Thursday, May 21, 2009

Last Known Position: An Interview with James Mathews

This post originally appeared on Jan. 19, 2009. I'm re-posting it because tomorrow James Mathews will be part of the Muse of Fire roundtable discussion at The Writer's Center. (He was also the workshop leader of the Operation Homecoming workshop that just concluded.) Tomorrow's event should be terrific. In addition to Mathews, others included in the program are Jon Peede of the NEA, poet/activist Writer's Center board member, and author of the recent memoir The Fifth Inning E. Ethelbert Miller, and two members of the workshop: Bob Johnson and Carolyn Schapper. It should be a great time. The screening starts at 7p.m. and the documentary runs about 50 minutes. For more information or to register for this free event, click here.

How many years did it take for you to write Last Known Position? And did you consciously sit down to write a collection?

Most of the stories were written after September 2001. Following the 9/11 attacks, I found myself activated for long stretches which is why many of the stories deal with military characters and subjects. Because of these similarities, I anticipated pulling them into a collection but I don’t think I wrote any individual story with the idea that it had to connect with another. Also, although each of the stories is self-contained, they examine desperate characters under extreme pressure – sometimes to the point of lunacy – which was reflective of where I was creatively.

The story "The Fifth Week" strikes me as a wonderfully innovative short story. Much is packed within its few pages, and readers are left feeling a sense of sadness and frustration for the lives of the characters. But you still manage to make this story funny. How important is the "comic" to your work as a fiction writer?

“The Fifth Week” was actually the only story in the collection that I finished prior to 2001. The setting is the fifth week of basic military training (“boot camp”) which entails the breakdown of the individual and the formation of a team mentality. It can be a brutal physical and mental experience, but it’s also necessary given the nature of the job itself. Just to give you an idea how it can affect people, my flight experienced two suicide attempts during the first two weeks. I felt bad for these individuals, but I also knew that some of these guys could be working with nukes one day so, in a way, you’d rather they crack there than in the field. Anyway, I set out to describe the experience as I remembered it and soon realized that describing it in a story left me at a loss because it’s definitely one of those things that can’t really be described but has to be experienced to be understood. I tried coming at it in a more experimental fashion, using present tense and the ‘we’ narrative and it clicked with me right away.

One of the great things about using humor as a writer – especially the darker variety - is the ability to tap into a character’s subconscious tendencies to be funny. The best humor – I think – is humor that the characters themselves are completely unaware of, but is clear to the reader. It’s important, of course, not to slip into mocking the character because that’s when the curtain drops and the writer intrudes. I don’t always succeed at this, but I’m always shooting for a ‘less writer, more character’ presentation.

Each war of the last century has its storytellers--Ernest Hemingway, James Jones, Norman Mailer, Tim O'Brien, Richard Currey, etc. These writers portrayed lives involved in war. How important is it that the Iraq War finds its storytellers?

Very important. Again, I think there are feelings and issues that can best be conveyed by veterans who have been there, done that. I don’t mean to suggest that gifted non-veterans can’t capture something of value when writing about war or characters in a war setting. I just think there’s an element of the human condition– at least as it relates to combat – that is best conveyed by those who see it and live it, especially after they’ve had time to reflect and understand the experience better. Real-time journaling has its place and there have already been good pieces written, but I really look forward to veterans taking a serious look back on the experience and rendering it into fiction.

You can already see the effects of non-vets trying to convey the experience on film. I’ve personally seen little value in the Iraq war movies that have been made to date. The veterans in these films are usually portrayed as either brutes to be mocked or pawns to be pitied. Very few of the veterans I’ve come across – regardless of their own personal view of the war – would be inclined to take such a cardboard approach to the experience.

What is the difficulty in writing about a war in which the country is currently involved?

Again, I think it’s a question of distance. Some of the best presentations of war are usually written years after the conflict ended. Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (10 years after), Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (16 years), Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five (24 years), Richard Currey’s Fatal Light (15 years), and Tobias Wolfe’s In Pharoah’s Army (21 years). I’m sure there are exceptions, but I also think it’s a line-up few can argue with.

There are certain experiences that I’ve had while deployed to Iraq that I can imagine using in a longer work, but it will take time to process them.

What makes writing about the Iraq War different than, say, Vietnam?

Based on conversations with Vietnam vets, I would say that the differences are minimal. Any wartime experience is harsh. When I was deployed in 2003, my ‘home’ was a tent, no running water, no privacy, questionable food, harsh weather, hostile population, and whole lot of “hurry up and wait.” That pretty much sums up most vets’ experience. I think when any writer-veteran observes human behavior under these circumstances – and also while engaged in combat – certain aspects of character and behavior are formed that are especially applicable to good fiction, regardless of whether the setting is a desert or a jungle.

Can you tell us a little about the genesis for the title story: "Last Known Position: 2,000 Feet above the Earth and Descending"?

The first scene in that story describes a horse which has jumped off a cliff and landed in a tree. There the horse is suspended several hundred feet above the ground. My wife’s uncle – who grew up in Peru – told me he had witnessed just such an event as a boy. When I asked him whatever happened to the horse, he said he couldn’t remember but added that “it probably didn’t end well.” I took that small anecdote and ran with it which made for an enjoyable writing experience and, hopefully, a worthy story.

Can you tell us what it was like to win the Katherine Anne Porter Prize?

Great satisfaction for sure, especially after learning that Tom Franklin – a writer whom I admire – was the judge. I’ve been publishing my stories individually for years, but this gave me a chance to see a collection in print. My understanding is that the runner-up for the KAP Prize went on to win the Drue Heinz Literature competition so I feel like I was definitely up against some good competition.

James Mathews grew up in El Paso, Texas as well as a variety of Army bases throughout the country. After active service in the U.S. Air Force, he settled in Maryland with his wife and children.

His fiction has been published in numerous literary magazines including The Florida Review, the Northwest Review, the Greensboro Review, Carolina Quarterly, the Wisconsin Review, the South Carolina Review, and a dozen others. He has been awarded two Maryland State Arts Council Grants for fiction and a number of other awards including the Carolina Quarterly’s Charles B. Wood Award for Distinguished Fiction. He can be found online at

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