Author Feature: Ryan Smithson

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Ghosts of War: The True Story of a 19-Year-Old GI (HarperCollins, 2009) and 10 Klicks South of Whiskey (Black Rose, 2018) are two books by Ryan Smithson.

“GOW is my memoir of my service in Iraq and has been selling well for several years. 10K is my latest release and about a wayward street magician who gets arrested and given the choice to go the jail or join the Army. He has a reckoning of the soul when he witnesses his leader make a fatal mistake during a mission.”

Tell us about yourself and how you got into writing:

Writing was always something I could do, but I didn’t realize how special it was until I had a reason to bleed onto the page. I was home from Iraq for about a year, had not talked to anyone about anything, when an essay assignment in a college English class changed my life forever. I wrote about one of our engineering missions, and the catharsis was indescribable. The professor asked me to read it to the class, and one of the students, who had no idea I was in the Army before then, raised his hand and said, “You gave me a whole new perspective on this.” That’s when I knew I had to write not only for myself but to share the human experience with others.
That essay began a flood of other essays, which eventually became my memoir, “Ghosts of War: The True Story of a 19-Year-Old GI” (HarperCollins, 2009). My second book, “10 Klicks South of Whiskey,” was published in 2018 and began as a play I wrote for my master’s thesis. I’ll talk more about that below.

Tell us about your stories:

After penning my memoir, I began writing fiction, which has proved to be much more challenging. Like anything difficult, though, it’s also even more rewarding. My favorite moments are when the characters begin to do and say things I never expected. They choose their own conflict, they decide what’s important to them, and they seem to live independently of me. The art of writing is discovery as much as it is creation. Then the challenge becomes wrangling those twists and turns into a cohesive rising-and-falling plot line.
This is exactly what happened with my latest novel, “10 Klicks South of Whiskey.” I had an idea many years ago to write a play about a platoon in Iraq that experiences a single tragic event, but the truth of what happened changes depending on who you ask. The idea was to mess with perspective, create some unreliable narration so the audience isn’t quite sure of the truth. Some of the scenes I wrote instantly worked. The characters leapt off the page and became three-dimensional. Others were okay, but weren’t quite have that snap. After I amassed all these various stories, I worked tirelessly trying to figure out what this story was really about and what I was really trying to say. Characters got cut. Characters got combined with others. Some new ones came into the fray.
Then the hard work paid off, and the story shaped itself into a novel about a charismatic 17-year-old street magician who gets arrested, joins the Army to avoid going to jail, and sees his true test when he witnesses his leader make a fatal mistake during one of their missions. Now the truth can only come through the pathological liar. While the story is still about shifting perspectives and the meaning of truth, it ended up being more about how we define heroism, and what it means to forgive ourselves when we fall short. I couldn’t be prouder of the final product.

What kind of success have you had?

I have a Word document on my computer tracking every project I’ve submitted to literary agents, editors and publishers, plus their responses–“yes,” “let me read it,” and “no.” Last time I hit Ctrl+F and checked, the word “no” appeared 535 times.
Success in writing isn’t about the number of times you get a yes. It’s about getting the no’s, about persevering through them, and about being open to criticism so you can incorporate good feedback into your work.
If we only wrote for the yes’s, we wouldn’t be writers for very long. We write because we love it, because it helps us empathize with our fellow man, because we learn a little more about ourselves with each word, and because we know that, once in a while, somewhere in that endless pile of no’s is a thrilling “let me read it” that promises to share our love of people with the world.

Tell us about your writing process.

I used to freewheel a lot more than I do know. Freewheeling is a blast. It’s the best part of writing, and when you’re in flow, it’s like watching a movie unfold. So like a movie, I used to assume that the twists and turns would lead to a solid climax that wrapped itself up neatly. Roll credits. Ryan’s a bestselling author.
Not so much. I spent years getting pretty frustrated that simply “following the characters” didn’t always work out, especially for something novel-length. Which is where outlining comes into play. I always hated them, even when I was in school, but now I force myself to create them. I don’t marry myself to it, and I don’t set it all out at the beginning like a roadmap. I can’t, really. The characters still need to do the work. But at a certain point, I take the characters and what they’ve done and I write all their scenes on index cards. Then I stand back at a bulletin board in my office and plot them out. Some magic happens there, because when I can visualize it (like a movie), I realize where the holes are. Oh, I need a Resurrection moment. Or oh, the Catalyst doesn’t fit the central conflict. Or oh, this thing that I thought was a Catalyst might actually work better as an All is Lost moment much later in the story. So I move things around, which can change the entire dynamic of the story. A character’s relationship might change. Their motivations could flip. Just like that, I’ve got a whole new perspective on this story. Then I go back and finish the thing.

Give us an insight into a time you wrote a scene with feeling.

— Tap Shoes: An excerpt from “10 Klicks South of Whiskey” —

I don’t cry until we’re back at the barracks. I’m in the shower when it happens. It’s the blood washing off my hands that triggers it. It’s the smell. Earthly, like old, rusted things that are worn out and forgotten.
Through all of it — seeing Boomer, hearing his voice for the last time, his blood turning dark brown in desert sand, his lumpy figure bouncing beneath a blanket in the Humvee, his abandoned tap shoes, my lonely tears in the shower — the hardest part is still his funeral.
After the chaplain gives a sermon and Captain K gives a speech I barely hear, our first sergeant calls us to attention. Standing there as stiff as a gun barrel, I hold back tears while a man with a bugle plays Taps. It’s all I can do to keep my saluting hand still. When it finally ends, a thousand years later, I drop my hand sharply, and for the first time, I feel my true emotion about all this.
Anger.
I am so mad at Boomer.
I look at his empty combat boots and overturned rifle up front, and I picture the plaque that must hang in his high school, the one for his rushing yards record. I wonder if all the teenagers passing by everyday even give it a second glance and, if they do, could they possibly grasp the horror of that boy’s final moments. I want to go to his school and build a shrine for him.
So they’ll remember.
So they’ll understand.
I want them to know the truth: this record setter, this football star, he was a dancer, too, and he was a Soldier.
Then, one row at a time, we walk up to Boomer’s upside down rifle and Kevlar behind his empty combat boots – The Battlefield Cross. Next to them is the 8×10 portrait he took at Fort Bragg before we shipped out. In the picture, he stands tall and proud and unafraid in the same uniform as the rest of us. Tucked in one corner, close to his breast pocket where it says U.S. ARMY, is the picture of his dad that he used to carry in his helmet.
It’s a man who looks eerily like Boomer, except with more years on his face, more tragedy and heartache than Boomer ever had the chance to know. He stands tall. But now I see that it’s not just a picture. It’s a funeral card.
It’s laminated together with a Military Police unit crest and a dried poppy. His father doesn’t wear desert camouflage though. He wears a cop uniform. NYPD.
A single phrase is beneath his picture: “Serve and Protect. 9/11 and Always.”
Do the math and you realize that Boomer must have never known his father. Just like me.
It doesn’t help. I’m still angry. But it does explain things. I salute the portraits, and stand there too long. I washed the blood off my saluting hand a week ago, but I don’t think I’ll ever get rid of that smell.

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