Since May 2014, I’ve been working on a novel, The Chords of War, mostly set in the Iraq War, collaborating with my former student Samuel Gonzalez, Jr., who served in Iraq. The novel is inspired by his time there as well as his years as a rock musician.
An interesting thing happened with this manuscript, which we’re still working on—nearly done. Producer Ed Pressman (American Psycho, Wall Street) optioned Sam’s life rights and tapped Sam to direct the screenplay now being written. Pressman also optioned my novel. This may sound more golden than it is. Sam or I won’t see any money until the financing is secured, and the film goes into production. Still, I hope the option will make publishing easier. I’m looking for a new agent.
We’re on the sixth draft. What makes working with Sam, a director, so interesting is Sam has a powerful visual sense and a natural touch for drama. If you never saw the short film he made of my mystery, A Death in Vegas, click here.
For those of you following the books I publish, you might say I’m eclectic. Some writers choose a genre and stick with it. From a marketing standpoint, that makes sense, particularly if the books are in a series. As a reader, if you want a Michael Connelly novel, you’ll buy a taut police procedural with Detective Harry Bosch or his Lincoln lawyer, Mickey Haller. If you’re into YA dystopia, you may read Suzanne Collins and her Hunger Games series.
In contrast, I grew up reading whatever grabbed my interest, and I’ve followed suit in my writing. In high school, I worked in our paperback book store at lunch, and it was there I discovered the fiction and poetry of Richard Brautigan and the science fiction of Ray Bradbury. In English classes, we read Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, which seemed eclectic to me. In college, I read John Updike and Kurt Vonnegut, and after college, I explored more and found such great writers as Margaret Atwood, Janet Fitch, Alice Walker, and Nick Hornby.
I started writing short stories because that’s what one did in creative writing classes. It was there I learned my voice came with humor. Once I discovered I didn’t have to cut out the funny stuff, I became more comfortable with my voice. After I published a number of short stories, I collected them in The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea and then Months and Seasons.
My first agent didn’t think there was any money in short fiction and pushed me onto my first novel, The Brightest Moon of the Century, inspired by my years at the University of Denver and beyond. Then came Love at Absolute Zero after novelist Caroline Leavitt thought my real story of zipping off to Denmark for love in college was hilarious. I updated it by making it about a physics professor in the present instead of a college kid in the seventies. It would let me slip in what I knew about teaching. I also saw a weird connection between the laws of physics and the laws of love.
My next two novels, Blood Drama and A Death in Vegas, were crime stories with average guys forced into extraordinary situations. I wanted to write something not based on my life, and a thriller or mystery would also help me explore form. My idea was to write a page-turner. There’s a lot to learn about storytelling when you want your reader not to put the book down. I enjoyed writing them a lot—but not enough to make either into a series.
That’s because several forces all came together. As a writer, I’ve always kept my eyes and ears open; the universe is trying to tell me something. As a reader, I fell in awe with the work of Tim O’Brien, particularly his fiction in The Things They Carried. I’d been in the last year of the draft for Vietnam, and I wondered how my life might have been different if my birthdate showed up as one of the first ten ping pong balls in the lottery instead of #229.
Reading O’Brien gave me a clue. His writing felt honest, truthful, and emotional. A friend then gave me The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers, set in the Iraq War. I liked it so much, I used it in an English class. Our class discussions had been fabulous. Just after that, I happened to meet Sam Gonzalez for lunch, and he told me of his experiences fighting in Iraq. He asked if I’d consider writing a novel about it. I liked the idea a lot, so we’ve collaborated.
What makes this book different from my previous ones is I’m not taking inspiration from my life but from another’s, Sam’s. As a film director, Sam isn’t wedded to what happened to him exactly but more toward what he felt. In O’Brien’s story “Good Form,” O’Brien speaks of happening-truth and story-truth, and how getting the sense of what it felt like versus who really did what is more important.
That’s what we’re aiming for in this book—the truth of what it felt like to be there from the standpoint of young men and women who joined because of the hype, the patriotism, or even just a need for a job or to get away. Iraq was not Vietnam. It’s more chilling because America should have learned from Vietnam, but our politicians threw us into Iraq and Afghanistan more because we had the machinery for it. Those who volunteered did not necessarily know any of the politics, but they had to live with it and experience war. Even if you don’t get injured, war can play with your head.
I started writing the book in the third person, but Sam rightly felt the first person gave it more presence. Only the prologue remains in the third person. Our protagonist, Max Rivera, played rock before joining the Army, and even if he doesn’t know it, it’s his music that keeps him grounded, especially through the worst of times. Through his friendships and affairs (women are in his platoon), he learns more than he signed up for.
Sam understands the power of imagery, and as he reads what I write, he loves the lyricism I’ve delivered and even pushes for more. “More poetry” is his refrain. For me, every day on the book feels important. The word entertaining isn’t what drives me, but You’ve got to read this does.
I’ve written far more scenes than we’ve used. In fact, it’s these later drafts where we’ve realized we need to bring some things back. It’s built with two storylines: before the war, and during the war.
This is all to say, this book, as with my earlier ones, has come from trying things out, experimenting, moving things around, taking things out, putting things back, pushing for the right tone and similes. I don’t work with a formula but with what feels right and truthful. I’m excited by it. It’s as if the lens of my life has focused on this particular book. I’d like to say writing the fifth book was so much easier than the others—it hasn’t been—but it’s still what I love to do. I feel new each book out.
What happens from here, I’ll let you know.
(The photo at the top is of Samuel Gonzalez, Jr.)
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.