There Are No Binaries: An Interview with Jesse Goolsby
Jesse Goolsby’s debut novel, I’d Walk With My Friends If I Could Find Them, is a book that challenges its readers. It charts the lives and relationships of three men before, during, and after their combat service in Afghanistan. Their pain, whether from the aftermath of war, forces of nature, or random happenstance, takes the forefront of the novel and it is chronicled in often devastating ways.
Goolsby presents us with an ambitious novel. The story spans decades, even reaching years into the future. Focal points shift from the three protagonists to their wives, their children, their romantic rivals, and even innocent bystanders. At a time when the war in Afghanistan and its veterans hardly warrant so much as an afterthought in discussions of current events or politics, Goolsby has given us a novel that “cries out,” as Bob Shacochis writes, “Stop, or at least, Remember.”
Goolsby himself is no stranger to life as a soldier. He is an active duty Air Force officer. He’s no stranger to literary accolades as well, having received the Richard Bausch Fiction Prize, the John Gardner Memorial Award in Fiction, and a distinguished fellowship from the Hambidge Center for the Creative Arts and Sciences. He serves on the masthead of two distinguished literary journals: fiction editor for War, Literature & the Arts and nonfiction editor for The Southeast Review. He was raised in Chester, California, and now lives in Tallahassee, Florida.
WILLIAM HALLAL: You’ve led a pretty nontraditional life for a modern writer. Could you tell us about your career in the Air Force?
JESSE GOOLSBY: I attended the Air Force Academy from 1997 to 2001. I graduated in May 2001. Initially, two things drew me there . First, it was a place where my family wouldn’t be burdened with tuition, so that was huge. Alongside that was the chance for me to play basketball at a Division 1 school, which was a big deal to me at eighteen. Both of those formed the initial impetus to attend the academy. It wasn’t until I was there that I really tapped into the pride of wanting to serve my country and the indoctrination into the military culture. And let’s not forget the pragmatic side of having a job waiting for me after graduation.
I might add one thing, which is that already at that age, it was very attractive to me that I’d be attending a school that promoted loyalty, integrity, and service. I think those tenants and the demands of the Academy are ultimately what kept me there. I met tons of people that actually embodied those pillars of the institution, and I relied on them to get through school. I stopped playing basketball early in my sophomore year, but decided to finish what I’d started, and I’m grateful that I did.
After graduation and commissioning as a second lieutenant, I served two maintenance officer assignments, one in England, one in New Mexico. After those two assignments, I was able to transition to a career in communications and academics. After that transition, I had assignments in Tennessee, in Colorado at the Air Force Academy, and in Washington, D.C., where I worked at the Pentagon.
WH: What is it that drew you to writing about the war in Afghanistan?
JG: I’m concerned with the consequences of all conflicts, especially America’s two most recent and ongoing wars. I don’t know if I made a conscious choice to write about Afghanistan, but when I began the book around 2009, the vast majority of our media and our literature focused on Iraq. In some ways that was appropriate. It was a really difficult time in Iraq. But it seemed to me a troubling enterprise not to focus on what has come to be the longest war in the history of our country, in fact, the war that had clear ties to 9/11, at least in the beginning.
I have written about both wars, but by focusing on Afghanistan, it seemed to me that I could investigate a war that largely feels to have been ignored, or at least to have been in the shadow of the Iraq war.
WH: You came of age, as did the major protagonists of I’d Walk, in the nineties, a decade that is certainly having its moment again in terms of nostalgia.
JG: The nineties, especially post-Gulf War I—what do we do with that time? Every generation is a compelling time to come of age, because, by definition, it’s your coming of age. But the mid-to-late nineties: you have the tech boom, you have certainly some major national traumas with Oklahoma City and Columbine. But in the rearview mirror, looking back post 9/11, it seems like the mid-to-late nineties was a relatively tranquil time: the economy is booming, and Clinton’s morality seems to be the biggest issue in our culture.
I think people forget that Oklahoma City was a huge deal. Or that shooting missiles into Sudan and Afghanistan was a big deal. These things were national scars. I think it’s really important to me not only to tap into some of that anxiety that may be forgotten, but also to showcase characters that are living in that environment somewhat carefree, as a lot of teenagers do, no matter the national traumas going on.
WH: There’s a line in [Jonathan Franzen’s novel] The Corrections that seems to speak pretty well to the attitude at the time: “…disasters [like the Depression] of this magnitude no longer seemed to befall the United States. Safety features had been put in place… to soften impacts.” That came out ten days before 9/11.
JG: There was a general sense, at least that I can recall, that whatever there had been to win as a country, we had won. Sitting on the stage at the Air Force Academy graduating in May of 2001, Dick Cheney addressed our graduating class. And on that clear Colorado afternoon and I was not thinking about war at all. I was commissioning as a second lieutenant in the USAF, and war was the furthest thing from my mind. And that showcases my innocence and naiveté at the time, but there was a prevailing mood post-Cold War that things were going to be okay. At least that was my take. Obviously, we know what happened four months later.
WH: You wrote an essay in Salon recently about your shift in perspective on the war.
JG: At my first assignment I was eager to do my job, to defend and serve our country. Early on, like many others, I wasn’t asking the right questions, specifically, what exactly does “defend” and “serve our country” mean? I was much more eager to strike out against fear than to ask the difficult questions and receive answers that might not align with the popular opinion or government stance.
But I should define those two wars because nuance is important in all matters, but especially ones of war. Afghanistan seemed to me early on a moral imperative. Going to find the people who perpetuated 9/11 and effectively shutting down their capability to ever do that again: that seemed cut and dry. Iraq was completely different, of course, but within the tenor of the moment, I found myself a staunch supporter for “going to get the bad guys before they could get us.” Which now seems to me now simultaneously juvenile and uninformed.
It’s always been difficult to define what “bad guys” means, where and when a moral imperative exists, and what’s worth our nation’s blood and treasure. All wars demand our intense reflection about the impetus for conflict. Evil exists. Where and when we take it on in the form of war seems to me a topic that deserves constant and intense debate from all of our citizens. When we stop talking about our conflicts, when we stop demanding constant justification from our nation’s leaders, when we don’t hold our nation’s leaders accountable for misinformation, that’s when we’re in trouble. I don’t know if today I’m any wiser than I was at 24, but I would say that I’m much more apt to question intensely what our motives are for engaging in war. And I say this as a person who proudly serves.
WH: You’ve cited Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad as a major influence on this book.
JG: What she does with time and structure—it’s one thing to talk about yearning and the desire for connection, which I think are at the heart of all great literature. But it’s another thing, structurally, to be ambitious in asking your reader to make a lot of connections through the white space between chapters. Only resonant writing can pull you through those white spaces and create a desire in the reader to close those circles, but they aren’t exactly circles, they’re a web of connections, how we live through relationships, close and distant, the communities we occupy, and Egan’s book showcases these links perhaps better than any book I’ve read in the past decade.
WH: Lots of people label I’d Walk a war novel. But I think calling it a war novel is like calling A Visit from the Goon Squad a novel about music. It’s not wrong, but both novels are about so much more.
JG: I imagine that would be the goal of most writers—to produce work that resonates beyond simple genre distinctions. My book is about human connections, and about trying to find moments of repose in a world where there are no guaranteed moments of repose. I try to do justice to the characters and tap into their yearning for connection, but also, the real human elements of just trying to find peace. A prominent setting is war, but only in two of the fifteen chapters. I think you’re right: calling it a novel about war can be somewhat limiting when it is first and always about human beings. That being said, I don’t mind the genre distinction, but the novel investigates characters who have gone through all types of trauma—conflict, as well as domestic, day-to-day life issues.
WH: I remember reading the epigraph and thinking, “Oh, this is different!” I was expecting, you know, “Dulce et decorum est” or something, but then we get Walt Whitman.
JG: Covers matter, summaries inside the flap matter. Epigraphs. They frame expectations for the readers, appropriately so. But the most important thing is the text. I think the Whitman epigraph does a great job of setting us up for a narrative about human experience in all settings. The first part of the quote is “There was never any more inception than there is now.” Everything you can imagine, all the elemental forces and power available on Earth have always been and will always be. I really like that.
That strikes me as this kind of beautiful response to folks who may approach life with an inflated sense of worth and think, “Now is the most important time that’s ever been.” You hear this all the time: “There’s never been a more important time than right now.” Which, thank God we have Walt Whitman to remind us, who sets the record straight. In essence, calm the hell down. It’s a notion that may help balance the immediacy of self-importance. It’s a great equalizer, the beginning of that epigraph, because we just are. And we always have been present, alive—generations past and future. And the real measure of heroism in life is just to try, not to prioritize your life or time over another. It doesn’t matter if it’s 100 years ago or 2000 years into the future or tomorrow. There’s a great heroism in accepting your life as one of many, and just trying your best, whatever that means for you.
But also the second part of the epigraph, the “urge and urge and urge,” speaks to animal instinct, sexual desire—the biological forces that impact us all. And I think that points to the fact that we’re human beings, first and always. We may set a life in war, or in Colorado or New Jersey or many places, but again, Whitman aids us, says that not only have these elements been felt by everyone, they’re part of our human journey and community. It’s appropriate for a book not just about war, but about humanity.
WH: As an author and a soldier writing about war, do you feel you have a moral imperative?
I think that any material that’s trying to do justice to trauma and the desire for human connection is going to illuminate what we’re about as caring, loving, and fallible human beings. There’s no doubt that when you put those characters in a setting that involves war that I’d hope there would be a clear connection between the characters, their inner lives, the struggle for peace, fulfillment, and the specific traumas they’ve undergone by this war.
I didn’t feel a moral imperative in the writing of this novel, because I certainly don’t see the book as polemical. But art and literature are how we investigate the lives of others. Outside real-life listening and touching and feeling, literature is where we get to spend the most time, in the most unique ways, with people who are not us. While an explicit moral imperative may not be a starting point for me, I do hope the novel offers new pathways into the human experience of war and the domestic experience of living in the aftermath of war.
WH: Do you hope that the book will have any impact outside of its literary merit?
JG: As an author, all I can do is write the best book I can write in that moment of time. My only hope is that people will read the book. You can’t project your own sensibilities onto the reader outside the text, and that’s part of the odd and gorgeous contract between author and reader. My most rewarding conversations since the book has been published have centered on real people and real consequences of conflict.
Hopefully I craft both characters who feel real and lived-in situations—as a human being, I hope for conversations on what’s happening to real flesh and blood people, about what’s happening in the VA. I’m so thrilled every time I have a conversation that highlights the heroism of military families. Asking art to educate us is a very difficult proposition. But I do hope that the effect of art translates into lives lived well.
WH: “Support the Troops” has turned into this kind of empty slogan. What can we—civilians—actually do to help veterans?
JG: Many things, but let’s highlight two. One is to break through the noise of both mass adulation and mass villainy. We must stop operating in binaries. We have to take the necessary step of seeing veterans and service members as individuals.
The reason that’s difficult is that many project military men and women as a single unit, all in line and step, all with the same mission and faults and successes. That’s crazy! Every single human being behind that uniform has specific hopes, dreams, and fears that deserve to be heard. There are real heroes in our military. There are tons of people that serve honorably and with distinction. There are also a fair share jerks and criminals. When we celebrate all service members and veterans as heroes, that seems tone deaf to me. That comes across as disinterest, not sincerity. You have no idea how those individuals have served, what they’ve been through, if you applaud the group in ignorance. In general, our civilian population could really step forward and work at embracing the nuance of individuality. That isn’t easy. It takes your time and focus and patience.
Second—and this is also really hard, especially if you don’t have someone in the military in your family—practicing a type of radical empathy in action. For example, the VA isn’t funded, equipped, and staffed enough to adequately care for our military and their families. The only way it will change is if enough people make it a priority and demand action from our government. That can sound a little like getting on a soapbox, because everyone has a lot of things to worry about and advocate for. But for folks sincerely interested in helping the veteran community, I encourage direct communication and pressure on our nation’s leaders to fix what never should have been broken.
WH: Part of your work in the Air Force has concerned addressing the problem of sexual assault among our soldiers. There’s also a frank depiction of rape in your novel. Can you talk about your work and how it fed into your creative process?
JG: During my time at the Pentagon I worked for the Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness. Under her purview is the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response office. I witnessed and worked alongside many people who came to work every day trying to solve what is one of the most difficult problems to solve, which is how to eliminate sexual assault from the Department of Defense. There were so many committed and smart people trying to prevent and prosecute criminals who commit an acts of sexual assault. We worked toward adding more protections for victim support and victims’ rights, among other things. We also spent a lot of time educating a massive group of people on basic morality. I found that to be a rewarding pursuit, but also an insane proposition in some ways: the very fact we needed to educate people that sexual assault is wrong.
It’s obviously not just a problem for the military, and I was thunderstruck by the magnitude of the problem. If you are unaware that someone has been sexually assaulted in your vicinity, it may be easy to think that it’s a problem that’s somewhere out there, not close to you. But that’s just not true. You may not be aware that you know someone who’s been assaulted or harassed, but statistics tell us you most certainly do. Frankly, I was ignorant then, and it shocked me that sexual assault is so prevalent and remains so. Even hearing the words out of my mouth, I’m ashamed it took me so long to become acutely aware of the problem.
So how does that infiltrate the creative process? I have to believe that the decision to tackle sexual assault and have that be one of the major traumas in my book had to have come from that experience focusing on that particular crime. I’m still working through that knowledge that there are so many people out there culpable for this crime. I don’t think you can ever acknowledge the problem then leave it. There are just too many victims to believe that it’s going to change unless we have an engaged citizenry and a culture that learns to value one another.
One of the challenges for any empathetic reader or human being is the question of, How can I contribute? But also, a realization that we can’t solve everything in a day, so where can I help? Where can I make a difference? There are no easy answers, but I would say, simply, start somewhere, start local, volunteer and advocate.
WH: I love the character of Armando’s father. You could found a religion on the quotes from this guy.
JG: Touring, I’ve found readers are on opposite sides. Either he’s a braggart who’s worth nothing or he’s deeply wise in everything he says. I find him to be much more in the middle. He’s certainly brash. But Armando’s mother makes a point early on, after his father has been pontificating his “insights into the world” bit, and she says, to the children,“Believe about a quarter of what he says.” But I think that’s true of most people, right? Armando’s father just happens to be a knowledgeable guy who likes to inflate his importance in the world.
WH: I love that he compares Luke Skywalker to Joseph Smith.
JG: He’s a guy with the blinders off, so to speak. He can comment intelligently across a wide spectrum of topics, which I guess makes him smart in a way. But intelligence doesn’t portend personal control or balance. This is also a guy who can’t tamper his pyromania, for instance. He’s a man who knows a lot, but knows how to do little.
WH: Torres echoes his father’s philosophy at times. In the first chapter, he gives us the “right now, someone is playing a trombone” line. I love the sentiment: even though the most important thing in your life might be happening right now, life is just going on for other people.
JG: At any given moment, almost no one is thinking of you. Which can be a rough thing to consider if you stop to think about it. They are going on with their lives, making choices, making mistakes. At any given time the vast majority of the human population is living unaware or indifferent to you. Also, those billions of people on the planet have different sensibilities than yours. It’s the wildly encompassing idea of individuality. We first get the “someone is playing a trombone” quote during a moment of mass prayer where the soldiers observe one young Afghani man standing apart from the group who isn’t praying. An individual outside of a preconceived notion. With it comes the idea that no matter what you think of a group of people, if you start labeling them in groups of two or more, you’re going to be in trouble. Because no matter where we are, we aren’t clones, physically or mentally. Because there’s going to be a specificity to those two or more individuals that won’t align. And it’s compelling that people can be doing all sorts of random things in a moment you may think is life changing, a moment of need or triumph. So there’s individual choice and perspective. Another echo of the Whitman epigraph, which can be read as “Your life is amazing, but you are not as important as you think you are. Other stuff is going on.”
WH: (quoting from book) There’s free will, but there’s volcanoes and shit too.
JG: That character [Armando’s father] really speaks to some of the biggest issues involved in this book: free will, companionship, belief, the limits of knowledge. It’s really about that centering: even a person as smart and well-read as Armando’s father still appreciates the fact that he can’t know everything, that’s there’s still a constant, on-going search. Volcanoes and shit: it’s good advice!
WH: People tend to overlook the humor in your novel when they’re talking about it. There are some really funny moments in there.
JG: You can’t just have drama, or, you can, but a reader won’t feel the expansiveness of the drama without the other end of the spectrum. If the focus is on human connection and yearning, then we’ll see people self-preserve in a variety of ways. One way is through humor. So we have lots of moments, especially in dialogue, where people are trying to deal not just with trauma, but with new friendships, with being in places that are uncomfortable, and the way we do that, largely, is through accusation, but also through humor. So I hope readers would find many moments that would be off-the-wall or funny. Not only because that’s the characters’ individual personalities, but because I think it’s a projection of self-preservation.
WH: I’d Walk also features abundant pop culture references. Do you see those functioning in a similar way?
JG: No doubt. This is one example of retaining self-identity. We know ourselves through our tastes and through our recollections. We remember how to be ourselves through them. So for these characters—and for all us, I think—the reflections of pop culture, of tastes, of responding to music, movies, books, allows us to tap into who we want to be and who we are. I think they’re not only time markers, but more importantly, they’re markers of moments of judgment. But not just life or death judgment, but also less intense moments of simplicity, “Am I going to take the girl to the movie Se7en?” or “How do I feel about Drew Barrymore sitting behind meat the theater when I’m sixteen years old in New York City?” Those are moments that make up a life and showcase a person’s taste and memories, often as much as the highly traumatic moments of war or injury. All of those have to go into the self-identity blender or collage to come out the other side as a self.
WH: From reading your essays, it seems fair to say that some of your background and life experience make it into all three of the protagonists of I’d Walk. Do you have any anxiety about that, as a writer of both fiction and nonfiction?
JG: I think you shouldn’t turn away from those moments of personal reckoning or truth that feel right for the character. Everything in fiction is appropriation. Because it’s fiction. If it wasn’t fiction, it’d be writing memoir. So I find it interesting to straddle the borderlands of straight made-up fiction versus ideas that come from my own experiences or memories or emotions. In my view, it’s a free-for-all. As long as it’s material that furthers the character’s yearning or deepens their plight, to me, it’s fair game.
WH: Your writing is very physical. Bodies seem to play a big role in all your work.
JG: The body is such an interesting thing for identity. For one, all the strangers we see, but don’t meet in our life, everyone we pass by that just takes a quick glance: our bodies are the only thing they ever know of us. It’s such an interesting way to think about the self as part of the body. And it’s our mechanism for how we perceive the world and how we perceive ourselves, through the senses. On one level, our bodies are who we are.
So illness and injury not only attacks mobility or how many years you have to live, but also the most fundamental thing: “Who am I supposed to be now? Am I a completely different person because I’m injured or ill?” The way people respond to those issues is fascinating. And so I think we see the characters in I’d Walk responding to those questions in a variety of ways after a variety of traumas. Some lie to recapture their former identities, some try to stave off the traumas that took them to this place through new projections, some deal with them in a fiercely protective, solitary way.
WH: All three protagonists come to have troubled relationships with their bodies.
JG: I think the characters come to realize that outside their longing for connection, they’re really looking at themselves as people who have been damaged, and struggle how to recapture their selves of the early chapters, of their early lives, when their daily existence wasn’t haunted. And how do you do that? And where are those moments of repose in a life that aren’t guaranteed? What do you have to do to find them?
WH: All the chapters in I’d Walk are written in the present tense.
JG: The present tense has an unrelenting immediacy. All tenses are a conceit in some way, but having a very close third-person narrator in present tense creates a sense of proximity and intensity. Structurally, I chose to lay out the scenes among moments of high tension without much transition, much like Egan’s book, because of that linkage of high moments of intensity from one chapter to the next. A good example for me was [Ben Fountain’s novel] Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. I think you can get into trouble with extended interiority in present tense, because time is ticking away, and the reader will only follow you so long in real-time introspection. So you get very little of that in my book.
Those fleeting, moment-to-moment thoughts feel real to me. In my book, you find characters who attempt to process and equivocate succinctly. Because in moments of high tension, their bodies and minds are moving in real time.
WH: The moments of violence in this book are rendered very suddenly. More than once I had to go back and say, “Wait, did that just happen?”
JG: Violence often appears out of nowhere, sometimes out of moments of boredom. Trauma are rarely foreseen, or it probably would come across as trauma. I think form matches content here in that we’re in a close third POV to these characters, and it would be almost impossible to render moments of acute present tense trauma over a long narrative time, unless the trauma was unrelenting and at length. All the violent moments in this book happen very quickly. But the important thing in the rendering, I think, is both the real-time perspective in which the events happen, and also the echoes of trauma reverberating through these specific characters.
WH: It seems like I’d Walk might be more accurately labeled a trauma narrative.
JG: One of the hard things about trauma is that it shifts. This book and other books dealing with trauma demonstrate that memory isn’t static. It’s not something easily overcome. You’re trying to overcome a ghost. That makes it that much harder to process that memory and then reform an identity of your choosing. All three characters try to navigate their emotional terrain and try to find or recapture a new self that they’re proud of.
I’m as interested in the trauma and connections of domestic life as I am in the traumas and connections of war zones. Because they’re all part of this large thing we call human life, and to segment part of the population for any reason, say their combat experience—to me, it seems extremely limiting. It doesn’t do any justice to the hopes, dreams and fears a human being experiences over a life. This is an intense book. I hope readers take note of the traumas these characters have to go through, but in equal parts appreciate the courage, the friendships, and the family that allow all these characters to wake up every day and get dressed. Which is a different type of courage than battlefield heroism and courage, but no less important.
WH: Your book has an interesting title.
JG: Thank you. It came about after the book was done. I don’t know how common that is. But a few things struck me on re-reading. In every single chapter, there are distinct cases of characters reaching out to one another and there are distinct notions of this movement, this walk though life. Literally in the book, we have people walking together in the parade on the 4th of July. The civilians don’t know the vets, the vets hardly know each other, but they’re walking together.
It [the title] centers on yearning for a life of companionship. The characters all have someone who will ultimately at least help them to continue onto the next day. Which is a huge accomplishment.
WH: A friend of mine wrote something recently that I thought was profound: “Thank God there’s enough courage to go around.”
JG: This is the great thing about being a human being: there are no binaries! There are no binaries when it comes to the human condition. There will always be nuance and subjectivity and there’s a lot of room for courage and heroism and love. I would hope that the book showcases that, that there’s room enough for all of those things. And what we ask of those veterans and their families and communities, we’re really asking of everyone.
WH: You’ve done a great job of promoting the work of friends and the work of writers you admire. Would you like to take some time to name some works by other authors you’re excited about?
JG: There are several recent books that have really inspired me. I’m going to limit it to just five: Richard Powers, The Echo Maker. I just finished and loved. Christian Kiefer, The Animals. Just came out this year. Amazing. A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain by Adrianne Harun. Just fantastic. Haunting. Brian Turner’s memoir My Life as a Foreign Country. Jason Skipper, Hustle. One reason I’d advocate for all them is because they all take narrative risk. They’re books that aren’t playing it safe, and I’ve come to appreciate artists that are testing the boundaries.
WH: What can you tell us about your next project?
JG: I'm at work on my next project now, a novel tentatively titled Derrin of the North. It's a quest story set across the U.S. and Canada, a story of friendship, sex, death, joy, and the search for identity. It is scheduled to come out with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2017.