Sean Davis is an artist and former soldier whose new memoir, The Wax Bullet War: Chronicles of a Soldier & Artist was just published by Ooligan Press, the graduate student run publishing company at Portland State University. Sean enlisted after September 11, served in Iraq, and came home to, eventually, use art and writing to deal with his demons.
Sean recently answered some questions for Rose City Reader.
How did you come to write The Wax Bullet War?
This book started as one story called "The Kid," which is a chapter in the book. I was writing something else completely and this story comes pouring out, a story which was very difficult to write. Getting my experiences out on paper helped me reconnect to society. After that there was a year where I couldn’t write anything else. I thought the book would be a way I could help other combat veterans who may be having a hard time after getting back by showing them how I got through it, and it could help combat veterans’ family members understand their loved ones.
Your memoir is intensely personal – did you have any qualms about sharing so much?
Yeah, some of it is very embarrassing. I went to some low places, but if I thought that if I really wanted to help veterans or their family members I would have to keep it unfiltered. It’s surprised me that at my readings so many people come up afterward and tell me stories about someone in their family going through some of the same problems as I did in the book. So, as embarrassing as some of these moments were, they’re not uncommon. If it helps one combat veteran make it through or one of their family members understand then it’s worth it.
The subtitle of your books is Chronicles of a Soldier & Artist. How do art and soldiering come together for you?
I love this question I guess because that’s one of the themes of the book. For most of my adult life I had separated the soldier and the artist. I really thought I couldn’t be both. When I was in the field or deployed to a real world event I was a soldier only and I enjoyed it. Being an infantryman and a leader during combat was something I was good at, but when I needed an escape I would write, paint, and would push the soldier out of my head. It was almost like being two different people. It took a long time to figure out that being a good artist helped me be a better soldier and visa versa.
Can you recommend any other books about the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Are any of them personal account like yours?
If you haven’t read Brian Turner’s book of poems Here, Bullet or Phantom Noise you should. His poetry really blows me away. I can’t read his poems in public because I tear up. I just get it, you know. Plus, I just got to meet him and we instantly became friends. He’s a great human and a great poet. I love this part of Here, Bullet:
Here is the adrenaline rush you crave,
that inexorable flight, that insane puncture
into heat and blood. And I dare you to finish
what you've started. Because here, Bullet,
here is where I complete the word you bring
David Abram’s Fobbit has very intelligent and funny things to say about war with an incredible voice. Phil Klay’s Redeployment is a great bunch of fictional stories about soldiers’ experiences, but I think my book is different in a few ways. I think my book focuses more on love even though my squad and I really were in some heavy combat. Maybe it sounds funny, but my book shows that we spent more time helping people and deciding who not to shoot than shooting. I put an emphasis on human relationships both in combat and at home. I wanted to write a book about human experiences relatable to anyone, not a war book.
Can you give us an example or two of advice you wished you had before you enlisted?
That was so long ago and I’m such a different person now. I can’t imagine that nineteen year old would even listen to anyone.
What were you least prepared for when you got to active duty in Iraq?
So many things. I grew up watching all the 80s action and war movies so I had some warped subconscious idea what going to war should be. It wasn’t like that at all. I wasn’t prepared for the corporations being on the front. Our base had a Burger King, Subway Sandwiches, Starbucks before it was even secure. I wasn’t prepared for not getting the equipment that we needed. I wasn’t prepared for seeing how we hired people from Third World Nations to be our cooks and wash our clothes even though we had those jobs in the army. I wasn’t prepared for all the military contractors and how much money they made compared to us as soldiers when our job was 100 times more difficult. Honestly, none of it made sense other than the camaraderie that formed between the men.
What did you learn from writing your book – either about the subject of the book or the writing process – that most surprised you?
Art saves lives. Looking back on it all if I hadn’t started back with my art I wouldn’t be here. Art has such a healing potential in our society and the world. It’s sad that we’re cutting it from schools and we’re placing such a low priority on it in our culture. By cutting it we not only doing a disservice to the people it can help today, but many of our future generation won’t even see art as an option to help them. I started a non profit to help combat veterans transition back into society through art called A Rock or Something Productions. I thought this was unique, but as I traveled around the country on the book tour I’ve met other combat veterans doing the same thing. I was just at an art festival with Richard Casper who formed Creativet who help veterans write songs about their experiences. I’m helping produce an Opera here in Portland about an Afghanistan combat veteran returning home. There’s a group putting together a national tour called The Telling that puts combat vets on stage to tell people their experiences. Looking back I think it’s just common sense that art has the ability to heal our souls, but before it seemed like art was the antithesis of soldiering.
Who are your three (or four or five) favorite authors? Is your own writing influenced by who you read?
Vonnegut, Orwell, Hemingway, Camus, and Hugo. I’m a traditionalist I guess. I love the simple way they state the profound, the way they talk about something important while describing the trivial. Lately, I’ve been reading local authors. Portland has the best literary scene. I love it. Not only do I get to read amazing books, but then I get to find the authors and become friends with them. Lidia Yuknavitch, Patrick de Witt, Craig Lesley, Ben Percy, and the man who taught me the most about the importance of words, or what Orwell would call aesthetic enthusiasm, is Mike Magnuson. I consider him my mentor. I learned so much from him and Brady Udall.
What kind of books do you like to read? What are you reading now?
I tend to read two or three books at a time. I just leave them in different rooms around the house. I’m reading The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil by Greg Saunders. I love that people can still write in this abstract and allegorical way. Brian Turner just gave me his latest Phantom Noise and I’m blown away. It’s amazing. And finally, I’m working on a novel so Gardner’s Art of Fiction is always at my desk. I also listen to audiobooks with Slaughterhouse Five read by Ethan Hawk on heavy rotation.
You have a terrific website and facebook page. From an author's perspective, how important are social networking sites and other internet resources to promote your book?
I believe you really have to hustle being a writer today. It’s hard. First you need to convince yourself you’re a writer which is probably the most difficult part of the process. Once you do that you need to start convincing other people and social media is a great way to do it. If people are convinced then they start sending you opportunities. Just last month I was asked to be the keynote speaker of two events by Facebook message. I know it might really annoy your core group of friends and family, but it’s just something that needs to be done.
What do you do to promote your books? Do you use social networking sites or other internet resources?
Facebook, FB page for the book, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, email, phone calls, messenger pigeons, whatever it takes and more, but also you have to make connections and make friends. Like I said Portland has an amazing literary scene. We have different reading groups out here that I’ve slowly been infiltrating. I was lucky enough to read with the Foul Weather writing group, and this month I read at Burnt Tongue with the Tom Spanbauer’s Dangerous Writers. Also, I never say no when a friend asks me for a story. Because of this I’m in Flaunt Magazine this month even though it’s an international culture and fashion magazine when I know little about either. I read at the Perceptions lit mag release this month. I send stuff to newsletters. You have to do whatever it takes.
Do you have any events coming up to promote your book?
May 31 – Keynote speaker at Clackamas Community College (open to the public)
More to come!
What is the most valuable advice you’ve been given as an artist? As an author?
The best advice as a writer would be to use your sentence slots and always write with descriptive narration. This keeps the exposition out of your prose. The best advice as an artist would be setting up my palette with only one color scheme at a time and paint in layers. That might not make much sense to people. The best advice I would give to an artist or a writer is this: above all else be prolific and determined and I promise you’ll have some degree of success.
Have you written or are you writing any other books? Any plans to publish them?
I’ve been having fun with essays lately. I’m working on one about driving across the country and another about the blight of Detroit. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to place these little things I write. I’m working on a novel right now and I love doing research for it. I go undercover to UFO abduction support groups. Yes, they have them in Portland. I also have about 30,000 words worth of CNF short stories. Most of them have been published, but I think I’m going to put them together and shop it around. They range from when my dad pulled me out of middle school to pan for gold for the rest of our lives (which only lasted a few months), to when I moonlighted as a male stripper for middle aged snow bunnies in Germany in the late 90s, to my self-destructive time after the war, to when I was paid by people to waterboard them here in Portland as a part of a military class they took in case they were abducted travelling overseas.
Are you working on an art project?
My art hangs at the Six Days Gallery on 27th and NE Alberta. When I’m not on my book tour I usually work down there and paint in the studio on Mondays. I invite anyone to come on down and hang out, talk, paint with me. I love meeting new people and if they’re really interesting I usually put them in something I write.
THE WAX BULLET WAR IS AVAILABLE AT POWELL'S, ON-LINE, OR FROM YOUR LOCAL BOOK SELLER (ALTHOUGH YOU MAY HAVE TO ASK THEM TO ORDER IT).