War As Hell Brought Home: An Interview with Odie Lindsey

I GOT TO KNOW Odie Lindsey while working a summer job at Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi. He was a world-wise bookseller in a town where literary types flock to soak up the same humid air as William Faulkner, Barry Hannah, and Larry Brown. Meanwhile, I was a recent hire and still new to Oxford. Odie generously invited me to tag along with a close-knit circle of co-workers for drinks after a Friday night shift. A Desert Storm veteran with an incurable case of wanderlust, Odie had lived an adventurous life, it seemed to me. I remember talking to him about his life abroad, and sensing his rare combination of a curious mind and down-to-earth personality would ensure his success as a writer.

Fast-forward 10 years, and Norton is publishing Odie’s debut book of fiction. Billed as a collection of war stories, We Come to Our Senses tackles the knotty politics of gender and sexuality for southern veterans. Yet it’s far more than just a book about war. These stories give expression to current issues ranging from the hellish routine of modern office work (“Evie M.”) to the moral ambiguity of gentrification (“In the Alley”) to the oppressive effects of our media-saturated culture (“11/19/98” and “Pickle”). And as much as I admire the ideas, what sparks and makes every page come alive is the depth and sincerity of feeling in his prose.

From Mississippi, there were brief stops in Austin, Texas; Italy; and Morocco; before Odie eventually landed in Nashville, Tennessee, where he now lives with his wife, Dana, and their two-year-old daughter, Philomena. He was kind enough to answer a few questions about his new book. Our correspondence took place via email.


ROBERT REA: You’re a Gulf War veteran. Is war a difficult subject for you to write about?

ODIE LINDSEY: For years, I rarely mentioned my deployment, let alone wrote anything. To a large extent, I ignored it because I couldn’t figure out what the hell happened — to me, to my colleagues, to anyone involved with the first Gulf War. (All we knew was that something had in fact changed.) My dad went to Vietnam, my grandfather to World War II … and a younger generation of soldiers was suffering and administering tragedy right in front of me. What could I possibly make of Desert Storm? What justification did I have for a war story?

Ignoring my combat tour was difficult … but was a gift in comparison to finally confronting the experience, and trying to pin a story on something that was, per war precedent, a blip.

In his blurb, Robert Olen Butler praises “these war stories” as “rich and complex and heartening in their universal humanity.” But the label is somewhat misleading because your stories rarely take place during combat. Instead, we see war indirectly, for instance, from the point of view of veterans readjusting to civilian life or the children of soldiers. Why did you choose to examine war from such an oblique angle?

Echoing the above, this distinction — to consider the supposedly benign, if not mundane legacy of war — was critical to finding my story. For one thing, the notion that trauma, combat or otherwise, is confined to a specific time, space, or circumstance, is ludicrous. Memory may ease, or mutate, but it never stops. For another, I could not and was not interested in competing with blood-and-battle, cigar-chomping, War Is Hell–type action. Rather, I wanted to write about war culture. About war as hell brought home.

Women are often cast in backup roles in war fiction, as characters who provide support to male soldiers rather than doing the actual fighting, but you put female soldiers at the center of stories like “Evie M.” and “Colleen.” How do you see the role of women in We Come to Our Senses?

Females are the driving force of the collection. In 2003, I was living in Chicago, glued to the 24-hour newscast of our rerun invasion of Iraq. Shoshana Johnson’s face came on screen. (She was one of the earliest prisoners of war captured, and the first female African American POW in our history.) Seeing her, I realized that even my own memory had discarded the presence of females during my deployment. It was galling — unforgivable — to realize I’d been so caught up in the classic cultural narrative that I hadn’t even acknowledged my own comrades. I wanted to shove against this cultural narrative. As mindfully as I could, I wanted to hobble it.

The world you depict is a place where gentleness is largely absent. Because of social pressures, some characters behave cruelly or unsympathetically, whereas heroic acts are often acts of gentleness — such as helping an injured turtle across a busy highway or rescuing a stray cat from a wintry curbside. Is this an accurate description of the obstacles facing your characters?

I’m not sure the characters are cruel; I think maybe they’re just divorced from themselves, from their prewar beliefs. To some extent, deployment takes a lifetime’s worth of what you were, and renders it — and you — irrelevant. Loving your wife or being a patriot has jack shit to do with executing a task or locking on target, or getting killed. As a result, morality and emotional dynamism become a sort of luxury; conviction or contemplation are excess baggage to breathing, you know? So in an effort to stay focused on the real, some folks just shut the other stuff down. And they bring that mindset home, and it radiates.

So, yes, many of these characters are disinvested and barren. They or their loved ones have experienced a space in which emotional, philosophical, or cultural identity is a weakness — and thus, dispensable, and thus rendered false. And if some “truth” is shown to be in fact superfluous — their kindness, their religion, their culture, etc. — why, or how, would they choose to reinvest in it?

This complication does not apply to turtles. It seems.

In addition to your tour of duty in Iraq, you’ve lived in Nashville, Tennessee; Los Angeles; Austin, Texas; Chicago; and abroad in Spain, Italy, and Morocco. How has your itinerant existence influenced your writing?

Don’t dare forget Mississippi! If I’m too comfortable somewhere, I tend to grow blind to the very stuff I love and crave in writing: the minute, critical details of the day-to-day, and the characters at odds with these details. I crave a sense of place — atmospherics, accents, physical structure, ritual culture — only, place writ small. Moving keeps these details and lessons burning bright.

Also: When you’re an adjunct whose sole job prospect is to be an adjunct, it’s easy to quit, sell all, take an adventure … and plug back in without suffering career setback!

Also, also: In dialogue with my deployment, I think, a part of me likes to miss places, and people. I’m addicted to wistfulness, and a bit of a sap.

Many of your characters are southerners. What part does the South play in their psychology?

Perhaps like combat, the South at once honors and explodes its stereotypes. It’s exactly what you think it is and twice as likely not. Akin to many southerners, my characters grew up in places defined by marble soldier statues perched on town squares or in cemeteries, or on statehouse and school grounds; where the military was a part of the culture, the politics, the economy, and of course, the history; where clear codes of conduct are force-fed as mandate … and simultaneously defiled. All of these — the mandates, the memorials, the codes — are made arbitrary by war. One minute you’re a diminutive, 20-year-old, evangelical grocery clerk in Kentucky; the next, you’re grinning and giving a thumbs up beside a human pyramid made of naked Iraqi prisoners!

You took a course from Barry Hannah before he passed away in 2010. What did you learn from him as a teacher? What contribution, if any, has his writing had on yours?

There’s not enough space for me to address his impact. Thus, another anecdote: I once presented to Barry a story that I’d worked on — worked hard on — but which was frivolous, a pirouette. “Well,” he drawled, “How cute.” The critique that followed was a master class in embarrassment … and questionable in its old-school MFA-ness … and, strangely, felt like basic training. Yet sure enough, my reply was to put all 28 feet of guts into the next story. The result was nowhere near Barry’s type of thing, but after reading it, he had me over to his house, told me I was onto something and I needed to follow it, and gave me a black leather jacket!

Whether your work was beautiful or brutal, Barry wouldn’t abide anything less than driving straight into the truth. Not around it, not above it, but straight the fuck in.

Your first novel is also forthcoming from Norton. Tell us about it.

The protagonist, Colleen, is a carryover from a story in We Come to Our Senses. I wasn’t done with her. I wanted to know who she’d become in the years following the war: Would she get rich? Get married? And if so, to whom? Was she straight? Would she stay in small-town Mississippi or rejoin the army and split? Would she melt down or grind it out? Become homeless or hooked on Opana … or be one of the few who marches past the hang-ups? In the larger sense, I wanted to return her to a South so defined by “honorable male soldiers” statues. The schism seemed ripe for complication.


Robert Rea is a writer based in Oxford, Mississippi. He currently teaches courses in American literature at Ole Miss.