24th August 2015 - Gary Barker & Michael Kaufman
One of the most powerful examples of the fiction being written in response to the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan is The Afghan Vampires Book Club, a darkly satirical novel jointly written by Gary Barker and Michael Kaufman.
It imagines the conflict prolonged to its 25th year, with only one US soldier surviing an assault that killed nearly 200 of his comrades. An intrepid journalist tries to trace where he's been held hostage and finds him in the hands of a band of Mujahideen whose tactics are unorthodox even by the standards of their fellow mountain warriors.
Here Gary and Michael explain how their years of work in war zones across the world, tackling the effects of long-term involvement in conflict, drove them to write about the treatment of veterans. They also reveal that co-writing fiction is just as complicated as you might imagine!
Befitting a novel with a strange title, this book had a strange birth. A few years ago the two of us were doing what authors do best: bemoaning the state of the book industry. Michael’s first novel, The Possibility of Dreaming on a Night Without Stars, had been published a decade earlier by Penguin. Gary’s first novel, Luisa’s Last Words, had just been published in Dutch by the literary publisher, de Geus. When Gary’s agent showed it to a prominent UK house, they were extremely interested but said, “We already published a title on Latin America this year. If it were only Afghanistan”. Meanwhile the vampire craze was on, along with book clubs. So, there it was, we had the title.
The truth was, though, we weren’t interested in writing a vampire story, certainly not a teen romance with lots of purple, black, and red on the cover. The two of us have spent years writing about and working to end men’s violence. Gary has worked in conflict zones and in violence prevention with men, including Bosnia, Brazil’s favelas, Rwanda, and the Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. Michael spearheaded an international campaign called White Ribbon which focuses on mobilizing men’s voices globally to end violence against women.
We wanted to write a story about manhood and war and the encroaching surveillance state.
The tale is set ten years in the future. The US and its allies had left Afghanistan and then returned to be mired again. After two hundred US soldiers are massacred by unknown combatants, rumours fly that one soldier, Tanner Jackson, made it out alive. British journalist John Fox tracks down this story through the underground world of discarded vets, who are causing their own havoc back home. When Fox finally finds Jackson, he hears an impossible tale of war, violence, and revenge, but also a story of enduring love.
We were pleased when one newspaper review favourably and appropriately compared it to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Indeed, Marlow’s trip up the Congo River is transposed to an Afghan war that hasn’t ended and apparently never can. For us, though, the darkness and the horror certainly isn’t with some colonial Other. It doesn’t reside in Kurtz. It is with Us.
That’s the story behind the story. This is an anti-war story that highlights the tremendous impact of war on the soldiers who fight them, and the impact on the society back home that wages the war. NATO isn’t the main victim in Afghanistan, not by a long shot, but young men (and now some women), often from poor or working class backgrounds, are trained to do something that humans really don’t do well—namely kill. All of our souls are corroded in the process.
Although our desire was to write a compelling story, it clearly relates to the work we’ve been doing. Our nations have long assumed that men can be plugged into the war machine and live that life without being scarred. Our societies believe men should be able to bury their emotions and take whatever is thrown at them, that 'war is hell' but they get over it. As the cascade of news stories about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and veterans' suicides are showing us, this simply isn’t possible. These stories are in the news, but we sought to use the steroidal power of fiction, which allows us to look at Western incursions in Afghanistan from the 19th century and onward but without being a history textbook. And vampires became a metaphor for... well, that would give it away.
But, as a work of fiction, which this is, we wanted to write about this in an engaging, entertaining, and intriguing way that both men and women will enjoy reading. We wanted to cast a fictional light on the tragic and misguided wars of the moment, and to use a bit of the surreal to wake us up to the real.
And we had the additional challenge of being coauthors. Writing fiction together is lunacy, really, but the fun kind of lunacy. Co-writing non-fiction is enough of a challenge, but because fiction relies so much on voice and personal idiosyncrasies of style, it’s not for the faint of heart. We decided to work with two narrators. That gave each of us a voice. We would write our 'character' and then pass it to the other to rip to shreds. To paraphrase Nietzsche, what survived was stronger. It would be pretty hard to identify who wrote what at this point.
It was great fun to write. Writing a novel about themes we care about, raising some eyebrows in the process among the military establishment and still being friends at the end was an exceptional experience. And that’s true, whether or not any vampires actually show up, which of course, we’re not allowed to disclose.
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