2010 National Book Award Finalist,
Megan K. Stack
Every Man in This Village
Is a Liar:
An Education in War
Interview by Meehan Crist
Meehan Crist: When did you decide to write Every Man in This Village in a Liar, and why?
Megan Stack: When I left the Middle East and moved to Moscow in 2007, my morale was low. I had lived through turbulent and fascinating times, met unforgettable people and watched history happen. I was emotional about the people who’d been killed and maimed and driven from their homes. I was changed by the things I’d seen. And I knew that other people who’d been there had also been altered by their experiences, and that our country would not and could not be the same country it was before it declared a war on terror. At the same time, I knew we’d all do our best, sooner or later, to move along as if nothing had happened. I was bothered by the sense that so much of what had taken place didn’t seem to have penetrated the national consciousness back home. And I couldn’t shake my dissatisfaction with my own work. The newspaper stories seemed like inadequate scraps of the experiences themselves. It was a burden of guilt: I felt that I had failed the people who had entrusted me with their stories, and that I had not produced what I should have produced with the material I was given. I ended up feeling that I had to write this book, I had to at least try to create something more complete and lasting and true.
MC: What questions drove you as worked on this book? In other words, what was it that you hoped to better understand by writing it?
MS: As a writer, I wanted to write nonfiction in a way that seemed to me more honest, more impressionistic, than the dry detachment of traditional journalism. I wanted it to be a document, but I also wanted it to be a piece of art. There are contemporary moral and policy questions at the heart of the book: What elements of the American national character pushed us to create the so-called “war on terror?” What did these conflicts mean, what unified them and could they really be considered as one overarching, long war? What does it mean to be an American today, what is the state of our empire and its place in the world? How does war damage us as individuals, and as a nation? What gets left behind – in our psyches, on the landscape – when the fighting dies down? How does war act on people and on places as a metaphysical force?
MC: Do you feel you’ve answered those questions for yourself and/or the reader, or are there lingering questions, some sense of ambiguity?
MS: Ambiguity remains, of course. There are dialogues, characters and stories in the book that are meant to provoke the reader to consider these questions. These are big, timeless themes, and I wanted to add something contemporary to the consideration of them, but did not set out to answer them. There are meditations in the book, internal monologues that flesh out my thoughts – but those asides are rooted in the time they appear in the book. They belong to a particular phase in my own evolution of thought over the course of covering these conflicts, and in some ways they are road markers in the narrative. They are not absolute conclusions.
MC: In the Prologue to Every Man in This Village is a Liar, you say, “I didn’t go to Afghanistan with any strong convictions; I was a reporter, and I wanted to see. Only after covering it for years did I understand that the War on Terror never really existed. It was not a real thing.” How did you come to that realization, and how do you think the war you saw first-hand is different from the war that most Americans see through the filter of the mainstream media?
MS: I consider the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan different from the other events covered in the book for one very important reason: It was the only thing that was truly motivated by a desire to fight terrorism. Today, I don’t think we can say anymore that Afghanistan is about terrorism. It’s become a battle for pacification. But there was a moment when it was an effort to respond militarily to the attacks of September 11. Afterward, for years to come, we continued to be told that all manner of hypocrisy or cataclysm was necessary because it was part of this grand scheme to fight terrorism and create a “new Middle East.” Rather than overseeing a coherent discussion of some of these events, policy makers were able to simply ascribe them to the war on terror. The most glaring example is the invasion of Iraq, but there were many other events and decisions – ranging from the devastating 2006 war in Lebanon to funding for Arab dictatorships – that were also lumped together under this empty phrase. It is my very strong view that the government has been successful at foisting false narratives upon news reporters and, in turn, muddying the public view of the underlying strategic concerns that drive policy.
MC: You have reported from twenty-two different countries since 2001 and have worked as Moscow bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times. How do you think your work as a journalist influenced the way you wrote this book, the style of which is much more internal and narrative than your reporting?
MS: This book was created from years of newspaper work, but at the same time it’s a reaction against that genre. I wrote most of the book very early in the morning, and during those hours I felt a freedom I had never known writing news stories. In a way, it’s an explosion of pent-up impulses: All of the things I could never say; the descriptions and stories and people who get edited out; the vividness of what it felt like, really, to be in that particular moment. The challenge was to take all of the reporting, a massive collection of notebooks and journal entries, and then recreate something new and more ambitious from the same material. Some of the hardest sections to write were about people or events I’d already written about for the paper, because I had to first rip apart and forget what I’d created the first time and then use the pieces to make something new.
MC: How did you decide on the structure for this book, and how do you feel this particular form serves the book’s content in a way other structures could not?
MS: The arc of the story is disillusionment, going deeper and deeper into a string of events and getting lost – moving from a clear line of logic at the invasion of Afghanistan to a breakdown of reason by 2006. It had, therefore, to be told chronologically. I didn’t set out to write about myself, but I ended up having to build the book around my voice because it was clear to me that it was a story about America – and I was the only American character who could tie together all of the different places and times I wanted to write about. I realized, too, that I had gone through a process that in some ways paralleled the American experience. I had rushed headlong into Afghanistan only to end up getting entangled and stuck in those wars, damaging myself.
MC: What are the best books you’ve read about war? Why? Did you use any as models for this book?
MS: When I wrote this book, I had in mind a few different pieces of writing – Joan Didion writing about El Salvador, Arthur Miller writing about Turkey in Echoes Down the Corridor, Michael Herr’s Dispatches. And most of all, though it’s fiction, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, which is probably the book about war I admire most. I was struck by Vonnegut’s trick of writing excruciatingly about war without ever giving us a glimpse of carnage. Throughout the book, he’s writing around the edges of war, looking at psychic damage, memories, the stories we try to tell ourselves to make it better. As a reader, you can feel it coming – you think he’s going to drive you into a bloody crescendo. But he never really does; he relies on a pervasive sense of dread and damage. It’s incredibly effective; it feels more authentic and awful than some of the bullets-and-blood war writing.
MC: What was the most difficult decision you had to make while writing Every Man in This Village is a Liar, and why was it so hard?
MS: I struggled a lot with my own role in the book. I wanted a strong voice, and a definite point of view, and I also needed to write myself as a character that could bridge the narrative between different times and places. To make that voice understandable, I had to sketch some details in sparingly – some sense of my background, my family. But I had no interest in writing about my personal life and, given the serious events I was writing about, it seemed self-indulgent to linger very long on myself. That was a difficult balance to strike.
MC: What part of this book was the most thrilling to write, and why?
MS: I can’t say that any of it was exactly thrilling to write. It was cathartic and liberating. And I had moments of pure joy, working by myself at the computer on dark Russian mornings and getting lost in a scene, forgetting my surroundings entirely. I had never been able to go so far into a project. But many of the events were painful to unearth. There were times, writing this book, that I felt like I was physically reliving those moments – my heart would quicken, I’d get goose bumps, sometimes I’d cry. So it was also a very difficult thing to write.
MC: What is one moment from the process of working on this book that you’ll never forget?
MS: I remember knitting at the desk to give myself a break because the material was too emotionally intense, and otherwise I’d get up and walk away from the computer. I remember the lump in my gut when I had to send in a draft. I remember working on it in isolation for so long that I sort of forgot it was going to be published, and then panicking at the idea that people were going to read it. But mostly I remember, as I said before, how good I felt when I was writing it. Nothing else about publishing the book has been as enjoyable as the writing itself.
MC: If you could choose one person to read your book, who would it be, and why would you want that person to read it?
MS: It’s a sentimental answer, but I wish my father were still around to read it. He died more than a decade ago, and I can’t imagine what he would think of everything that’s happened since.
MC: What is the one thing you wish people better understood about the current war?
MS: I often wish that more Americans knew first-hand some of the ordinary Iraqi and Afghan families that have been devastated by the fighting. Just the regular people – the parents, kids, grandparents, neighbors who’ve lost a family member, lost a limb, lost a home. I could be wrong, but I don’t have the sense that the scope of the human tragedy is internalized by the U.S. public. I suspect that if more people really understood what has happened, through direct experience rather than abstract reports, our collective relationship to these wars would be more appalled, engaged and decisive.
MC: While many books about war appear after the conflict is over, this book has come out at a time when the conflict it covers is ongoing. How has the reality of “The Long War” affected the process of writing this book?
MS: My book is concerned with the earliest years after September 11 and does not contain any events past 2006, but I tried to give it a sense of timelessness. The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan will almost certainly continue for years to come. Writing the book, I was also aware that the other issues – the Israeli-Palestinian question; support for autocratic regimes that squash democracy; weighing human rights against security; radicalization of youth who grow up in war – are all enduring and cyclical in the region. My hope was that this book would give readers a basic understanding that would help them to interpret news as it comes.
MC: At a moment when this country seems so deeply divided, when so many are concerned about the shape of our cultural and political future, how do you see the role of the nonfiction writer? How do you see your work on this book as an engagement with that role?
MS: Nonfiction books are a deeply powerful medium; at a time when so many readers take a jaundiced view of news reporting, books seem to have retained an air of authority and credibility. And nonfiction is popular, which helps. I hear a lot of people say that they read nonfiction almost exclusively; I know a lot of people who take seriously the idea of continuing their education by reading nonfiction. So you have a reading audience that’s coming at the book with the intention of learning something. As a writer, that’s a valuable opportunity. During the years of reporting, I often felt that readers from both the left and the right were responding to the news stories through the lens of their own political views – looking for points to confirm what they already thought, or on the hunt for something to get angry about. Those readers exist both on the left and on the right, and they are very hard to reach. Their conclusions are already solid; they are not interested in the nuance. The problem is, these are deeply nuanced themes. In the book, I had room to explore the many layers of these conflicts, and I’ve been gratified by emails from many different kinds of readers.
is reviews editor at The Believer. She holds
an MFA from Columbia University, and her work has recently appeared
in publications such as The Believer, Lapham's Quarterly, and the
Los Angeles Times. Her nonfiction book, Everything
After, is forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.