So Be It - on the Writing of Metal Heads: A Novel, a Q&A
Back on September 16, 2012, I got the following email from an unexpected source. Typically, emails about my work come from a wider circle of friends and acquaintances, sometimes folks I’ve met during readings at local bookstores, on the road, in airports, wherever. This one came from London, to which I replied within a few days, somewhat reluctantly, but nonetheless with my comments.
In most cases, I dislike talking about my work, how it came about, its inspiration, sources, or vision. I’m not sure what purpose such discussion really serves, if it has meaning or relevance. A work stands on its own, speaks in its own voice (which is channeled through the author) and should be interpreted by whatever standards to which a critic or reader chooses to adhere.
I never look back on my work, or re-read it in my spare time, as if to pat myself on the shoulder, smile and say, Hey, good job. Doing so takes me away from new work. I live to produce new work and move my writing to the next level if I can. Yet at the same time one owes something to scholars who are interested in what one has written.
So be it.
Dear Tom Maremaa,
I am Pshtiwan Faraj Mohammed, a PhD student in London. I am writing on post-millennial fiction about Iraq.
I have read your novel “Metal Heads” and have found it very interesting, very useful, and very informative. Since I am from Kurdistan, from Sulaimani, a city in northern Kurdistan in Iraq, I have lived in Baghdad for eight years but that was before the War.
I will be using your novel as part of my thesis. I have also recommended your novel to my wife (Shady Ahmad Kareem) to translate it into Kurdish, since she is a translator and a teacher. We both have found your novel very realistic, very honest, and unbiased.
I think you have the same power of writing like Ernest Hemingway, or Gabriel-Garcia Marques. I could not leave the book until I finished it. It was really a page turner. You are truly an amazing writer. If you continue writing like these, I think you would be awarded a prize like Pamuk received.
I have prepared the following questions if you could kindly answer them I would be very grateful and appreciative. I will be using your comments for my research and will send you copies when I finish my thesis.
Thank you very much in advance.
Pshtiwan Faraj Mohammed
Brunel University London
Dept. of English
Dear Pshtiwan Faraj Mohammed,
Thanks for getting in touch with me. Thanks also for your reading and appreciation of “Metal Heads: A Novel.” I’ll try to answer your questions as best I can.
Question: How did you come with the idea for this book, “Metal Heads”? What made you decide to write on that subject?
TM: “Metal Heads” came to me in a series of fever dreams, when I bolted awake one night, dripping in sweat, and saw in my mind’s eyes what was happening there in Baghdad, the invasion and its aftermath. It was as if I’d been transported from my home to the battlefields and landscapes of the country. I felt the pain of those who were suffering as a result of the war; I was caught up in the cross-fire. Then I saw the soldiers coming home from the war, wounded, in bad shape, their bodies burnt and suffering. Then I was lying in hospital, along with other vets, trying to heal, trying to get my life back together again. That’s when I heard Spoon’s voice. The voice stayed with me for about a year, and I just wrote down what he was saying, how he was interacting with the other wounded vets in hospital, tuning into their stories, their griefs, their hollowed memories of the experience, what it all meant for them, how they dealt with loss of life and limb. When you’re there, as the orange sky melts away and shadows fall and twist in the wind, all you can think of is coming home. And then, when you’re home, when you’re stateside, trying to make sense of it, all you can think about is going back, back to Iraq, back to the people who treated you well, your buddies and comrades in arms, the American soldiers who fought with you, and the great Iraqi people who cared for you, who helped you get through the darkest of nights, the most violent of days out on patrol. Many soldiers whom I talked to wanted to go back for another tour of duty, another chance to set things right, perhaps to redeem themselves, perhaps not.
The novel took many years to write. The signature wound of the war became Traumatic Brain Injury, and its consequences. Something similar happened during the Vietnam War, with post traumatic stress disorder. I saw many vets from that war living on the streets in many cities, homeless, suffering PTSD, not knowing what had really happened. I kept praying that wouldn’t happen with the vets from the Iraq war when they came home, that they’d get the proper treatment in VA hospitals. What I know now is that these vets are getting the most advanced treatment for their wounds and that Traumatic Brain Injury has emerged as a subject of important medical inquiry.
Question: What is your opinion of the War in Iraq? How has this war changed your life, perspectives and writing? How are these reflected in “Metal Heads”?
TM: Yes, I have opinions about the Iraq war, as every writer should, because the war was transformational in American life, not to mention in the lives of Iraqis and their country. We’ve all been profoundly changed by the events of the war. How could we not be? But my opinion doesn’t really matter much in the larger scheme of things. “Metal Heads,” the novel, should speak for itself, apart from whatever I’m thinking or feeling about the war. I wasn’t an embedded writer chronicling the day-to-day events of the war. “Metal Heads” is a pure work of imagination: none of it is true, yet all of it is true. My intent was never to write a work based on any of my political opinions or beliefs, but rather, to create a world of fictional characters, powerfully drawn, so that the reader can freely enter this world of imagination and enjoy it.
As a writer of fiction, I simply try to reflect, to understand, to see and tell things that haven’t been seen or told before. You might say I’m trying, as every writer does, to get to the truth of things. But truth is a weird beast of prey. You think you know it when you really don’t. You fool yourself into believing you’ve told the truth but ultimately, it’s fiction that you’ve written, trying to get to a “larger truth,” something about the human experience, about what the history books won’t tell you, about language and its power to change the course of events. To me, “Metal Heads” is as much about language as it is about telling the events of the war and the impact on soldiers coming home and being treated for their wounds in a military hospital.
Question: Do you consider your novel as a science fiction or a dystopian and post-apocalyptic novel? As one of the character Dogg writes a post-apocalyptic novel about the hole in the ozone and the changing of the skin of the people, or when you write about half-human half machine-like robots. What do you imply by these statements? Do you consider this as a political novel?
TM: “Metal Heads” isn’t really science fiction; it doesn’t follow the well-worn conventions of that genre, although there may be elements of sf in the narrative. I included Dogg’s narrative as a kind of visionary novel within a novel about the future, and that connected with a number of readers when I did a reading. We’re all living in the future, in one way or another, even if the future isn’t quite evenly distributed. At least not yet. Dystopian fiction can be a bit too formula for my tastes, too predictable.
“Metal Heads” definitely is not a “political novel,” which implies a kind of rigid or didactical point of view, where everything has to adhere or conform to a particular ethos or philosophy. Typically, such novels become difficult for readers to get through because the characters tend to be mouthpieces for a certain political agenda. For my part, I try to listen hard to the voices of my characters, to hear and feel what they’re hearing and saying, and let loose from there. I’m not in the George Orwell camp, with “Animal Farm” or “1984,” although I appreciate his great writing and thinking on political subjects. I’m Tom Maremaa, a writer of many fictions, many visions of the world, an inheritor of the traditions of Borges and Nabokov, Pynchon and Burgess, whose work varies in range and depth, but always attempts to come to life through his characters, complex plots, and narrative voices. I try to express a vision in my work of where we are, what we’ve come from, and where, if I’m any good at looking down the road, we might be going.
Question: Is there an author who has influenced you? Like Pamuk, for example. Any favorite authors, books in particular? How have they shaped your writing, especially in the writing of “Metal Heads”?
TM: Yes, Pamuk is one of my favorite writers. I’ve read all of his work. J.M. Coetzee is another (“Waiting for the Barbarians” and “The Life and Times of Michael K” were both big influences). Obviously, the language of Metal Heads draws from the language of “A Clockwork Orange,” and I count Anthony Burgess as one of my major influences. Lately, I’ve been reading Roberto Bolano and appreciating his work. My own writing comes out of Nabokov, Pynchon, Marques, and of course, Ken Kesey, whose “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” was a great source of inspiration for me. Years ago, I met Kesey, spent time in Oregon with the man, and learned a great deal from him. He told me, “Hey, writers don’t get better,” and I never believed a word of what he was saying.
Question: Your novel is wonderfully written with characters fully developed. The characters are either heroic or villains, like Jeremy, John Hart and Kamal as virtuous people, and Skank as an evil person. What do these characters’ deeds and viewpoint stand for? Signify?
TM: What do these characters stand for? If I were writing allegory, they’d obviously stand as symbols of good versus evil. That’s the kind of fiction that belongs to fantasy writing (Tolkien, Rowling and others who are really good at it). I’m more interested in depicting characters with some degree of moral complexity, or ambiguity, which, in my view, is harder to do and takes longer as a writer. One doesn’t see the world in black and white terms, neither does the reader. Ultimately, if the book is true and has meaning, the reader will always need it, always, somehow, come back to it and in the course of re-reading, learn and discover some new things. That’s what I strive for. If I can produce a work of fiction that one always will need, come back to and re-discover because it’s somehow true to their experiences in life, to how they see the world, well, then I’ve done the best a writer can do.
Good luck with your PhD thesis.