Q and A with Jon Chopan, author of the story collection Veterans Crisis Hotline
1. Tell us a little about your story collection. The twelve stories of Veterans Crisis Hotline offer a meditation on the relationship between war and righteousness and consider the impossible distance between who men are and who they want to be. A veteran working at the hotline listens to the stories men tell when they need someone to hear their voices, when they need to access a language for their pain. Two men search for the head of a decapitated Iraqi civilian so that they might absolve themselves of the atrocities of war, a Marine hunts for the man who raped his girlfriend, and a teenage son replaces his dead father on the battlefield. With a quick wit and offbeat humor, Jon Chopan takes us from the banks of the Euphrates to the bars and VFW halls of the Rust Belt, providing insight into the Iraq War and its enduring impact on those who volunteered to fight in it.
2. These are some of the best short stories I've read in a long while, and also some of the best stories about war and its effects on both soldiers and civilians. How did you decide to write a collection about these characters, all of whom are either soldiers and/or the children of soldiers?
It started with the final story in the collection. That’s where I met Tully Fitzsimmons, who I would, after finishing that story, become somewhat obsessed with. It wasn’t that I wanted to write about war, and at first I refused to. I wanted to know what happened to him after he decided to go to Iraq and when he got home from the war. I had no intention of writing the war at all, but at some point the stories froze up, they wouldn’t move, Tully didn’t want to talk about home anymore and needed to talk about the war. Long before that, my most trusted readers told me that I was going to have to write about it, but I refused to believe them until the stories told me that I had no choice. Originally this was a linked story collection all about Tully and his going to war and then his time home.
3. After the (stunning) first story, "Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1," which focuses on a veteran who works for the eponymous crisis hotline, each subsequent story is narrated bysomeone with whom the narrator of "Crisis Hotline" has spoken. Did you decide on this structure for the collection before you began or did it come later?
This links up nicely to the last question. As I said, I thought it was just going to be Tully’s story. I hadn’t imagined it being anyone else. But then I wrote the opening story, which was actually the last one I wrote. In the original construction of the collection, the opening story was the last piece and the last story first piece. I sent the manuscript to trusted readers, to Black Lawrence Press (they published my first book), and everyone said that it doesn’t work, that the arc isn’t strong enough, he doesn’t really change, there is no development. That sucked, of course, but it got me thinking about what was happening in the stories, if they were distinct enough to be separate voices. I was still interested in them being linked by more than just the subject, but I realized that a single character wasn’t going to cut it. That final story grew out of an HBO documentary about the crisis hotline, Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1, which looked at the hotline side of things, the way the hotline woks and the people that work there. That got me thinking about the men on the other end of the line and what those phone calls might sound like. I suspected they didn’t come out like short stories, the calls, but that struck me as interesting, the idea that my stories were men who needed to talk, men who needed someone, even if it was only a stranger, to hear their stories. I suppose that’s how I thought about Tully, that he was talking to me, that he needed me to listen and tell his story, so the change didn’t actually seem that big, seemed pretty natural. So, basically, the structure was a creative response to a story problem, which is that the story I thought I was telling was not working and subsequently was not actually the story I was telling.
4.I noticed you earned a creative nonfiction MFA, and your first book, Pulled from the River, is a memoir (which Donald Ray Pollack said is the best memoir he's ever read). What drew you to fiction for your second book?
I always liked fiction. I was just really bad at it when I was younger. I came to writing late in my undergraduate years. I wasn’t one of those kids who always wanted to be a writer. I probably dreamt most about being in the NHL (even though I had no talent to speak of), or otherwise I didn’t have much of a plan. I went to college because my father, who was drafted into Vietnam, said I didn’t have a choice. I actually got my BA in American History. I liked the subject and really liked a few of the professors I had. But I think history is a natural complement to creative writing, nonfiction or fiction, because it is the story of who we are or who we are because of who we were. My first book grew out of the old advice to “write what you know,” and all I knew was Rochester, NY, or my version of it at least. I knew my father and my brother and the guys I grew up with. I knew these things and they became the center for me, some way to tell a story without trying to impose meaning and plot on it in the way young writers sometimes force meaning and plot. My first book taught me how to write, I think, and how to love a character enough to trust that they would tell their own story without my pushing them around.
5. Some of the stories in Veterans Crisis Hotline take place in a theater of war; others are set in the U.S. after the soldiers have returned home. Was it more difficult to write the stories that took place in country?
It was definitely most challenging to write characters in the war. I was so afraid and resistant about doing it. What right did I have, I figured. Who would ever believe in the stories I was telling? Maybe that was a bit juvenile. Maybe it was a bit conservative. But at some point, as I said, the stories froze up and I needed to do it or the whole thing was going to fall apart. I was adjuncting at the time and had a student who registered for one of my summer sections of freshman comp who had just come back from Iraq. We got close that summer, smoking buddies, and he was the first person I interviewed. Anyhow, short version, this student was super helpful and forthcoming and finally made me comfortable enough to interview some of my buddies from back home who had also been in the war. I also did research, read books, watched films and documentaries, tried to ingest as much as I could. I knew I wasn’t going to need even 10% of it, but I felt like I needed to get the feeling, the sense of it, so that I could try my hardest to get the feel of it right. I didn’t worry too much about the minutia, but I wanted the stories to feel right, true. I ingested as much as I could and then trusted that my characters were telling it best they could, trusted that they would get me as close to the truth as they could and that that would be enough.
6. What/who are some or your main literary influences?
Denis Johnson is one. Jesus’ Sonhad a major impact on the way I approached VCHand thought about it and dreamed it in my sleep. Tim O’Brien, for the war of course, but really more because his work is so beautiful and full of a kind of magic. I can’t explain what he does, but I wish I could do it, wanted to do it in my work, somehow. Those are two of the biggest influences. But there are plenty of writers who have had a profound impact on my work: James Baldwin, Charles Wright, Brian Turner, Nami Mun, Rebecca Barry… I think anything I read and fall in love with, fiction, nonfiction, or poetry has a way of shaping and reshaping my ideas and my drive to get better.
JON CHOPAN is an associate professor of creative writing at Eckerd College. He received his BA and MA in American History from SUNY Oswego and his MFA from The Ohio State University. His first collection, Pulled From the River, was published by Black Lawrence Press in 2012. His work has appeared in Glimmer Train, Hotel Amerika, Post Road, Epiphany, The Southampton Review, and elsewhere. He is the winner of the 2017 Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction for his collection Veterans Crisis Hotline, which was published by the University of Massachusetts Press in October 2018.