May 30, 2015

An Interview with Jesse Goolsby, author of "I'd Walk with My Friends If I Could Find Them"

Way back in issue 9.1, Jesse Goolsby won the John Gardner Memorial Prize in Fiction for his short story, "Derrin of the North." Based on the outstanding writing alone, no one could have guessed that this was the first story Goolsby had ever sent out for publication. Numerous fiction, poetry, and creative non-fiction publications later, Goolsby's debut novel, I'd Walk with My Friends If I Could Find Them, is due out this early June from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

An Air Force officer and a PhD candidate at Florida State University, Jesse Goolsby has appeared in such excellent journals as Narrative Magazine, Epoch, Alaska Quarterly Review, The Literary Review, Redivider, The Greensboro Review, and, of course, Harpur Palate. He is also the recipient of the Richard Bausch Fiction Prize and the Holland & Knight Distinguished Fellowship from the Hambidge Center for Creative Arts & Sciences. He has been featured in The Best American Mystery Stories, and his prose has also been listed several times as a notable entry in The Best American Short Stories and The Best American Essays anthologies. In addition, he serves as a genre editor with both The Southeast Review and War, Literature, and the Arts. Running into him again at AWP 2015 was a true pleasure, and we were grateful for the chance to talk with him about his book and his career.

Below is an excerpt of our interview with Goolsby. For the full interview, be sure to check out our Summer/Fall 2015 edition (15.1).

Harpur Palate: Which of the chapters did you build I'd Walk with My Friends If I Could Find Them around? What was the genesis, and what did that chapter look like before it became intertwined with the rest of the book?

Jesse Goolsby: The genesis: one day, six years ago, I was sitting in a conference room at the US Air Force Academy discussing literature and the emotional toll of war with some of my English department colleagues. We brought up the names of fellow service members, the complexities of battle, the simultaneous devastation and thrill, the borderlands of euphoria and fear. Someone invoked Tim O’Brien, another Joseph Heller and Dexter Filkins, and then one of my friends said, “You know, some folks come home and they don’t know how to touch their kids. It’s just too much after what they’ve seen.” And that just floored me. I was a new father at the time, and besides the personal and believable horror that comment stirred, it also humbled me as a writer: how does someone, a character, get to a place where he or she is not sure how to touch his or her own children? What does that say about war, about that individual, about family, and the wide-ranging consequences of conflict?

The creative result of my initial investigation of those questions was a story called “Touch,” now a chapter in my novel. While the story was edited to form the chapter, I hope it retains my wonder and curiosity of this possible result of war—the confusion of touch—for one of the protagonists, Armando Torres.

While that’s the emotional genesis story, at the time, six years ago, I had no idea that I’d write a book. I was thrilled to have “Touch” published and to simply to move on. However, when I realized that I wanted to write a novel, one of the things I was most interested in accomplishing was tracing a long arc of three soldiers’ lives—and portions of the lives of the protagonists’ families and friends—before, during, and after their service in Afghanistan. This long view was very important to me. “Touch,” then, fell into place as a post-war chapter fairly seamlessly, but that specific chapter maintained an emotional heft that influenced my writing from the beginning to the end of I’d Walk with My Friends If I Could Find Them.

HP: Similarly, several of the chapters in the novel started off as short stories in various journals, e.g., "Neutral Drops" in Northwind, "Pollice Verso" in The Literary Review, "No Doorbell" in Nashville Review, etc. What was the thread that linked them together? What made them part of this larger scope you wanted to focus on in the book?

JG: The foundation for all of the chapters in the novel is the deep human yearning for connection. Regardless of character or specific setting, my focus was mining each and every character’s desire for companionship and understanding. As such, I found that it didn’t matter if a particular chapter or scene dealt with one of the main protagonists or a character occupying a more tangential role, I wanted always to tap into his or her specific longing.

And that leads to your great question about publishing some of the chapters as stories first, then reworking them into a slightly more traditional role as a chapter. One of my preferences I discovered while writing I’d Walk with My Friends If I Could Find Them was that, at least for this project, I wasn’t all that interested in chapter-to-chapter transitions, that I relished the white space between episodes of tension. Because of this preference, I decided to try to place many of the chapters as stand alone stories first, not as an excerpt of a work in progress, but straight up stories. I found this forced me to really buckle down and fine-tune my world building and the establishment of stakes each and every time I entered a new chapter-story. Because I was aware of my desire for these stories to eventually morph into chapters I certainly kept some of the plot logistics and timelines in mind, but there were also many advantages of thinking of them, individually, as stories; most notably, the beautiful short fiction demands of immediate stakes.

Additionally, I fully admit that I was in need of some positive reinforcement as I started this book. At the beginning, I had no agent, editor, or contract. Like the vast majority of writers, it was just me, a blank Word document, and a healthy dose of consternation when the perfect words didn’t come pouring out on time. Just on a personal level, I needed and greatly appreciated the validation and feedback that came with an acceptance from a literary journal, so much so—and my wife will attest to this—that I cried with nearly every acceptance.

HP: Who are some of the writers and books that most influenced you as you wrote the novel? Who did you need to study in order to build the novel properly?

JG: My favorite book of the past ten years is Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, and there is no doubt that the snap shot and alternating point of view structure that beautiful book employs influenced my decision to follow a similar framework with I’d Walk with My Friends if I Could Find Them. Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and Richard Ford’s Rock Springs were also constant literary friends never far away from my writing space, largely because of their respective genius at showcasing human yearning.

I’m currently pursuing my PhD at Florida State University, and I feel privileged to study with many of my literary heroes, including the incredible Robert Olen Butler. Reading his book on writing fiction, From Where You Dream, and taking his class were creative game-changers for me. I say “game-changers” because I was searching for, and subsequently discovered, new pathways into the creative zone where I write my best.

I also owe much to the brilliant and recent work that also taps into questions of conflict, family, and identity. My favorites include Janet Burroway’s Losing Tim, Michael Garriga’s The Book of Duels, Jehanne Dubrow’s Stateside, David Abrams’s Fobbit, Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Katey Shultz’s Flashes of War, Benjamin Busch’s Dust to Dust, Siobhan Fallon’s You Know When the Men Are Gone, Brian Turner’s Phantom Noise, Donald Anderson’s Fire Road, Lea Carpenter’s Eleven Days, and the fantastic nonfiction work of essayist Brandon Lingle.

But what I needed most while writing this novel was my brilliant editor, Ben Hyman. It’s funny now to think of all of the well-intentioned warnings I received from fellow authors about possible creative differences with editors. And I understand that many have had challenging issues when it comes to the author-editor relationship, but I say this with my heart on my sleeve: my novel exists only because of Ben’s encouraging and smart guidance. May others be as fortunate.

HP: Lastly, looking back at "Derrin of the North," the first piece you published with Harpur Palate, how do you believe you've progressed as a writer since then? How have your obsessions changed?

JG: “Derrin of the North” was not only the first piece I published with Harpur Palate, but it was the first piece I published, ever. I mentioned crying a little earlier. I received the acceptance call while I was visiting family in Salt Lake City, and after I hung up, I walked into the living room and wept in front of extended family I hadn’t seen in years. I’ll never forget that moment and the look on my family’s faces while I tried to gather myself and tell them that these were happy tears.

It’s been seven years since that phone call, and the two most important things in my development as a writer have been to remain an active reader and to believe in my voice; the former has been easy, the latter, much more difficult. Since that first Harpur Palate publication I’ve had years to read, and also, to listen carefully to feedback on my own work. I relish the moments when I’m reading and I’m just flat out jealous. Recently, I experienced this feeling while reading Russell Bank’s masterpiece Continental Drift. Besides the appreciation of entering wonderful literature as a reader, thousands of writer-craft questions swirl: How is he or she pulling this off? What’s new here? Why am I falling in love with this book? In my attempts to answer these questions I’m really asking myself, “What kind of art do I want to create?” And although it isn’t that articulate, I find myself most often answering, “The kick-ass kind.”

My obsessions? Well, they continue to intensify because with each passing day I seem more aware that I am mortal, and that my end will one day be a real event. I don’t mean that in a depressing way at all. If anything, I’m more invigorated by this acceptance. I watch my healthy children play in the front yard and think, “My God, I have it good.” So my personal obsessions for literature, music, sports, and Thai food deepen, and now is as good a time as ever to indulge. If I want to read all of Alice Munro, which I do, I better get on it.

This type of urgency is great creatively. Sure, I have my periods of regret and laziness and doubt, but after giving myself a break, it’s time to dive back in. This ties into the idea of believing in your voice. I find it invigorating that we each possess a unique creative perspective, and that no one else can write the story, essay, or poem that someone else will dream up. This knowledge is so damn liberating that even during those times when I’m staring at a blank Word document and nothing arrives at my fingertips, it’s okay, because when something does, it will be my voice.

—Barrett Bowlin, Contributing Editor