FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE VALLEY
Is The Valley a mystery, or a war novel, or what?
Neither and both. It's meant to be able to stand alone entirely as a mystery driven by Black's growing obsession with uncovering the truth of the outpost and the Valley, but to be open to a closer read. If you scratch the surface you may find a theme running through the major American characters, who are all damaged in the same way even though they choose to act in very different ways. If you scratch a bit harder and squint just right, you might convince yourself that you can make out an allegory in the structure of Black's investigation. But I prefer to let people find what they find in there. What I hope above all is that I've told a compelling human story that takes readers someplace they didn't expect to go.
So it's not mainly for "war book" people?
No. Honestly the person I had in mind writing The Valley was someone who never, or hardly ever, reads war books, who doesn't necessarily get excited about the prospect of cracking open a "gritty war story" full of acronyms and shooting, and who might need a bit of convincing to open up my book; and I'm happy to say these have been some my most enthusiastic readers. (Actually the reader I had in mind was my wife, who was the only person to read the manuscript before I sent it to my agent.) I hadn't read a war novel since college (she hadn't either), and I worked to make the book read simply as a story set among American military people and Afghan civilians in the midst of a war , instead of as a war story, if that makes sense. When my wife would get to the end of a chapter and send me to the basement to write another one, I knew I was on the right track. It's not a gear book or a firefights book or a military jargon book; it's just a story about people and the burdens they carry.
Sooooo . . . it's just a thriller.
It can really be what you want it to be. I miss old fiction that could do that.
Is all the Chuck Norris graffiti a real thing?
It's in every American Porta-Potty overseas. Soldiers love Chuck.
Why doesn't Black have a first name?
His name's Will. I only mention it a couple of times in the book though.
What inspired the story?
I had been reading detective and spy fiction for the first time after our oldest child was born, and it made me think back on some of the Army investigations I'd had to conduct as a platoon leader in Iraq, which could be very mundane and bureaucratic. You have to question nervous, suspicious soldiers who don't know you and don't trust your intentions, about things that usually turn out to be nothing. I got the idea to set a young, disgruntled lieutenant off on just one of these seemingly routine investigations, at a remote outpost very much like some of our actual outposts in Afghanistan, and I realized that this basic framework could be really fruitful for working with the themes that interested me while telling a story that was compelling in its own right.
Without saying more, the idea of blameworthiness, the weight of shame that leaders in the military carry after things go wrong, which some don't know how to set down and which can leave them broken as people. Every major character, even the unsympathetic ones, believes that everything that happens is his own fault. Also, the idea of unintended consequences writ large and small.
Some of the turns in the story seem preposterous.
They are. Have fun with it.
Is there an explanation for all the unusual events in the book, or are some things just "fog of war" and not meant to be understood?
Nothing in there is "fog of war." Things get complicated and almost surreal at points but there is a backstory and explanation for everything that happens, and except for a few things I've left conspicuously unresolved it's all explained in the text. You do have to pay close attention . . .
Why are some plot threads left unresolved at the end?
I'm not done with Black. I'm writing a different story now, but I'll be back to him after that.
Was there ever anything in real life like what Black finds at the end of the Valley?
Not that I've heard about. You?
So, is he having a conversation with himself or is he hearing voices in his head?
You'd like to know that, wouldn't you?
Why are the sections with the child Tajumal so . . .
Overbaked? Hardboiled? It's okay, I don't mind. We're living in the head of a child in those scenes, a highly intelligent and self-serious and naive child set on revenge; the tone was meant to emphasize all that childish portentousness and delusional grandiosity.
Is the Valley a real place? Is it the Korangal Valley?
No. It's a fictional place in the province of Nuristan. (The Korangal is in Kunar Province.) It is definitely like some places in Nuristan, and COP Vega is very much like some combat outposts there (though I went to town with the scale and complexity of the place), but neither the valley nor the outpost are meant to be a stand-in for any particular place, nor is my book intended as a re-telling or reimagining of any actual events. It's Platform 9 3/4 from the Harry Potter books -- there but not there.
Is "Blockhouse Signal Mountain" a real place?
Yes, but it sits on a mountaintop in Oklahoma in the middle of an active impact area littered with shrapnel and unexploded ordnance (and the "steel corpses" of target vehicles), so you can't visit it.
What did you do in the Army?
I was a field artillery officer. I had been a lawyer in New York City for a few years before I went to the Army's Officer Candidate School, at Fort Benning, Georgia. I deployed with the 3d Infantry Division from Fort Stewart (just outside of Savannah), and spent most of my time in Ramadi, Iraq in 2007-08. I left active duty in 2009 and I'm a lawyer again and strictly a family man now.
Were you as disgruntled as Black?
Everyone is disgruntled with the Army sometimes, but no, Black is a special case. I made true friends and got to have my turn taking care of soldiers, which is the reason you do the Army. When my turn was finished it was time to come home from the circus and move on to the next thing.
Is Black an idealized version of yourself? Is he "the lieutenant we all wish we could be"?
I've been surprised when folks think this. Black's arrogant, as are all young officers, and overestimates his own competence, as we all did, and can't always judge the right time to stand up to a sergeant and the right time to shut up and listen. He acts recklessly and in his own self-interest in meddling in things he doesn't fully understand, with unintended consequences cascading all around him. In a word, he's a lieutenant. He's a deeply flawed hero at best and a badly dented human being. Yet we root for him because he's compassionate and he's the underdog in the situation, and he's stubborn, and frankly because he's a mess. This much I lifted from myself: he knows how to talk to soldiers because he doesn't think he's any better than them, yet he also understands that he's not their friend. Ironically enough it's easier to relate to soldiers as equals, when you're an "old" junior officer (I was 32 when I was commissioned) than when you're 22 and think the Army revolves around you and your amazing lieutenantness.
Why'd you set the book in Afghanistan if you went to Iraq?
Iraq has remote parts, but not the same flavor of remoteness as Afghanistan. The Valley needed to be a mountain story.
Is The Valley your statement on the Afghanistan war?
No. It's just a story.
You're just saying that.
I'm not. I have a pretty healthy suspicion of most political art; it's hard to do well, and in most cases the political content ends up being a lazy stand-in for quality. I'm telling a story about characters in an extreme, historically relevant situation, and how they react to it. They all have their own views on that situation, but I would never want to corrupt their story by letting my opinions into the mix.
Is the setting/plot an homage to Conrad's Heart of Darkness or the film Apocalypse Now?
Call me a liar but I had never read Conrad when I wrote The Valley, and neither it nor Apocalypse Now ever crossed my mind. I've read it now and I guess I get what people see, but no, the setting is from the Afghan war, the plot is from crime fiction, and the themes are from my Army experiences. There's nothing particularly original about The Valley's basic premise (an amateur forced to play detective in an unfamiliar setting where things aren't what they seem), and I will gladly cop to my source material: Rudyard Kipling's The Man Who Would Be King (about Westerners meddling in Nuristan); Tim O'Brien's Going After Cacciato (particularly his use of surreal elements in a war setting); loads of detective and spy fiction (Lehane, Connelly, Le Carre); the Western travel and ethnographic literature on Nuristan (e.g., Newby's A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, Barrington et al.'s Passage to Nuristan, Robertson's Kafirs of the Hindu Kush ); and, believe it or not, some of the classic children's literature I read as a boy. Most of this is left laying right out in the open to be found.
But seriously, it's Conrad, right?
The Afghanistan war has never held the place in the American public consciousness that the Iraq war has, even in the years after conclusion of the troop surge in Iraq, when Afghanistan became the primary locus of fighting and casualties. An Army friend who was with me in Iraq went to Afghanistan in 2010, where he dispatched emergency medical evacuation helicopters, and he would marvel: "People just have no idea what kind of fighting is happening over here." The Valley's setting is derived not from a distant literary river but from nothing more or less than the real-life mountains and valleys of Nuristan (as best I could glean through research), and the truly remote and vulnerable outposts where real young Americans fought desperately, only a few years ago. It's been a source of frustration for me that this simple and direct connection to recent American history hasn't always seemed evident.
Where can I read about what was happening in that part of Afghanistan?
Clinton Romesha's Red Platoon is a firsthand account by a Medal of Honor recipient of the October 2009 assault on Combat Outpost Keating (also referred to as the Battle of Kamdesh). COP Keating is one example of the kind of place The Valley's COP Vega was inspired by. Also, Jake Tapper's The Outpost is a first-rate source of public information on events in Nuristan over a period of years leading up to the events at Keating.
What's it like to write a mystery novel as an unknown author?
Don't tell people you're writing a mystery novel until you've sold it. Don't let your spouse tell either, unless he/she enjoys receiving mildly concerned/pitying looks from people who care about him/her/you.
What are you writing now?
I'm working on a book that's set in the same universe as The Valley but with a (mostly) different cast of characters. It's a different story entirely but will help me bring things back around to Black. It takes place in Iraq and I'm calling it The Run.