Author Q&A: Jesse Goolsby

Interview by Kelsey Satalino

Jesse Goolsby is an Air Force officer and the author of the novel I’d Walk with My Friends If I Could Find Them (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). His fiction and essays have appeared widely, to include Narrative Magazine, Epoch, The Literary Review, Salon, Alaska Quarterly Review, The Greensboro Review, and Redivider. He is the recipient of the Richard Bausch Fiction Prize, the John Gardner Memorial Award in Fiction, and fellowships from Sewanee and the Hambidge Center for Creative Arts and Sciences. His work has been listed as notable in both Best American Essays and Best American Short Stories, and selected for Best American Mystery Stories. He serves as a genre editor for the literary journals War, Literature & the Arts and The Southeast Review.

Goolsby holds an English degree from the United States Air Force Academy and a Masters degree in English and Creative Writing from the University of Tennessee. He is currently pursuing his PhD from Florida State University. He was raised in Chester, California, and now lives in Tallahassee, Florida.

Kelsey Satalino: Your novel, I’d Walk With My Friends If I Could Find Them, tells the story of three veterans of the war in Afghanistan, but the narrative extends far beyond these men’s experiences in Afghanistan; in fact, the majority of the action takes place in the United States before or after their service. You also devote significant time to exploring the impact of these men’s military service on their families and friends in their day-to-day lives. Wintric’s wife, Kristin, has an entire chapter to herself, as does Torres’ daughter, Mia. Why did you choose to structure your story this way?

Jesse Goolsby: I was interested in investigating the yearning for human connection in these characters, not just as soldiers, but first and always, as human beings—to give credence to their individuality. In order to do justice to the full range of their lives I knew that the family and friends of our protagonists could not live on the page as tangential characters, not when their own lives were as rich and compelling.

Like all art, fiction is largely about selection, and as I followed the desire for connection and repose in these characters it felt organic to also focus in on individual family members and friends, to acknowledge their perspectives, dreams, and fears. The result, I hope, is a novel that spans multiple sensibilities, in effect, providing a variety of narratives where the connective tissue is human longing rather than an explicit structural framework.

That is a rather wordy way of saying that I followed what seemed to me an organic structure of connections rather than forcing a more traditional focus on only the “main” characters.

I also think the best writing treats readers as smart and perceptive. The structure of I’d Walk with My Friends If I Could Find Them is one that avoids chapter transitions; instead, it zeros in on moments of intensity, as you note, through a variety of characters-perspectives. This was a choice, I hope, that rewards readers willing to tap into the yearning of each character.

Human lives are not puzzles, full of pieces that fit together logically. So a novel investigating human lives does disservice to the complexity and fluidity of desire and longing if it fits together seamlessly. I don’t love a particular work of art because it makes sense. I love the best art because it confounds and illuminates us in surprising, slanted ways.

Some of the chapters from your book (“Be Polite but Have a Plan to Kill Everyone You Meet,” “Top of the World,” “Metatarsal,” etc.) were previously published as short stories. What led you to weave these individual shorter pieces together into a new narrative?

All along I knew that I was writing stories-chapters with clear connections, and that I was working on a book, but I decided to try to publish some selections as stand alone stories for two reasons. First, I found it helped me ground each chapter in immediate and clear stakes because of the pragmatic page-limiting submission guidelines for journals and magazines. For this book I was most interested in scenes of intensity and deep desire. Framing the stories-chapters in this context helped me be ruthless with initial edits, and I enjoyed the challenge of distillation. The chapters that were published as stories first did undergo some massive editing as they turned into the final chapters of the novel. But that initial focus, for several of the chapters at least, was very helpful. Second, in all honesty, I needed some positive feedback early on. Like almost every writer I sat in front on my computer for hours and hours with doubt and consternation. At the beginning stages of my writing I’m not sure I was able to convince myself that I was constructing a novel, or, even, that I was a writer. In many ways, it seemed too daunting. But as the stories-chapters were accepted into literary journals, my confidence received a needed boost to continue to write and to complete the novel. Looking back on it now, I guess I was pretty fragile early on and I was searching for some initial validation of the quality of my work.

What is the best writing advice you have received?

A trio:

(1) Every character is fallible, and nobody ever says exactly what they mean.

(2) Every character is fallible, and nobody ever listens well.

(3) When you think a piece is finished, put it in a drawer—don’t look at it, try not to think about it— for a week, minimum. Then, reread. You’ll know if it’s ready. Wait to submit until it is.

In previous interviews, you’ve mentioned that your novel is, among other things, an investigation of the term “veteran”—what that word means for different individuals and how Americans treat (and sometimes fetishize the suffering of) veterans. Can you expand on this idea?

The binaries our society has placed on service members and veterans are absurd, including simplistic labels such as “healthy” vs. “damaged” or “hero” vs. “traitor” that do little to acknowledge each unique and complex individual. Literature, and the novel in particular, has the space and power to take the long view of specific lives. This is one of the best things about art: investigating unique and varied human experiences. Binaries are absent in great art, because binaries have nothing to do with consciousness, choice, or memory.

In my novel, it felt appropriate to follow these characters for decades, before, during, and after conflict. It was the only way to present them as real human beings that project the incredible diversity of experience that each of us encounter during our lives. For these men and their families war is one of those experiences—and make no mistake, it is traumatic—but there are also thousands of other domestic experiences that make up a life, positive and difficult. I wanted to get as far away from simple explanations and binary thinking as possible.

Your book explores the varied reasons people choose to serve in the military. What were some of the influences in your personal life that led you to serve as an Air Force officer?

Jesse Goolsby

Author Jesse Goolsby

Two things initially led me to the US Air Force Academy. First, my family wouldn’t be burdened with tuition. Second, the opportunity to play Division 1 basketball. I am not from a military family, and I had no clue that the service academies were generally seen as prestigious institutions. I was seventeen and I was interested in leaving my small, rural town, and trying to extend my basketball-playing days. It sounds ridiculous now, to go to a service academy mainly because of athletics, but that was what guided me there. What kept me there were the people, the friends, and an environment that legitimately rewarded service, honor, and integrity. They weren’t just buzz words, and I loved that—I still do. The place wasn’t perfect; there were certainly a few bad apples like anywhere, but overall, the quality of people was incredible, and I loved the balance of challenges and opportunities the academy put in front of me. I wouldn’t have made it through without the support of my friends, and that shared experience created lifelong bonds, more family than friends. The same is true of my active-duty service. Those same people that were there for me during the academy have continued to be there for my family and me.

My career has taken many twists and turns as an aircraft maintenance officer, educator, and writer. One of the dream opportunities to come along has been the joy of returning to the US Air Force Academy as a professor of English and Fine Arts. To me, it’s a sacred charge. There has been nothing in my professional life as rewarding as challenging future officers with great literature, requiring them to investigate the range of their individual morality, beliefs, and aesthetic joy, and to absorb-consider-react to art like The Illiad, Antigone, Othello, Catch-22, A Raisin in the Sun, Dispatches, Beloved, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, etc.

You clearly find a lot of meaning in teaching at the Air Force Academy and challenging others to absorb and respond to literary works. What writers/artists have influenced your own writing the most?

Early in my undergraduate experience at the USAF Academy I read Alice Munro’s The Progress of Love, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, Tobias Wolff’s The Night in Question, and Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian one after the other. Talk about luck! I was immediately hooked, quickly changed my major to English, and began writing in earnest. I’ll never forget the feeling, an emotional levitation, while reading those books for the first time.

More recently, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, Richard Powers’s The Echo Maker, Robert Olen Butler’s From Where You Dream and Severance, and B.H. Fairchild’s The Art and the Lathe have been works that continue to reach out to me because each possesses a wild originality that leaves me floored. And when I say “floored” I mean they make me question everything.

Other influences, at random: Picasso’s Guernica, Office Space, Mozart’s Great Mass in C Minor, my mother’s death, Michael Jordan against the Portland Trailblazers in the 1992 NBA Finals, Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire, Deftones’s Koi No Yokan, the Great Basin, James Baldwin’s essays, Three Kings, Whitney Houston’s Whitney Houston, “Federer as Religious Experience” by David Foster Wallace, sex, Rembrandt’s The Night Watch, my children’s questions, “Helping” by Robert Stone, Vladimir Horowitz.

This summer you’ve traveled all over the United States, giving readings from your new book. Can you share any of your favorite moments from these readings? Perhaps an interesting experience or something memorable a fan said to you?

Interesting: In Boston a woman stood up during Q&A and self identified as a pacifist. She said I seemed like a nice young man and would I please let her know why President Obama hadn’t responded to her letter about ending all wars forever. She asked this wish such a sincere earnestness that it broke my heart. She obviously thought I was higher up in rank or importance than I am, or perhaps she didn’t care about that at all and just wanted someone, anyone, to respond to what seemed like an open-hearted query. I answered the only way I could, honestly, and said I wasn’t privy to the President’s communications, but that I agreed with her underlining desire to end all wars, that, in fact, a world without war sounded like paradise.

Rewarding: In Tampa a woman came up to me after a reading and said, through tears, that she worked at a local VA hospital, and that she was very thankful that I was talking about veterans not as a uniform group, but as individuals with specific hopes and fears and strengths. She gave me a hug and she didn’t let go for a long time.

Lighthearted: At one reading, just as I launched into a particularly intense scene with many expletives, a young boy, maybe 4 years old, ran up to the back of the crowd where I was reading. I glanced around for his parents while continuing to read, but the boy was just standing there, looking at me. My mind melted in the moment. Do I stop reading? Break scene? Laugh? Call out for his parents? Skip the bad words? I couldn’t scar this boy, but I’d already started this scene and the audience seemed to be into it, so I decided on the fly to just skip the expletives, so I rocked on, but every time I got to an expletive I paused, oddly, inadvertently, and no one seemed to know why the passage was choppy, or why the characters would avoid saying “shit” or “fuck” when those words were so clearly appropriate for the situation. And, of course, just as I finished the passage, the boy took off, so when I mentioned that I skipped the expletives because of a boy standing there, everyone turned around to see nothing.

What’s next for you? What are you working on right now?

A novel, tentatively titled Derrin of the North. It’s scheduled to come out in 2017 with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Kelsey Satalino is an M.A. student in Literature at Florida State University, where she teaches Composition and reads for The Southeast Review. Her own writing has been published in The Sigma Tau Delta Review.