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Author Interviews

Kevin Basl, Midnight Cargo

What inspired you to write Midnight Cargo? How long did it take?


In 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic, I started feeling pressure to finally finish a book. The quarantine—which was a productive time for me creatively—forced me to slow down and take stock. I looked at everything I had written over the past decade-plus, questioning whether I could pull any of it together into a cohesive manuscript. For the next two years, I worked on rearranging, revising, editing, and writing new work to fill in gaps. The result is a book made up of a lot of disparate pieces that collectively tell a larger narrative. 


All of the stories and poems in the book, to various degrees, were inspired by my memories of serving in the US Army in the Iraq War, to include my homecoming experience. But I rendered those memories through different perspectives and characters to create a bit of physic distance and to de-center myself. I wanted to present the scenarios in the book free from the sort of commentary you’d see in an essay or memoir, to make readers ask themselves, did this really happen to the author? My military experience feels like a surreal dream at this point—I left active duty in 2008—and I think it’s apt that the book manifested as a sort of index of army memories, colored, of course, by my politics and beliefs. 


All told, the book includes work written over the past thirteen or so years. The first draft of “The Bugler”—which is very different from what’s in the book—was written way back in 2010; “The Rose Procession” was written in April and May of 2023, just before turning in the book’s final draft for publication. Some of the material was written for friends’ projects, like “Meeting Muhammad” and “The World You Once Loved.” Other pieces came more organically, inspired by workshop prompts, the journal I kept in Iraq, military objects, and other people’s work. Some of the materials sat on my computer unopened for years; a couple of the poems came very quicky—an hour or two from first draft to final published form. 


What challenges did you encounter in the process of writing your book?


I wanted to show the disastrous consequences of the Iraq War, yet not be didactic. I also wanted to write Iraqi characters in a charitable yet honest way. There’s an ongoing debate in the literary world about writing from the perspective of the “other” in fiction and poetry. Some say, as a white person, you should never do it. The opposite end of the spectrum—Linell Shriver, for example—argues that a fiction writer should have no limitations. I fall somewhere in the middle. If you’re going to do it, you’d better have a really good reason for it. You should understand your intentions and consider how such work will be received within the context of cultural appropriation and colonialism. Will it help or harm the plight of the social group in question? You should prepare for criticism, because you’re not going to please everyone, nor should you strive to. There is no simple answer when it comes to writing the “other.”


The story “Liberators,” whose protagonist is a former Iraqi soldier, was especially challenging. It started with a simple prompt: write a story from the “enemy’s” perspective. What if I were in the shoes of an Iraqi army veteran confronted with the question of whether to join the insurgency to fight occupying American forces? An exercise in radical empathy. I wrote it in third person, and tried to tell the story without much interiority. To deal with some of the language barrier issues—a major theme in the story—I approached it as if I were writing a translation from Arabic to English. I opted not to italicize instances of phonetic Iraqi Arabic, so as not to “otherize” the language. Ultimately, I wanted to show the economic and political conditions that may have influenced an Iraqi citizen’s choice to join the insurgency, at a very specific time in the war—namely at the moment, in my view, that the war became totally “unwinnable.” 


Some of the details of the story were pieced together from memories of my deployments, images or situations that had stayed with me. For example, the scenario of the electric lines getting pulled down and the assault on Salib, the protagonist, at the hands of an American soldier came from a story an infantryman in my unit liked to tell—brag about, really. The idea of Salib being a mechanic came from a glimpse into an Iraqi auto shop in Balad I saw while out on a security escort convoy. Other details came from research and talking with Iraqis I’ve met over the years. 


Another challenge in finishing the book: I had a lost manuscript scare. In 2017, my computer holding the Midnight Cargo stories and poems got stolen in a smash-and-grab in Washington DC. I was visiting a World War I art exhibition at the Smithsonian with some veteran friends. We came out and discovered our van, which was carrying expensive papermaking equipment used at an art workshop we had just taught, had been broken into. My computer was the only thing that got stolen. I lost some of the poem and story drafts I had been working on and, foolishly, I didn’t have them backed up. I was able to piece together some of the stuff from earlier drafts I had emailed to myself and submitted to journals, but everything was a mess. I did, however, eventually see the incident as a blessing in disguise, because it forced me to rewrite some of the work and deal with creative challenges that I had been avoiding. At the time, though, I was devastated. What hurt the most is that I lost an audio interview I had done with my grandpa, a Korean War veteran, before he passed away. 


How would you describe your creative practice? Do you have rituals or routines?


I don’t have a set writing schedule. Perhaps if I did I’d be more productive. I’ll go a month without writing, then I’ll write eight hours a day for a couple of weeks. But every day, I try to do something creative that moves me in the right direction. I’ve always got multiple projects going at once—poems, short stories, essays, songs, as well as other pursuits, like DIY construction projects. All of these are interconnected and feed into one another. I might be thinking about how to end a story while I’m painting siding—just like I might take a break while revising a poem to practice guitar. The key is to maintain a balance among the projects and not let any of them get away from you, which is to say you don’t want to let any one project leave your unconscious mind, where creativity, if you foster it, continues to happen 24/7. I don’t work fast, but I do work steadily. And I’m patient.


What aspects of your life or upbringing influence your work?


I grew up in rural western Pennsylvania, in a region that up until recently has struggled to identify itself culturally. It’s Appalachia, but few people from there actually use that term to describe the area. It’s sort of in the Rust Belt too, but where I lived, abandoned strip mines were more common than derelict factories. What was the defining music of the region? The food? The literature? I could sense a cultural “identity crisis” as a teenager, but I couldn’t articulate it then. Today, there are a lot of writers from Northern Appalachia grappling with these sorts of questions, and I feel like I have something to contribute to the conversation, not only in the context of war and military literature (as there are many veterans living in the region) but also by the simple fact that I was raised there, and I became an artist there. I now see this identity crisis as an opportunity, and I’m excited to see where this return to my roots will carry me. 


What are your future creative goals? Are you working on any new projects?


As I mentioned, I’m always tinkering with a handful of short stories and poems. But beyond that I’m working a memoir, or perhaps a collection of essays, exploring how art and writing have served throughout my life as a form of “secular spiritually.” The work explores questions and examples of how creativity has helped me grow as a person, has brought meaning to my life, has introduced me to an inspiring community, has carried me through difficult times, and has even influenced my ethics and politics. 


I’ll also continue teaching creative writing workshops, as I enjoy it and have a knack for it. I’ll be facilitating about four or five a month throughout this year, with Warrior Writers and Community Building Art Works, on top of doing readings and other art events.


Do you have any advice for aspiring writers/artists?


Find the right form to contain your idea or flash of inspiration and you’ll unlock its creative energy. Ask: would this idea work best as a poem, story, novel, essay, song, interview? Of course, each genre then has its own unique considerations: questions of tense, perspective, dialogue, poetic meter, or—if you’re writing music—instrumentation. It often takes a lot of experimentation and patience to find the right form. Sometimes it comes quickly, other times it takes a long time—years. Play around with the material and keep an open mind. Don’t be too precious with the work. Don’t take yourself too seriously. 

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