The Sweetest Debut: Brian Van Reet on Iraq, Captivity, and the Prescience of ‘The Office’

"I wanted the narrative viewpoints to be radically inclusive, yet also essential to what’s unique about these post-9/11 wars, compared to what’s come before."

Welcome to The Sweetest Debut, a regular installment in which we reach out to debut (or near-debut, we’re flexible!) fiction, poetry and nonfiction authors working with presses of all sizes and find out about their pop culture diets, their writing habits, and their fan-fiction fantasies. Today: Brian Van Reet on Spoils, a novel that draws on his time as a soldier in Iraq.

What is your elevator pitch to folks in the industry describing your book?

On a literal note, bet against me striking up conversation with elevator mates. I am not so gregarious. But, when talking to people in more structured settings, I have sometimes found myself distinguishing fact from fiction as a way of getting at what’s different about Spoils. Yes, I was a soldier deployed to Baghdad during a particularly disastrous stretch of the war. Without a doubt, that experience is reflected in the novel. As a whole, though, it’s not thinly veiled autobiography. To start with, there’s a female protagonist. One of the other main characters is an Egyptian-born jihadist. I wanted the narrative viewpoints to be radically inclusive, yet also essential to what’s unique about these post-9/11 wars, compared to what’s come before.

What do you tell your relatives it’s about?

A young woman in the U.S. Army who’s taken captive during the early days of the Iraq War.

How long was this project marinating in a draft or in your head before it became a book deal?

Once I knew what the story would be, it took two and a half years to write. But, before that, there were another two and a half years spent figuring out what the story should be.

Name a canonical book you think is totally overrated.

The test of time is hard to game, so I am not one to bash the canon, however well or poorly it represents the circumstances of the vast majority of humans who have ever lived. But I will say that I’ve started Bleak House twice and failed to make it very far. The fault could be mine.

What’s a book you’ve read more than twice?

I don’t often re-read books, there are so many new ones I want to try, but I have read Lolita several times.

Is there a book or other piece of art that influenced your writing for this particular project?

There were many. One of the most useful fictional models was Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler. I remember reading it years ago and thinking that I wanted to write something like that: smart, literary, suspenseful, dark. It also features a character held prisoner, so there’s that in common.

What’s your favorite show to binge watch when you’re not writing?

Lately it’s been The Office. That show was prescient in a lot of ways. Michael Scott is certainly a Trumpian character, if the world were a screwball comedy. Remember the “Scott’s Tots” episode, when Michael has to renege on his delusional promise to send a classroom full of kids to college? Man, that’s so brilliantly cringe-worthy. Then there are other correspondences. Michael’s got a copy of Trump’s Think Like a Billionaire on his shelf. The first two real-life celebrities mentioned in the show are Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. It’s a little spooky.

What’s the last movie you saw in theaters?

I think it was The Wolf of Wall Street, which came out in 2014. From that information you may be able to deduce the birth year of my first child.

Do you listen to music while you’re writing? If so, what kind?

Not usually. If I do, it’s instrumental. I find it hard to write while listening to any voices other than the ones in my head.

Who is your fashion icon?

Maybe Jack Kerouac before On the Road came out and he got so sloppy and sad.

Do you prefer a buzzing coffee shop or silent library?

For coffee, the coffee shop. For writing, I want coffee but fewer diversions.

Do you work best at a desk, bed or couch?

A desk.

Do you prefer morning writing or late-night writing?

I can do either, but late-night is no longer feasible. I find early afternoon is often productive.

Is your style more writing it all out in one big messy draft and then editing, or perfecting as you go (or something in between)?

Facing the blank page, I do my best to turn off the inner critic and just get it all down, fast, without worrying too much about perfection. It’s easy to get mired in sentence- and paragraph-level problems, when what I should be worrying about in a first draft are bigger issues of character and structure. My goal is a fast draft, though, inevitably, I stop along the way to edit and plan the next move. There is some amount of perfecting as I go. It really helps, momentum-wise, to know where I’m going.

How do you pay the bills, if not solely by your pen and your wit?

When I was working on Spoils, I made some money doing freelance educational writing, including drafting web-based remedial history lessons, standardized test items, economic textbook copy — basically, a bunch of sexy stuff like that. My wife also helps to pay the bills and has paid more than her share during the lean times.

What is your trick to finding time to write your book while also doing the above?

Luck. Other than that, there was no trick, just a certain amount of discipline and hunger. You have to put in the time, years of it, and face rejection without becoming permanently disheartened or spiteful. Relationships are critical in this way. Be with people who give you hope. Marry (or don’t marry) the right person. This is huge. If your spouse doesn’t wholeheartedly believe in your potential as a writer — or says they do, while secretly harboring major doubts — conflict and resentment will follow. Lifestyle issues are as important as writing habits because, for most people, the two things correlate. Organize your life in a way that facilitates your goals.

If you could buy a home anywhere in the world just to use for writing, where would it be?

A small ski town in Colorado. That would be as much for the scenery and good vibes as any belief that those things would help me write. They couldn’t hurt, though.