Q and A with Katey Schultz, FLASHES OF WAR
Tell us a little about your book.
Sure, thanks for asking! Despite the title and the award, the first thing most of my fans tell me is they love my book because it isn’t about war—or at least, not as the central focus. I’m really interested in how we behave when we realize we can do everything right and still be “wrong.” I’m also interested in how people can be slowly bullied by their own circumstances and brought to a point of exhaustion, then change. It’s that point—the tiny moment—I’m most interested in.
But, to get to the point: Illuminating the intimate, human faces of war, this unique series of short stories questions the stereotypes of modern war by bearing witness to the shared struggles of all who are touched by it. Numerous characters-returning U.S. soldier and pragmatic jihadist, Afghan mother and listless American sister, courageous amputee and a ghost that cannot let go-appear in Flashes of War, which captures personal moments of fear, introspection, confusion, and valor in one collection spanning nations and perspectives. Written in clear, accessible language with startling metaphors, this unforgettable journey leaves aside judgment, bringing us closer to a broader understanding of war by focusing on individuals, their motivations, and their impossible decisions.
What is it about the flash fiction form that appeals to you, and why was it the form you decided to focus on for the stories in Flashes of War?
Great question. Flash fiction is so powerful and universal, yet microscopic at the same time. I rely very heavily on visual imagery and metaphor, and when a story combines the two for a double-whammy, it leaves its mark. That’s what I aspired to do in Flashes of War, and the short form (250-750 words) lends itself well to high-drama because you don’t get trapped in backstory or the “why” of the bigger picture. Characters are thrust into a situation and, if well-written, it becomes suddenly clear to the reader that it’s not the situation that will tell the story, rather, the character’s reaction to that situation. We are what we do—that’s a universal truth. This book looks at what believable characters do time and time again, set to the backdrop of contemporary wars and the associated struggles stateside or abroad.
Because I wanted to look at people, not politics, and because I wanted to pay witness rather than judge, the flash form likewise lent itself to precise exploration. It kept me from taking the narration where I didn’t want to go, and it made me distill a very large situation down to the fine points that matter—bullets that remind a soldier of Hershey’s Kisses his daughter loves, a hen whose feathers feel like silk, a refugee who views the midnight sky as the only thing untouched by war.
You write with such sensitivity and insight about soldiers, their families, and warfare, but have not been a solider or a civilian who has worked for the military; how did you become interested in writing about these subjects?
For me, a good story always starts with an unanswered question. I had a lot of unanswered questions about these wars and I knew that my way “into” them would be through story. Story is how I make sense of the world. So I had to start with something very personal, very human, and find my way out toward the universal: What does a soldier do when he has to take a dump during the middle of a dangerous mission? How does a woman behind a burqa find her source of power in a war larger than life? What would it feel like to be willing to kill in order to lie next to your loved ones again?
I think that many of us are wondering these things, but we don’t always let our imaginations or moral explorations take us down those paths. Understandably, too—once you start down that way, it’s hard to find any “right” answer or “way out.” My way out was always through story, and I’d write until I found an image or metaphor that rang true. Then I’d know I’d found something worthwhile.
How did you learn so much about the military and the details related to combat?
I read countless nonfiction books about the wars in order to gain an understanding of basic 21st Century warfare (Horse Soldiers, The Good Soldier, We Were One). I didn’t censor my readings—I read political rants and unverified refugee accounts, I read religious-filled propaganda and well-researched journalism. I wanted it all. I also watched hours of documentaries and YouTube footage, often pausing the video to take notes about what I was seeing. What would a character find walking through the narrow streets of a small Afghan village and shopping in the bazaar? What did a Forward Operating Base look like? The glimpses I could find were often small, but just enough to ground me in reality and then I could imagine narrative from a place of authenticity.
I also made lists of words, as the military has its own language and so, too, does war itself. When it came time to write, these terms proved helpful as they took on a natural rhythm and tone in the prose and guided my characterization decisions. For Afghans and Iraqis, I watched documentaries and listened for tone and emotion (since I couldn’t understand their languages), as well as rhythm. One example that was translated comes to mind, from a female Iraqi refugee: “Since my brother died, I cannot taste my tea. Since my brother died, I cannot taste anything.” There’s a mournful quality to that sentence as well as a symmetry. It’s perfectly balanced and open. It’s utterly what it is. That feeling, that tone—well, it’s what I tried to translate onto the page when making up characters.
How have the writers who are current or former soldiers, along with the military community as a whole, responded to Flashes of War?
So far, so good. I’ve been overwhelmed with acceptance by the veteran and military community and am grateful. It really could have gone either way; most folks who have “been there” are saying that Flashes gets it right. The literary audiences (which overlaps with the veteran audiences quite a bit) have likewise embraced the work, most notably for the fact that the book both is and is not about war. Flashes is full of human stories, important stories, and I’m so thankful that readers largely seem to have understood my intentions.
If you don't mind doing so, please tell us what you're working on now.
Thanks for asking. I’m working on a novel that takes place in Afghanistan. The working title is The Longest Day of the Year and it’s based off of “The Quiet Kind” and “Aaseya & Rahim” in Flashes of War. It’s a long project, but I’m plugging away. After that, I’m dreaming of a story collection that celebrates bourbon and all the Appalachian traditions and tales around that drink. Meantime, I blog at www.kateyschultz.com and try to be very honest about the realistic challenges and rewards of being a fully self-employed writer.