The fifth volume of our anthology published on October 1st and is now available for purchase. To celebrate its launch, we are interviewing each of the ten authors who appear in the collection. In “Detail,” A.E. Kulze writes about a drone pilot who has become alienated from his family, and explores his attempt to reconcile with his growing sense of detachment. A.E. Kulze crafted a beautiful, grim, and heartfelt story, and we are so pleased to include it in the collection.
“Days before, he had watched a woman calmly collect her husband’s fingers from the dirt, blowing on them as if they were dusty figurines. She had not cried and neither had he, even with the knowledge that the mess—all of it—had been his to clean.”
We always like to ask our authors what inspired the idea for your story and how long did it take to develop?
I started working on this story in 2013 and spent more time on it than most things I’ve written, ultimately going through seven-ish drafts over the course of a year and a half. I’d been interested in the implications of drone warfare for a while, specifically in how distance interferes with empathy and the disconnect a drone pilot must feel while oscillating between work and family life. Like most of my work the story came from a place of curiosity and somewhat obsessive fascination with a life very different from my own. I couldn’t stop imagining what it would be like to spend your days stalking terror suspects and occasionally sending a hellfire into a home 7,000 miles away, only to return to your spouse and kids a few hours later. I couldn’t stop imagining how difficult it would be to reconcile those two sides of one’s existence.
I’ve also had a lifelong interest in what George Packer once described as “the unbridgeable gap between soldiers and civilians,” which is to say, I’m interested in how the experience of war essentially isolates the solider from the reality the rest of us are privileged to live in, and therefore from the people they love. This is especially true in recent times with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, conflicts that are so easy to ignore and that rarely come to bear on the collective American conscience or our day-to-day. I teach college freshman, most of whom were born in the late nineties, and while we’ve been at war most of their lives, it’s rarely something they think about. This is part of the reason why you often hear veterans talking about the alienation they feel upon returning home. It’s difficult to relate to people. But drone pilots never actually leave, so the sense of detachment is with them the whole time. I wanted to know what that was like, so I started writing this story.
I mentioned this to you in my editor’s notes, but this story was incredibly well researched. During fact checking, it was just clean. I’m curious, in a piece that relies so heavily on facts what challenges did you face in writing this on a research level? Did you have any personal experience that lent itself to the story?
That’s sweat off my brow! I remember reading that and feeling very good. I worked as a journalist before going to back to school to get my MFA, so I understand the importance of facts and the consequences of getting them wrong, the worst being that people will pay more attention to your mistakes than your story. I definitely didn’t want that to happen, so research became critical. And since my personal experience was limited to being a human writing about humans, I thought I owed it to the people who’ve actually been through this experience to educate myself as thoroughly as possible.
Fortunately, I didn’t encounter too many challenges on the fact front. I read a lot of military documents and spent a great deal of time on the Air Force’s website. The most helpful information tended to come from really mundane things like job descriptions and press releases. I took a lot of notes. The challenge was nailing the voice and the emotional and metaphysical narrative, and that’s where my experience as a human came in. This story required a great deal of empathy and imagination on my part, but getting to exercise those tools is probably what I like most about writing.
On the most basic level, this story is about a drone pilot who is dealing with the pressures of his job and being a new father. He is having trouble at home relating to his wife and daughter, but the pressure of his job (obviously) takes precedence over domestic concerns. In your opinion, what is going on in the subtext of this story? What interested you most thematically and in terms of conflict when you were writing it?
I’m not sure that the pressure of the job necessarily takes precedence over domestic concerns in Jack’s mind. Rather, I think the domestic sphere has become alien to him as a result of his job and how it’s manipulated his worldview. He no longer knows how to operate at home. He wants to be a good father and a good husband, but he’s lost his ability to adequately fill those rolls. His fascination with his child becomes terror, and his concern for his wife (who is also suffering deeply) becomes a kind of disdain. I also don’t think he feels deserving of those rolls, of the love they confer.
While writing this story I was also interested in thinking about the power and limits of empathy, which I tried to explore through the target’s young bride, as well as estrangement from the self, which Jack is most certainly dealing with. I think he loses his sense of who he is, and therefore his agency in a lot of ways. People who read earlier drafts of this story during workshops used to critique me on that. They’d say, “This guy just doesn’t have enough agency for a main character.” And I be thinking, that’s the point!
What are some of your favorite stories? (What are some of your favorite war stories?)
There are far too many to list here, but off the top of my head: Joy Williams’ “Taking Care,” “The Farm,” “Winter Chemistry,” and “Dimmer.” Ottessa Moshfegh’s “The Weirdos” and “Bettering Myself.” Lauren Groff’s “Ghost and Empties.” Anna Noyes’ “This is Who She Was.” Kevin Barry’s “Monument.” Don Dellio’s “Baader Meinhof.” And a whole bunch of classics I’ll be embarrassed for not mentioning later. I think the short story is a perfect form.
In terms of war stories Phil Klay’s collection, Redeployment, comes to mind immediately. And of course Tim O’Brien’s “How to Tell a True War Story.” And George Saunders’s “Home,” which I’m always rereading as if his talents will somehow seep through my eyeballs. I’m looking forward to the incredible body of literature that is going to continue coming out of these wars.
In what ways is this story similar to (or different from) your other writing? What are you working on now?
I would say this story is fairly similar to most of my work, which tends be very voice-driven, quiet, a bit grim, and concerned, above all, with making people feel things. I’m attracted to difficult subjects and the extremes of human experience, situations that force us to clue into how vulnerable we are, that force us to hurt. I find that so much of contemporary society is bent on numbing and desensitizing us to our humanity, which is to say our capacity for cruelty and pain and joy and love. I find that to be a very pernicious force. I think it’s important to feel and feel deeply. That’s what makes us alive. To function without feeling is, gosh, I don’t know, not to function at all? I also think it’s important to distinguish between emotion and sentimentality, in that the former comes from a more honest place. It just happens. It rises up. Whereas the latter has to be constructed. The challenge as a writer, and it’s the challenge I face with almost every story, is making space for authentic feeling without making space for schmaltz.
At the moment I’m working on my graduate thesis, which is a novella and a handful of short stories, which will hopefully become a collection later on.
One of the characters in this story is a drone pilot who is pregnant with twins. How did this character find its way into your story and what kinds of decisions were easy or difficult for you while developing her?
I knew I needed to have a foil to the main character, Jack, in the sense that I needed someone who was better at handling the job than he is, someone who was more emotionally resilient, who could see things in black and white and use a strict moral code to justify her actions. And I didn’t want the foil to be the kind of person you’d expect, so I made her a pregnant woman, a character I often see depicted as overly-emotional, irrational, and incapable in a lot of ways, so Laura was also a kind of F-you to that. All of which is to say that she came to me easily. Not to mention the fact that the second I read that pregnant women can fly drones, I knew needed one in my story. The difficulty was making her seem real, and I think that had plenty to do with dialogue, which I spent a lot of time tinkering with.
A.E. Kulze is a writer from Charleston, South Carolina. She worked as a journalist in New York City for four years before attending the University of Wyoming where she is currently an MFA candidate in Fiction. Her work was selected by Claire Vaye Watkins as the winner of the 2016 Tennessee Williams Fiction Contest and is forthcoming in Louisiana Literature and Nat. Brut.