Several years ago, I had a conversation with Don Sedgwick, who is now the executive director of the King’s College MFA in Creative Nonfiction Program, but was then one-half of the team that represented me (the other half being his wife, Shaun Bradley). I was trying very hard to come up with a worthy topic for my next novel, and I was having a lot of trouble.
Don’s advice was simple. “What worries you most?” he said. “Whatever it is, write about that.”
It was such a big question that I hardly knew where to start. Lots of things worry me. Unbeknownst to Don, I had already started writing a book, but it felt so dark and so creepy that I wasn’t sure I wanted to show it to anyone. It was in the voice of Henry, the mentally challenged 18-year-old cousin of Jeremy Merkin, protagonist of THE HUNDRED HEARTS. Henry’s voice was the first part of the book to come to me, and it was much different from what it is now. Henry was creepier and scarier, possibly even evil. For a time I thought he might even be a serial killer. I worked with him for a long time–years, in fact. I tried to turn Henry into a book, but it just wasn’t working. I couldn’t sustain the voice of a brain-damaged born-again Christian multiple murderer for more than a few chapters without running into serious narrative problems.
One day, close to giving up, I decided to introduce a new character, that of Jeremy, Henry’s cousin. Jeremy emerged almost fully formed: a wounded veteran of Afghanistan who was very angry at the way his life had gone, but who couldn’t really blame anyone but himself, since he had volunteered to join the army.
Jeremy’s appearance marked the first glimmer of what was really bothering me then, in the darkest depths of the Bush presidency: not serial killers, but the fact that our nation was in the hands of people who didn’t seem to care who they destroyed in their quest to protect and promote their own neo-conservative agenda. What was worse, they had the best-equipped army in the history of the world at their disposal, and they were using the cover of religion and nationalism–God and country–to fool young men and women into doing their bidding.
I knew then that Jeremy was about to take over the book. But I didn’t want to make it a political story. Though I was staunchly anti-Republican, I couldn’t call myself pro-Democrat, either. (I’m really just opposed to stupidity and lies.) Besides, a book like that would just get ignored. People in America are afraid of having conversations about politics. I don’t know why, but they are. When we do discuss it, it’s angrily. This points to a deeper problem, which is that our American society has rarely been able to have a civil conversation about anything… but that’s a separate issue.
Here’s why I wrote THE HUNDRED HEARTS: because I believe that our young men and women are being lied to in order to get them to give their bodies and their lives in what they believe is the service of their country, but which is really just the service of the corporate oligarchy that is running the show.
This is not new. It’s been going on in America for a long time, and I am hardly the first one to point it out.
But it’s incredibly disheartening to see that so few people have learned this lesson. Back during the Vietnam war, there were protests all over the country on a regular basis. That’s because about fifty thousand young American men were killed in that war. It’s a staggering number, isn’t it? Fifty thousand is enough to be incomprehensible. And that’s only a fraction of those whose lives were damaged or destroyed but who came home anyway. We’ve experienced about one-tenth the casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I believe that’s the real reason people haven’t been more upset about it–because it just hasn’t touched their lives in a visible way.
As a novelist, it’s the invisible ways that interest me. I’ve always wondered how a man could go off to war, and, as I put it in the book, “see the unseeable, do the undoable, and later, try to forget the unforgettable.” I’m fascinated by life on the margins of stark boundaries: the edge between war and peace, between prison and freedom, between power and powerlessness.
And I learned something writing this book. I learned the answer to how soldiers come home. The answer is: they don’t. The young people you send off to war are never coming home. Even if they don’t get so much as a scratch on their bodies, such a big part of them is altered by what they must see and do that you might as well be getting a whole different person back.
So think about that next time you thank someone for serving their country. Serving in wartime is not completing some extended chore. They didn’t just take a time out from their lives. Their lives ended when they went away. The life they’re living now is something completely other, something they never could have predicted, and quite possibly something they wouldn’t wish on their worst enemy.
And I think it’s time we stopped lying to them about that before they make the irrevocable decision to go.