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.

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