A Bit Contrived
features interviews with authors who exist about books that don't, with covers designed by people who do.
Please note: A Renegade Iceberg Finding Itself Alone does not exist, nor will it ever (probably)—it's been improvised during the course of the interview. If you really want to read it, do yourself a favor and check out Matt's war memoir, Kaboom.
Release no. XIII:
A Renegade Iceberg Finding Itself Alone by Matt Gallagher
Matt told me to meet him in a large field 20 miles away from any major road (and asked that I refrain from disclosing even the state). He said we’d be entering a “war zone”, which I found hard to believe, considering we were still in the continental United States. When I got there I found rolling, pastoral hills dotted with pockets of blue and red; closer I realized they were penguins, dressed in Union and Confederate garb. I didn’t know penguins could survive in the climate, but was too dumbfounded by the realism of the reenactment to even ask about it. Matt sat in a director’s chair, taking notes, a cigar drooping out of his mouth. “Research for the sequel,” he said. “Take a seat and enjoy the show. Today’s Gettysburg.” Below are excerpts from our conversation.
I'm here with Matt Gallagher in discussion of his groundbreaking new book, A Renegade Iceberg Finding Itself Alone. Matt's debut, the memoir Kaboom, garnered critical acclaim (to say the least), and though he's kept his sight on the same target (the reality of war), he's now switched genres, landing firmly in the land of 'make 'em ups', as they say. Critics, as they're wont to do, hung their hats on, and only on, this salient fact. Yuko Travers at the Cleveland Plain Dealer noted "It feels like Kaboom, but you have to remind yourself: this didn't happen." Shakira Castle of Publishers Weeklysaid, "I kept on shouting to my partner through our house, you know, Honey you won't believe what happened in the Iraq War and he'd say Is this that Gallagher book? Remember hun, that's fiction and then I'd think on it, and sure enough, it was". I guess a proper starting point would be: how did you find the process of creating a world different from the process of recounting one?
Thanks Andrew, really happy to be with you. I think the reviews grappling with war nonfiction v. war fiction is an interesting place to begin. War is a subject after all, like any other, albeit one with all sorts of complications and dark awfulness and strange, hidden hopes. Papa Hemingway once wrote Fitzgerald that "War is the best subject of all. It groups the maximum of material and speeds up the action and brings out all sorts of stuff that normally you have to wait a lifetime to get."
I think that's a load of bullshit myself, but it was important that the protagonist of A Renegade Iceberg Finding Itself Alone, flawed penguin anti-hero Kingsley the Rockhopper, believe in it without reservation.
As for the process of creating an entirely new world instead of recounting one lived through, is it really so absurd for an Iraq war veteran to be penning a novel about the great penguin raid of the Falklands, in a world without ice caps? Admittedly, some things were lifted straight from the "real" desert war I participated in, whether I experienced it myself or otherwise. When Kingsley and the rockhoppers hole themselves up in the monk's tower in the penultimate chapter, that's straight from history - Moqtada al-Sadr in Najaf, 2004. I was in college when that happened, but I remember being fascinated by it, that maybe I'd write about it someday. In a way, I guess I have now.
I want to jump into Kinglsey in one second, but need to hold off for now. What I need to examine is the cross between the real events of the penguin raid and the real events of the Iraq war. A less astute interviewer might assume metaphor of the former to bring out truths of the latter, but I realize that you're actually doing the opposite, using the signifiers of the Iraq war to ask ourselves: what is fairness, what is justice, what ishumanity when we're talking about the lives of penguins? So, let me ask that exact question to you now.
Yeah, it's a strange thing—utilizing surrealism and absurdity and apocalyptic, catastrophic climate fiction to get America to care about an actual war that happened in reality and happened in our name. But whatever works, I guess. Readers may not be aware of the nuances of counterinsurgency strategy, or its checkered history being utilized by empires over time, and they don't necessarily need to in order to care about the rockhoppers' journey and hopes to better the lives of their families and community. First and foremost, I wanted to spin a good yarn. That other stuff, the nods to history and the allegories and stuff? It powered the narrative, absolutely, but it was important to keep it contained so it didn't overwhelm the narrative. Story first, story always.
What is fairness? In both Iraq and the post-ice cap Falklands, that's a malleable thing. Neither General Petraeus nor Admiral Oakenberry were given the option of a "fair" environment to conduct their campaigns in. What is justice? Certainly what is happening in Iraq now is unjust, and most of the hate mail I get for A Renegade Iceberg concerns the "unjustness" of Kingsley's fate. What is humanity? I think all of war literature has attempted to answer that question in some way, from the walls of Troy to the trenches of France and now to the melting ice ships of Cape Horn.
Alright, now with the abstract mumbo jumbo out the way, let's talk Kingsley. Calling him a "multi-dimensional" character would be an insult to the very idea of complex personality. He's ruthless, he seemingly lacks any moral compass, and yet he is the most engaging protagonist in all of penguin-focused western literature. It's not that we love him, nor is it that we hate him, or that we love to hate him, or even love to hate to love him—it's only that he is true. Who was he based on? Can I ask if about the truthfulness of the scene where he finds the packet of tea crackers and really goes at it?
There's no reason to be coy about this: to my mind, Kingsley is a fusion of Alexander the Great, Megatron and Che, with a dash of William Blake thrown in for good measure. That idiot NYT review compared him to Zarqawi. Please. Zarqawi was a fat dolt, unworthy of giving Kingsley the Rockhopper a belly rub.
I didn't need to make Kingsley "likable," because both Kingsley the penguin and Kingsley the rebel leader could give a non-flying fuck about being likable. I needed him to be strong but self-doubting in those rare moments of cerebral consideration. His moral compass, like many leaders in the throes of a vicious campaign, ebbs and flows with the needs of his army.
As for the tea crackers scene - all I'll say is I did a lot of immersive research for this book. A LOT. William Vollmann levels.
Well, I don't want to open up a bag of worms on this one, but you mentioning likability makes me curious as to how that concept plays within the bounds of the war genre (fiction and nonfiction), and how it plays outside of it. In a war story, the unlikable herois the likable character, but in nearly every genre, an unlikable protagonist might as well be the death of the book. Do you think we use our war hero protagonists—Kingsley no different—to keep distance from the concept of war, and thus likability isn't as necessary (and maybe even better off not there)?
Hmm, interesting observation. So much of war literature requires an instant trust and respect from the reader that perhaps isn't quite as pronounced outside the genre. The narrator, or at least the narrative, has a built-in authority. Which, for the writer, is both a gift and a challenge - one authoritative slip, especially in the first 50 pages or so, can bring down the whole iceberg.
There's an explain-y aspect to contemporary war literature, at least in the West, and especially America. There's such a disassociation from the chaos and destruction humanity is capable of - it's something that happens elsewhere in the world, and maybe our sons and daughters get sent off sometimes to participate in it, but it's happening over there and then those sons and daughters (most of them, anyhow) come back and tell us what happened, but usually not what it meant, because that takes a lifetime to figure out, and who has the time to wait for that answer? Yellow Ribbon America likes it sound clips, and it likes its sound clips quick and topical.
With Kingsley and other war anti-heroes, for the lack of a better term, I wonder if there's a bit of a projection going on. Don't we all, at times, wish we could be as Machiavellian as this penguin sultan? As unconcerned as he is with the day-to-day, in the name of the larger effort? Don't we all wish that our small acts of generosity and kindness (rare though they may be, in Kingsley's case) would be met with widespread praise and accolades? I know I've had those moments, though I'm a bit ashamed to admit it, and not just cause my mom is probably listening to this interview.
That's pure insight, Matt, thank you.
It looks like I've got space for just about two more questions, and so I want to focus on the second to last chapter, when Kingsley and the rockhoppers build an impenetrable barrier around the monk's tower. There's this side of hope to it, but you know what's coming, that they're pronouncing their own death, and the way you color them in there, I just found exhilarating. This is a scenario, being cognizant that your breaths will be your last, anyone in war has prepared themselves for, and, in a lot of ways, is the true test of courage. Was it difficult for you to write that scene, or was it cathartic? A mix?
Appreciate the kind words, Andrew, thank you. That chapter means a lot to me, and hopefully, to the book. It's vital to the story's essence, I think - the rockhoppers' sacrifice and stand is a shared one, as is any army's or any collective's for that matter, but it's also one they must choose, they must all make alone. This is no act of spontaneous physical courage that occurs in a flash of adrenaline. It's a protracted statement of consciousness and of the changing, melting world, at once a medieval-like siege and a postmodern howl to the sky about dreams destroyed and lost ideals. That's what I was going for, anyhow.
I wanted each penguin, from the lowliest private to Kingsley Rockhopper himself, to ask themselves this at the monk tower: does moral courage matter the way physical courage does, and what happens when those distinctions blur and intertwine?
Drafting that scene came naturally enough. Getting it right required a lot of time and rewrites, though. Writing is rewriting is rewriting is ... etcetera, and such.
The title had already made sense, but is now so much richer, of course. Any soldier, even in the company of likeminded and likecaused penguins, is just a renegade iceberg finding itself alone. But isn't that also a writer? Did you not chart an unfurnished path yourself?
Do you have anything remaining you'd like to tell the reader, of A Renegade Iceberg, of Kaboom, of any book of war?
Well, just like today's American military, writing/writers are an all-volunteer force. So yes, in a way, charting an unfurnished path feels familiar. Of course one of the joys of writing is you have total control and autonomy to make a world that makes sense, as you see fit or need it to. Iraq offered no such luxury, for American soldiers, insurgents or Iraqi civilians.
I think I'd just like to remind readers of war literature, whatever the work, whoever the author, whatever the world the book chronicles, to check one's preconceived notions before cracking that spine. Any decent and/or aspirational book on the subject will challenge those preconceived notions, because the subject is so large and complex and awful and yet so pervasively human. If you don't want to be challenged on what war is and what it contains, from in the micro-experience of the individual to the macro totality of war as industry, well, there's always cable news for that.
Thanks so much for having me, Andrew, it's been a real pleasure.
Thanks for your time and your words, Matt.
Cover by Charles Brock. Charles is a proud Okie living in Tennessee. Most of his life was spent in and around Tulsa, Oklahoma. He has been designing book covers for the better part of two decades since graduating from Oklahoma State University. In his spare time, Charles enjoys photography and spending time with his wife, Kimberly and their Bullmastiff, Zoe. Charles' covers have been recognized by Graphis, PRINT Magazine, Communication Arts, The New York Book Show, the AAUP Book Jacket & Journal Show, Bookbuilders West, The Independent Book Publishers Association and the American Ad Federation."