Christopher Lyke is a writer, musician, U.S. Army veteran and now a Chicago school teacher whose debut book of linked short stories and vignettes, The Chicago East India Company, will be released on 14 July, 2022.
Phil: How does your background as a teacher, and as a soldier, impact your writing?
Christopher: Obviously with a book like this one, the setting of the stories and what I’m trying to get across to the reader are grounded in my experiences in the army as well as in the classroom. Beyond that, the discipline from being in the service is always there behind me.
I think this is something that doesn’t get talked about enough. Writing at a professional level has a huge component of discipline to it, because it just takes time to grind out a first draft, and a second, and a third, and so on. I feel like my one and only superpower as a writer is discipline, and I absolutely learned that in the army.
When I feel lazy it whispers something obscene in my ear in an effort to remind me to move, to write, to get up and run or whatever I may be doing at the time. Being a parent really does that as well. If I’m not going to take care of the situation, it doesn’t get taken care of, and that’s definitely a lesson learned from both the army and from being a dad.
Maybe that’s why so many former American soldiers, particularly after World War Two, became successful writers. Do you think we are going to see another generation of iconic writers emerge from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq?
For sure. It’s already happening. We kind of know the big names, the Phil Klays and Matt Gallaghers of the scene, and they are super cool and generous, and actually make themselves open to the rest of us.
I’d add Elliot Ackerman to that list as well.
Thanks, I’ll check him out. There is a groundswell of people writing, producing, and publishing a ton of cool work that is just emerging. Travis Klempan, Eric Chandler, Benjamin Inks, Randy Brown, Ryan Stovall, and so many others—too many to mention here. Dewaine Farria is another successful and talented guy who I have met through Line of Advance.
Line of Advance is an initiative that you started. Can you tell me a bit about it?
Sure. Me and a couple guys I served with in Afghanistan hatched a plan to start an online literary magazine for veterans. This was in 2012 or 2013. LOA is basically a zine, or a blog, and it has been a pretty good vehicle to often get newer writers out there and read. For the last six years we’ve been holding the Col. Darron L. Wright Memorial Writing Awards for prose and poetry by veterans and their family members. It wasn’t my idea. The poet Frank Blake served with Col. Wright, and wanted to do something in his honor. So, he and I got the contest going.
Last year we published an anthology of the first five years of contest winners through Middle West Press. It’s called Our Best War Stories.
I love that you are supporting veteran writers who are writing about things other than war. I think that those experiences are something to draw from, but also don’t need to define us or our work.
Absolutely, veterans are putting out great work and writing things that aren’t just bang bang stories. The really good stuff, in my opinion, is the work kind of “informed” by the wars. The “foul dust” as it were of our adventures that seeps into the work and is there, lurking in the bushes.
That’s a great phrase. And it reminds me of the physical dust of places like Iraq and Afghanistan, which was pretty foul for other reasons entirely. I think it’s actually that dust, those experiences, that drive veterans to become writers.
Well, war-writing by the soldiers themselves goes back to the beginning, doesn’t it? We all know the names Xenophon, and Aeschylus and Caesar, etc. I guess Caesar’s was more of a propaganda piece, but anyway, there must be an innate desire in humans to process traumatic experiences.
You could argue that anything with a message is propaganda, and what meaningful art doesn’t have a message?
Writing was the obvious medium for so long that maybe we continue to use it out of respect for those that came before. It sure as hell isn’t easy though and takes a lot of introspection and practice and the hard hours doubting oneself and questioning the whole operation.
Maybe there are veteran sculptors and painters out there that I haven’t discovered yet? I think that perhaps the veteran-writer connection is because writing is a relatively direct art form, and lets you get to the point even if the form is a 100,000 word novel. But I’m ready to stand corrected if someone points out other veteran-artists who I’ve missed.
I think you’re onto something. And writing can be done anywhere. You only need a pencil. I kept my notebooks from overseas. Those little brown or green ones that we’d write down mission information and planning and stuff. In between coordinates and frequencies and step-off times I had little lines or story ideas in the margins. They’re rarely any good, and I never used them, but it all adds up. Like running laps or something. Also, I don’t mean to be trite or academic to bring up the Greeks and the Romans. I’m not comparing 21st century war writing to them, but the impetus has been around for a really long time. Here in the States I suspect we owe more to Bierce and Hemingway and O’Brien.
I’d even go farther to include folks like Kerouac, who was rejected by the merchant marines. At a time when a whole generation was serving, that rejection must have shaped his sense of belonging and worth in profound ways. The counter-culture movement is in some ways a rejection of the values that are inculcated as a veteran. I think you could find an anti-veteran thread in 20th century American writing as well.
The last few years have been pretty crazy, and I think that the restrictions that were put in place because of the pandemic really tested people’s trust for government and sense of community. It also made me think differently about the role of writers in society, and not just because everyone’s Netflix consumption increased by 1000% percent. Did it change the way that you see artists in society?
Honestly, the pandemic just allowed me time to collapse in on myself and edit, edit, and edit more.
I think this is every writer’s guilty secret. Lockdowns make introverts more productive.
But as for new material, I think I only wrote a piece or two. One of them is in the book, but I usually write about things I’m doing or have done. I kind of report on myself. And with the lockdown I didn’t really experience that much. I didn’t have much to write about. I guess I could have written about watching Dance Moms with my daughter or zombie movies with my son, but I don’t think anyone cares about that. I think you’re asking for a bigger picture though.
Yeah, I think for me it highlighted the role that artists play in society, both in terms of entertaining people, but also in holding up a lens to what is going on. I branched out from writing into graffiti art that was explicitly about the inequity I saw in society’s response to the pandemic. I not only felt compelled to express what I was seeing and feeling, but for the first time I really thought that I had a message that needed to be heard.
So much happened in 2020 and 2021 that was informed by people getting bored and angry while being undernourished spiritually-if that’s where art hits us-and so a lack of art and creation was definitely missed. Left to our own devices, without inspiration, we humans can be up to no good. That said, for some artists, there wasn’t really a slowdown. My friend Jean Frater kept creating and producing these really cool pieces the entire time. And there were plenty others. I think sometimes having other people be very productive when you have nothing in the tank is a good motivator. “Get back to work, you lazy bastard.” is usually what it tells me.
Amen to that. That should be tattooed on the arms of every MFA student, to remind them that writers aren’t precious artists, we’re craftspeople who are judged on what we produce. A “writer” is someone who writes, that’s all. So, if you want the moniker, get to it.
Haha. I like that. I probably should have gone and gotten an MFA. I think when I could have done that I was just getting out of the army and had really young kids and was too busy. There are a lot of paths to get to where you need to be though. Some of my writer-friends are MFA people and some aren’t. Neither way seems to be a guarantor of getting a book out.
What advice would you give to other writers looking to get published?
Well, no one is going to pluck you from obscurity. You have put yourself out there by submitting to a bunch of online blogs/magazines, by networking, and by making friends with the other writers creating cool stuff.
I think that is really key. Joining or creating a social set of writers is incredibly useful, whether in person or online. When I first started out, I was a regular at a writing group that met every other week in the basement of a bar. Some people in the group were terrific writers, some were absolutely terrible, but we all learned from and supported each other.
Exactly. We all wind up helping one another, and while there may be little jealousies or cliques, really that’s all just the trappings of artists trying to get their work out and read, seen, listened to, etc. Most of the people in this circle of military to civilian writers are helpful and kind and tend to prop one another up. I would recommend leaning into your community, whichever that is, and collaborating. Read what your peers are doing and try to be better than you were yesterday. And be as honest as possible in your work. People can smell a phoney a mile away.
This idea of community is part of what we are trying to do at Double Dagger as well. It’s an old model, where the publisher acts as editor, coach, and business partner, but we think that there is value in building long term relationships with writers. That idea has been lost in modern publishing, at least in terms of what publishers are willing to do for mid-list or developing writers. But that’s another element of being a veteran, I think it instills respect for the idea of community. You can’t really succeed alone as a writer.
That is so true. The amount of peers that help with the process is too numerous to mention. Almost everything that’s in the book was sent to three or four friends that helped me edit, or acted as a conscious or a sane voice. Like old friends that tell you “you look stupid in that tee shirt” before you step out of the house.
I want to talk about the work itself now. “The Chicago East India Company” has an interesting structure, using short stories that are linked by theme and feeling more than anything else, though there is more of a thread through the Afghanistan stories. Why did you decide to frame the book the way you did?
I was intentionally copying a couple things. Hemingway’s “In Our Time” is set up like this, with a story then a vignette, then a story, etc. so that was in the back of my mind. But really I was stealing from musician Bob Pollard and his band Guided By Voices. His ability to write perfect pop songs interspersed with noise collages and half songs is really freeing. It gave me license to include standalone vignettes that were just an idea, or what would be only a scene from a larger story.
I like this. Sometimes those quick bits of a story are way more impactful than they would be as part of a larger work. And it’s this connection with music that led us to hiring an album cover designer to create the book cover. It gives it a different feel.
Normally I think we stress about style and framing an entire story around each idea; a need to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Those sound collages however, they put the idea in my head that I could pass along a feeling, or an emotion, with the short pieces. I think of “The Chicago East India Company” as a shoebox full of polaroids one finds in a closet a decade later and reads into each great scene. Reflecting on when we were younger, on what happened, on what could have been, and there’s a sadness, as well. All that’s all there when we sit and think about the past and sometimes it’s only in emotional flashes.
Yes, memories aren’t just detailed renditions of what happened, but snippets of things we felt, or smells or sounds. Memory isn’t the camera recording from behind our eyes that sometimes we think it is.
That’s all so true. When we remember an event there’s the thing that happened, the event in question. A car rear ended the one in front of it, say, and then the other people that were there, all the pairs of eyes and ears that saw the accident or were scared in that moment, will have their own version. And maybe the person on the sidewalk was biased, or drunk as hell, or angry at their husband, or whatever state a person could be in while walking down the street will color how they saw the accident. Add a decade and a couple kids or a divorce or losing one’s parents or a career change and that memory is behind a lot of shit. It’s always changing. But the car did get rear ended, that’s still true. That’s the great part of writing fiction. Once I write about something that happened in Africa or Afghanistan or Chicago it takes on a life of its own and however I remember it is true. Then it gets morphed or turned around or set at a different time and I wind up remembering that new version as the truth.
Are there any new projects that you’re working on now?
Right now, I’m finishing up reading the entries for the 2022 Wright Prize for Line of Advance. Once I get the finalists to guest judge Ray McPadden—another really good writer—I can kind of slow down and begin working on some new stories.
I’m looking forward to seeing what you come up with! When I’m not writing, I tend to be reading a lot more. What have you read recently that you’d recommend?
I’m sad to say I haven’t read many novels lately. The last novels I read were “Blood Meridian” and “Heart of Darkness.”
“Blood Meridian” is one of my favourite novels. It’s the kind of book that I wish I had written, as dark as it is. And “Heart of Darkness” is a classic that’s inspired so many other works.
Both are terrifying and completely honest about human beings and what we do to one another in the worst situations. That led me to “Empire of the Summer Moon” which was such a great book about the Comanches. I finished that about three months ago and can’t recommend it enough.
Since you’ve recommended it in the same paragraph as “Blood Meridian,” I’ve just bought it.
Awesome! I’m also re-reading some of Hemingway’s short stories…I kind of do that every two years or so…the best ones are perfect things that leave you feeling like a damaged human being with a glimmer of hope, with the desire to overcome I guess. Like listening to “Ruby My Dear” or any other sad and perfect thing. For school, I just finished teaching Sandra Cisneros’s “Woman Hollering Creek” and I love her writing. She’s from down the street here in Chicago.
I like the eclectic list of what you’re reading, though it seems like they are all linked by uncomfortable truths about the human condition.
I guess they are. Maybe it’s age and experience. I don’t know if I had the lens to properly see humanity in the raw like that when I was younger. All these kinds of books are so honest about who we are. They’re like the old pagan gods that were unabashedly too human in their jealousies and desires and cruelties. What good stuff. Maybe it’s caused by reading history too. You can’t hide from the past. I like the idea of reading things again and again over time as well. There are a couple books I’ve re-read probably five or six times over thirty years. Like Gatsby for instance. The things I thought were great at 19 are still there but I see them so differently now. Notice more too. I should read Brothers K again and see what it does to me. Maybe I should wait till the kids are in college just to be safe. It could get pretty wild.
And pretty wild times are fodder for more writing! I vote that you do it!
Christopher Lyke’s debut work, “The Chicago East India Company,” is out on 14 July.
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