Sources and Methods #6: Elliot Ackerman


Show Notes:

[Recorded in Iraq]

2:55 - Alex's blogpost on note-taking [Note-Taking Jujitsu, Or How I Make Sense Of What I Read]

10:13 - I started working on my first book within days of leaving the military.

11:08 - Writing journalism used to be far more common, as a fiction writer. It’s an older model, but for me it’s always felt very natural.

Example: Graham Greene’s Quiet American.

Idea: When I’m starting a novel: It’s like I’m standing in a field of very very dry grass, and I’m trying to start a fire. And what I’ve gone in my hands are two flints, and I’m banging them together as hard as I can trying to make sparks. The flints are something I’ve seen, something I’ve experienced, and the fire is all imagination.

13:24 - The key to being a writer is to write. Every day. No matter what.

14:21 - Each idea often needs a bespoke process for how you’re going to approach that idea.

15:30 - I take umbrage with the rigid definition of ‘fiction writer vs. non-fiction writer.’ These are totally artificial definitions. Even when the subject matter is completely disassociated from the author, the emotional truths there are frequently real to that person’s life. I think of myself as a writer, and when I see subjects I want to approach, I’ll decide how I want to approach it: essay form, long-form, article, etc.

16:45 - Discussing the use of emotional experiences in writing, an excerpt from Elliot’s article published in the Daily Beast here which used one experience as a foundation for a long article:

The Fourth War: My Lunch with a Jihadi

For a moment we sat, three veterans from three different sides of a war that had no end in sight. Not the Syrian Civil War, or the Iraq War, but a larger regional conflict. Amidst all this, Abu Hassar had hit on a unifying thread between us: friendships borne out of conflict, the strongest we’d ever had. I think that’s why I’d sought out Abu Hassar, to see if that thread existed among two people who’d fought against each other. And, for the first time, I wondered why Abu Hassar had agreed to meet with me, a so-called journalist he knew nothing about, except that I was American and had spent some time in Iraq. Maybe he, like me, had become tired of learning the ways we were different. Maybe he wished to learn some of the ways we were the same.

I agreed and Abed began to explain to Abu Hassar that I’d been a Captain in the Marines and had fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. I watched them intently, not understanding their quick Arabic. Abu Hassar began to slowly nod and his gaze moved from Abed to me. Then, once Abed was done, he picked up the water that had been set on the table. He poured a full glass in front of him, emptying his bottle. He handed it to me.

“A Captain,” he said. “So we were both like the handles of the spear.”

I nodded.

18:38 - A poem Elliot loves from the First World War that discusses the power of an emotional experience:

An Irish Airman Foresees His Death

19:30 - Fighting is a very intimate experience. You ask yourself - who were these people that defined me? And did I define them? The seeking is very natural.

23:54 - There’s a shared humanity that we had. Combat is a very human and visceral thing - you’re fighting to keep your friends safe, and yourself safe. He [Abu Hassar] had had those experiences, and I had had those experiences. It’s disorienting to come home and realize that you may have more in common with your adversary after having been through all this than you do with the people at home.

25:12 - The World War I Christmas Truce

25:48 - To talk politics for a second, I think it’s very dangerous to classify your enemy as irrational. That’s a pretty big hedge. If you look through the history of warfare and conflict, many of these people are rational. Now they might be looking at the world through a very very different framework than you are, and that gives them the semblance of being irrational, but if you just throw the baby out with the bathwater and say these people are completely irrational, you will probably have a difficult time formulating a strategy that effective against your adversary.

26:44 - My writing process often starts with an idea, and a first sentence. It will literally be one sentence. I’ll be walking around with it for awhile in my back pocket. And then it’ll be like I’m on the high dive - and the first sentence is you start moving on the board a little bit. And you put it down.

For me, I keep banker's hours about it. I have a word count I do every day. And I really try not to judge what I’m writing as I’m writing it. I’ll let the whole idea play out, and then the revisions begin.

28:02 - Green on Blue, told from the perspective of a young Afghan soldier who kills an American. Started with one sentence.

29:02 - It’s famously been said: writing is rewriting. But you have to start, and you have to keep going, and you have to get to the end.

30:57 - It’s important to disambiguate your business from your writing.

33:26 - In the novel, I wanted to take an action that at face value would seem like the most deceptive action we can see - when Afghan soldiers trained by Americans shoot one of their American advisors in the back, and I wanted to peel that back in a novel, and show the journey someone would take who would do this. So when the action is taking place, not only can you understand it, you find yourself thinking I would’ve do the exact same thing.

34:38 - Anytime you write anything, you’re trying to create an emotional connection to the reader.

35:56 - The fiction I enjoy isn’t prescriptive, it’s portraiture. It’s giving someone a real sense of a landscape and moral topography so they can decide what they think about that world.

37:06 - [on good fiction] It’s something that elicits an emotional or intellectual response in the reader.

38:28 - The Sound And The Fury: it’s not something everybody gets the first time they read it.

39:39 - Some of the greatest books are books people hate, and they create really interesting conversations. Read The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron, it’s about a slave-rebellion in the Virginia Tidewater area. Hugely controversial when it came out, but it’s a great book.

40:22 - I don’t know if there’s a criteria by which someone can judge fiction writing. Frankly, it’s one of the things I kind of like about it.

41:27 - I think it’s a fiction that there are ‘fiction gods’ (that you have to appease to publish). I think there’s a rough justice, but if something’s good, it’ll get picked up. There’s a sense that there’s an us vs. them, writers vs. publishers, but I’ve never found that to be true.

42:30 - If you’re a writer, you better strap on your rejection pants and get ready for it. That’s part of any artistic form - rejection. Lots of rejection. Great writers are rejected all the time. Established writers are rejected all the time. Again, divorce the business from the art.

On picking the next book: I find myself reading a lot on issues outside my world (not reading on Iraq or Afghanistan). I’m reading Love Me Back right now, it’s a coming-of-age story, and it’s amazing, gritty and powerful. So while I don’t have a specific process, I do make sure I’m always reading.

46:57 - Elliot on Twitter

47:30 - Reading international newspapers definitely gives a different perspective, and I would encourage everyone to do it. Where you can, it’s good to triangulate your news sources.

49:30 - On his writing process: I don’t leave where I am until I hit my daily word count, usually 1,500 words. And the evening is dedicated to reading. I’m often taking notes in the margins of things I’m reading and frequently go back to those things. And I’m very disciplined about writing ideas down - get it down, in a notebook or in the notes page in my iphone. I hate saying this because I’m the guy who was a Marine, but discipline goes a long way. When something comes in your mind, write it down. Take the time and do it. It’s amazing what you build if you crack at it every single day.

53:22 - Advice to aspiring fiction writers:

I think one thing I maybe did right early on - I suspended belief in a lot of ways. I said I’m just going to do this, and I don’t know where this is going to go, but I’m going to keep doing it. If you try to conceptualize an entire book, or think about a timeline or selling it - you just need to start. You need to enjoy it as much as you can - it may not always be enjoyable, but do it. And you have to be brave. I think it takes a lot of courage to write. I really do. And I don’t say that in a pollyannaish way. People are going to read your ideas and tell you whether or not they like them. People will say they don’t like it.

55:56 - On rejection, Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead was rejected 25 times before it got published and then it was on the New York Times best sellers list for something like 60 weeks.

56:26 - Also, go find other writers. Tap into a community. If you’re going to be writing fiction, you need to be a good literary citizen.

58:45 - Faulkner has a great quote: The only thing worth writing about is the human heart is conflict with itself.

59:47 - I wouldn't necessarily encourage everyone to write. You have to want it. If it moves you. Not everyone should be a writer - or a banker or a doctor. I feel a compulsion to write. Even if my books were not coming out, I would still write. It's how I think. It's how I process events. It's how I distill meaning from the events in my life.

1:01:32 - I think it's dangerous to ascribe the value of your art to some end.

1:02:12 - I think if you're a writer, you need to publish.

Elliot's book: Andre Malraux’s Man's Fate

Elliot's film: The Seventh Seal by Ingmar Bergman.

Matt's book: This week, reading Dataclysm by Christian Rudder