Charles Sheehan-Miles is the author of A Prayer at Rumayla and is our featured author. Below is the interview.
Prayer at Rumayla is your first novel. Tell us about the impetus for writing it.
I started work on the first draft about two weeks after the ground war ended in Iraq. To be honest, it was that, or blow my brains out. I was very disturbed not so much by the violence of the war as my emotional reaction to it. The first version was entirely autobiographical, nonfiction. It was terrible — primarily because by writing about myself, I found that the writing was very technical and distant. In 1993 I tossed out everything I’d written and started again from scratch, initially with a short 500 word story I’d written that captured Chet Brown’s voice. What Chet was able to do was act out the emotional turmoil I was stuck in, and do and say things that I would never have done.
How much of it is based on your own experiences and how much of it is fiction?
Virtually all of the combat sequences are directly from my own experience, with one major exception, a friendly fire incident when the company executive officer called in artillery on his own troops. Most of the rest is fiction—Chet’s coming home was symbolic both of how I felt and what many of my peers went through.
What are your views on the current war in Iraq?
My views are somewhat schizophrenic on the current war. Imagine if, in 1985, Ronald Reagan had announced that we were going back to Vietnam to get those damn communists. People would have gone insane. I felt the same way about invading Iraq — it was a mistake, a huge mistake. That said, I vividly recall the fate of the Iraqi people after we abandoned them in 1991. Our refusal to act in March 1991 resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths. As huge a mistake as the invasion was, I believe prematurely leaving Iraq now would be a much bigger mistake. For my part, I side with the tens of millions of Iraqis who got out there and voted in their elections, and who want to return to normal lives. Ceding the battlefield to religious extremists would be an absolute betrayal. I’ve written a little about my feelings on this, in an article I co-wrote with another Gulf War vet, titled “Abandonment of Iraq is Wrong”
How has the situation of veterans changed, if at all, in comparison to their situation after Desert Shield?
There is increasing recognition within the military that post-traumatic stress is a real problem, and in at least some commands, the Army and Marine Corps have been taking very proactive steps to help out folks who are having trouble. There are exceptions, however. A good example is Fort Carson, Colorado, which is currently subject to a series of federal and congressional investigations because soldiers who’ve come home with PTSD are being thrown out with bad-conduct discharges instead of getting the help they need.
Have things gotten worse for veterans as far as services are concerned?
Overall the VA is much better than it was 15 years ago. The flip side is that the demand is so much higher, with hundreds of thousands of new patients. Waiting lists to see a doctor are sometimes as long as six months.
If there is someone out there like Private Brown, reading this, what would you tell him—how would you advise him?
Get help. Talk to your family, your peers, and if you aren’t getting help through your chain of command, go visit a VA Vet Center, which will see active duty soldiers. But get help. Post traumatic stress can be life threatening. The best resource out there is the Vet Centers, because the counselors are almost all combat vets themselves.
How did you get into writing?
I started writing because of a love of reading. My first short stories, when I was in the fifth grade, were complete rip-offs of Marion Zimmer Bradley and Philip Jose Farmer. Later on in high school I wrote a thriller that involved all of my friends getting killed. Had I written it today I’m sure I’d be kicked out of school, but back then my English teacher actually edited the book for me. A second novel was about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict — based on the six months I spent there after high school and before the Army.
Did you take any courses in writing, and if so, where and what courses were they?
None, though I could use some serious work on my grammar.
What is your writing day like?
That’s the funniest question I’ve ever heard. Two kids, a job, ownership of a new and tiny publishing company, and volunteer work mean I squeeze the writing in whenever I can. Usually I get that time in by waking up very very early, and writing from around 5 to 6 am, before the kids get up for school.
Do you keep a journal?
Not anymore. I was once very introspective, and kept details journals with multiple entries per day. After the war I stopped writing in my journal, and now manage two or three entries per year.
How do you begin a story—with a concept of character or plot?
Both really. Prayer at Rumayla arose so much out of personal experience that it’s hard to describe its genesis, but I think the primary point was that very short story I wrote sitting in the coffee shop at Oxford Books in Atlanta back in ‘93. The new one—Republic—arose out of questions generated by Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City bombing. Later the concept crystalized around the idea of a modern day civil war, and what conditions could cause it to happen.
What challenges do you face as a writer?
Time and discipline and rewrites are the big challenges. The discipline and rewrites go together—writing a first draft is kind of like mainlining—it’s an experience of joy and ecstasy. The re-write is a slog, a terrible burden. For the new book I hired a professional editor who I’ve worked very closely with, and that’s made the process work a lot better. She had a lot of great ideas and really helped flesh out the work.
Do you have any books on writing craft that you use and love and would recommend to other writers or to people who want to start the journey of a writer's life?
Donald Maass and How to Write a Breakout Novel is probably the best—he really breaks down some of what makes a good read turn into a great one.
You have also written a new book, Republic. I have to say that the cover alone makes me want to grab it and read it. Please tell us something about it.
The question is this: If a government continues to tighten security, surveillance and the laws in response to terrorism, at what point have we actually given up our freedom? The story centers around a small town near Harpers Ferry where the main employer, a microchip manufacturer, has shut down and left everyone out of work, and takes place about ten years in our future. Republic envisions a future where our government has become so incredibly intrusive in people’s lives, compounded with massive debt and an economy that has collapsed. The result: spiraling, out of control violence that ends up in a shooting war in West Virginia. The settings: all over West Virginia, plus a lot in Washington, DC in the halls of Congress. The characters are all primarily tied together by one man, Lieutenant Colonel Ken Murphy, an Iraq War veteran who is now a battalion commander in the West Virginia national guard. Murphy finds himself faced with some tough questions—questions about his loyalty to his country versus his oath to defend the Constitution.