Author Brian Castner talks writing and warfare
Brian Castner and his book, All the Ways We Kill and Die: An Elegy for a Fallen Comrade and the Hunt for His Killer
photo by kc kratt
In his first book, The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life That Follows, local author Brian Castner delivered a visceral, moving account of his time as an officer in an Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) unit in Iraq and the trauma that followed him home to his wife and children. The memoir was reviewed by respected publications across the country and was translated to the stage as an opera by American Lyric Theater. (After having its world premiere in Saratoga last summer, Utah Opera will perform the show during its 2016–17 season.)
By the time The Long Walk hit shelves, Castner was at work on his second book, a nonfiction thriller in which he grapples with and investigates the death of his fellow EOD technician Matt Schwartz. Who designed the roadside bomb that killed him, Castner asks. Who is the engineer? Through interviews with EOD guys, an intelligence analyst, biometrics engineer, contractor, and pilot, Castner describes how modern warfare is fought—on both sides.
All the Ways We Kill and Die: An Elegy for a Fallen Comrade and the Hunt for His Killer will be released this month by Arcade Publishing. Castner and I sat down for breakfast at Lake Effect Diner in late December.
How did you come to be a writer?
It was maybe not exactly by accident, but it wasn’t the plan either. I was a bomb technician for eight years, and I loved it. The war was tough, and it was tough on my family, so I got out in ’07 and moved to Buffalo. But really, Buffalo was just my bedroom community because I was a consultant and a contractor and was then teaching all of that EOD stuff on the road thirty weeks a year. That was also very hard on my family, and there came a crisis moment when my wife said, “This just isn’t working.” And it wasn’t working at exactly the moment I was having a lot of struggles coming home from the war—posttraumatic stress, grief, anxiety, and all those things that combined into a feeling I called “the crazy” feeling because I didn’t have another word for it.
I needed a story of what happened to me, and somebody hadn’t written that yet. I don’t think the war made me a writer, but it gave me something to write about, something worth writing about. And, so I did, I quit consulting and explained this crazy feeling to myself. I was not a professional writer; I was desperately trying to get a story out, but I was also conscious that I wanted to do the best job I could and make it something worth reading. That became The Long Walk, and one thing led to another.
Did the positive response for your first book put any pressure on you for the second?
The pressure was self-imposed. You go to New York City and everybody’s writing a book, so the trick is writing two. Business-wise, once you write a book, you have a track record. Publishers love debuts and they love eighth books from established authors, but in between is the challenge. There was a learning curve. I wanted to write another book and sophomore slump and all of that was on my mind. The pressure I put on myself was not to sell as many books or land with a particular publisher; it was to write a second book that was worth reading, that readers would still want.
How did you come to this idea for your second book? Were you already trying to work through these issues with your friend’s death?
I started writing this book even before The Long Walk was published because he died in January 2012, and I started writing it the next month. Partly, I was in the habit of: things happen to me, I write them down, and then other people want to read them. But, I didn’t want to write another memoir. I wanted to tell other people’s stories. I wrote lots of first-person stuff that didn’t make the final book—I had to write through it to get to a more journalistic treatment, a more objective nonfiction treatment than constantly inserting myself in the scene. Obviously, I still do that a little, but I like to think I do it for good reasons, in specific places to provide the reader perspective.
Of course—you have a window into the people and issues in your book that your readers don’t.
Right, and I’ve tried to write from the perspective of some of these people and in their voices. I like to think the contractor section sounds like him, and the biometrics engineer sounds like her. That was one of my goals. There has been a rise in nonfiction like this—narrative, literary, creative nonfiction. I wouldn’t describe myself as a journalist—this isn’t straight-ahead journalism. It’s nonfiction, but it’s trying to write from the perspective of another human being.
Those were the sections I enjoyed most—the ones that put the reader right in the cockpit or the command center. What kind of research went into creating those scenes?
I would spend a couple days [with interview subjects.] We’d talk, some on tape and some not. But, I was always trying to balance that with reading everything I could, to put their experiences in some context of what else was happening in that part of Afghanistan at the time. There have been a lot of nonfiction histories of this, so it wasn’t purely one [type of research].
It was interesting that only one subject asked you, “Do we ever find this guy in the end?”
I think it says something about the nature of the war, which is that it’s everybody’s job, but everybody only sees a little snippet of it. That’s one of the challenges of staying motivated in this war—it’s hard to ever see your own success. You’re constantly paying everything forward. It’s like Sarah Soliman, the biometrics engineer [in the book], who says, “You just have to trust that if you take a fingerprint today, somebody else will use it five years from now.”
With this book, did you feel a different responsibility in telling other people’s stories, particularly with Matt’s widow and children?
Yes. I felt that in The Long Walk because obviously I have friends in there too, but I felt that times ten here. At this point, with the book coming out in two months, that’s the main source of stress.
Have they read it yet?
Pieces of it, for fact-checking reasons. I’m sure the facts are right at this point; my worry is that they read the whole thing in sum and say, “Well, this doesn’t feel right.” That was always my goal with The Long Walk too, to get the feeling right. I was super conscious of the fact that Matt’s girls, when they’re adults, are going to read this book for the history of what happened to their dad. That’s a tremendous responsibility.
You even put your readers into scenes with the engineer himself. Why did you decide to do that? How factual are those scenes?
It’s a worthwhile question. Those are the most well-researched scenes. Just about every sentence could have a footnote of where I pulled that. The engineer is the glue that holds the book together—he’s what everybody is chasing—and it was important for me to not just have him be opaque. Part of the point of the book is to investigate who this is and not make him a faceless bad guy.
You lose something when you say, “All those guys are crazy.” Well, they’re not crazy—they’re motivated and smart and doing what they’re doing for specific reasons, and they’re also human beings with loves and hatreds and fights, and they’re not all perfect evil geniuses. I wanted to illuminate and humanize some of that. On a practical level, I don’t think we ever “win” unless you do understand the other side. It can’t always be this other. You need to eventually get to understand why and how.
Is that the goal of this book, to understand the why and how for both sides? To understand our military tactics as well?
This book is really about the process—how do we find this guy, how do we fight the war, how does this guy find us, and why does he target us and how? Like I said in the beginning of the book, I felt like I could honor my friend in some way by understanding as much as possible about how he died. It’s not that I’m trying to find brotherhood or common cause with the guy who killed him—I’m pissed Matt’s dead, but I want to know more. I wanted to do more than just be angry at some faceless other, and dive deeper into it.
Matthew Biddle is a regular Spree contributor.