His new book is A Season Past.
That title sounds like it could belong to one of his noir gangster novels about Ross Duncan (there are eight), but it’s not.
It’s a trilogy of stories – two novellas and one short piece – about men returning from war. The first piece is set decades after the Civil War, but heavily informed by it. The second is set immediately after World War II. And the third is set in the modern day but haunted by Vietnam. My review for the New York Journal of Books is posted here.
Spoiler: I liked it. A lot. It’s worthy of comparisons to Tim O’Brien or Kevin Powers.
A Season Past is the confluence of a sharp writer and a powerful subject – the impact of war on returning soldiers. Bartley is well-versed in the topic, as the Q & A below makes clear. A recent study Bartley conducted on U.S. Army suicides going back to 1819 drew wide attention. As Bartley’s answers reveal, he’s given this topic a lot of thought. And analysis.
As soldiers today are deployed to the Middle East – and as the U.S. enters Year #19 of the War in Afghanistan (Year 19!) – A Season Past asks whether we understand all the costs of war, including the fallout on the home front.
Thanks to Christopher Bartley for taking the time to answer these questions.
Question: Can you walk us through the process of putting these three pieces together? Was the theme something you had in mind at first and then you found the stories to go with it? Or did you have these stories in mind and then realized there was an underlying connection?
Christopher Bartley: I wrote the first novella (A Season Past) in the early 1990s and it sat unseen in my computer files for decades. In about 2015 my agent, Sonia Land, asked me if I had any unpublished work that might be worth revisiting, so I shared it with her and she loved it. However, it was too short to publish on its own, so I pulled out a short story written in 2009 (Apache Tears). Then a few years ago I wrote another novella (The Cold Ardennes) to serve as a bridge between them. I didn’t put much thought to the thematic connection between them. The middle story just flowed.
Question: I know it might sound like an obvious question, but do those of us who have never seen combat have any idea how soldiers can be haunted by what they’ve seen—and done? Do we have any idea what it’s like to struggle mentally to return to regular life?
Christopher Bartley: No. For better and for worse, most of us in industrialized countries have little experience with violence and death. For the most part, we no longer kill our own meat, die at home, prepare our dead, or defend our homes and communities from invaders. We outsource all of that now. The men and women who serve as our law enforcement, fire fighters, first responders, emergency room medical providers, and military have little cultural preparation anymore. When most people think of war, they think of what they have seen in video games and movies. But I’m pretty sure that real life combat does not occur in slow motion with inspiring music playing. Also, we have shed the rituals and processes that humans have used for thousands of years to help their returning warriors reintegrate.
The transition back to civilian life is a difficult process. Imagine giving up the life you have now, everything you have practiced and learned, to be relocated to another world. This other world seems similar – it includes many of the same people and relies on a similar language – but the culture is different, expectations are different, there is no shared mission, your prior skills don’t easily translate into a meaningful vocation, and the society you find yourself does not truly understand or relate to what you used to do.
All that said, we need to be careful not to assume life-long pathology is the outcome for those who serve. While some combatants struggle with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and substance abuse, most do not. The vast majority live good lives and are productive members of our society.
Question: Why these three specific settings?
Christopher Bartley: Like my prior writing, these are American stories – fictional stories about the kind of people who lived in these times and have shaped the character of America. The Civil War, WWII, and Vietnam War were seminal events in our history, though my stories focus not on the wars themselves, but how individual men and women related to their world after their war was over.
Question: Could you fill us in a little bit on your background and what gives you these insights about veterans who come home from war? Were you ever in the military?
Christopher Bartley: I have never served in the military. When I was six my father served in Vietnam as a physician in the Air Force; when I was ten I was fascinated by great grandfather who told me about his experiences in Cuba during the Spanish-American War, including the battle of San Juan Hill; and as an adolescent my parents raised me within the Quaker faith. When I turned 18 I had to decide whether I would register for the draft or claim conscious objector status. I registered for the draft.
Since obtaining a Ph.D. in clinical psychology in 1992 I have devoted my “day job” to helping both veterans and activity military personnel. From 1992-2006 I was a psychologist working in a VA medical center and conducting research; since 2006 I’ve continued to conduct research and do private consulting. On the research side, I have over 300 scientific publications (under my real name: B. Christopher Frueh), including a recent study of U.S. Army suicides going back to 1819 that was published in JAMA Network Open this past December. My coauthors on that were actual historians. Over the past 28 years I have done a good bit of contract work with the U.S. Navy and Department of Defense.
Over the past decade most of my private consulting, much of it pro bono, has been with the special forces community: Army special forces, Navy SEALS, including many from the Tier One units. Some of my closest, most intimate friends now are men who have spent virtually their entire adult lives at war, often with 10-15 combat deployments and literally hundreds of missions. Put another way, I’ve known men who served at the Battle of San Juan Hill (1898), carried out the UBL mission (2011), and almost everything in between.
Question: How much research was involved—the Civil War incidents that weigh on Coltrane? The World War II incidents that haunt the narrator of the “The Cold Ardennes?”
Christopher Bartley: I didn’t need to do much specific research for these stories because I have read widely about American military history. I have more Civil War books on the shelf in my office than I have psychology books. I enjoy developing stories around American historical events and periods that I know well.
Question: One obvious comparison is that in “A Season Past,” the trouble comes to Coltrane. He’s protecting his land. In “A Cold Ardennes,” the narrator clearly knows the trouble he’s getting into—and has plenty of opportunity to back out and/or back away from a very public crime in the heart of his Texas town. Was this a contrast you wanted to make?
Christopher Bartley: I don’t think trouble comes to anyone. We only find it or create it ourselves.
Question: You made a conscious choice not to name the narrator of “The Cold Ardennes.” Several times the narrator is given the chance to introduce himself to a character but, no detail is given. What was your thinking about approaching it this way?
Christopher Bartley: He’s a nameless, anonymous GI returning from the European theater at the end of WWII. Most of them were nameless, anonymous, but collectively they managed to do something absolutely incredible.
Question: You’ve got eight Ross Duncan novels under your belt (if I’m counting correctly)? How did it feel to write something completely different (even if Ross might have been right at home in the scenes toward the end of “The Cold Ardennes”)?
Christopher Bartley: The hardest part was getting away from the voice of Ross Duncan. I missed Duncan, so after I finished this book, I wrote another Duncan novel, which I hope will be published in Spring 2020.
Question: What are you working on next?
Christopher Bartley: Always another Ross Duncan novel, a couple of books that I’m writing with buddies of mine from the special forces community – including one about violence and killing, and the ninth edition of a graduate textbook on adult psychopathology. And also of course, The Great American Novel!
(Link includes previous Q & A)