Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Fatal Light Revisited: An interview with Richard Currey

Although this is "Bob Dylan Week" on the blog, I'm going to interupt it for one day to bring you this interview with author Richard Currey. Currey will be reading from his classic war novel Fatal Light at The Writer's Center on Sunday, April 5 at 2:00 P.M. The reading will mark the launch of the book's 20th Anniversary edition, to be published by The Santa Fe Writers Project.

Richard Currey is the author of Crossing Over, Fatal Light, Wars of Heaven, and Lost Highway. But it was Fatal Light that would establish his international reputation, with widespread critical acclaim and 20 different editions published in 11 languages. The book was nominated for the PEN/Hemingway Award, and brought its author the Vietnam Veterans of America's Excellence in the Arts Award and a Special Citation from the Ernest Hemingway Foundation.

Kyle Semmel: Tim O’Brien called Fatal Light “one of the very best works of fiction to emerge from the Vietnam War.” It will soon be released in a 20th Anniversary Edition “author's cut” from the Santa Fe Writers Project. Despite the fact that the book was a bestseller, the original publisher let it go out of print. Can you tell us what it was like to see your book suffer that fate? And what does it mean for you to see Fatal Light back in print?

Richard Currey: It’s wonderful, of course, to see Fatal Light back in print after a hiatus of nearly eight years. It’s a beautiful new edition, fully re-designed, well-published and marketed with integrity, and the re-issue gave me the opportunity to make some long-overdue changes in the text. As to Fatal Light going out of print, this is simply something that occurs in the writing business. It’s disappointing when it happens, but it’s also a fact of life for writers. The original edition was a commercial success both here and abroad, but sales inevitably waned over many years. The major trade houses, in my experience, will not keep books in print much longer than five years or so unless they’re continuing to sell at a significant level. This is very often not the case for literary novels. It’s just the way it is.

KS: Can you tell us what writing Fatal Light—and its predecessor, Crossing Over—meant to your development as a writer? Or as a veteran returning from a life-altering experience such as war?

RC: Those two books are very clear illustrations of my road forward as a writer. I started my writing life as a poet. Poetry taught me how to write, and still influences my work in terms of brevity and concision. These aspects of my work are evident in, really, all my work, but very much so in my first two books. Crossing Over is where I began to find my own voice—style, rhythm, approach. Fatal Light was the move forward into a larger world of story-based, character-driven fiction. As far as being a veteran, though, and the notion that writing served as some sort of cartharsis—no. Some vets use writing for cathartic or healing purposes, which is most admirable. Indeed, I envy them. That just hasn’t been my path. In any event, I was a writer before I served in the military, and would have been a writer no matter what happened in my life along the way.

KS: You were an instructor during Operation Homecoming's first phase of workshops. And you've taught a veterans' workshop here for The Writer's Center. How important is it for veterans to tell their stories?

RC: Linking to your earlier question, I’m a believer in the therapeutic possibilities of writing for anybody who has suffered traumatic experiences. I think we know, whatever the nature of the personal trauma, that difficult experiences foster some of our most powerful literature. But I’m more careful about using over-heated words like “healing,” particularly with combat veterans. It’s just not that simple. In my Operation Homecoming workshops I focused on the potential of self-expression as a method for coming to terms with difficult experiences, as an attempt to garner some level of understanding of institutionalized violence of great magnitude, and the cultural, political, and spiritual importance of being a witness. There’s always the truth that lies hidden within the official story—and we need artists to get us to that place. This is what I tried to impart to my Operation Homecoming writers. And it’s why we need veterans to share their stories, in whatever form they can.

KS: What would you say to veterans returning from Iraq or Afghanistan today?

RC: Thank you. Don’t hesitate, not for a moment, to seek help if you need it. Never let anyone convince you that your service was, or that you are, in any way insignificant. And good luck.

KS: The connections linking veterans to other veterans—regardless of years of service—are fairly obvious. But how can we bring non-veterans closer to veterans?

RC: The books of veterans can do this, or certainly try to. It’s the great pleasure of books and reading—to see into other lives, taste other experiences, find new insights. But there’s another angle, too. Iraq/Afghanistan is this generation’s Vietnam and will echo in the same way, working into millions of lives, rippling out into the larger social fabric for many years to come. Michael Herr made this general point well, in the final lines of his brilliant book Dispatches: “Vietnam, Vietnam, we’ve all been there.” So it was with the Civil War, and with World War II. And so it shall be with Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s the testimony of the veterans of these most recent wars, be it in the form of poems or memoirs or novels or stories or plays or movies, that will be the bridge to all the non-veterans out there.

KS: Does it bother you that war, the experience of it, is often hijacked by people who want to sell a movie or a particular agenda?

RC: No. I wrote that “war stories are our oldest stories” in Crossing Over, and used the phrase again in Fatal Light. The narrative elements of a war story are so potent, so clearly-drawn, so mythic, that I’m sure any number of storytellers in any number of media will be using the basic outline for as long as humans are around. As far as promoting a personal agenda or message, one of the ironies of war stories is that most of them end up being anti-war statements even if they were intended to support the opposite argument. It’s difficult to depict war with anything even faintly resembling accuracy and not remind us of how horrible it is.

KS: In addition to Fatal Light, you've written a magical collection of stories set in the mountain south in the early years of the last century, The Wars of Heaven, and a moving depiction of a country musician in Lost Highway. You've also written very powerful poetry in Crossing Over. You wrote screenplays for Steven Spielberg for a couple years. And you write journalism from time to time. As a writer, in other words, you utilize a very large canvas in your art. Which direction would you like to concentrate on in your future work?

RC: All of the above. Although it’s true that I’ve been particularly interested in personal nonfiction and journalism over the last several years. I’ve enjoyed doing several pieces in the last five years that merge investigative reporting and personal perspectives. I have a nonfiction book about the American West that’s essentially finished. Along the way I’ve continued to write occasional short stories and poetry. I have 30 pages of a new novel that’s historical fiction. Maybe all of this, though, is more a fault than an asset. I know that I’ve annoyed my agent by striking off into various different literary territories. But I continue to enjoy what I do, and am burdened by a wide curiosity, so I presume my work will keep on refusing to sit in one spot.

KS: Early in your career you won an O. Henry Prize for the short story "The Wars of Heaven." A famous editor once wrote you a very dismissive rejection letter when you submitted it to his journal. But instead of fretting over what he wrote, you submitted immediately elsewhere. Can you tell us how it felt to get that letter, and what it meant to you to win such acclaim for that story?

RC: This is an instructive episode, certainly for any writer in despair over rejection. The editor in question, who we will of course leave unnamed, was well-known and powerful (in literary circles, anyway). He invited a submission from me for the trendy lit journal he then edited. I sent a story. He sent it back with a little note attached saying that “alas, this is a failed story” and suggested I abandon the piece. (Wish I’d saved that note, but I have a personal rule that all rejections should be immediately trashed.) I recall being more bemused than angry—the editor’s arrogance was so pronounced there was something a bit comic about it. Still, I thought, maybe he’s right. But let’s see what others think. So, on the same day I received the rejection I sent the story to a new, fledgling literary magazine out of Denver. The story was accepted immediately by a very enthusiastic editor, and went on to win an O. Henry and appear in the annual collection, and has also since appeared in numerous short story anthologies. It was translated into French and appeared in La Nouvelle Revue Francaise—the first work by an American to appear there in translation since Kerouac in the ‘60s. We even sold a movie option on the story. Clearly that first editor’s opinion was not shared by quite a few others. Lesson: Keep the faith. The audience is wide and not necessarily listening to what a single, well-positioned Manhattan editor is telling them to read. If you’ve put in the effort and believe that what you’ve done has a shot at speaking to readers, odds are it will.


Tara Laskowski said...

Nice interview! And I think Richard Currey makes an excellent point about 'keeping the faith.' The tough part, I think, is keeping the faith without being blinded by any kind of egotism...like, how do you know when to dismiss someone like that arrogant editor, and how do you know when your story really is shit? This is the question!

Unknown said...

Thanks for your comment, Tara. As I mentioned in my comment above, a part of me was prepared to assume the first editor was right--that my story was a failure. The litmus test was the disagreement registered by other editors and readers. It's definitely hard for a writer, alone in his or her world of words, to know if a piece is actually succeeding. We need the validation (or lack thereof) of more than a few others. But, then, that's why we have no choice but to keep the faith, send it out, and see if, when, and where we connect. Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

A really nice interview. And I look forward to the reading on Sunday!

Serena said...

Wow, what a great interview. Now I have a decision on my hands...whether to head to the National museum of Women in the Arts of a fabulous poetry reading with Deborah Ager of 32 poems and Rosemary Winslow or to the Writer's Center for this Richard Currey reading.

Kyle you are trying to make me find a way to split myself in two so I can be in more than one place at one time.

I really loved this interview with Richard Currey and I am happy to hear Fatal Light will be reprinted...It will make a perfect edition to the Reading Challenge I am working on for 2010. Praise from Tim O'Brien has me sold on the book. I've read all of Tim's work and find the time period fascinating, though that could be related to the mysteries behind my uncle's tours and his nightmares and odd behavior many years after his return from the war.

Ok, I really could go on and on about this topic...Thanks for the interview.