Gabe Hudson’s book of fiction, Dear Mr. President, was recently published by Knopf.
Deborah Treisman is the Fiction Editor at The New Yorker.
Q: Are you nervous?
Hudson: Yes and no. I guess yes. Terminally nervous.
Q: How have your interviews gone so far?
Hudson: Okay, I guess. Mostly nice people have interviewed me, though there’ve been a few with suspicious motives.
Q: Well, let me tell people about the book. It’s called Dear Mr. President, and it’s a collection of stories, which are all, in some way, inspired by the Gulf War, and the obvious question is why did you choose that subject?
Hudson: Well, first off, I wanted to write a book that was somehow, at its heart, about America. So choosing an American war as my subject seemed like a good way to do that. And I knew I had a pretty good bead on the Persian Gulf War.
Q: Where did that bead come from? Were you obsessed with war as a child?
Hudson: No, the military world was not something I grew up with, or knew anything about. I led a pretty sheltered life as a kid. I was a little bit of a freak. No TV, and I used to play the violin. Hours and hours of forced violin practice before I was allowed to leave the house. So when I was in college, one day out of the blue, I joined the Marine reserves.
Q: What did your parents think about that?
Hudson: They were pretty freaked out. But I liked that. It was as if I’d run off the diving board and done a cannonball. When I hit the water I made a huge splash that soaked my parents.
Q: So it was your experience in the Marines that prompted you to write the book?
Hudson: Yeah, that was part of it. Also, and this was really important to me, I wanted to debunk some of the myths being perpetuated about modern warfare, which we’re hearing a lot about on television these days. I don’t buy into this idea that these American high-tech war campaigns are somehow “clean.” So I wanted to wrestle that story away from the propagandists in the White House (like these idiots Ari Fleisher and Rumsfeld) and in the media, and to show the human side of these things. Sometimes it’s hard to remember that behind all the precision-guided bombs, and green-lights-representing-soldiers on the television screen, there are actual women and men. I wanted to portray, with some humor, the psychological and physical toll of modern war.
Q: Is Dear Mr. President an anti-war book?
Hudson: As Kurt Vonnegut says somewhere, and I’m paraphrasing, any war book worth a damn is an anti-war book.
Q: Is your book worth a damn?
Hudson: My book is an anti-war book.
Q: Okay. Your stories are clearly satirical, but there also seems to be an emotional current running through them.
Hudson: That’s nice of you to say. I work pretty hard to generate a gut-level response to the fiction, no matter how ironic the premise of the story. I think it has something to do with sadness and vulnerability. I think we’re all probably a lot more sad and vulnerable than we’d care to admit. So usually I’ll apply a great deal of pressure to a character, until he or she becomes extremely vulnerable, and then the emotion comes through. When I’m writing, I’ll hear the voice of my character, and then, when things are clicking, and when the pressure has mounted, that voice will become more distinct, more resonant, more sad or whatever. Then I just get out of the way and let the character say his or her piece. This way, I learn about the character in the same way that the reader does, and I think that the energy of that discovery tends to translate onto the page. It’s one of the best feelings I’ve ever had, when the voice fully reveals itself to me. But I feel kind of ridiculous saying that, when all we’re talking about is extra voices in my head
Q: How many voices are we talking about?
Hudson: More voices than I care to count. Just walking around, and trying to be a human being in this world, you hear voices all day and all night. These voices get stuck in my head and then take on a life of their own. These are the voices I use for my characters: American voices.
Q: Even as we speak, the current administration appears to be positioning itself for another war with Iraq. It must be a strange experience — to have just published a book that has a direct correlation to a mounting war campaign.
Hudson: Yeah, that’s been really weird. Especially because people at readings ask me what I think is going to happen. I tell them, in all honesty, if you want to know how this impending conflict with Iraq is going to turn out, then read my book. And, as has been made clear by several eerie, well-publicized coincidences, I truly can see into the future with my writing, and the future is right there for you to see in the book. I mean, the American government is no more intelligent than it was eleven years ago, probably less. But with stupidity comes danger, and I’d say this administration is more dangerous than ever.
Q: You’ve been on tour for a while now. Have you had many responses to your book from people in the military?
Hudson: Actually, yes. The audience is always mixed, a lot of regular readers, all different ages, but then usually a veteran or two, despite the fact that I sometimes make fun of the military in my book. Some of the veterans from the Gulf War have come up to me and thanked me. They’re really nice about the whole thing. Usually at the beginning of each reading I’ll ask if there are any veterans in the audience. The other night I had a Vietnam vet in the audience, and at one point when I was reading he started to cry. Very quietly. I didn’t know what to do with that. Later on in the reading I asked him his name, and then had the audience clap for his service.
Q: Was that a patriotic gesture on your part?
Hudson: No. It was a human gesture. I’m not interested in patriotism in the conventional sense. I mean, I love this country, but there’s a lot about it that bothers me these days. So I do what I can to question it, and this book, in some ways, is an act of resistance against those things that bother me. If I’m patriotic in any way, it’s that way. In the questioning, in the challenging. As for the Vietnam vet, though, you could tell this guy carried a lot of hurt around with him. It was as simple as that. I mean, I don’t know this guy’s story, but the thing to remember is a lot of the people who went to Vietnam didn’t want to go to Vietnam. They were drafted, which is not that different from being detained, in the contemporary sense of the word.
Q: So, you see a correlation between being drafted and being detained?
Hudson: If we’re talking about being detained, as in being abducted and then having a hood placed over your hood and then being shipped off to Cuba for an indefinite period of time, then yes, I do see a correlation between being drafted and being detained. It’s not far off, only when you’re drafted, in addition to being randomly selected and shipped off to somewhere you don’t want to go, you’re also being conscripted to participate in the killing of other people. People who, by and large, probably mean you no personal harm — as far as I know, I’ve never received any direct antagonism from a regular Iraqi citizen — were it not for the fact that you, a soldier, have descended on their country with fancy guns. I mean, I don’t think anyone from my generation can imagine what being drafted would really be like. That Vietnam generation was tricked into a war that lasted over a decade. Can you imagine? An entire generation that was ripped apart and scarred. There’s a lesson in there somewhere for us younger Americans. But I don’t mean to go on about the Vietnam vet, because he’s not the only one. America is a strange place. I’m coming across all sorts of different kinds of hurt out here.
Q: Does that have an effect on you, night after night?
Hudson: It does. When I first started this tour, I thought I’d just do freaky performance stuff in conjunction with the work at each reading, and everyone would think I was cool, and then I’d bestow my approval upon the audience, and they’d know that I thought they were cool too. Such coolness, to think of it! Now that bores me a little. It seems much harder to get out there and make a connection. So I still try to make it interesting, performance-wise, but I also do what I can to generate a meaningful experience, make an emotional connection with the audience, despite my impulse to undercut the emotion with jokes.