Thursday, January 17, 2019

My First Time: Christy Stillwell



My First Encouragement

As a freshman at the University of Georgia, I declared an art major. Winter quarter I was registered for my first studio art class, held in the art building, a warehouse-like place with high ceilings and cement floors. Smelling of chalky paint and turpentine, the place felt exotic and intimidating. We sat at long worktables. A quick glance at the supply list and syllabus revealed what I estimated to be several hundred dollars’ worth of materials. The instructor explained that we would be drawing while she roved the room looking over our shoulders. On Fridays, we would place our work on the easel in the center of the room and submit to peer critique. At that moment I knew I wasn’t as serious as I thought about drawing or painting. I left the class, walked to the registrar, and dropped my major. Standing there with my pencil and my drop/add form, I asked myself, “What do you like to do? What can you see yourself doing—maybe not forever but for the next four years?”

Reading. I liked to read.

Major: English. I signed up for one of the few English classes with spaces left: Creative Writing 101, with Coleman Barks.

I didn’t know who he was. He wasn’t as famous at the time as he was going to become—Coleman Barks, the pre-eminent translator of Rumi, the thirteenth-century Persian poet and Sufi mystic. When my dorm hall monitor explained to me that Barks was a poet and a translator and a “Big Deal,” I shrugged and nodded. To me he was a bearded man with a deep voice who was open to going to the bar with his students, those who were old enough to drink.

Barks’ method of teaching was passive; he didn’t care what we called him, Coleman, Mr. Barks, Dr. Barks. He let us say what we wanted, and write what we wanted. He spoke of poetic moments and gave us examples: Crossing a parking lot he had seen a young woman walking through a row of cars. Each time she passed a window, she turned to look at her reflection. She was compelled to look, it seemed to him. She couldn’t not look, and this struck him as beautifully human, this need for reassurance of her own existence.

Coleman Barks
Midway through the ten-week quarter, just after I had presented my first story, he said something to me that no teacher has said before or since. I waited in my chair until everyone else had left class. I still remember the pit in my stomach, a roiling mix of fear and nausea. I was full of a shameful need. I didn’t know exactly what it was I sought from him, only that I had a burning question to ask. He was looking at me, waiting for what I had to say. I swallowed hard and met his eye. “Am I any good?” I asked, sweating, even more embarrassed now that the question was out. “What do you think? Can I write?”

In truth, I don’t remember exactly how I phrased my question. It’s funny; if this were fiction, I’d have it all—smells, sounds, precise feelings and words. But this is the past and when I write about the past I find poignant feelings and sensations more often than I find actual words. I do, however, recall Coleman’s exact words. He gathered his legal pad and stack of manuscripts. He stuck his pen in his nest of graying hair.

“You’ve got it, if you want it,” he said.

My heart was beating so fast I couldn’t register his words. I barely knew what I was asking, but I certainly had no idea what he meant. What was “it”? Fame and fortune? The writing of books? Anyone could write a book. Anyone could sit down and put the words on paper. What I wanted to know was, was I any good? Should I bother? And the way he phrased that last part, “if you want it.” To me this suggested that “it” whatever it was, might not be something I ought to want.

“Can’t you feel it?” he added, looking at me. “What happens when you read?” He flashed his sad, charming smile and shuffled out the door.

That was all he said. I recall speed walking across campus, filled with adrenaline. I was thrilled. I was besieged with confusion and doubt, but I was thrilled. What he said was a thumbs up, even if it wasn’t a precise thumbs up.

Looking back, I’m shocked by my nerve. I see now that what I wanted, he could not give. I wanted a guarantee. Even at age nineteen I knew that this kind of work was different from, say, banking. I felt the difference when I sat in my dorm room or the library or the coffee shop drafting those stories for his class. Time evaporated. The world around me ceased to be confusing or scary or unwieldy. It ceased to be anything at all.

I can’t say that when I’m drafting fiction, I’m happy. What I am is absent. My ego vanishes. Even in those early years I experienced the space created in my mind as a balm, a consolation. I felt a sense of purpose, and perhaps best of all, meaning. This felt a little naughty to me. It did not feel like a job, or a thing grown-ups pursued. If I was going to pursue it, I’d better be good, and I wanted Coleman to reassure me. To tell me that I wouldn’t make a fool of myself, that I would not be wasting my time.

Of course Coleman would leave the hard work to me. The larger question I was asking him, and myself and the universe, was the question asked by every young person since the dawn of time: “What Do I Want?” No one could answer that, least of all Coleman Barks, the man who devoted his life to interpreting the works of Rumi, the spiritual teacher whose poetry explored divinity, the soul, and the pursuit of God. Coleman wrote about him, “Rumi .... wants us to be more alive, to wake up... He wants us to see our beauty, in the mirror and in each other.”

I wouldn’t have minded if he’d said, Yes Christy. You are brilliant. Keep writing. He might have mentioned how long it would all take, how much rejection would be involved. I’d have loved a hint about that low period in my early thirties, when my first novel was with an agent but didn’t sell and I caught myself reading debut novels and hoping I’d hate them. I wanted others to fail. That was a new low, using other writers’ hard work to confirm that the world was against me.

But if Coleman had said any of that, would it have been encouraging? A writer needs encouragement, maybe more than a banker needs encouragement. Finishing work takes a long time. Publishing takes even longer. Writers can be unstable, insecure people. We need positive feedback as often as we can get it. But thinking back on the koan-like comments from my first teacher, he gave me exactly what I needed, what all writers need even more than they need encouragement. They need the truth.

“Can’t you feel it?” he asked me. The truth was that I could feel it. I read my work that first time and my skin tingled. My guts churned and my scalp burned. I could feel it all right. My classmates, the grad students auditing the course, even my teacher: everybody was listening.


Christy Stillwell is the author of The Wolf Tone and the poetry chapbook Amnesia. She is the winner of the Elixir Press Fiction Prize, a finalist in the Glimmer Train Short Story Contest and the recipient of a Pushcart Prize nomination, a residency at Vermont Studio Center and a Wyoming Arts Council Literary Fellowship. Her stories and essays have appeared in journals such as Pearl, River City, Sonora Review, Sou’wester, The Massachusetts Review, and The Tishman Review. Visit her online at ChristyStillwell.com

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. For information on how to contribute, contact David Abrams.


Sunday, January 13, 2019

Sunday Sentence: Christmas by Vladimir Nabokov


Simply put, the best sentence(s) I’ve read this past week, presented out of context and without commentary.


The outer door resisted at first, then opened with a luscious crunch, and the dazzling frost hit his face.

“Christmas” by Vladimir Nabokov
Christmas Stories


Friday, January 11, 2019

Friday Freebie: Wild Life by Kathy Fish


Congratulations to Jacqueline Isler, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: Woman at 1,000 Degrees by Hallgrimur Helgason.

I’m thrilled to announce this week’s giveaway is for the new collection of short-short stories by Kathy Fish, Wild Life. This book, which shares the title of an earlier collection by Fish, adds several new stories and the result is one of the best short-fiction reading experiences I’ve had in years. Wild Life is, in a word, brilliant; in two words: brilliantly illuminating. Kathy Fish has a way of drilling down into the heart of her characters with a speed and economy that by the time you reach the end of the story—often less than two pages—you feel you’ve explored an entire universe in just three paragraphs. Yes, reader, I loved Wild Life, and I think you will, too.

Keep scrolling for more information on the novel and how to enter the contest...


Here’s author Sara Lippmann (Doll Palace) on why she loved Wild Life as much as I did:

For more than a decade, Kathy Fish has been skewering the American landscape to bring us startling, unforgettable stories of people trying to forge a path through this shattered world. Her characters—patchwork families, scrappy siblings, unraveling couples, strangers, neighbors, and women confronting the violent self-annihilation that attends motherhood—are wracked by their actions and inactions. Surreality may be the only way out. If she did not coin the term flash fiction, we have her to thank for singlehandedly growing and elevating the dynamic form, securing its indelible place in the literary canon. With Wild Life, Fish demonstrates time and again why she is one of the most exciting and influential writers we have. Her range is on full display in this brilliant, comprehensive collection, an absolute must for students and teachers, for writers and readers across the genres.

No two stories are alike; each one dazzles in its own surprising way, all of them remarkable gems. Some, like “At Ethel and Harry’s On the Last Night,” contain the astounding scope of a novel in a few compressed pages; others, like “Lioness” open up with a scream. Fish fearlessly explodes structure and upends form with a playfulness and permissiveness that transcends myopic conventions of storytelling.

Devour them, but don’t be deceived by their thumbnail size; her stories are expansive, rife with a complexity that demands a slow, dedicated, and repeated read. Even after a close study, you won’t begin to grasp how she devastates and delights on a single line. This is her inimitable magic. She will gut you with the sheer precision of her emotional restraint. Images don’t just pop but vibrate through the senses. The familiar becomes unfamiliar in exquisite juxtaposition. Through Fish’s deft pen, the wind is never the wind but “the hands of many children clapping.” Rooms smell like creamed corn. Parachutes bloom like jellyfish. A party hat becomes a narwhal’s tooth. The road and clouds press down upon a trapped narrator like two large hands. Every story shatters, unsettling the fractured ground on which we stand, and then somehow invites the reader to gather shards and hold them to the light. That is grace “This broken planet needs a hero,” one of her characters says. My hero, bar none, is Kathy Fish.”

If you’d like a chance at winning Wild Life, simply email your name and mailing address to


Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail. One entry per person, please. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on Jan. 17, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Jan. 18. If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email. Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

Want to double your odds of winning? Get an extra entry in the contest by posting a link to this webpage on your blog, your Facebook wall or by tweeting it on Twitter. Once you’ve done any of those things, send me an additional e-mail saying “I’ve shared” and I’ll put your name in the hat twice.


Sunday, January 6, 2019

Sunday Sentence: Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes


Simply put, the best sentence(s) I’ve read this past week, presented out of context and without commentary.


Me and my books, in the same apartment: like a gherkin in its vinegar.
Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes



Friday, January 4, 2019

Friday Freebie: Woman at 1,000 Degrees by Hallgrimur Helgason


Congratulations to Jennifer Oleson Boyd, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: Two Girls Down by Louisa Luna.

This week’s giveaway is for the new paperback Woman at 1,000 Degrees by Hallgrimur Helgason. Hannah Kent, author of Burial Rites, had this to say about the book: “What a novel! Helgason’s Woman at 1,000 Degrees is a gutsy, brilliant book: I could not tear myself away from it. Octogenarian Herra Björnsson’s dying recollections, as she lies nursing a hand grenade between her legs in an Icelandic garage, hurtle the reader headfirst into an epic narrative of war, loss, desire and survival, across years and continents. Both funny and deeply moving, I finished it utterly dazzled, my ears ringing.” Keep scrolling for more information on the novel and how to enter the contest...



“I live here alone in a garage, together with a laptop computer and an old hand grenade. It’s pretty cozy.”

Herra Björnsson is at the beginning of the end of her life. Oh, she has two weeks left, maybe three—she has booked her cremation appointment, at a crispy 1,000 degrees, so it won’t be long. But until then she has her cigarettes, a World War II–era weapon, some Facebook friends, and her memories to sustain her. And what a life this remarkable eighty-year-old narrator has led. In the internationally bestselling and award-winning Woman at 1,000 Degrees, which has been published in fourteen languages, noted Icelandic novelist Hallgrímur Helgason has created a true literary original. From Herra’s childhood in the remote islands of Iceland, where she was born the granddaughter of Iceland’s first president, to teen years spent living by her wits alone in war-torn Europe while her father fought on the side of the Nazis, to love affairs on several continents, Herra Björnsson moved Zelig-like through the major events and locales of the twentieth century. She wed and lost husbands, had children, fled a war, kissed a Beatle, weathered the Icelandic financial crash, and mastered the Internet. She has experienced luck and betrayal and upheaval and pain, and—with a bawdy, uncompromising spirit—she has survived it all. Now, as she awaits death in a garage in Reykjavík, she shows us a woman unbowed by the forces of history. Each part of Herra’s story is a poignant piece of a puzzle that comes together in the final pages of this remarkable, unpredictable, and enthralling novel.

If you’d like a chance at winning Woman at 1,000 Degrees, simply email your name and mailing address to


Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail. One entry per person, please. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on Jan. 10, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Jan. 11. If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email. Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

Want to double your odds of winning? Get an extra entry in the contest by posting a link to this webpage on your blog, your Facebook wall or by tweeting it on Twitter. Once you’ve done any of those things, send me an additional e-mail saying “I’ve shared” and I’ll put your name in the hat twice.


Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Reading Ahead



I do a quick tally of my to-be-read list.

1,981.

I look again at that single-spaced list of books on my computer, that long scroll of titles that, at various times over the past decade, have piqued my interest. One thousand, nine hundred and eighty-one books. That’s a lot of papercuts.

The TBR list ebbs and flows, but mostly flows. For every four titles I add in a zest of anticipation, I know that only one will be read. When all is said and done, there’s a lot more said than done; or, a lot more said than read. Still, the mountain of must-reads, my own Mount NeveRest, grows and grows and grows.

I have no expectation of chopping off very many of feet in elevation during 2019, but I do a have a plan. I will attack Mount NeveRest methodically, judiciously, alphabetically. At least that is my plan on this first day of the year; we’ll see how the other 364 play out.

As some of you who have popped in to my Facebook page already know, I have been making a practice of adding to my TBR list by going through 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die by James Mustich one volume per day (if I’ve already read Mr. Mustich’s suggestion, all the better....but, like I said, that’s about one in four). The 1,000 Books Before You Die roster supplements my already-existing Essentials List. My plan is to alternate reading one book from the top of the list (James Agee, for instance) with one from the bottom (Emile Zola, I’m looking at you!).

Alternating with that system, I intend to take a book off the top of my ebook and “regular” book lists, which means the newer (2018 and 2019 vintage) books which I’ve been hoping to read soon. That way, I can get the best of both classic and modern literature in my diet.

Taking a peek at that latter list, here are the books which have climbed to the top (though they could always be bumped down a notch or two by other shiny new arrivals):

Earth to Charlie by Justin Olson
I Miss You When I Blink by Mary Laura Philpott
The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis
The Good Neighbor by Maxwell King
Inheritance by Dani Shapiro
The Municipalists by Seth Fried
Veterans Crisis Hotline by Jon Chopan
Little Faith by Nickolas Butler

But first, it’s Agatha Christie. I have a long-standing tradition of making the first book I read in the new year one by Dame Agatha. Last year, it was The Boomerang Clue; the year before that, it was Death in the Air; in 2016, it was Mrs. McGinty’s Dead. I’ve read about half of her prolific output and I’m working on the second half, starting this year with the 1933 mystery Thirteen at Dinner (aka Lord Edgware Dies). Double bonus points for the fact that it’s one of the Dell Mapbacks in my collection. I love these vintage paperbacks for the stylized maps they included, as the name states, on the back cover.


Thirteen at Dinner is a fairly routine, by-the-numbers Christie mystery. So far, nothing outright memorable has reared its bloody head to distinguish it from the many other Christies I have read. But I’m okay with a comfortable, routine investigation at this point. I read Agatha Christie to slow down, to savor, to allow my mind to float, to hover over the scene in the locked drawing room, to dissolve into the clues and to transport myself to the scene of the crime. Harsh cold weather, the bleak midwinter government furlough, the wind-up chattering-teeth noise of news headlines: all of that melts away as Hercule Poirot strokes his mustaches and announces, on page 140 (of 240 pages!!), “I know the truth of the whole affair.”

Of course he does. And now I settle in for the delicious 100-page tease in which I try, and fail and fail again, to match wits with Monsieur Poirot.

It’s a fun game to play: me in my armchair with a book and nothing but time on my hands (thanks to the government furlough) to solve a murder.


Sunday, December 30, 2018

Sunday Sentence: Wild Life by Kathy Fish


Simply put, the best sentence(s) I’ve read this past week, presented out of context and without commentary.


It’s Thanksgiving and your mother’s house has gone golden and clotted with voices.

“Cancer Arm” from Wild Life by Kathy Fish



Friday, December 28, 2018

Friday Freebie: Two Girls Down by Louisa Luna


Congratulations to Julie Geisler, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: The Iconoclast’s Journal by Terry Griggs.

This week’s giveaway is for Two Girls Down by Louisa Luna. Lee Child had this to say about the novel: “Opening this book is like arming a bomb--the suspense is relentless and the payoff is spectacular.” The paperback of Two Girls Down comes out next month and I have a copy to give away to one lucky reader. Keep scrolling for more information on the novel and how to enter the contest...


As addictive, cinematic, and binge-worthy a narrative as The Wire and The Killing, Two Girls Down introduces Louisa Luna as a thriller writer of immense talent and verve. When two young sisters disappear from a strip mall parking lot in a small Pennsylvania town, their devastated mother hires an enigmatic bounty hunter, Alice Vega, to help find the girls. Immediately shut out by a local police department already stretched thin by budget cuts and the growing OxyContin and meth epidemic, Vega enlists the help of a disgraced former cop, Max Caplan. Cap is a man trying to put the scandal of his past behind him and move on, but Vega needs his help to find the girls, and she will not be denied. With little to go on, Vega and Cap will go to extraordinary lengths to untangle a dangerous web of lies, false leads, and complex relationships to find the girls before time runs out, and they are gone forever.

If you’d like a chance at winning Two Girls Down, simply email your name and mailing address to


Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail. One entry per person, please. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on Jan. 3, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Jan. 4. If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email. Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

Want to double your odds of winning? Get an extra entry in the contest by posting a link to this webpage on your blog, your Facebook wall or by tweeting it on Twitter. Once you’ve done any of those things, send me an additional e-mail saying “I’ve shared” and I’ll put your name in the hat twice.


Sunday, December 23, 2018

Sunday Sentence: Monograph by Chris Ware


Simply put, the best sentence(s) I’ve read this past week, presented out of context and without commentary.


As an artist, the one thing you should never ever lose is your momentum. (It’s like a giant boulder; once you stop pushing, it’s almost impossible to get it rolling again.)

Monograph by Chris Ware


Friday, December 21, 2018

Friday Freebie: The Iconoclast’s Journal by Terry Griggs


Congratulations to Phil Milio, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: Lullaby Road by James Anderson.

This week’s giveaway is for The Iconoclast’s Journal by Terry Griggs. Here’s what a couple of reviews had to say about the novel:

“...smashes apart Victorian society (and modern society by extension) and rebuilds it as a Swiftian fantasy, raucous as Huckleberry Finn and nearly as bizarre as Alice in Wonderland…intensely intoxicating and bestowing delicious feelings of hallucination.” (Quill & Quire)

“Terry Griggs’ second novel is as exuberantly inventive, verbally juiced up and sexually outrageous as her first, The Lusty Man―and more pointedly iconoclastic….The language, the verbal fireworks, the apparently limitless stream of image and metaphor―startling, heady, hilarious―do it all.” (The Globe and Mail)

Personally, I was hooked by the opening sentence of the novel, which goes like this: In the month of May, 1898, on his wedding night, Thomas Griffith Smolders was chased around his hotel room, not by his bride, as you might expect, but by a ball of fire—luminous and strangely cool.

I have a new paperback copy of the novel from the publisher, Biblioasis, to give away (please note: the inside cover is stamped “Review copy,” but apart from that, it’s a finished copy of the book). Keep scrolling for more information on the novel and how to enter the contest...


Spooked by some ball lightning on his wedding night, repressed young Catholic Griffith Smolders interprets this as a sign and abandons his conjugal responsibilities by escaping through the window, enduring a series of misadventures along the way involving, among others, con men, murderesses, shipwrecks, and autodidact biologist hermits. Giving chase, his betrothed, Avice Drinkwater, finally runs Grif aground in a tiny island community, and prepares to exact her revenge. Set in the rough-and-tumble late nineteenth-century backwoods, The Iconoclast’s Journal is wildly kinetic, a madcap picaresque and comic anti-romance by one of the most inventive writers at work today.

If you’d like a chance at winning The Iconoclast’s Journal, simply email your name and mailing address to


Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail. One entry per person, please. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on Dec. 27, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Dec. 28. If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email. Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

Want to double your odds of winning? Get an extra entry in the contest by posting a link to this webpage on your blog, your Facebook wall or by tweeting it on Twitter. Once you’ve done any of those things, send me an additional e-mail saying “I’ve shared” and I’ll put your name in the hat twice.


Thursday, December 20, 2018

My First Time: Jon Chopan



On Being an Outsider:
My First Interview with a Veteran

I was teaching a summer section of Freshman Comp at Ohio State for some extra cash when I met David. He’d just returned from Iraq and was trying to get his degree, though I could tell on day one that his heart was only half in it. He wore sunglasses, was dismissive about himself and his writing, wore a smile that said, we both know I don’t want to be here and I dare you to call me out on it. And I did: in class, during smoke breaks, in the parking lot after class. David was tall and skinny and handsome and lost in a way that made me like him instantly, even if he was determined to give up on himself. His life, to that point, had been pretty fairy-tale American: homecoming king, football god, off to fight in a war because of a sense of duty to his friends and his hometown and his country.

I don’t know when we started talking about his tour, though I am certain it happened over a cigarette. We’d sit together during breaks in class, the only smokers, sucking down one, two, three cigarettes and talking about any number of things. Gays in the military, which David had mixed feelings about. Women in the military, which David had mixed feelings about. And the war, which David had yet to make sense of.

Earlier that year, I’d started to work on what I thought was going to be a linked collection of stories about a young man named Tully Fitzsimmons, who went off to Iraq and came home and then wrestled with being home after seeing war. I’d met Tully in a story I started writing after graduate school. I was adjuncting, living in a shoebox apartment that cost $450 a month, and had no intention of writing about war. The trouble was, in those early days, even after I finished that first story, which sent Tully off to war, I didn’t want to write about that part. I figured I could skip it, bring him home to wrestle with postwar life and never have to deal with what I felt I had no right to write about and no knowledge with which to write it.

I’d written two of Tully’s stories when David entered my life, but already the three people I trusted to read my work, the people who’d heard me talk about all the ideas I had for stories about Tully, were telling me that I was going to have to write about the war. I didn’t really hear that until the stories started freezing up and it became clear that I was going to have to at least try writing about it because Tully didn’t want to talk about being home anymore, he wanted me to talk about the war.

By this time, David and I had grown close in a smoking-buddy, blue-collar kid turned college professor meets veteran who is uncertain about college kind of way. We talked a lot, joked inside and outside of class. I knew that David was thinking about going back into the military, though he couldn’t say why. He’d just gotten a tattoo that covered his whole rib cage, which featured skulls and dead things climbing out of him, a kind of memento to his time in Iraq. I didn’t understand why he would want to return. He had a beautiful fiancée, a job that was halfway decent, and was going to college for free. He and his bride-to-be were already talking about kids.

I could have interviewed any number of buddies from back home who had served or were still serving. I suppose my relationship with David and something about him—how easy he was to talk to, joke with, how uncertain he seemed—played a role in his being the first one I talked to. And one day, while sitting outside the library chain-smoking cigarettes, he told me about his brother who called to tell him about getting his first kill. David hadn’t killed anyone during his tour and when his brother called to tell him, David said, “That’s on you.” I remember thinking how complex and strange his reaction was, how unexpected and dynamic. Here were two brothers: one who was excited to talk about getting his first kill; the other repulsed by it, in a way, or at least confounded by it, this ultimate act of violence, the very thing men are asked to do, I thought, when they are sent off to fight in a war.

The week after classes let out, David and I met in a bar a few blocks from his father’s house, where he was staying at the time. I was nervous. I didn’t want to offend him, have him think I was taking advantage of him. I’d told him about the book, about my resistance to writing about the war. He didn’t openly judge me or try to push me one way or the other, though he said he thought I was going to have to write about it if I wanted to get it right.

I didn’t know what I was after. The shade of things: the feel, the smells, and sounds, something that wasn’t already lodged in the popular culture. But you can’t say that to someone. I figured I’d ask a few questions, he’d talk or he wouldn’t, and I’d listen as close as I could for the details. And he did talk, despite my vague questions. Where were you stationed? Why did you go? What do you remember, stories, details? I took notes about all of it. Boot camp, specialty training, length of tour, names, dates. David told me a few stories and none of them were full up with gore and violence and the things of TV. I listened, asked a few follow-up questions here and there, but having never interviewed anyone, we mostly sipped our beers and talked as easily as we always did, full of laughter and good humor. It didn’t feel at all like an interview (if one could forget about the endless notes I was taking).

By the end, I didn’t know if I’d gotten anything I could use or if I would use it if I had, and David seemed concerned. He wanted to know if he’d helped, if he’d given me something to work with. I assured him that he had, that it was all good stuff, even if I didn’t know how to make it work just yet; but that wasn’t enough. I sensed an urgency then. There was something he wanted me to understand that I hadn’t, or maybe he was worried he hadn’t said it right. There was a pause as we went to shake hands and say goodbye, a silence that wasn’t common between us. David asked if I could spare another thirty minutes, follow him back to his father’s place where he had a few videos, maps, trinkets he wanted me to see.

At his house, David introduced me to his father and then took me to his room where he closed the door and talked quietly. He pulled out a flash drive and showed me a few videos, which he’d taken driving around Iraq. It was mostly just guys joking around, cities passing by the window, kids waving. It was just everyday life, nothing dramatic or violent, but it seemed important. I could see the place, see what David saw day to day. I could see the boredom he’d talked about, the long stretches of time where nothing special happened. He showed me a few maps, too. Where he’d been, places of special note during the war, where his brother was when he got that first kill. I don’t remember now how long I was there, thirty minutes, maybe. I don’t remember how we ended it, except that David walked me out to my car and made a joke, some show of calling me Professor. A few weeks later we had dinner, his fiancée and my girlfriend joining us, and we never talked about the war again. Maybe he felt he’d told me all he could, or maybe I felt he’d told me all he could, that I’d gotten everything I needed. At dinner we talked about the upcoming wedding, the kids they were planning on having, if David was going to finish school, which he was still uncommitted to, despite how well he’d done in my class, despite how strong his writing was, how smart and insightful he could be—and that at about half his potential.

Soon after I interviewed David, I felt like I could write the war, or felt I could at least try. After I talked to David, I talked to Nick, a close buddy from back home who had served in the Marine Corps, done a tour in Iraq, and was the person I imagined when I came up with Tully. We had beers and smoked and Nick told me everything that came to memory, the stories, the smells, anything that struck him as important.

My character Tully started talking about the war and I listened and trusted him to take me there and get it right, as best he could. I trusted that his stories would hold up, even if he got some details wrong, even if his memory wasn’t the memory of other men. It didn’t turn out to be a linked collection in the way I had imagined. It became more David’s story and Nick’s and Tully’s and a number of other men I met as I wrote what would eventually become Veterans Crisis Hotline.

A few days ago, I sent David the book. When he saw that it had been published, even though six years had passed since we first met, he reached out to congratulate me. I admit I’m nervous to hear what he has to say. I know he’ll read it. We were friends back then and he tried very hard to help me. I think he needed to tell his story and trusted me with it. And my only hope is that he will see—even if I got it all wrong—every detail and name and place, the way it felt and the way it was, that he understands that I heard him, that he understands that I listened closely to what he had to say and tried my best to get it right.


Jon Chopan is an associate professor of creative writing at Eckerd College. He received his BA and MA in American History from SUNY Oswego and his MFA from The Ohio State University. His first collection, Pulled From the River, was published by Black Lawrence Press in 2012. His work has appeared in Glimmer Train, Hotel Amerika, Post Road, Epiphany, The Southampton Review, and elsewhere. He is the winner of the 2017 Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction for his collection Veterans Crisis Hotline, which was published by the University of Massachusetts Press in October. Visit his website here.

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. For information on how to contribute, contact David Abrams.