Mary Akers – Welcome to my blog, Jeff. 🙂 Thanks for taking the time to share a little bit about your project and the processes that brought it to publication. To start with, could you tell us about the book?
Jeffery Hess – Among these stories you’ll find shipbuilders and sailors, pilots, wild dogs, battles—-both physical and emotional–misunderstandings, fistfights, and the wounds of unrequited love. There are parades and hurricanes, people getting high and some merely getting by, as well as the human sacrifices made, the losses endured, the hardships faced because of or in spite of some connection to the military. Each story is different in the way it approaches the lives of these individuals at certain points of the modern era, but each entertained, and challenged, and stayed with me.
MA – How did the idea for this anthology come to you? Did you discuss it with anyone before taking on the project?
JH – I began a writing workshop for military veterans a few years ago with the vision of one day doing an anthology of the students’ writing. While at AWP in NYC, I discussed this idea with Sheryl Monks, then co-publisher at Press 53. She later emailed to ask if I’d be interested in co-editing an anthology of military writing with Sally Drumm who runs a tremendous workshop for veterans and their families in South Carolina. Sally had a strong vision for her non-fiction anthology and asked Press 53 if they’d be open to the idea of doing two separate anthologies, one fiction, one non-fiction. They liked this idea and so I was off and running. Sally’s anthology, by the way, is “Milspeak: Stories of Warriors, Veterans, Family, and Friends Writing the Military Experience” and will be released by Press 53 on the 4th of July.
My only prior experience with anthologies was reading and submitting to them. I sought the advice of Pinckney Benedict, who urged me to, “Do it!” He was fresh off of editing the first Surreal South anthology and assured me that I was capable and that I’d enjoy the process. I can definitely attest to the enjoyment I got from putting together this book.
MA – How long did the process take from conception to publication?
JH – The initial online chat was in March 2008, but I was busy adjuncting and running the veteran’s workshop, so I took time off from formal teaching and spent a full year on it until publication in May 2009.
In the beginning–what I call the honeymoon phase–I spent a lot of time reading and assembling a stack of stories. I put out the word to writer friends that I was looking for stories on military themes. When a story I wanted appeared in a book I had, I contacted the publisher. By June and July, I began receiving first drafts. This process was the most rewarding because I filled the role of editor. I say this with a great deal of pride because some of these stories went though nine or ten drafts. This gave me an opportunity to do for other writers what I wish an editor would do for me (rather than simply acquiring). Ushering these stories into the world in this way was tremendously gratifying. I was also very gratified to share the stories with my writing workshop–using several stories as examples.
I continued working on sequential drafts of new stories and contacting agents and publishers for reprint rights on existing stories (and when I say stories, I also mean to imply novel chapters as exemplified by the pieces by James Salter and Robert O’Connor).
The complete draft was due to the publisher on December 31st. This date seemed reasonable and far-distant when I suggested it in March. I wanted to wrap it up in one calendar year. As the date approached, Kevin Watson offered me a two-week reprieve, but I declined, promising to have the manuscript to him on time. If a baby can be conceived and delivered in under nine months, then surely a collection of stories should be.
I spent January to April reading proofs, checking for typos and scanning issues. During this time, I also applied increasing pressure to a few of the less motivated rights holders.
MA – With so many wonderful military stories out there, I imagine you had to establish your own sort of “selection process” from the beginning. Can you tell us what your criteria were? And did that change at all as you began assembling the stories?
JH – My selection process began with a wish list of stories that always stood out in my mind, some of the heavy hitters featured in the book, as well as a few (including your excellent story) from the journals I subscribe to.
Once again, Pinckney Benedict, the patron saint of my writing career, was there for me. In our initial conversation, he offered his permission to reprint his story that appears in the book. My only criteria in considering any story was that it somehow related to the military and that it stayed with me long after I finished reading. As a reader and writer, I’m a strong proponent of the MFA concept of Resonance. As an editor, I demanded it.
As far as changes that occurred along the way, some of the writers who committed were unable to meet the deadline. In other cases, agents or publishers declined permission to reprint. And sadly, I had to reject a number of truly great stories.
MA – How did you decide on story order? I’ve ordered two of my own short story collections and found the decision to be a mixture of “gut” and “grab.” What was your process like?
JH – I had no idea how this book would take shape until I started receiving the first drafts. With America’s vast military history, I had to limit the time period somehow. I figured that readers would be most familiar with and connected to the periods between World War II and the current conflicts.
As the stories came in, I considered first and foremost the era to which they most closely related. Your story, for example, is set in the modern day, but involves a Vietnam vet who has flashbacks during the traumas of a hurricane. Despite the date in which the story is set, I wanted to group it with stories that involved other Vietnam vets. The more I thought about it, the more it made sense to me.
The book begins with a story in the height of World War II and ends with someone going off to join the fight of the current conflicts. That was a great scope for me. A time capsule, of sorts, rather than a strict chronology.
MA – How much input did your publisher have in the shaping of this anthology? Did you enjoy working with Press 53?
JH – I began working on it in earnest in May. Then Sheryl Monks contacted me to say that she was leaving Press 53, and while I understood her reasons, I worried that the book would die on the vine, so to speak. I knew Sheryl from grad school and liked and trusted her, but I’d never met Kevin Watson. From the first time I spoke with him, though, it seemed like we were old friends. He assured me that he was behind this project and instinctively I trusted his word. He worked tirelessly on this book and has been there every step of the way. Plus, he’s designed the best cover I could imagine. I’ll never forget the first mock-up he sent me. I was blown away. He shrugged off my praise, but there’s no denying how thrilled I was.
Kevin was tremendously helpful in all aspects of this project. He even introduced me to a couple of amazing writers I was not familiar with, but who had really great stuff and interesting bios. We didn’t meet in person until the book’s launch a year after our initial online chat, but as he did on the phone so many months prior, he made me feel as if we’d always been friends. That’s a rare skill that I admire and appreciate.
I’m a big fan of small presses and the books they publish. I’m happy to be associated with a quality publisher like Press 53. Despite the challenges of not having a huge marketing budget or major bookstore chain presence, I think a book like this has tremendous word-of-mouth appeal.
MA – A portion of each sale of Home of the Brave will go to USA Cares. Could you give us a brief description of the kinds of work they do and why it’s important to you?
JH – Donating a potion of the proceeds is something that I always wanted to do. When I set out, I didn’t have a charity in mind. I’d researched on the internet, vetting all my candidates on a site that lists operating budgets and rates their viability, etc. But one day, while listening to the Dennis Miller radio show, I heard a guest named Kim Moorman talking about USA Cares (a non-profit 501(c)3 organization). She spoke eloquently about the amazing things her organization does for post 9/11 veterans. Back to the computer I went, did a little digging, and was suitably impressed. I sent an email stating who I was and what I had in mind. The reply I received (from the very woman I’d heard on the radio) was more warm and welcoming than I could have imagined. Subsequent phone conversations revealed that both Kim and the organization’s director, Bill Nelson, work tirelessly to assist post 9/11 veterans and support veterans of all eras. Good people doing good things. I was sold.
The money this charity raises helps save homes from foreclosure and provides needed funds that allow people who suffer from post traumatic stress disorder to receive the treatment they so desperately need. To date, they have saved over 500 homes from foreclosure and have provided money to cover wages lost during the three-month treatment for PTSD.
MA – You’ve mentioned your creative writing workshop for veterans. How has that experience affected you personally? How has it shaped your own writing?
JH – Personally, it’s been rewarding because they’re all so appreciative of the opportunity to gather and discuss writing. If any of the people in my workshop are reading this, they’ll tell you that I don’t accept compliments or praise very well. It’s not about me. It’s about them. And I enjoy sharing what I’ve been so fortunate to learn over the years.
My writing has been shaped like the old cliché that says the best way to learn something is by teaching it. In grad school, we learn terms and concepts and think we know them by the time we print our theses. But when I began leading the workshop, I gained an appreciation for the difference between cognition and recognition. For the better part of a year, I often drew from some of the fine stories in this anthology as examples to illustrate the points I tried to make. Doing so cemented the knowledge both for them and for me.
MA – This book, your Navy service, and the workshop you lead prove your affinity for the military. Do you also write about the military in your own work?
JH – Absolutely, though sometimes only peripherally. I have a number of short stories with current or former sailors as protagonists, and the novel I’m revising is about a Gulf War Recon Marine who falls into a suicide pact with a damaged woman shortly after his fortieth birthday.
MA – Of the 24 stories in this book, which is your favorite?
JH – My wife asked me the same question. Unfortunately it’s one that I couldn’t answer then, nor can I now. Not because of diplomatic reasons (anyone who knows me can attest to the fact that I’m neither smart enough nor PC enough for true diplomacy), but rather because each story in the book is my favorite in a different way. That may sound like a glib response from a parent about his children, but it is the case.
In putting together this book, I was able to select from a “wish list” of stories that I’d read sometimes ten years earlier. I also had the good fortune of assisting writers with the creation of new material. In all cases, I reread each story many, many times which revealed nuances and drew me closer to the characters.
MA – You mentioned earlier that there were reprint rights that you were unable to obtain. Can you elaborate on that?
JH – Yes. There were a couple who shall remain unnamed here, but I will say that the disappointment I’d felt at the time has been supplanted by my happiness with the finished book as it appears.
Home of the Brave: Stories in Uniform is available from the book’s website and also from Press 53 as well as online from all major booksellers. Please also ask for it at a quality independent bookstore near you.
About the editor: Jeffery Hess served six years in the U.S. Navy and holds a B.A. from the University of South Florida and an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte. He’s held writing positions at a major daily newspaper, a Fortune 500 company, and a university-based research center. In addition to corporate publications and websites, his writing has appeared in The Houston Literary Review, American Skating World, Writer’s Journal, and the Tampa Tribune. He lives in Florida where he’s completing a novel and leads a creative writing workshop for military veterans.