I had an opportunity to chat with Wilson F. Lowery, author of the military memoir Far from a Soldier. We got into a number of topics, from American foreign policy and feigned suicide attempts to the ins and outs of getting published and Father John Misty.
First, thanks for agreeing to answer a few questions. I really enjoyed the book.
Thank you for this opportunity, Schuy! 1. What responses have you gotten from those who have read the Far from a Soldier? Family, friends, others, and have any of your former Army peers read it? If so, what were their responses?
While a majority of the responses I’ve received have been positive, my close friends and family haven’t provided me much feedback. I think it was pretty difficult for them to read the book and digest some of the content. My wife, for example, couldn’t stop crying when she read it, mainly because she felt like she needed to save me and/or hug me when she read passages that indicated I was really suffering at the time. Another good friend told me he found the book disturbing to him, in a good way. He couldn’t elaborate much further than that, but I could tell that he probably felt like my wife did when he read it. Someone recently texted me, “So I just want to thank you, for such an honest portrayal of what you went through, and your raw truthful feelings…” She said she was going to share it with her close friends, family, and her book club, which means a lot to me. As for my former Army peers, I haven’t reached out to them. Before I left the Army, I took down the names, addresses, and phone numbers of a handful of the guys who supported me when I was there, yet I’ve never tried reaching out to them. I don’t know if it is guilt that is holding me back, or if I’m afraid of what they might say to me today. I would hope that they would still be supportive of my decision, but I’m not sure. It’s one of those things that bothers me every day, because I’ve kept the address book in a place where I can see it. Psychologically, I’m not sure why I keep it in sight and why I haven’t reached out to them.
2. How has your experience in the Army affected your view of or perspective on America? I mean, it seems like a pretty major shift, going from a kid fresh out of university who wants some revenge for 9/11 to the guy who can write a book like this one.
Growing up and seeing my dad struggle with what he went through in Vietnam, for some reason or another, made me really want to be supportive of our country and our military. I think I felt that I needed to feel this way to help justify why he was so withdrawn and angry. It’s strange to think about it that way. Up until my Army experience, I was pretty naïve and didn’t really question the actions of our government and our military. I wanted to believe that what we were doing was justifiable. I think my experience showed me a darker side of what is really going on. I signed up knowing we were preparing for a way, but I didn’t realize how much brainwashing was involved in order for us to kill people. It makes sense to me today that they had us march and chant things like, “Kill! Kill! Kill! We Will!” and answer our drill instructor’s question, “What makes the grass grow green?” with, “Blood! Blood! Blood! Blood makes the grass grow green!” Some of the guys thought these things were fun to shout, yet I saw through it and I was terribly bothered by it.
I even remember the chaplain giving me a load of bullshit about how god is fine with us killing if someone tries to kill us, or that we are protectors of the world following his greater cause, or something like that. I think one of the most eye-opening experiences I had was when they released me. It was the oddest feeling. This administrative guy just told me I was free to go and didn’t say anything else. I remember stepping outside of the building, and just looking around me, lost and confused. I was still on base, yet I was free. I didn’t even know how to get off, so I went to a pay phone and had to make a collect call just to get a cab. I felt abandoned and I think that’s how I feel about our country today. I don’t feel connected or patriotic at all and I think our foreign policy is shameful. It’s strange that we don’t see more people talking about how terrible drone strikes are, due to the high rates of civilian casualties. We get all bent out of shape if one of our soldiers gets killed, yet we don’t even give two shits about the thousands of civilians who have been killed or displaced by our actions. I would like to have faith that America will change and that we won’t be so militarized in the future, but I don’t have much faith.
3. Forgive this question, but I’ve seen some comments online in another interview, so I want to ask it: How real of an account is the one you give in the book? More to the point, was there as much manipulation from recruiters and the army bureaucracy, therapists, and so on, all through the process as it seems in the story?
Your question is more than fair. I wrote as honestly and factually as I could, though I am aware of my own emotional stake in the story and how it may have impacted my writing. My editor really helped keep me in check and was brutally honest when she thought I wasn’t being real. I owe her a lot for her guidance. In previous drafts of my manuscript, I spent a great deal of time discussing the recruitment process, but we chose to leave that out of the final draft. There was definitely a lot of manipulation by the recruiter I had and by the Army in general. I can only blame myself for not seeing through it. I was young, confused, and fairly ignorant at the time. I should have taken more time to think about my decision and read more about what Special Forces soldiers actually do. There was a great monetary incentive for me to go the route I did and the story the recruiter told was highly fantasized.
After I refused to train and was going through some tough days, I used my one phone call to call my recruiter directly and I confronted him. He actually apologized to me for his actions and said he shouldn’t have steered me down the Special Forces path, yet there was nothing he could do to help me. When I initially went to meet with him, I was more interested in looking into an intelligence related job in the Army, but he quickly got me to consider the Green Beret option, which wasn’t a guarantee at all. I am sure he was pressured to get more people into the infantry route, so he was probably just doing his job, which must have been an awful position to be in. As for the therapist, I think she was pretty fed up with the amount of kids she was dealing with who were in similar situations. The entire situation was tied up with red tape and just seemed unnecessary. I felt like everyone was using me to prove a point and it kind of worked, because other than one kid attempting to go A.W.O.L. and another failing a drug test after returning from Christmas break, no one pulled the shit that I did.
4. In the book, it’s interesting that the farther you seem to be sliding into depression, up until the suicide attempt, the rosier the letters home get. Would you want to say something about that? In a way, I think that totally makes sense, even though it seems like a contradiction.
That’s a very good question. Without giving away too much about the story, after my phone call with my parents where they basically told me I wouldn’t be allowed back home, I felt that I had to paint a rosy picture for them. Additionally, I was aware that the Army had every right to open our letters that we were sending and receiving, so I didn’t want anyone to catch on to how I was really feeling. I recall not really wanting to write back home, but we were encouraged to do so and I didn’t want any drill sergeant to ask me why I wasn’t writing, so I just lied to my parents so that they wouldn’t have to worry about me. It was a total contradiction and I feel guilty about it to this day.
5. And another thing: how “real” was the suicide attempt. You seem to be headed down into a pretty significant depression, but there also seems to be some design toward getting assurance that you will get out too.
To be brutally honest, while I was pretty confident that my suicide attempt would ultimately be a success, that I would survive it, and then be released from the Army, I also knew that it could go terribly wrong and I was prepared for that. At the time I was just exhausted from the experience and was desperate for it all to end one way or another. It’s hard thinking about it today, because I now enjoy my life. At the time though, I was willing to “go all in” and see what final card would be drawn for me. I truly didn’t want to die that way though, which is why I told my battle buddy immediately what I had done. I did, however, write a note just in case I didn’t survive.
6. One thing that struck me was how funny the book was at times. There’s a kind of sarcasm or irony that comes through in the tone of how the book is narrated. As a reader, it seems to amplify the ridiculousness of what in other ways is a terrifying situation to be in. Any thoughts on that?
When I was working on my first drafts of the book, I decided that I wanted to inject as much humor into it as I could, because I knew the heart of the story was dark enough and I didn’t want people to be too depressed by the material. While Boot Camp is terrible, there truly were a lot of funny moments and I didn’t want to take away from that aspect. We did our best to find ways to laugh, which sometimes got us in trouble, because it was a way for us to cope with the pressure and all of the stressful situations we endured. Additionally, I’m an extremely sarcastic person, so it was easy for me to write that way. I’m not going to lie and say that I wasn’t both angry and guilt-stricken by the experience, because I was and still am, in a way. Looking back on it though, the decision to join the Army was just as ridiculous as what happened to me after I did join. I didn’t want people to feel sorry for me since I brought this on myself and I thought that using some humor and irony now and again would lead the reader to believe that I’m not a terrible, suicidal person who can’t live with the experience. 7. Was your choice of a non-American publisher intentional? What was the process like finding the right home for the book?
I could spend hours just talking about the struggle to get this book published. I was pretty naive in the beginning to think that my first draft would be considered by major American publishers or agents even. I only edited my book for grammatical errors before sending it off, because I was confident that someone would be interested. While I got hundreds of rejection letters, a few agents expressed their interest, but I was told that I either needed to rewrite it first, or that they weren’t willing to take the risk of bringing it to market at the time. All of the agents who legitimately responded to me encouraged me to keep going. I did a rewrite and then tried another barrage of query letters around 2015 and got rejected over and over again. Only two agents seemed interested. Most responses I received stated something along the lines of, “This is not for us. Good luck and keep trying.”
I got the impression that perhaps an American agent or publisher might not want to publish an anti-American / anti-Army tale during a war, so I decided to hold off on another round of query letters and just let the book sit. In a way, I had given up hope. Friends of ours moved to Germany a few years back and one of them started working for Bastei Lubbe and then approached my wife to see if she might be interested in editing some novellas for the company. At first, I thought nothing of it, but after she continued this side job with the company, I reached out to our friend overseas and shared that I had written a memoir. She was blown away, because she didn’t know about my Army experience and she had no idea that I dabbled in writing. I didn’t want to put her in an awkward position, but did ask if I could approach people on the publishing side of her company and she didn’t hesitate to connect me with them.
In previous editions of my book, I hadn’t included the letters that I wrote home to my parents, but had just recently added them to the book and thought to myself, “Well, I probably should give it one last shot.” It was perfect timing and luckily my friend was willing to put herself out there for me. Bastei Lubbe at first responded enthusiastically, but as the process started to unfold, I thought they were going to back out. Much like the agents that I corresponded with before, they were worried about how the Army and the American government would react to my book. They ran it by their legal team and I nervously waited. I felt relieved when I finally heard they were still interested and they only had me make some minor changes to protect them legally. I think that using a foreign publisher really worked to my advantage, especially since the content of my book could be a risk to an American company. I wish I had thought about reaching out to foreign publishers when I first started writing, though I don’t have any regrets about the process. I think having over a decade to work on my manuscript was a good thing, yet a bit painful.
8. I understand that you’ve published under a pseudonym. Why did you choose to go this route rather than just putting it all out there under your own name?
I went back and forth on this a few times. Ultimately Bastei Lubbe felt that I should use a pseudonym, so that kind of tipped the scales. It’s not that I (or they) feared someone might hurt me, but it’s not just about me in this book. It’s about my family, friends, and other Army recruits and I felt the need to protect their identities too. It’s strange, because I would like to promote the book, yet at the same time I need to be cautious and protect my family from any backlash.
9. Finally, if the book had a soundtrack, what are three songs that would be on it?
Now this is an interesting question. I never thought about what songs would be a fit until now. I guess (for now) I have to go with “As Tears Go By” by The Rolling Stones, “No Surprises” by Radiohead, and “Well You Can Do It Without Me” by Father John Misty.
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