Bonus material: Breakfast With the Dirt Cult / Samuel Finlay interview

I interviewed Samuel Finlay recently for Taki’s Magazine, as I was writing up his hilarious self-published memoir of war in Afghanistan. He generously gave me far more material than a person could ever smash into a proper Internet-length piece. So, in this blog’s grand tradition of failing do do the right thing on the Internet, I will print the “overflow” (to use an inappropriately insulting term) in all its I-don’t-give-a-fuck-about-your-word-count glory below.

Here’s the Taki’s piece. (NOTE: Hey, writers. Have you written a book? Is it drowning in obscurity? Send me a review copy! Talk to me at asterzingerzATgmail.com and don’t forget the extra z.)

Here’s the bonus material:

Sterzinger: So how did your campaign to self-promote for Independence Day go? How many copies have you been selling?

Finlay: As far as my campaign around the 4th, the formal ads
barely moved the needle. On the bright side though, around that time some
of my previous efforts had begun to pay off with reviews in places like Publisher’s
Weekly
(which frankly surprised me, given the things I wrote). Also, a number of book clubs, bloggers, and veterans’ groups I’ve
approached have expressed an interest in reading it, and my Army buddies are
always touting it. I sent out some queries to some agents for shits and giggles
and some have requested copies. We’ll see.

Sometimes I’ll send a copy to a mainstream pundit
if for no other reason than to put a shot across their bow or to try
to engage in some low-level subversion and recruit an ally. Sometimes they
even write back. When I sent a copy to a contributor at The
Huffington Post she sent a nice email thanking me for my service
(one of her exes had been in Iraq). Charles Murray sent a reply last
month. I sent a copy to the Republican Party Chairman, along with a note
explaining why the Republican Party was no longer an effective political
vehicle for middle America or those with Burkean sensibilities, and that as a
result of the progressive domination of the cultural institutions as a kind of
civil religion, the Republican Party is ultimately an analog version
of the Democratic Party. He sent a thanks and said that he’d try to get to it,
and that while he understood the cynicism, we mustn’t let the liberals destroy
the country. So it goes.

Sterzinger: Do you know of any other military fiction writers these days who are doing well? Have you seen the New Yorker round-up? The New Yorker claims today’s military writing is apolitical, which seems kind of bizarre considering the military is living at the nexus of geopolitics…

Finlay: I’ve not read
any of those in the [New Yorker] and can’t speak of them, but what others I’ve seen
often seem to either be kinda jingoistic or gratuitously edgy and MASH-esque.
There was a guy from the 10th Mountain named Andrew Exum who
did one around the time we came back. It was called This Man’s Army, and I think
he’s landed a gig as a military commentator for Fox or something.
Another guy named Colby Buzzell did one as well, but I only skimmed them. From
what I hear, Sebastian Junger’s book War was pretty badass, but he’s
technically a reporter. I think for that sort of stuff you need some
years between you and that time in your life to help gain perspective
and try to find the words to explain things going on inside, so the really
great stories may be some time coming.
(As an aside, I don’t
think there’s any such animal as apolitical like the guy wrote; not
in this day and age. Even if it’s ironic and cynical, that tends to dovetail
into that whole “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel” school of
thought. That sort of thing winds up demoralizing a people in their commitment
to home and makes them believe there’s nothing worth fighting for; or
it serves as fuel for progressivism, which promises an antidote via
good feelings and all that shit John Lennon sang about in “Imagine.”)
As to nobody really
wanting to touch military stuff right now, I think unless it’s linked to a
cartoon, video games, or some supernatural/intergalactic shit, you’re pretty
much humped. About six or seven years ago at a writer’s conference in Austin,
this guy from one of agencies in New York said to me that there
wasn’t much of a market for it. His thinking was that a lot of it had to
do with the fact that the current wars were unpopular and that the news
was always showing stuff about them and everybody was more or less sick of
hearing about it. I see some glimmers of that beginning to change; in my
recent campaign, I’d noticed some agents are purposely looking to take on
new authors and develop military titles. There was one who even wanted to see a
copy of my book. However, this is by no means universal in the way chick-lit is. In fact, just last week an agent sent me the following that I
think sums it up:

“Thank you for your query.  I appreciate the
opportunity to consider your work for possible representation, but having been
sent countless memoirs/”novels” based on war experiences from WWI to Iraq
without experiencing any success with them, I’m not the right agent for it,
particularly as you’ve already published it on Amazon/Kindle. 
Fortunately, there are lots of agents so I hope you’ll find another who will
give your book the time and attention it deserves.” 
Frankly, I’m not sure
where the guy writing the New Yorker article is getting his
info. There really doesn’t seem to be the sort of interest he describes unless
he’s trying to prime the pump. An ex-Marine named Chris Hernandez has a funny,
angry sit-rep on his attempts at finding a home for his work which seems more
like what I’ve seen. He knows the score: http://chrishernandezauthor.com/2013/03/13/every-literary-agents-dream-novel/.
That being said, I think
there’s an ex-grunt sub-culture that’s building. It ain’t quite critical mass,
but it’s there. After 13 years of this, there’s a lot of us running around
who by the nature of the beast are operating off a whole other sheet of music
and have tastes, behaviors, and ways of thinking that are completely
outside of mainstream SWPL culture. There are guys writing, doing videos, and
selling stuff (mostly to each other for right now, I suspect), but they’re all
networked together through an informal veterans’ community. A lot of it still
seems like a monkey trying to hump a football, but the wheels are
turning. It’s still very tongue-in-cheek/Team America, but they’re
having fun and have no shits to give. 
As an example, one of my favorites is the
OAF (Operator As Fuck) Nation. (Their Facebook page is: https://www.facebook.com/Operatorasphuk.) They’re a bunch of military and private military contractors or “operators” who
post all sorts of silly shit, but when they do serious stuff it speaks to a lot of what goes on with us. There’s also an ex-Ranger named Matt Best who started a company called Article 15 Clothing who’s building traction with barracks humor videos:  
What’s more, there’s
still the hangover from the whole Vietnam/Baby Boomer thing. The phenomenon of
framing a military story in the fashion that The New Yorker writer describes
may be the price you have to pay to get some daylight with the
bougies—whom I suspect still have a Baby Boomer center of gravity. “Give ’em a
whiff of gunpowder, but don’t push too far and have people think you’re an evil
right-wing asshole.” 
While drinking and reminiscing one night, my buddy from Staten
Island said that before he’d joined the Army, there was this impression that “You have this military, and you know you need
it, but that it’s full of guys who kill people and break shit, but not the
sort of people you’d necessarily want to know.” 
Professional
academics from Walter Russell Meade and Andrew Bacevich to amateur
bloggers like Mencius Moldbug have noted that the military is not really seen
as the kind of place where the right sort of people go, but is rather the
domain of working-class proles, thugs, and patriotic stooges too stupid to
understand Kissenger’s dictum that the military is just a bunch of dumb
brutes who are pawns for foreign policy. One ex-infantry blogger wrote
something in which he speculated that deep down the chattering classes hate us
because we’re living reminders of the failure of their worldview; our
existence is proof that the world is a mean place full of bad people who would
hurt you just to see the look on your face, and they’re not gonna just stop
because you ask them nicely. In the end Thucydides still seems right; the
nation that makes the distinction between its warriors and its thinkers winds
up having its wars fought by fools and its thinking done by cowards. Or some
such bullshit. I dunno.
Along those lines,
there’s an element that’s a bit more complicated, and that’s the Oath. As you
can tell, the military is a moveable feast of bullshit. You swear the Oath,
then you realize how the service really is, then you make your peace
with the suckitude, and if you’re lucky, wind up being a part of something more
and partaking in an experience that’s kind of a mystery cult (hence the title).
All that gets bound to the Oath, the country, the Constitution, etc. You get
possessive over the old girl, and when people fuck with her you take a personal
interest in breaking them of the habit. In fact, I was on CQ with Bronson one
night and he saw a picture in the paper of someone burning the flag and he got
wildly pissed, which I thought odd considering he’s one of the
most irreverent guys I know. (I once heard him say he’d even pull Jesus
Christ over and yell at him if he ever saw him driving a Humvee without a
K-Pot on. The way he saw it, he didn’t believe in his god, and
anyhow if he had to wear one, everybody had to.) When I asked him, Bronson
said that it pissed him off because “that’s my goddamn flag!”
Anyhow, the bullshit
comes and goes. You go downrange and see whole new flavors of it, and one
damned bad idea after another that you get to be in the front seat for; enough
to think that the people who make the strategy and orders outsourced the
process to monkeys with a dartboard. But in the end you have the Oath; you
swore it, you’re there, and people are depending on you. However, if you begin
to question those on the other side of the Oath, then that can crack a
Pandora’s Box that nobody wants to open, and for good reason. To entertain the
notion that while you’re dedicated to following the orders for the good of the
country, those responsible for wielding the power inherent to the branches that
constitute it don’t even think in terms of the country itself but rather some
damned ism or another, then you wind your ass up in a big gray place.
When you consider that modern liberal democracy itself may be a sham, and that
guys like Edward Bernays were right in that the real power in a polity is in
the hands of those who shape the opinions, beliefs, preferences, and prejudices
of the electorate, the shit flat out goes plaid. It means we’re fundamentally
wrong about a lot of things; that shit has been fucked since way back
and that a hell of a lot of people (theirs and ours) have died under
false pretenses.
Again, no soldier I know
who’s seen The Shit really feels comfortable with that sort of thing. We all
know something’s fucked, the question is usually to what degree and where we should go from here. To call the system itself into question as being
irreparably broken—which guys like Washington said would happen, and he even alluded to it in his whole spiel about “no mound of parchment” being about to
keep a corrupt people from fucking themselves up—is to start a fight. Some
guys will reluctantly agree (to varying degrees), while others will say, “That
shit’s just politics. It doesn’t matter. We swore an oath to defend the
Constitution against all enemies both foreign and domestic, ’cause ‘Merica!” 
Point being, to crack that seal, particularly around civilians, most of
whom already see us as being damaged goods, is to expose something
dangerous. What happens when the rank-and-file of the military cease to
believe in the establishment they swore to protect? What happens when Joe
and Sarge suspect that the country for which they fight doesn’t really
exist, let alone give a damn about them and their families? You hemorrhage
legitimacy that’s what.
There’s also the fact
that the military, particularly the infantry, is an inherently tribal,
male space, whose purpose is tactical violence. This is completely opposite to
the cosmopolitan/”Coexist” set. It’s tough for them to relate. It
doesn’t surprise me that Jessica Lynch and more recently Kayla Williams
and the like have received a measure of mainstream publicity, but a guy
like Sgt. Bronson or Benamy simply wouldn’t. 
The ladies by all means
have a story to tell, and it’s good to see them lauded. However, they are
attractive and nonthreatening and can be easily linked to a victimology that
gives the SWPLs the opportunity to get high and mighty and White Knight around
looking for a bad guy. Whereas with Bronson and Benamy, nobody gives a shit
about guys like them and the feeling is entirely mutual. If someone put them on
a late-night talk show to plug something they’d probably start smoking and go
on a cussing tirade calling out someone on some bullshit or another,
or start telling crazy stories beginning with the phrase, “This
motherfucker here…”
I also think there’s a
lot of self-censorship due to the ubiquity of PTSD references. (See also
“Therapeutic Governance.”) As a vet, there’s a sense that you’re wearing a
bull’s-eye. You can’t be mad or sad, let alone openly call bullshit
on things, without someone playing the PTSD card and bringing out the McVeighs
to ad hominem your ass to illegitimacy. So you try to keep your head
down and your shit wired tight so as not make too big of ass out of
yourself and wind up being another jackass who makes all of gruntdom look
bad.
Sterzinger: So you finished your service in 2005… when did you finish writing the book, and how long did you shop it around? After you gave up and published it yourself on Amazon, how many copies has it wound up selling?
Finlay: As for time to completion, that’s kind of
slippery. It was a moving target. I began writing it out right around the time
of the accident (August 2004) and about 5 months later I had completed a
430-page manuscript or thereabouts. In retrospect, it was good physical
therapy. Between the breakup, the crash, being back yet stuck in and out
of the hospital indefinitely, I think I just channeled all of it
into getting that stuff on paper while it was still fresh. And over the course
of it, I was able to get to where I could type one-handed at about the same
speed I was formerly able do with two. Since my right wrist and two
of my knuckles are fused, I can’t type with my right hand. So it was kind of a
blessing. Silver linings ‘n’ all.
I then contacted McKay Jenkins, who was a
volunteer with the Endowment for the Arts’ Operation: Homecoming; a program
which encourages vets to tell their stories, observing that many of
the great stories dealt with war, from Homer to Gone with the Wind. McKay
teaches (taught?) journalism at university in Delaware. He wrote abook about the 10th Mountain in WWII, and I figured he might have some
pointers or contacts.
He agreed to look at it and sit down with me. He brought me back down to
earth. He said that what I’d done was great, but now came another
part that was in its way just as hard, if not harder; editing. (As a
proper editor of a publication and several novels, I can only imagine your
world. The horror … the horror …) He said that I needed to be
ruthless, and that if something wasn’t moving the story forward, I needed
to cut it. If guy was throwing a punch, that punch needed to be saying
something, maybe everything, about that guy. He also encouraged me
to describe things. For the most part, I’d tried to minimize the narrative
and editorializing, and just set the scene and let my buddies or Amy or
whomever speak for themselves. However, he pointed to a scene I’d written
about meeting the Hungarian prostitute while on Pass from Bosnia, and
liked the romantic way I’d framed it. He suggested that I needed to
use my voice more like I had in it. He also gave me the contact to his agent
and told me to drop his name.
The agent passed on it months later, saying he
tried reading it, but it just seemed like a bunch of drunk guys
wandering around New York City. For the next eight years I was in the
cycle. I’d shop it around, get rejected, and re-edit it. When I got it to where
I swore I’d taken it as far as I could go, I’d start shopping it around in
what me and my mom referred to as The Great American Mail-Out. I did it about
two or three times a year, hitting up around several dozen or so
agents each time. I was literary spam. I’m pretty sure my queries
hit just about every agency’s slush pile multiple
times. Occasionally, some would ask for a sample. I estimate I
got somewhere between 500 – 800 rejections. Maybe more. Most were just
silence, but that still counts as far as I’m concerned.
Around March or so of 2012, one of my friends had
suggested I self-publish. I didn’t want to, due to the whole “vanity
publishing” stigma, but I’d noticed some bloggers doing it with varying
degrees of success, and attitudes seemed to be changing. I thought, what the
hell. Be done with it. I finally got it out in October 2012. (Though I’d
still wind up finding a typo from time to time and have to go in and
update it. The paperback has fewer typos than the Kindle copy but
they’re working on updating it. I swear, typos are the fucking Vietcong of
writing.)
Concerning metrics, I’ve not sat down to count how many
copies I’ve sold. I kinda don’t want to know. I’ve resolved to just
keep pushing the damn thing until I’ve finally had enough. And anyhow,
the terrain is always changing and there’s always some new way to
promote it. And it’s become a means of connecting with a pretty broad
spectrum of people.
As I’d mentioned, conventional ads don’t seem to do much—at least for my book; it may just be the ad. I usually just use the cover
of the book and the words “Boy meets girl. Boy meets Haji. All hell breaks
loose. True story.” Reviews from bloggers and the
like have far and away been the most handy and usually result in the
biggest spike, or when my Army buddies wind up posting something about it
on Facebook or telling new people. Otherwise it tends to just lie there.
Giveaways via Goodreads got me many of my reviews in places like Amazon, which
seems to lend a measure of legitimacy. Contests haven’t seemed to do
much, but you never can tell who’s on the other side of them, and anyhow
the judges have to read them. 
About four months or so after getting the
runner-up for fiction at the New York Book Festival, an award-winning agent
contacted me via Goodreads telling me how she’d heard about it from there and
how much she loved it and then offered me representation. The agency
checked it out and everything. Then after I asked if I could talk to her and ask
her some questions about the contract, she promptly flaked out and never
said another word. It was really weird. Gave me junior high
flashbacks a little bit. 
By the way, I was thinking of great military-related books
and literary blind spots, and it reminded me of the book Tom Wedderburn’s Life by Theodore Judson. It’s gotta be one of the best books I’ve read in the past 10
years. The fact that nobody’s heard of it, yet you can’t throw
a rock at a bush without hitting some asshole reading 50 Shades of Gray, is a sad indictment. It was haunting, and if anyone has a tendency
toward the curmudgeonly or melancholy, it’s up their alley. I mention it
because the protagonist serves as a ground-pounder Marine in WWII
and has a view that’s very different from the whole Band of
Brothers/Greatest Generation
cliché. Also, if I’m not mistaken, Judson is
a retired schoolteacher from Wyoming who just up and self-published
it (or maybe went with a boutique one) and has battled breaking into
the industry as well. The son of a bitch can write like the barn’s on fire and
no one cares.
One of the things I liked best about it was
that the war was just a chapter in his life (which is how real
life is). It factors into his world in an important way and leaves a mark,
but it isn’t the all-important thing. 

I say all that because it made me consider that the
unpopularity of the genre may partly be the fault of us writers. Ours is
an eggheaded age (yet somehow also utterly vapid); we can get so focused on the
tactical/technical aspect of the story that we lose the humanity of it all.
And that’s where the real juice is. After all, Homer doesn’t bore us with the
intricacies of Bronze Age tactics and operating procedures any more than
Margaret Mitchell did with those of the Civil War or Tolstoy with the
Napoleonic War. They instead give us love and war and comedy and tragedy.
Which makes for a better read. Just a thought.
Finis.

A couple of reviews of Finlay’s work:

Review from Publisher’s Weekly : http://www.publishersweekly.com/978-0-615-62299-6

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