The Chords of War, a contemporary war novel that I wrote with my former student, Sam Gonzalez, has just been published. Sam had fought in Iraq during the surge, and this is a fictionalized version of what happened to him.
It's a tale of punk rock teenager Max Rivera from Florida, who seeks purpose as he tries to understand why his life always teeters between music and mayhem. After he's kicked out of his band on tour, he joins the Army to change his life. It's after 9/11, and he finds himself under fire in Iraq, part of the surge in Baquabah. In order to deal with his teen angst and raging hormones among daily patrols, coordinated battles, and women fighting alongside him, Max creates a new band with soldiers. Will Max and his friends make it?
We've received incredible responses to the book, as you can see on Amazon. Two professional reviewers have also weighed in so far:
“Strong writing, acrid veracity of language and emotion, this little book is an important one – one we all need to read for ever so many reasons because the content affects us all, now and always. Highly recommended."
-- Grady Harp, San Francisco Review of Books
“The Chords of War” may be destined to have the impact of “All Quiet on the Western Front” as the defining novel of the Millennials’ war in Iraq. It has already made my 2017 Top Three list of books."
-- Linda Hitchcock, Midwest Book Review
Below, blogger Teddy Rose interviewed us.
TR: Please tell us something about the book that is not in the summary. (About the book, a character you particularly enjoyed writing, or anything else.)
CM: A book like this is a distillation of much more. Originally, it was going to be a linear tale that starts in book camp and goes to the war. As Sam told me his life before the war--in high school, in bands, and in love with various girls--I realized we had two vivid story lines: before the Army and then after joining.
Also, Sam didn't mention it right away, but women were in his platoon. Women could join the military police, and MPs were used in Iraq on the front lines. Women were fighting on the front. Women were often gunners in the Humvees. Suddenly I could see this was a larger story than just a guy joining the Army and starting a band over there. This would be a story of a kid coming to understand many things:. in particular, the Army, war, relationships, and music.
SG: For years I knew there was a story here just waiting to be discovered. It wasn’t until my collaboration with Chris where we went behind the curtain of what started as a rock band prepping for a different kind of war in Iraq to a tale of young soldiers struggling to remain sane, forming intimate relationships, controlling their fuelling desires for more and growing up, all of this being seen through the eyes of young men and women.
War is a heavy burden on any person, but particularly with this generation – a generation who although move much faster than the Vietnam era boy and girls, also seemed to mature slower and have a different outlook on life all together. It was interesting to show people what war is like, not in a way we have seen before, with heroes running through bullets or men charging through open plains. This was a war fought by kids who had no idea what was even going on, like children in a sandbox. Those are the images of the chords of war – the chords of truth.
TR: Please tell us about your collaboration from start to finish?
CM: I've written by myself for years, although at one point, I'd worked with two different people on screenplays. Working with Sam was unique as I had my protagonist in front of me, and I could ask him anything I wanted--and he'd tell me. I had not been to Iraq. This was his life. I have read many war novels, including those by Ernest Hemingway and Tim O'Brien, but I already knew from Sam's stories this was a different war.
Sam would read over what I wrote. Often what I wrote would bring up memories of another situation, and he'd tell me something new. I wrote detailed notes about everything. Sam is incredibly gifted as a film director, and he has a rich understanding of story structure. Thus, he offered many great ideas. We basically never told each other we hated anything. Rather, if something didn't work for one of us, we'd offer suggestions for a change. Because this isn't a memoir but a novel, our idea was to aim for the truth of what it felt like for Sam, even if that meant creating or exaggerating something. How if felt was most important.
After the third draft of the book, after I'd made a dummy version of the book bound by covers, Sam read the whole thing thoroughly, and we went through the book page by page. If there was a sentence, paragraph, or section that didn't feel right to him, he'd read it aloud and consider what was off. We'd work out what needed to be done. Sometimes I gave a reason why I thought it should stay, but most of the time, he spoke so well, it made sense to alter it. Sometimes it was just a single word. Sam is meticulous--and yet he's so respectful and considerate, working with him was a joy. In the end, we had a book we both loved.
SG: I always love the energy and passionate creativity that comes from a strong collaboration. To me, that is the root and spirit of any great project. Sometimes that root grows into something beautiful that lives on for others to enjoy, and sometimes it withers and falls apart before it even has a chance to see the light of day. I had taken a class at the Art Center College of Design in children’s literature, where Chris was my professor, and he always encouraged and pushed me to delve deeper into my storytelling – always with respect and a genuine care for characters.
When I was searching for a collaborator to help me take “The Chords of War” to the literary world, there was no doubt in my mind that Chris was the right choice. The minute we sat down for our first meeting to discuss, I knew deeply that this was going to evolve into something special. It was the beginning of a three-year road, and upon shaking hands, we not only invested in the story but in our upcoming journey ahead together – like two guys going out to sea with only the clothes on their backs, a paddle, some memories, and a typewriter.
On that boat, Chris would listen to my experiences, carefully notating everything in great detail and expanding on those by asking very in-depth questions that often cracked into my PTSD. Those moments would lead to tears and often unsettling past flashes on thoughts of the past, but Chris was right there and knew exactly how to use that for the best of the book. His sincere love for the story and respect to the detailed moment of my life were carefully handled by him every step of the way.
We never fought or came blow to blow with each other, but instead, if we came across a fork In the road, we would listen and find solutions on how to make it better. After many drafts and meticulously reading and re-reading the pages with over a year of additions and improvements, we were finally docked back on shore with more respect for each other than when we sailed off. It was an honor, and I would proudly serve with Chris again – he is a true soldier in my heart – a soldier of literature.
TR: Since much of the book came from Sam’s real life experiences, what made you decide to fictionalize the book?
CM: There are a number of reasons. Sometimes the way something happened obscures what an experience was like. For instance, say you had a major life-altering experience on a roller coaster at age six, and you had seven cousins with you. Maybe you can explain it better in a story in with fewer people.
Another example: I spent my junior year of college in Denmark because I'd fallen in love in Minnesota with a visiting Danish young woman. By the time school started in Denmark, she was living with another man but never told me. I only found out when I landed in Denmark. In retrospect, it was funny, but certainly not at the time. A friend said, "You should write a novel about that."
I did--but I didn't want it about a college student in 1975. I wanted it in Denmark now, so I made it about a genius physics professor teaching at the University of Wisconsin who falls in love with a visiting Danish kindergarten teacher. I put my protagonist though hell--much worse than I actually went though--but the deep feelings I had about my time there made it into the novel Love at Absolute Zero. A good novel tells truths.
In our novel, Sam and I aimed to tell his truths . He wasn't John Wayne yelling, "Follow me, men!" He was an adolescent experiencing war when he didn't even understand why we were fighting in Iraq beyond maybe it had something to do with 9/11.
SG: Fictionalizing the story wasn’t what I initially had in mind. The truth is I didn’t know where to start. Have you ever found a drawer in your home, or an old shoebox full of decades old items and collectibles? When you put all that in there, you didn’t think much of it, but revisiting it was like discovering a treasure trove. There were so many memories bubbling to the surface, so many faces resurfacing after years of not remembering them.
Those memories were fading away but, unfortunately, not the pain of those memories. Those never go away. Chris helped me channel that pain and to find the good that helped keep those away. For me it was the music.
As we started discussing life details from the beginning of my life until my return home from hell, we both learned together that music was a character in its own right, a true hero that had saved me time and time again – almost an invisible entity that lived through me. That was the magic that spawned the idea of evolving true moments and circumstances and culminating them around fictionalized (although strongly based on) moments that were surrounded by music. This to me was very special.
The stories on their own were powerful and true, but once the music element was thrown in, it was like raising the gain on a Marshall stack amplifier and breaking the guitar on stage – the feedback would be endless.I believe this book will be that feedback that lives on.
TR: I love the cover, please tell us about it. Did you design it yourself?
SG: My friend and graphic designer Jeff Joseph and I did. We had worked together during my Art Center days on large graphic photography. We met one afternoon to discuss possible ideas for the front cover of the book. We wanted something people could relate to, something they had seen before but different. We wanted a new twist that would have them go, “Hey, that’s interesting” or “Wow, I’ve never seen it quite like that before”.
When you think of war, you immediately think of the loss that comes with it – the causalities and the innocence lost. The image of the helmet on top of the rifle is the true symbol of that loss and the bravery that once filled that helmet. We knew that would be a great place to start. Now how could we incorporate music into that? We started messing around by placing drum sets, microphones, and more in a war zone – each one looking pretty cool, but once we incorporated the guitar into those helmets in place of the rifle, we stopped and said, “I think we might have something.”
We searched endless hours online for great references of the helmet and rifle to get perspective on how to approach it and came across great ideas. We married those ideas and splattered the punk rock style across it with the strings and fonts, and the cover was born. Chris has his book designer (Deborah Daly) who he had worked with for years on his past novels, and she joined in to bring her eye to the image. In the end, it was a true collaboration that together, formed something unique, haunting and full of rock-n-roll.
CM: This book came out through a publishing company I had started in 2005, White Whisker Books. I publish four other authors besides myself. After Sam and I finished this book, I felt this book was so big, a bigger publishing company needed to take over. Small presses can go bankrupt, believe it or not, in receiving many great reviews. I had that nearly happen with a book by Shelly Lowenkopf, Love Will Make You Drink and Gamble, Stay Out Late at Night.
The short story collection won awards and great reviews. Bookstores ordered. Of course, they went on bookstore shelves, spine out, so few people noticed it, and then the books were returned. Returns are an expensive thing for publishers. That book is still in the red. I couldn’t afford another mass return.
So I sent The Chords of War to over a hundred agents. Twenty-five wrote back, and were polite. Six asked for the manuscript. Two later said it wasn’t right for them. Four never got back to me. I decided I loved the control of making the book look just right. I also decided I would not make the book returnable. I have made three versions: hardback, trade paperback, and eBook.
This takes me to your question of the cover. I had hired a great book designer, Deborah Daly, who had been the art director once for St. Martin’s Press. Before she even had an idea for the cover, Sam sent me this one. Deborah loved it and added the guitar strings and played with the lettering. She also had a great design for the back and interior. Self-publishers assume the inside is automatic, but no, it takes great care to have the right font, the right size and leading, and make sure each line, paragraph, and page breaks in the right place. It’s the extra attention that helps make a book easily read. I thank Jeff, Sam, and Deborah for being so brilliant.
TR: What is your favorite scene in the book? Why?
CM: There are so many great scenes, but the most critical for me were the opening and closing of the book, and those scenes changed over time. I happen to love the ending as to me it's lyrical. Iraq isn't about happy endings, and what Sam and what his friends went through wasn't warm and fuzzy -- but Sam and the people in the novel grow, even if there's a sense of ambiguity to some of it. The Iraq War did not end on a sure note, and neither did Sam's experiences.
SG: It’s hard to choose a scene because every scene lends itself to another. They all flow together as well as the memories in my head do. The realistic and poetic opening and ending to the novel sure stick with me as pivotal moments during the read, and the relationships between the characters are always my favorite moments – especially when the music is born between them.
TR: What are you currently working on?
SG: My first feature, Railway Spine, a veteran story of PTSD (this time in the Vietnam War era), has just recently received distribution, so we are preparing for that. I am working on directing another feature film in February 2018, a veteran film with comedic horror elements, which I think will be another fantastic and uniquely different approach to showing audiences the real experiences of a veteran.
I’m also teaching my first classes as a professor in film studies in the state of North Carolina, and I’m working tirelessly to get The Chords of War to the next step of getting it to Netflix to be made into a series. When that day comes, it truly will feel like a mission accomplished. I would be honored to work with Chris on that platform and take our collaboration to the small or even big screen.
CM: I’d love to work with Sam again. He’s a true talent. Go onto YouTube here and see the film Sam made for my previous novel, A Death in Vegas. Sam even turned me into an actor. I trusted him.He’s a amazing director with a clear vision.
Now I'm working on short stories. Alas, I'm going through a divorce but our breakup is amicable -- not about blame but about growth. Maybe I'm sounding like Gweneth Paltrow and her husband Chris Martin of Coldplay, but sometimes relationships end because they've run their course. I didn't want it to end, but that's another matter. It's a confusing time and a clear time. I want to get some of that in some short stories. I've written other stories over the years that have been published about other things, and, like a rock star creating an album, I'm not sure at this point what stories will fit in a unified collection.
TR: Which actor/actress would you like to see playing the lead character from your most recent book?
SG: That’s hard to say, but it’s definitely been something we have been bouncing around since we are working on bringing this unique true story to the small screen. When that day comes, I would like to cast talented unknown actors for the role so that the story feels authentic and real and nowhere near staged. The music in our veins were true every boot step we took and with every person we encountered – it was unfamiliar and new territory for us. I want audiences to walk that same path, feel what we felt, and experience these actors as if they are people they are learning about for the first time.
CM: I trust Sam with that.
TR: How long did it take you to write this book from concept to fruition?
CM/SG: Three and a half years.
Thank you for this interview, Teddy.
To see Amazon reviews of the book, click here.
To buy the book on Amazon, click here.
Before I wrote novels and plays, I was a journalist and reviewer (plays and books). I blogged on Red Room for five years before moving here.