coal River and Irwin Shaw. He is a contributing editor to Vanity Fair.

Q: Why did you decide to write a biography of Andrew Cuomo?

A: I think most politicians haven’t got edges. They’re worn smooth. They are genial to everybody; they don’t betray their darkest moods; they try to govern by being nice. Andrew is not that way—he’s got a lot of rough edges, a lot of people feel impatience, even hostility, from him. I think that’s very intriguing.

He comes to this stage of life with an enormous amount of experience, more than most people—what did Obama have when he ran for president?...Andrew has 35 years’ experience—that makes him an intriguing politician and someone worthy of a biography, whether or not he runs for president.

Q: Do you think he will?

A: Not this time. When I started the book, I hoped he would. I was not alone in thinking he would—he had a very good first year as governor, with same-sex marriage [legislation passed] and other things….

Now it would be a near miracle if he ran for president. Only months ago we witnessed the e-mail debacle. Whether or not one is a fan of Hillary, it’s clear these things happen with her…and others could jump in.

Assuming that doesn’t happen, Andrew could be a contender in 2020. A Republican could win in 2016—Americans tend to get tired of whatever party [is in power], and if the Republican ends up alienating a lot of people, there would be Andrew Cuomo, looking pretty good.

Q: You mentioned his being a contender, and that’s the book’s title. Why did you choose that?

A: I actually had another title originally, "The Son Also Rises." It was kind of cute, and it worked in a way, but I came to feel it was a little hokey. "The Contender" [worked] because by then there were doubts about whether he’d run, and I couldn’t call it "The Candidate." It could be "The Contender" whether or not he was actually running.

Q: One chapter is called “The Enforcer.” How did Andrew Cuomo serve as his father’s enforcer when Mario Cuomo was governor, and how would you describe the relationship between the two?

A: The relationship between Mario and Andrew is sort of the heart of the book. As a storyteller, I’m drawn to fundamental elements, and father and son is always [central] to a family story. The father becomes governor, and then the son becomes governor of the same state. You know that relationship has got to be central to the story.

My reporting suggested that it was a more complicated relationship than the Cuomo camp would have one believe. Andrew admired and loved his father. His father set a very high standard for his son—[he was] a tough second-generation immigrant father, and also very absent for most of the time. Andrew was the man of the house with his younger sisters. My sense is that Andrew revered and resented his father, and came to feel competitive with him.

The Enforcer chapter [deals with] when Mario becomes governor in 1982 and takes Andrew into the government as his “dollar a year” man. With nepotism, [Andrew] couldn’t work for a salary, but he could be his [father’s] right-hand man and be his enforcer. His father had personal charm; he wouldn’t necessarily show you the hard edge, but might delegate tough tasks to his son.

You can see the relationship between President Jack Kennedy and his brother Bobby…Bobby always was delivering the bad news. Andrew did that for his father. That’s why he was the enforcer then. Most people would find the description apt.

Q: You begin the book with a description of Cuomo’s signing of a same-sex marriage bill in 2011. Why did you choose to start that way?

A: Because it was his finest hour. You want to make a case for why the reader should be interested in this person. Andrew did something quite magnificent. He twisted people’s arms or charmed them into voting. It was real statecraft.

I would like to see Obama do more of [that]. Obama doesn’t get down into the legislature, or have senators over for drinks. Andrew is that old-style political wrangler. It establishes the way he works and how successful it can be.

Also, it’s one thing he’s done with national reverberations. Only a handful of states had voted for same-sex marriage, and the president himself kept talking about his evolving views toward same-sex marriage.

I thought, here’s something Andrew’s done that made him a national figure, that had national consequences—other states fell in line and the president [supported same-sex marriage]….

Q: Has the governor read the book?

A: I have no idea. There have been a couple of little grumbles from the administration. I think it’s quite possible he’s not that upset. He’s a very suspicious guy. For the three years I was working on it, he expressed a lot of concern [that it could be] a smear job—it’s absolutely not that. You do end up with a portrait of Andrew that’s not entirely positive, but still somewhat sympathetic. So I don’t think he’s necessarily that upset.

Q: Are you planning another book now?

A: I hope to get into a book; it probably would be another political subject. Politics are very fun to write about. The epigraph at the beginning [from former New York State Assembly Speaker Mel Miller] says politics are all about hate and revenge. It’s a bit melodramatic, but I like it….

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Q&A with Laurie Saurborn

Laurie Saurborn, photo by Patti James
Laurie Saurborn is the author of the new poetry collection Industry of Brief Distraction.  She also has written the poetry collection Carnavoria, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Rumpus and Denver Quarterly. She teaches creative writing at the University of Texas, Austin.

Q: Many of the poems in this collection deal with the idea of America. Why did you choose to focus on that as one overall theme, and what do you feel your poems say about what's going on in this country?

A: It wasn’t my initial intention to draw so intently on America as a theme. But as I was writing this second book, in part during the 2012 presidential campaigns and election, a political re-awakening occurred and found a home in my writing.

As a result, larger concerns of country intermingled with the other subjects and themes of the poems, such as the body, family, and literature.

The poems are almost continuously shifting, mirroring the cognitively dissonant experience of living in a country one feels great affection for and attachment to while simultaneously understanding that the government of the country in question does not hold the interest of all its citizens in equal regard.

The poems became a lineated rendering of a textual confusion, a plea, a demand, a woman’s wish that there will be equal pay for equal work and that women’s bodies will be removed from political discourse.

Sometimes surrendering to the way things are leads to opportunities for imagining new possibilities. My hope is that the poems read not as a riot act but as observation and reflection, one report on living in America.

Q: How did you come up with the title "Industry of Brief Distraction"?

A: The title for the book popped into my head as I was thinking about how distraction is marketed, how brief life is, and how we desire distraction from that fact but in so doing come to be distracted for most of our lives.

Television, movies, iPhones, cellphones, computers, the Internet are all great resources and invaluable methods of connectivity, but their presences are so unbounded, allowed to run rampant with our attentions, they ultimately claim more space and are allotted more importance in our lives than they merit.

Waiting for the bus, in line at the post office, walking across campus are so many downturned faces, hovering over screens. Where have all the poignant glances gone? Have they converted into emoticons?

Q: Which type of poetry do you prefer to write, and why?

A: Well, I am certainly no formalist, though I have great respect for the work of those who are. As a unit of composition, line is very important in my writing, a main vehicle of tension in my work. For that reason, I do not naturally tend towards prose poems, though I am experimenting with that form in some newer drafts.

When I begin writing a poem or series or poems, I allow myself unbounded space, minimizing constraints or preconceived notions on words that have yet to appear. Basically, this approach means that I write a lot of words and then cut a lot of words. It’s like building a block of marble and then carving the statue from it.

In many of my poems there is at work a collage of the mind, a temporality built of instances removed from their originating narratives.

My family does not often speak about the past; as a result I grew up feeling pretty ungrounded. But humans like to sort back through the past. We dig, we excavate, we date.

Written or oral, history gives time texture. It gives people something to hold on to. And it exists through the act of recording: poems, stories, articles, books, blogs. The list goes on.

I think my earlier work was more firmly grounded in the immediacy of the isolated incident, or a compression of incidents. While that’s still present in my work, I feel a movement toward a longer view of time—whether I stretch it out or subject it to the compressive forces of a multivalent attention.

My hope is to create poems that find their ways, that show evidence of consideration—in word choice and sonic elements, of personhood and politics—while also demonstrating the poet’s willingness to be wrong, to be vulnerable.

Q: You're also a photographer. How do poetry and photography complement each other for you?

A: There are certainly similarities between poetry and photography: the use of space, of perspective, of tone, of presence and absence.

If connections do exist between them in my work, they are indirect echoes, sidelong glances, ghosts and broken mirrors.

When I first started writing, I was hell-bent on replicating my way of seeing, the goal being for a reader to see the world in exactly the same way I did. But this is impossible, and naïve, and it discounts the value of multiplicity. Who wants a world where we all think and see the same way?

To tie into your previous question, I think that when you are starting out as a writer, there are many possibilities for being in the world. Will you write news articles? Academic papers? Lyric essays, or plays?

Eventually, as a writer you figure out what type of writing most engages and challenges you, which type is the best vehicle for your art, purpose, and vision.

Some of this journey is led by intuition: when I tried to write sonnets and other forms, and they never felt “right.” I gave up trying to replicate experience in poems when I figured out I was drawn more strongly to the music of words and lines than I was to consistently comprehensible meanings.

For photographs, it’s been the same way. Frustrated that I could never seem to capture a perfect likeness, I began creating a different, blurry style of exactness. Light has become much more important to my composition than what happens to be in the frame.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Right now I’m working on my third collection of poems, a collection of short stories, and an essay piece.

This fall, I’ll be teaching creative writing at the University of Texas, as well as directing the undergraduate creative writing program, so I’m trying to get as much writing as I can done beforehand—or at least get enough of the requisite first drafts out of the way.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I love to read. Reading is of great importance to my work—not only the writing of other poets, but fiction, non-fiction, narrative essays, lyric essays, photo essays.

One thing I really enjoy about teaching is that it gives me an excuse to read books about writing. Two favorites are Stephen King’s On Writing and C.D. Wright’s Cooling Time. One’s practical, the other is prophetic.

Thanks very much, Deborah, for providing me an opportunity to answer such thought-provoking questions!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Q&A with Christian G. Appy

Christian G. Appy is the author of the new book American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity. His other books include Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides. He is a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Q: You write that "the Vietnam War shattered the central tenet of American national identity"--the idea of "American exceptionalism." What were the main reasons you believe this happened, and is this reversible?
A: The idea that the United States is a superior and invincible force for good in the world, always on the side of democracy and freedom, has deep roots in our history and had its broadest appeal, I believe, in the 1940s and ‘50s.
In the 1960s, with the escalation of warfare in Vietnam, a majority of Americans gradually came to the conclusion that the war had been initiated under false pretexts, was fought to prop up an unpopular authoritarian South Vietnamese regime, and was waged with a kind of ruthlessness that could no longer sustain any illusion that we were “saving” or “defending” the people of South Vietnam.
In 1969, when the public finally learned about the My Lai massacre (the close-range murder of some 500 unarmed and unresisting South Vietnamese civilians by a company of U.S. infantrymen), that seemed to confirm for many that the U.S. was waging an aggressive and unjust war.
Others continued to defend the war, of course, but many pro-war Americans responded to My Lai by saying that all sides commit atrocities in war. But to say that is itself an admission that America is not exceptional, that it does not put a “higher price” on life. And when the war was ultimately lost, the idea of “invincibility” went out the window as well. 
I don’t think we will ever recover the faith in American exceptionalism we had before Vietnam.  Nor should we. The historical record does not justify it and we’d be better off, I believe, to dispense with a dangerous myth that makes us too willing to acquiesce to the misuse of power by the tiny elite that makes foreign policy in our name.
The faith is deeply damaged, but still with us. After Vietnam, it was cobbled back together again, but in a more beleaguered and defensive form. It is also more bombastic. American exceptionalism is now such an endangered faith that those who uphold it most fervently often berate anyone who challenges it.
Q: How did you research this book, and what surprised you most in the course of your research?
A: My research was wide-ranging and included everything from movies, songs, and memoirs to presidential speeches, government documents, and contemporary journalism. I wanted to recover a sense of how Vietnam came into American consciousness in the 1950s and how our perceptions of the war changed over time.
With that in mind I explored a lot of primary sources. I also relied heavily an extraordinary body of secondary sources produced by historians and other writers.
One major goal of the research was to put the war in a larger cultural and political context than most books on the subject. I tried not only to illuminate the history of the Vietnam War but to show how we have wrestled with the myths and realities of our global war from the earliest days of the Cold War to the present.
I understood when I started that the war in Vietnam had a profound impact on our national identity but I was surprised by the depth and breadth of those legacies and how even our efforts to forget the war, or to repackage it into something more palatable, showed the intensity of its persistent impact. If the war had been less significant we would not have tried so hard to find ways to “get over it.”
Q: What impact do you think the Vietnam War has had on U.S. policymakers' decisions about whether to send troops to war in subsequent conflicts?
A: The most important lesson we might have learned from the Vietnam War is to dismantle the imperial presidency and to make foreign policy far more transparent, democratic, and accountable to an informed public. In the 1970s Congress made some efforts to curb the war-making power of the executive (e.g. the War Powers Act) and to open up public debate about foreign policy.
However, those efforts were incomplete and easily overwhelmed by a foreign policy establishment (including the military-industrial complex) that sought ever more power and ever greater secrecy.
As a result, there was never any fundamental rethinking of America’s role in the world and no internal challenge to the persistent effort to maintain and enhance global military superiority.
In fact, when the Cold War ended and another round of major reform and military down-sizing might have occurred, instead we doubled-down on the goal of full spectrum military dominance and extended our colossal network of foreign military bases. 
However, I can identify one positive impact Vietnam had on policymakers. From the end of the Vietnam War in 1975 until 9/11, policymakers understood that the public would not tolerate long, massive, indecisive wars with high American casualties, especially when there was no clear threat to national security.
Although the U.S. intervened directly and indirectly in dozens of places, during the quarter century after Vietnam only about 800 Americans died in combat. In that sense, the memory of Vietnam served as a modest brake on military adventurism.
After 9/11, however, all the brakes came off and once again we waged open-ended and seemingly endless wars to support unpopular regimes in countries where American troops are widely regarded as unwelcome foreign occupiers.
And, as in Vietnam, we have fought long after the majority of Americans opposed their continuation. And, once again, our leaders have failed to achieve their stated objectives.   
Q: How did you decide on the book's title, and what kind of
reckoning has America had as far as the Vietnam War is
A: I’m full of ideas for titles of other people’s books, but find the process agonizing with my own. I usually don’t settle on one until they are almost finished.
However, when “American Reckoning” finally popped into my head it felt instantly right. I wanted the title to evoke a serious struggle over politics, conscience, and morality.
Reckoning has a number of possible meanings, but when linked to the Vietnam War I think it strongly suggests the ongoing process by which we have evaluated and judged that war and how that soul-searching reshaped the way we think about ourselves as a nation and a people.
The book argues that the war did indeed produce a serious reckoning but it remains incomplete. In the decades after the Vietnam War our public culture has not fully grappled with the war’s hardest questions and realities.
Instead of focusing on the damage we did in and to Vietnam, we have generally focused on our own war-related wounds, real and imagined.
While dissenting memories survived, the dominant voices in our culture have been quite successful in refocusing attention on the war as an American tragedy.
For several generations our children have been taught to honor the American veterans of Vietnam, but they have not been encouraged to explore deeply the history of the war itself and why it was so destructive and controversial.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I haven’t settled on a new project but I’m thinking of writing about World War II and American memory, another enormous topic. There is still a great deal about that war we have forgotten, or badly distorted, or never knew.
Part of the mystery of the subject is personal. My father was a Marine Corps dive bomber in the Pacific in 1944. He died in 1990 having told us very little of his experience. We have only his aviator’s log book and a few stories.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: There’s a lot more we all should know, me as much as anyone, but I remain hopeful that studying the past can help us in the present. I wouldn’t do this work otherwise.
And while recent years have been very depressing by many measures, one thing history does suggest is that fundamental change can sometimes happen at unpredictable times and in unexpected ways.
Lately I’ve been thinking more and more about what kind of world my two-year old granddaughter will inherit and hoping we won’t leave behind more of a mess than any generation could reasonably be expected to fix.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. This Q&A also appears on www.hauntinglegacy.com.

April 18

April 18, 1864: Richard Harding Davis born.

Q&A with Christopher Noxon

Christopher Noxon is the author of the new novel Plus One. He also has written Rejuvenile. His work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New Yorker, Details, and The New York Times Magazine, and he lives in Los Angeles.

Q: How did you come up with your main character, Alex?

A: Alex is a warped-mirror reflection of myself -- he and I have a lot in common (both L.A. dads, both married to TV writers, both raised by lesbians) but we differ in crucial ways.

He's way more insecure -- unlike Alex, I have a career/creative calling that gives me something clear to say when asked what I "do." He's a lot crazier too -- he acts out in ways I never have….

Alex and I both have wives who work crazy hours, so we're tasked with taking care of stuff at home. Unlike Alex, I've mostly made peace with this reversal of the traditional roles.

Also unlike Alex, I feel a deep calling to write -- Alex also writes (he begins and then aborts a punk rock memoir in the novel), but his writing is all about recapturing some younger, wilder and more independent part of himself.

I write because, as the saying goes, I can't not. When I'm not writing, or procrastinating on a project, I feel awful. That can hurt, but the sense of calling has given me the sort of purpose and satisfaction Alex is missing.

Q: Plus One looks at gender roles within a marriage. What do you hope readers take away from your portrayal of the Sherman-Zicklin family?

I hope readers are left with a deeper understanding of the inner lives of caretaking men and breadwinning women. Specifically, I hope readers confront stereotypes they have about men who've off-ramped their own careers to look after their family.

Just because a dad stays at home doesn't necessarily mean that he feels emasculated and bitter deep down. Some guys are, but the assumption that men simply aren't wired to caretake can actually create the very insecurity and hostility people associate with caretaking men.

In the novel, Alex wrestles his own male ego as he becomes a householder -- my hope is that following along as he stumbles through this territory gives men and women insights into their own families and the roles we play.

Q: Your novel takes place in Los Angeles. Could the same dynamics play out elsewhere, or is this an only-in-L.A. story?

A: I'm a lifelong Angeleno and really wanted to write an "L.A. book," but I don't think the story is specific to L.A. Men and women deal with the same pressures all over -- I hope this story appeals to readers everywhere grappling with what it means to play a support position in a family. If anything, I hope the L.A.-specific quirks and bizarre details enhance that universal story.

Q: What are some of your favorite books set in L.A.?

A: Too many writers fall prey to the glitzy, cynical, glam stereotype of L.A. Here are five books set in L.A. that to my mind depict the city authentically:

1) What Makes Sammy Run - Budd Schulberg
2) I'm Losing You - Bruce Wagner
3) Conversations With My Agent - Rob Long
4) Play It As It LaysJoan Didion
5) The Return of the Player - Michael Tolken

My favorite L.A. book isn't a novel -- Mike Davis' City of Quartz, which I think about more than probably any other book.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I've started work on a third book, but I really don't know what it is yet. Unlike the last two books, I'm writing this one without an outline and without a clear sense of where it's heading.

I did a workshop last year with one of my literary heroes, Meg Wolitzer, who writes the same kind of (her words) "unhinged domestic dramas" I aspire to create.

Among the incredible pointers she offered was this: when you start work on a new novel, pour all your highest aspirations and craziest loftiest goals into the first 80 pages. Don't worry about where it's going, what genre it is or any of the self-conscious stuff that consumes most writers as they work.

When those 80 pages are done, look at it with the cold eye of a New York editor and THEN decide what it is and do all your plotting and planning. Because often what you think you're writing is entirely different that what you've got inside -- and you'll only know after you've gotten through a good chunk of it.

Why 80 pages? Because if it turns out that what you've done is not so good, you can chuck that into the bin and not feel like you've suffered the sort of catastrophic blow that novelists feel after toiling for years and years on a book that isn't anything like all their best-laid plans. I'm doing my 80 pages. So far so good. Wish me luck.

 --Interview with Deborah Kalb