Brian Van Reet, winner of the Gulf Coast Prize in Fiction, talks with Gulf Coastintern Melissa Dziedzic about his story, “The Window.”
Melissa Dziedzic: The setting is incredibly important to both the characters and the movement of the story; do you have a special connection or experience with that landscape? What was your inspiration for the story?
Brian Van Reet: Last March I took a trip to Big Bend National Park. I knew right away I wanted to use the place as the setting for a story of doomed romance. During my trip I hiked to the Window and up the Lost Mine Trail. I am not particularly fond of exposed heights and dream about them from time to time.
That is, however, about where the one-to-one correlation ends. While in Big Bend I stayed in a tent, not a lodge. I have never been engaged to be married and was not accompanied by the real-life Sadie. Instead, my traveling companions were two poets and a rock-and-roll singer. One of the poets had his fiancée along, though she is not Sadie, either. No one asked if I had killed anyone. Unfortunately, the question has come up.
The Iraq part was inspired by a story told to me in Baghdad. I was not present to witness the events but have reported them as I think they happened. When I wrote "The Window," I included this particular war story out of intuition, though looking back I can see why it appealed to me. I have heard vertigo described as the mind reeling at its own urge to fall. Fitzpatrick has this desire, and by the end of the story he begins to understand it. The man he kills in Iraq also wishes to die, but because of the religious prohibition he is afraid to kill himself. So he has Fitzpatrick do it. Both men are repressed but in different ways. "The Window" is a story about borders that works on ironic opposition, if it does.
MD: Your military past tends to show itself in your work. In what ways would you say you find your background most useful?
BVR: Your question contains a bit of an understatement. My past does not merely show itself, it unremittingly wrings itself out of me onto the page. Or online, which was where I first started to write about Iraq. I kept a blog, mostly political ranting, some good, some bad, all very immediate and raw. More people visited it than have ever read a short story of mine. A couple years ago I let the domain lapse. Last I checked some Ukrainian owns it and is hawking ads there.
But back to your question. I suppose my military experience is useful to me as a writer because it gives me something good to write about.
Living dangerously can benefit a storyteller, but with this said, I would never encourage a young person to take the kind of risks I took, just to accumulate stories. That's not why I took the risks, anyway. There is also the problem of unintended consequences. A couple years in the military may very well stamp out everything sensitive and strange in a nascent artist. You cannot underestimate the metaphysical power of an institution that holds nearly absolute control over your life and death. There are huge risks to the soul—never mind the body.
There are also many good people in the army. Good people to drink, laugh, and suffer with. People who will teach you never to quit, no matter what...I dunno. I have mixed feelings about the whole experience, obviously. For better or worse, it has become my subject, and that won't change anytime soon. I have written a draft of an Iraq War novel, and an idea for another one is coming down the pipe.
Melissa Dziedzic is an intern for Gulf Coast. She is a junior creative writing student at the University of Houston.