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The Long Walk

(photo by Joey Campagna)

A conversation with Buffalo author Brian Castner, whose Iraq war memoir comes out this month

Brian Castner grew up in Western New York, attended St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute, and graduated from Marquette University with a degree in electrical engineering. He served as an explosive ordnance disposal officer in the US Air Force from 1999 to 2007, deploying to Iraq to command bomb disposal units in Balad and Kirkuk in 2005 and 2006. After leaving the active military, he became a military contractor, training Army and Marine Corps units on tactical bomb-disposal procedures prior to their tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life That Follows

By Brian Castner

Doubleday, July 2012

On July 10, Doubleday is publishing his first book, a memoir, The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life That Follows. Jon Krakauer calls it “a raw, wrenching, blood-soaked chronicle of the human cost of war.” It is an unflinchingly honest and harrowing book. It captures both the terror and exhilaration of Castner’s work on the bomb squad as well as the war within, the frightening sense he brings home of being damaged, broken, of feeling crazy. Starting over cups of Tim Horton’s coffee and continuing via email, we discussed his experience as a soldier and a writer.

AV: A lot of soldiers go to Iraq and Afghanistan, and unfortunately a lot have trouble transitioning back home, but very few write books. Why did you decide to write?

Brian Castner: I wrote because I had to. It felt like a basic involuntary biological process, like eating or breathing or going to the bathroom. I had always wanted to write a book someday much like someday I’d like to visit the Great Wall in China. It was a desire on the horizon, but you don’t quit your job to write a book full-time unless you have a pressing need. And in my therapy and process of dealing with returning from Iraq, I had both muse and motivation. Initially, my notes helped me explore what was going on. Eventually, I realized I had a story that other people might want to read, and I cropped and cropped and cropped to make a coherent narrative.

On my two tours in Iraq I commanded an explosive ordnance disposal unit. EOD is the military’s bomb squad, and on good days we disarmed roadside bombs and blew up enemy weapons caches and hunted the bomb makers. On bad days we got to the incidents after the device had already detonated, so we could only count the bodies and investigate what had happened.

My war experience was not extraordinary. I didn’t get shot down in a helicopter or get rescued off some remote Afghan mountain after the rest of my squad died in an ambush. My experience was completely average, and it turns out average is horrific enough to become a different person out the other end.

AV: In Iraq you worked with explosives: You became an expert at taking deadly things apart. Were the kind of skills and temperament required for that job useful to you as a writer? Is writing a war memoir anything like investigating a blast hole?

Castner: On a post blast investigation you collect evidence much like a detective would, to piece back together what type of improvised explosive device was used, what triggering mechanism, what homemade explosive in what type of container. It is a very technical and exhaustive process, when you have the time to do a full investigation. That is, when you aren’t getting shot at. I didn’t approach writing my book like that, but I did initially approach my Crazy feeling like that. Something was happening to me physically that I didn’t understand. And despite my methodical attempts to figure out why I had an intolerable feeling in my chest that wouldn’t go away, I couldn’t solve the puzzle to put a name to it. Eventually logic lost, and I had to find another way.

I tried a lot of things. Running and yoga helped a lot. Writing helped too, and I guess my skills working with explosives applied there. I was a perfectionist. I outlined the book on a large sheet of butcher paper taped to my wall, and tracked themes in different colored markers, the way I used to plan which team would work which type of explosive incident. The guys used to make fun of me that I would always have multiple white boards in my office, completely filled with multi-colored notes. I suppose my book plan looked very similar.

AV: Once you outlined the book, did the writing come easily?

Castner: The writing came easily anyway, and I never seemed to be done outlining. Every day I wrote whatever bit inspired me at the time. I wrote the chapter about Kermit first, which ended up as chapter six. Then I wrote some of the beginning, skipped around, did the ending pretty early in the process, wrote each discrete section and then moved them. To my eyes my writing style changes, or matures maybe, so I can tell which parts I wrote early and which later, despite edits that smoothed a lot out. And there are parts of the book that were happening even while I was writing; the scene at my son’s hockey game actually occurred while I was three quarters done with the initial write. So no outline lasted long. That butcher paper is full of cross-outs, and eventually sticky notes over the cross-outs. I moved sections around until I felt like the flow was just right. The book may skip around in time and place, but there should be linkages at the front and back of each successive bit, and some clue to the reader, maybe only subconsciously, why the parts fit together like they do.

AV: You vividly describe what you felt like when you can home—“Crazy,” you say again and again, with a capital C. As a writer, was it difficult to communicate that feeling—the visceral experience of it, not just an intellectual understanding of it—without relying simply on labels like PTSD and TBI? How do you do it?

Castner: I felt like it was unacceptable for me to not be able to describe the Crazy feeling. If I wanted to be a writer, and write a good book, and have the reader feel what I felt, then simply labeling it was unsatisfactory. I also wanted to not rely on clichés like “words can’t describe,” as they let the writer off the hook. It’s your job to describe. So I tried a mix of adjectives and vignettes and hopefully the accumulation of them works. I did feel like I kept using the same palette of words, but I definitely tried to avoid PTSD and TBI, as I didn’t necessarily know if I had those specifically. They are medical diagnoses, after all. I also swore to never use two other words, the reason for which may be obvious after reading the book: anxiety and ghost.

Using the word “Crazy” eventually felt right for a number of reasons. I didn’t have a name for my feeling—it wasn’t nausea or pain or worry or stress—so “Crazy” worked. No veteran wants to turn into a walking stereotype, the homeless guy who drinks and keeps getting flashbacks of some long ago mortar attack, and sometimes I did feel like I was just another crazy vet with a blown up brain.

But as a writer, the word Crazy worked too on a couple levels. Capitalizing it anthropomorphizes it in some way, so it becomes something separate from me, which is often how it genuinely felt. Plus, Crazy alludes to what most civilians say offhandedly about people who work with explosives: “you must be crazy to do that.”

AV: Your treatment occurred at our local VA Hospital. Tell me about Buffalo as a character in this book.

Castner: Because the war never feels far away, I blend setting fairly liberally. Seeing something in Buffalo spurs a memory of Iraq and the two blend together, so the narrative doesn’t stay long enough in one place for it to really soak in. But local readers will recognize many of the landmarks, the VA hospital on Bailey Avenue certainly, the hockey arena briefly. I live near the Niagara River, and much of the book was written in my head while on my daily runs along the water, so it appears regularly, if not always by name. In fact, now as I think about it, river imagery appears several times throughout the book, especially while doing yoga. Running along the Niagara may inadvertently be a reason why.

AV: The book documents some horrifying scenes of dismemberment, people being torn apart, severed arms and legs, scattered body parts. Is there any sense in which writing this book was an act of re-membering, the opposite of dismembering: putting the pieces of yourself back together?

Castner: It would be symbolically convenient if that were true, but if so, I don’t feel it. I feel like the old me is gone, and no amount of piecing back together will fix that. Instead, it’s more about coming to terms with the new me that exists, and isn’t going away. I cry every day, about something—my kids, a song, a memory. I didn’t used to do that. I’m not sure I’m ever going to stop.

If this book has done something to my memory, it’s been to give me the space to forget. I was holding on to a lot of war memories I’d rather lose, and I had lost a lot of family memories I wish I had kept. Writing down everything that has happened has given me permission to let go. I don’t need to remember the operation where we found the foot in the box. If I want to remember it, I can just read the book. I can breathe a little now, though it all still comes back on its own at odd times.

AV: Near the end of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, his own brilliant narrative of war, he writes: “But this too is true. Stories can save us.” Do you agree with him?

Castner: Ah, you caught me with one of the very few things in his book I disagree with. Who is getting saved? What does “saved” even look like? “Saved” to me implies that you are now out of danger. But you’re never out of danger. You can get killed any time. That’s one of those bites from the apple that war teaches you.

Stories are definitely important to the soldier. Larry Heinemann begins his excellent Paco’s Story with a diatribe that what is to follow is definitely no war story. Then he tells a war story for 200 pages. I most agree with Tim O’Brien’s description of stories from an early part of the book, where he says a true war story is never moral, or instructs or encourages virtue, but rather adheres completely to obscenity and evil. Most importantly, it’s not the facts of the war story that have to be true, but rather the feeling. If I may be so bold as to compare our two works, that is where I think his and mine are closest.

AV: The Long Walk strikes me in part as an affirmation of solidarity and friendship, brotherhood, really, among you and your fellow teams members. You lost several of them. What do your surviving brothers and sisters think of your writing this book?

Castner: They have been, to a man and woman, universally supportive, proud, and happy for me. And thank God for that, because if they weren’t, I couldn’t take it. If they had felt like I had done something wrong in publishing this, that I had taken advantage in some way, my first inclination would be to hunt down every last copy of the book and shred it, save for a single one to put on my own shelf for my children.

AV: You told me earlier that your memoir is not a feel-good story. How would you like a reader to feel after reading the book?

Castner: I’d like the reader to feel like they have been in my head for a short period of time. That will likely be unpleasant, and they’ll likely be grateful that they can get off the bus and go home. My default when writing the book was always to make sure it felt right. It had to feel like going to war and coming home above all else. So if mixing up the chronology and logic of the narrative made it feel right, then that’s what I did. If you feel trapped and claustrophobic while reading it, and thus perhaps gain a new appreciation for the average veteran that seems perfectly fine on the outside, then I did something right.

AV: I hope you are enjoying the tremendous critical acclaim and national attention the book is earning. Once things calm down, do you think you’ll write another book? If so, any idea what kind of book, what it would be about?

Castner: I’m about 10,000 words into a next book now, but as you know, a lot can change when you’ve barely begun. I’d like to call myself a writer now. The initial success of this book so far has given me an incredible opportunity to try again. We sold the book last September, and by January I felt itchy to put new words on paper. So I’ve started another nonfiction book that is related but definitely distinct, and not about me—I’m not so interesting as to write another memoir. But eventually I’d like to get to fiction, because I’m starting to sense there are some truths that can be best explored, maybe only explored, by shedding those pesky constraints of reality.

Mick Cochrane is Lowery Writer-in-Residence at Canisius College. His most recent novel, Fitz, will be published by Knopf in November.

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