What do you find most appealing about the short story form?
It's hard to identify one particular thing that attracts me to the short story form. As with any writing, each particular story leans on different strengths of the form. I came to short story writing from novel writing. (From bad novel writing, I should say, at least in the beginning). In those first short stories, I appreciated the ability to focus on more concentrated bursts of character, or theme, or event, without having to force or impose those elements into a longer-view structure. I also appreciate the ability of short stories to bear sustained rhythms that could exhaust a longer piece.
This piece has surrealistic elements steeped in the brutal reality of war. Can you talk about how it came about?
This piece came about as the result of three very different influences. The summer before I wrote this, I'd read an article inRolling Stone about Bowe Bergdahl, at that time still a POW in Afghanistan. Reading the article "America's Last Prisoner of War," by Michael Hastings (June 7, 2012), I was spell-bound by the story of this different sort of soldier, isolating himself from his fellow troops to read books on ethics and philosophy, and how one day he left his gun behind and walked off into the frontier mountains of Afghanistan. While that narrative can suggest desertion, there are also deeper and more fundamental psychologies at play there that I logged away to try to confront in a story one day. Six months later, I read Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities for the first time, and fell in love with that book's ability to tell these seemingly abstract rhythm segments of fantastical cities and come out in the end telling a very basic story about humanity. Then, the week after I finished reading Invisible Cities, I suffered a concussion—my fifth—and found myself in bed for the next three weeks, in pain and trying to think my way through a fog of confusion. I was having a difficult time keeping concepts together or stringing together a coherent narrative, and as I lay there, would write these short little bursts, a soldier (not Bergdahl, but someone far more abstracted from that particular experience) trying to leave a war behind, navigating through an abstract cityscape as he began to reconcile the disparate stories of his life with death. I'm pretty sure, if not for the mental state I was in following the concussion, this would have been a far different story.
Who has inspired you?
From the get-go, the writer who has informed my writing the most is Allen Ginsberg. From the time I was fifteen, his big red tome, Collected Poems 1947-1980, was often with me. Along the way, other writers have been very influential on me: Lewis Nordan, Tom Franklin, Beth Ann Fennelly, Toni Morrison...I'm sure with all of us, it's a list that can go on and on. For me, it's the combination of viscera, rhythm, and social or cultural critique, all the things that make up heart.