Magazine article WLA ; War, Literature and the Arts

A Group Conversation with Veteran Artists David Abrams, Jerri Bell, Brian Castner, and Colin Halloran

Magazine article WLA ; War, Literature and the Arts

A Group Conversation with Veteran Artists David Abrams, Jerri Bell, Brian Castner, and Colin Halloran

Article excerpt

This conversation with veteran artists is one of a series of three group interviews conducted over the spring of 2016. Importantly, the discussion below showcases varied and distinguished voices and their views on such essential topics as artistic inspiration, the state of contemporary war literature, the beginning and maturation of individual creativity, and art as a possible bridge for the military-civilian divide. The other group veteran artist conversations appear in The Iowa Review and Consequence Magazine.


David Abrams is the author of Fobbit (Grove/Atlantic) and a contributor to the anthologies Fire and Forget, Home of the Brave, and Watchlist. His stories have appeared in Esquire, Glimmer Train, Consequence, The Greensboro Review, and several other places. He lives in Butte, Montana where he runs the literary blog The Quivering Pen.

Jerri Bell is the Managing Editor for O-Dark-Thirty, the literary journal of the Veterans Writing Project. She retired from the Navy in 2008; her assignments included antisubmarine warfare in the Azores Islands, sea duty on USS Mount Whitney and HMS Sheffield, and attaché duty at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, Russia. She has published both short fiction and nonfiction, and she and Tracy Crow have a book of military-themed nonfiction forthcoming from University of Nebraska Press/Potomac Books.

Brian Castner is a nonfiction writer, former Explosive Ordnance Disposal officer, and veteran of the Iraq War. He is the author of the new book All the Ways We Kill and Die, and the war memoir The Long Walk, which was adapted into an opera and named an Amazon Best Book for 2012. His writing has appeared at The New York Times, Wired, Outside, and on National Public Radio. In 2014, he received a grant from the Pulitzer Center to cover the Ebola outbreak in Liberia, filing stories for Foreign Policy, VICE, and The Los Angeles Review of Books.

Colin Halloran is author of two poetry collections, 2012's Shortly Thereafter and 2015's Icarian Flux.

Please tell us about your entry into writing and the arts. How and when did the initial impulse arrive to explore war through your work?

ABRAMS: There are two answers to this question: 1. when I first started writing, and 2. when I first started writing about war. The former happened when I was about five years old and I wrote my first book-a crayon-and-construction-paper affair called "The Tick-Tock Clock." This was right around the time I learned to read and, after three years of having bedtime stories read to me by my mother, I was empowered by the independence of decoding letters and words on my own. Actually making sense of sentences and associating them with the pictures on the pages of those early-reader storybooks brought up feelings of joy and self-confidence and marvel and awe at the many possibilities I saw branching out before me. Because readers all so numb to the mystery of literacy by now, I don't think any of us can precisely recall how big of a life-changing moment that was for us when we were three, four, five, or six years old and we first made sense of language. Apart from losing our virginity or suffering the grief of a loved one's death, learning to read might be the most significant life-changing moment we'll ever experience.

My origins as a "war writer" probably began on my first day of Army basic training in 1988 at Fort Knox, Kentucky. This was another significant life-shock moment, one that rewired my brain to start thinking in different ways. You have to understand, up to that point, I had zero (maybe even sub-zero) interest in the military, so all of this was a brand-new, confusing, scary world to me. When, as a writer, I'm plunged into a shocking environment like that, I think my imagination kicks in. All of my senses dilate, all the pores open, and I start taking everything in to be stored for later use. That's how it was for me in basic training, at each duty assignment (Georgia, Texas, Alaska) and especially when I went to war in Iraq in 2005. …

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