Steven Dunn has just released his new book, Water and Power! This book is a literary mosaic, collaging the two contradictory faces of the military: the official face of the recruiting posters and the real faces of the people, including Steven’s.
Nancy: Can you tell us what the book is about in exactly six words?
Steven: Challenging standard heroic/patriotic military narratives.
You call this book an ethnography, which is an anthropological term used when researching and then writing about a different culture. Some might argue that the military is not a culture but an organization. What are your thoughts?
I think it is both, organization and culture, like any work place has its own culture, but with the military you live and work in it. Plus it has its own laws, holidays, rituals, conventions, dress codes, behavior codes, and so on.
I see this book like a literary collage: Army codes, recruiting posters, comics and “official” language are presented as artifacts but also juxtaposed against your story and the stories of the other soldiers. Talk about your choice to go with this form as opposed to, say, a straight memoir?
I didn’t want a memoir because I was more interested in multiple truths instead of facts, so I call it a novel, plus there are some straight up speculative fiction elements. Like people argue over the facts of whether Chris Kyle (American Sniper memoir) killed 200 or 160 people. It’s an important fact, but focusing on those numbers ignores a lot of maybe more important truths about why/how this thing is celebrated and publicly worshipped, and the truth that that is a lot of killing. But mainly, I wanted to include other voices that don’t often show up in military literature, especially from women, people of color, LGBTQ voices, and voices from foreign civilian victims or our wars.
In this book you do a series of anonymous “subject interviews”. Did you find using this kind of source material made it easier to write the book or more challenging? How do you reconcile multiple visions?
Oh my god, yes, more challenging (at first), because I was trying to control it. But after a while of writing it, I knew I had to let the book be a mess, to be wild by letting these multiple visions collide and/or agree with each other, hoping to slow down the automated ways we think about the military. What helped me see this was Joyelle McSweeney’s quote in an essay on genre in Ghost Proposal: “I love when a structure is badly wired and it shorts out and sends up dazzling sparks and all kinds of fatal events.” So this book needed to be a badly wired ethnography that presents itself as one thing but shorts out and unravels into a hot mess (which is a lot of our experiences in the military) that we might or might not be able to make some sense of.
One moment that stood out for me was when one of your “subjects” says that he only joined the Army for the G.I. Bill…and so did all his friends. As a college professor I see many of these students on the other side, “cashing in” their G.I. Bills but also attempting to reconcile and write about their (often difficult) experiences in the military. Would you say this pathway into the military is typical? What would you say to a high school student considering this path for these reasons?
That answer is so complicated for me. I joined for the G.I. Bill also, but chose to go to a private university afterwards, which the G.I. Bill stopped fully funding private schools during my sophomore year in 2011. So it wasn’t completely worth it for me. But it’s been worth it for a lot of other people. So I’d tell a high school student that if that’s the only reason they’re joining, maybe consider a few other options first. But I also know that the military specifically recruits its enlisted members from below the poverty line, so sometimes that’s the only option for people.
You are donating 10% of the author proceeds to the International Refugee Committee. Can you tell us about this organization and why you feel passionate about it?
I’ll give the info from their website: The International Rescue Committee (IRC) is a global humanitarian aid, relief, and development nongovernmental organization. Founded in 1933 at the request of Albert Einstein, the IRC offers emergency aid and long-term assistance to refugees and those displaced by war, persecution, or natural disaster. The IRC is currently working in over 40 countries and 27 U.S. cities where it resettles refugees and helps them become self-sufficient.
The IRC conducted operations across Iraq from April 2003 through December 2004. The organization resumed operations there in 2007, and is now expanding programs throughout the country. In addition to aiding displaced Iraqis within the country, the IRC is also providing assistance to Iraqi refugees in Jordan and Syria, as well as to those granted refuge in the United States
I’m often guilty and ashamed of having been in the military and benefitting from it socially and economically—and contributing to that organization who destroys other economies and people. So it’s important for me to contribute to the IRC, who is doing the opposite of what the military is doing: trying to keep people alive. This doesn’t absolve me or anything, or make me feel less guilty. I don’t know. I feel dumb talking about it sometimes because I haven’t worked it out yet, and don’t know if I ever will.
This isn’t your first book. You also published Potted Meat in 2016. How is Water and Power different from Potted Meat?
Potted Meat was narrow in geographic space (confined to one small town), and more internal, and ignorant of the past and future. It was very much focused on the mess of the present tense. water & power is wider in geographic space (Hawaii, Japan, Thailand, under the pacific ocean on a submarine), more external by including voices and viewing the military from multiple critical lenses. It also brings in histories and speculates on the future.
You are currently part of a project to bring Potted Meat to film. What is that experience like? Do you have to let go and let the director’s vision take over at some points?
The experience so far has been so damn great and collaborative. The director (Cory Warner) and producer (Flora Ortega) constantly check in with me in terms of the script and the visual tone. They want to stick as close to the book as possible, so whenever I need to let go and the directors’ vision take over, I’m totally fine with it. Which the only thing so far has been some arrangements of some of the stories to work for the film. I’m learning a lot about visual storytelling, and other filmmakers/films that I never knew about. But overall, it’s been cool as hell. My cousin, Drew Lipscomb, is producing the soundtrack, as well as rapping on it too, and some of my homies I grew up with are featured on it: Deep Jackson and C.Y.N. This shit is fire too!
You have published both your books with Tarpaulin Sky Press. Can you tell us about your road to publication and/or your publishing process?
I’d been a fan of Tarpaulin Sky for years, and loved that they published books that were wild as hell, that weren’t following many rules about what I used to think “literature” was, plus I knew they made beautiful books from the layout to cover design to paper quality. Tarpaulin only publishes 2-3 books every other year, so when I saw they had an open reading period, I submitted. Luckily I was one of the books chosen. It was in the contract that Tarpaulin could have first look at my second book, and if they wanted to publish it, I could say yes or no. So I got lucky again, and said yes because I love love love TS.
You are going to be one of the challengers in November 20th, “Fbomb Heavyweight Challenge of the Century” throwdown against Jonathan “Bluebird” Montgomery who said, “I feel confident going toe to toe with anyone at the mic.” The Vegas polls are tied. Can you give us any insights into your strategies for the match and what viewers should expect?
Bluebird, or Hummingbird as I call him (to get in his head), is a super high energy performer, so I’ll let him do what he does, he can flap his wings 80 times per second in the first few rounds, but he doesn’t have stamina, and then BAM, I’ll knock him out once he’s tired. That’s all folks!
Finally: What advice do you have for someone writing their first book?
Take your time, if you can afford it and aren’t dependent on books for income (not that we make money anyway). Take a musician and/or athlete approach to writing in terms of practice. And what worked for me, was to not submit it to 100 places, you know, the conventional wisdom of casting a wide net to better your chances. Tithe to the community: go to readings, write authors nice notes if you loved their books, interview people if you have a platform, review books.
Anything else you want to add?
Thank you for this interview, and all of the great questions. Oh, and I love your new book, and your performances of it.
Awww, thank you! The admiration is mutual. xoxo
Steven Dunn is the author of two novels, Potted Meat and water & power. Some of his work can be found in Granta and Best Small Fictions. He was born and raised in West Virginia.
Visit Steven’s website to learn more!