Friday, June 23, 2017

Q&A with Elliot Ackerman

Elliot Ackerman is the author of the new novel Dark at the Crossing, which takes place in Southern Turkey near the Syrian border. He also has written the novel Green on Blue as well as the book Istanbul Letters. His work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New Yorker and The Atlantic. He served five tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Dark at the Crossing and for your character Haris?

A: I had started to travel to southern Turkey in 2013 when I was covering the civil war there, and became friendly with a number of people who were activists in the revolution.

I was interested in the idea of how you tell the story of the revolution. It can seem impenetrable when you get into the different fighting groups. The more I’d spend time with the revolutionaries, they’d say, “I fell in love with the revolution, the idea that we could reimagine the country, and when it failed, I found myself heartbroken.”

I thought maybe I could tell a story that follows that emotional arc. What is the emotional equivalent of going through a failed revolution? A failed marriage. When it doesn’t work out and you’re left with the emotional wreckage.

To the characters in the book—I wanted to tell a story. I had the idea of a guy, Haris Abadi, a man of two identities. The spelling of his name was intentional. It’s a Western-sounding name with the Arab spelling. It’s a good framework to tell the story.

Since the book came out, I’ve been asked why I have protagonists who aren’t American. Haris Abadi is American.

Q: On that same subject, in a New York Times review of your book, Lawrence Osborne writes, "'Dark at the Crossing' is unusual in that few of its characters are Western — a bold move in a culture obsessed with 'appropriation.'" Do you see it as a bold move? 

A: No, I don’t. I think this whole construct of appropriation is an incredibly cynical way to look at art. The Merchant of Venice, Othello—are they cultural appropriations? Elvis Presley, Mick Jagger—it’s the way all culture forms. People meet, they interact, they blend cultures.

What’s the purpose of art? The idea of asserting our common humanity. People of any background can see a film or read a book and feel something similar. If we erect rules about what’s not allowed in art, it’s borderline fascist…

I look at this from another lens as well. I’m a veteran. People are writing about the veteran experience who are not veterans. People who had that experience feel extremely invested. Was it cultural appropriation when Ben Fountain wrote Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, or Roxana Robinson wrote Sparta? I applaud [those books].

Q: In our previous interview, you noted that your characters often surprise you. Did that happen with this novel as well?

 A: With this novel, it still happened in different scenes. As opposed to Green on Blue, with Green on Blue I was writing a book and didn’t know how it would end, but the characters were clear to me.

In Dark at the Crossing, I felt confident in the characters but I knew how it would end one-third into the writing. For me, the process was moving toward an ending in a way that felt authentic.

Each book felt different. One enjoyable thing about writing is being surprised by the plot, the characters—your day ends in a different way [than you might have expected].

Q: What do you see looking ahead for Syria?

A: I think it’s very difficult to predict. One of the things that’s difficult is that the war has been going on for so long now, the longer it goes on, the more challenging it is.

I don’t think I truly understood war until when I had my first child. She was nine months old when I left the service. It never hit me viscerally [in the same way].

I think wars, when they get to a certain point, it’s not because of ideology, but that people have so much loss. If my daughter were killed, and someone from the regime killed her, there would be no making me whole again. When a war goes on long enough, many people are affected [in that way]. Reconciliation becomes almost impossible.

Q: What impact do you think the Trump administration will have?

A: It’s remarkable in U.S. foreign policy since 2001, that it’s been pretty steady. It’s still yet to be seen, the impact the Trump administration will have. I don’t think it will vary widely between the [policies of the] Bush administration and the Obama administration. There were differences; [likely they will be] incremental between Trump and Obama. I don’t know if it will be a watershed.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m writing a novel set in Istanbul. No more shall be said!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous Q&A with Elliot Ackerman, please click here.

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