Thursday, June 5, 2014
AUTHOR INTERVIEW: Chris Shugrue
1. When/why did you decide to become a writer?
Wow, umm . . . I don’t think I ever made a conscious decision to be a writer. I just am. I’ve been doing it since I knew how, like the need to get black on white was in the blood at birth, was already tangled in my soul, and I just had to wait and grow and gather the tools needed to do something I was already meant to do.
2. What authors inspired you when you were younger? What books do you enjoy reading today?
Depends on which version of my younger self you wanna talk to. When I was really young, I remember the Hardy Boys books having something of a profound effect on me. When I was in middle school, one of my teachers read us The Hobbit, and that was it for me. I devoured everything Tolkien. It was probably then that I discovered the power of writing, the idea of all you could actually do by thoughtfully stringing words together into sentences. Since then, though, my inspirations have run the gamut: Whitman and Ginsberg; Hemingway; Tim O’Brien; Greek Myth; biblical cycle plays; Kerouac; Robert Hunter; Bob Dylan; Ken Kesey; Homer; and on and on and on . . .
3. What was the inspiration behind your novella Straw Writes?
A walk on a beautiful day under trees and sun and blue skies. I was cartographer for a day and was trying to draw a map, a tracing of where my writing was headed at the time. This walk conjured up a character I’d written about a couple of years before. This is exactly how I met Straw, except I didn’t start out by developing the character; I just sat down one day to write a different story and instead, I started writing about a guy named Jack, and I thought he was an Iraq War vet back in the States, and he was on a mountain searching for something . . . so I wrote his end and let the story sit somewhere in the dark, in a drawer maybe, or a closet, somewhere in the deep recesses of mind, and I moved on. But then I went on that walk and produced a map revealing the vertices, the vectors, the central vortex in the writing I wanted to embark on, and there was Jack again: I saw him standing on that mountain, and then he wasn’t on the mountain; he was running though scraper canyons from ghosts, and he was made of straw, and he was losing his mind. He’d left the physical desert war behind forever only to fight a new war: one against madness; one against his own betraying mind; one against ghosts that haunt. So, yeah, Jack was Straw and the journey began. In effect, I wrote Straw’s ending before I even knew who he was.
4. What do you want readers to take from the story?
We are all ghosts in search of words make us whole.
5. Will you write more about war and its after effects?
I’m already writing more about war as I continue to write Straw’s story. Straw Writes is just a piece of Straw’s story, and I‘ve already written some of his beginning, a little bit of his end. He escapes the ghosts of war in New York City in attempt to find his way home, only to be confronted by new ghosts, only to experience new fits and levels of madness before his tale is completely sung. So I like to think the story begins in media res, in the middle, if you will, with the sequences in Straw Writes. Now that I think about it, I guess the structure was unconsciously inspired by Homer and The Iliad. Funny how that happens. That epic poem begins in the middle of things, as does Straw Writes.
But anyway, I digress. I will write more about war and its effects. I feel it’s an important topic to consider, to bring to the light.
6. Do you have any plans to write a book of poetry one day?
For sure. I was writing poetry well before I started writing prose, so a book of poetry is certainly in the works.
7. Why choose war? What is it about that theme that made you say, "That's what my debut will be about"?
It couldn’t be helped. Once Straw made himself known to me, I had no choice but to write these stories. The more I think about this, I am attempting to reconcile my own war ghosts. My grandfather—who serves as the basis for the ghost of Straw’s grandfather—served in WWII, Korea, and Vietnam. In WWII, my grandfather piloted one of the amphibious troop carriers used to land soldiers at Normandy. Thinking back on his tales of that fateful day, I am still stunned by the horror in his voice, the anguish in his face, when he used to recount this story: a story of watching young men being mowed down like wheat before the scythe when he dropped the doors to eject the soldiers into the surf. Or his stories of piloting a river boat along the jungled waterways of Vietnam, of rounding a bend in the river, only to come face-to-face with a boat piloted by the Viet Cong and the close quarters fire fight that ensued. I’ll never forget the end of that story, of how after incapacitating the “enemy” vessel and drawing up alongside it, my grandfather was faced with his wounded counterpart upon the deck. Even though they could not speak each others’ languages, my grandfather could tell by the man’s face, the injured Vietnamese boat captain was pleading for mercy. I remember clearly asking—even though at the time I was unsure if I really wanted to know the answer—what my grandfather did at that moment. He said he did what he was trained to do: he pulled the pin, dropped a grenade in the man’s lap, and continued piloting the boat up the river. Maybe I’m trying to reconcile the regret of a father who to this day, despite the controversy and devastation of Vietnam, never served in that war and has always felt the sting of shame because of it, and maybe his shame is my shame too for a major reason he was able to avoid that war was because he had two young boys.
Maybe I’m trying to reconcile the ghosts of my own military past.
8. I know Whitman and Ginsberg are favorites of many war vets, but what, in particular, made you chose them?
Because those two ghosts have been haunting me for a while, so I decided to collaborate with them.
My use of Allen and Walt as the main ghosts goes way beyond that though. They have been chosen to judge Straw for his war crimes, because they both saw the effects of war on American society—by two wars it could be argued that had the most lasting effect on the American consciousness, the American psyche. Both the American Civil War and the Vietnam War have contributed significantly to a vast cultural haunting. Whitman in particular was able to view directly the grimness of war when he served as nurse in a Civil War hospital and both his writing and his views on the great American experiment were changed profoundly. Ginsberg also saw directly how the Vietnam War almost destroyed a nation; he also saw the effects the war had on the psyche of Americans. Obviously, Ginsberg’s writing was not only affected by the war but the general malaise percolating through American society at the time.
9. Where do you see yourself and your career in the next ten years?
Still writing, maybe teaching, while working hard to be both a good father and a good husband.
10. What author (dead or alive) would you like to collaborate with?
Elyse Brownell. She’s my favorite writer right now, and our styles really complement each other. I’m biased though.
11. Would you like to see a short film made of Straw Writes?
That would be amazing, but what I’d really like for Straw Writes is to see it adapted for the stage. I feel the story would be amazing as a play, and I really feel like the way it’s written lends itself to such an adaptation.
12. Are you working on anything that you can tell KSR a little about?
Yes. I’m currently working on a collaborative book of “poetry” with my soon-to-be wife, the writer Elyse Brownell. She’s such an amazing and unique talent, and it’s just an honor to write with her.
I’m also trying to finish Straw’s story, attempting to help him find his way home.
13. What other genres would you like to try your hand at one day?
Well I’ve been writing most of my life and have written prose, poetry, articles, essays, wrote as a professional technical writer, etc. I guess what I’d really like to add to my repertoire are plays. I’d love to write something for the theater.
14. What would you be doing if you weren't writing?
I don’t know really. Maybe I’d be a hobo riding the rails.
15. Thank you for participating in the interview! Can you please leave the readers with three things that may surprise them about you?
Thanks for having me. That was a lot of fun! Things about me that may surprise your readers:
1. I have lived in 11 different states.
2. I have a 106 pound Malamute named Yoda, Son of Chewie.
3. I love editing.
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