Interview with Matt Gallagher ’13, Author of Youngblood

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21-Mar-16
Matt Gallagher’s ’13 debut novel, Youngblood, has been published to great acclaim by Simon and Schuster. This is Gallagher’s second book; after serving as a U.S. Army captain in the Iraq war, he chronicled his experiences there on a popular blog that was published in 2010 as Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War (Da Capo Press).

Youngblood, which follows a young lieutenant as he joins the war effort in Iraq just as the U.S. military prepares to withdraw, was called “urgent and deeply moving” in a rave review by the New York Times’s Michiko Kakutani, and has earned comparisons to Tim O’Brien’s pivotal Vietnam War novel The Things They Carried. O’Brien himself wrote: "Youngblood is not only a 'war novel,' it is a rich, fully formed, and beautifully executed novel-novel, way beyond the chicken coops of genre, a novel about the human heart in contest with itself, a novel about memory and longing and grief and hope and guilt and late-night ironies that raise a chuckle to the lips of the dead.”
    
Congratulations on publishing your novel, Youngblood. While serving in Iraq, you wrote Kaboom, a book detailing your experiences as a U.S. Army officer. As a poetry student, I've found that the Columbia MFA program provides an especially deep level of immersion in literature due to the amount of reading and discussion for seminars and lectures, in addition to the critiques of student work in workshops. I'm wondering if you can speak to what your literary immersion was like at Columbia and how it impacted your work moving forward.  
Thank you for the congratulations. Literary immersion is a great term for the Columbia MFA experience. I'd decided to apply to the program because I wanted to make the transition to fiction writing, and knew that I needed to improve at it. As a classroom learner, the MFA route seemed natural enough. Once I got to campus, Columbia was the first place I'd been in a decade or so where my experiences weren't a shared cultural one—in many cases, I was the first military veteran some of my classmates had ever met, let alone read the work of. And many of their perspectives and worldviews were new to me too. The multitude of those perspectives and worldviews had such an impact on my writing, in ways I'm still figuring out, I think. It shook me out of my own skull and background and got me to critique the work I was producing from a variety of vantage points. All credit to my professors and classmates for that, and I hope I helped do something similar for their writing.
Columbia was also the first place I'd been since undergrad where I could just focus on learning about writing for the sake of the craft itself. So many professors and texts have stayed with me since—Richard Ford's seminar and the Henry James prefaces, Benjamin Taylor's lecture and the novellas of Katherine Anne Porter, Lis Harris's war literature seminar, where I finally read John Hersey's Hiroshima in its entirety, John Freeman's seminar and Naguib Mahfouz's vast Cairo Trilogy—those are just several examples. And of course I owe much to Victor LaValle's novel workshop. He cleared away all the smoke and noise to show us there's an inherent logic and structure to all novels, even the most experimental of ones.
You work as a writing instructor for Words After War, a program that aims to build a supportive creative community for veterans, their families and civilian supporters. It can be incredibly pleasurable and constructive for writers to involve themselves in multiple communities, just as it can be pleasurable and constructive to withdraw. What has it been like to participate in Words After War following your time as a student at the Columbia Writing Program? Any specific lessons that you're applying to your work as an instructor?
It's an old and obvious truth that teaching material forces one to be much more exact and precise with the lessons being presented; that's certainly been my experience with the Words After War workshops. There's no doubt that our workshop model for the organization—open to civilians and veterans alike, with a craft focus on war and conflict literature—was influenced by my time at Columbia. Veterans-only workshops have their place and purpose, but I'd learned that my own war writing benefitted most from readers and writers who may not have served, may not have been in Iraq, but wanted to be transported there when they read about it. That duty, that onus, is on the writer, and if a reader felt that they hadn't connected to that story or world after trying to, that was because the writing needed to improve.
As for a specific lesson that I now apply: Every semester, I have students bring in a first page from a published work they adore. They read the page aloud and then explain to the class why they selected it. This serves as an ideal introduction for both the individuals and for the collective, and it's a teaching trick I took from David Ebershoff's workshop at Columbia.
Somewhat related to the last question: I'm wondering what it has been like for you to have begun your writing life (I assume) as a civilian, then to write your first book as an active soldier immersed in war, then continue your process as an MFA student and now as a successful novelist and essayist. Those transitions sound interesting.
We all wear different labels and identities as we pass through life—mine just included "soldier" for a few years. I'm proud of my service, though the war I served in turned out far differently than I'd hoped for and worked toward, both before and during that service. Still, while it was a part of my life and always will be, it's something I don't consider central to who I am as a human being on this planet.
Writing's different in that regard. It has always been a part of me, even well before I gained the confidence to self-identify as a writer. It was a way I made sense of the world and my small place in it. It was a way to learn about, and empathize with, people and stories and experiences far different than my own. Literature is a great unifier in that way. I wrote before, during and after the Army not because I needed to, but because I had to. The mere act of organizing thoughts and putting them on (digital) paper was and is as natural as breathing air. That's how it is for most writers I admire, I've found.
Any other reflections on your time as a Columbia student?
The diversity and range of the Columbia writing program was inspiring, and something I recall with fondness. That diversity and range is reflected in the course offerings, so I'd encourage current students to take a chance on classes they think will take them out of their comfort zones. That's the entire point of the MFA, I think, or at least one of them—to be challenged and pressed, and then to challenge and press right back, as writers, as readers and as thinkers.

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