Sarah: Can you tell me briefly about each of your books?
Roy: Learning to Die in the Anthropocene is a philosophical meditation, in the tradition of Susan Sontag or Camus, on climate change and how to approach and think about climate change from a humanistic perspective (from someone who’s not a scientist, or necessarily an activist). That book is a nonfiction essay. The argument is basically ‘we’re fucked’ — climate change has probably already passed the tipping point and even if it hasn’t, the political and social and infrastructure technologies we have to address it are not adequate and we’re not going to be able to do so in time. While we should keep working to de-carbonize the energy and infrastructure, and all drive Priuses and whatnot, we should do that in full recognition that it’s not going to save us. We need to come to terms with the end of civilization as we know it.
The way to do that, I argue, is with this idea of learning to die. The reference—this is what the second half of the book is about—is to the Zen tradition, the Buddhist tradition, which recognizes that this life is transient and temporary and just a passing moment. We have to make ethical decisions in that awareness. It’s also part of this long Western philosophical tradition that argues that philosophy itself is learning how to die. When we think about it that way, the end of civilization isn’t a new problem. It’s the same problem as facing our own mortality, just on a different scale.
Sarah: So kind of Heideggerian in that way.
Roy: Yeah. Heidegger is a thinker I struggle with because he’s so decisionistic. Confronting the end is the problem for Heidegger, and we have to make a decision. Yes, confronting the end is the problem, but we don’t have to make a decision about it. That’s where I would differentiate myself from the Heideggerian line of thought. I’m much more a fan of what Derrida was trying to do with Heidegger, implicitly, sometimes explicitly, by always turning the question of the decision back into the question of the question, turning the moment of action back into a moment of reflection. That’s what I’m going to argue for: This is not going to save us, but nothing’s going to save us. I think the more we can reflect on and understand our situation, the more we can open up spaces for compassion and patience rather than moving into reaction, deciding, attacking. Part of the reason I wrote the book is that, if you look at the present, and you add global warming in, and you look at somewhere like Syria, and you recognize what’s happening with the global order, how the post-45, Pax Americana is breaking down, and you look at the rise of nationalist parties, it’s hard to find a future from this moment that doesn’t go into a very, very dire, world war, blood bath catastrophe, apocalypse, whatever.
Sarah: And you wrote the book before Donald Trump was the Republican nominee for president.
Roy: I know! It was scary sometimes reading it on book tour while the Trump phenomenon was exploding. The book is an effort to try to create a space where reaction doesn’t have to be the reality.
Sarah: And what about War Porn?
Roy: War Porn is a novel about the Iraq War. I often talk about it structurally. It’s built like Russian nesting dolls, in three main narratives. The framing or outer narrative is about some people in their late twenties whose lives are totally disconnected from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, except that one of them brings to the party an ex-boyfriend of hers who’d served in Iraq where he worked as a prison guard. The inner layer is about an American soldier in Iraq, a Humvee driver named Wilson who joins the military for a variety of reasons but who tries to keep his distance from his role as a soldier. Throughout the year he becomes more and more implicated and more and more folded into his job. He becomes the soldier who he wanted to keep his distance from. The core of the book is about an Iraqi mathematician named Qasim and how he deals with the American invasion in Baghdad in 2003. He has various decisions to face. He’s the heart of the book for me. He comes back in the Wilson section as an interpreter for the Army, and then he comes back in the barbecue section—we see pictures of him. This vet who just came back worked in a prison in Iraq and we see [Qasim] being tortured.
Sarah: I would like to know, because you’ve written two very different books, what your writing process was like with each.
Roy: War Porn came first. I started writing it in 2005. I was actually still in the army. I would get up every morning and write for an hour. After I got out of the army, I got the chance to spend some time in Berlin and just wrote. I would write five or six hours every day that summer. Then when I came to New York in 2006 to start school, I had an enormous draft—something like 300,000 words at that point. From there it’s been a long, slow process of whittling it down, carving out pieces, figuring out what the important things are, and really honing and refining over years.
Learning to Die in the Anthropocene was a completely different process. It started as an essay that I wrote for the New York Times philosophy series. I wrote that essay because I spent the summer at an institute in Ithaca taking a summer course about post-colonial thought in the anthropocene. I took that because I was curious, but also because I wanted to think about the dissertation I was writing, which was about World War II. I wanted to think about how to think about a global event. I thought, ‘I can learn more about post-colonialism, I can learn more about this anthropocene idea I’ve heard about, and I can do some meta thinking about what it’s like to live through a world event.’ In doing that, I read up on climate change and realized we’re fucked, and had this moment of existential crisis, thinking, ‘well, now what?’ I went to the army to go to school, to be a writer, and now grad school, and all this effort, and now the world’s going to fall apart. The Arctic is going to melt. What can I do about it?
Well, I’m a writer. I can write my way through it and make an argument for the value of writing and humanities. So that’s what I did, and that essay blew up. I totally didn’t expect that. But it was huge. It was the number one most-emailed story on the New York Times the day after it came out. Out of that essay going viral, I was contacted by a couple different publishers, mostly academic presses. I was contacted by an agent, and I was contacted by City Lights. I was like, ‘City Lights! Be still my heart.’ I’m from the West Coast. It’s as good as Grove Press. It’s one of these old-school [presses]. It felt very romantic. They wanted a short book, and that was perfect, for a couple of reasons. It can be sort of like a pamphlet that people can put in their pockets. It’s short, easy to read, easy to get through, because it’s such a big, depressing problem. Also, I was working on my dissertation and trying to finish my PhD. I didn’t have time to do justice to these ideas over a 300-page arc, and I didn’t want to write just a bunch of fluff. I didn’t want to fill it with filler. I wanted to do something powerful and condensed and punchy.
Sarah: You cite your work so thoroughly in the book that if people really want more, they can get more.
Roy: Yeah, and there’s a ton of literature on climate change. There is all kinds of stuff people can look up. That’s another reason: I didn’t want to write one of these giant tomes.
Sarah: That we should read but we’re all overwhelmed by?
Roy: Yeah, and some of them I admire. Naomi Klein’s book is really great, and the reporting she did over years is amazing and invaluable. I didn’t have that much time. Over a year or so, and periods of doing less, I wrote it. It was sort of a messy process. That book took a while to find its form, because there are so many different things to talk about that are happening in the book. But it did find its form. I guess that’s a good lesson to trust the process and just keep at it.
Sarah: Both of your books have ended up beautiful in that way. They’re very clean, and the transitions really work. And you transition between some really hard things. That’s really remarkable: to have done it very differently, but well. I’m excited to see what you’ll write next.
Roy: Me too!
Sarah: Are you currently working on anything?
Roy: I put a lot of work into my dissertation, which is about World War II and American Literature and how trauma became the way that we understand war.
In a certain way, that project arose out of my long struggle to get War Porn published. I thought, well no one wants to hear it in this form. Maybe I can find a way to articulate some of the same ideas that motivated me to write War Porn in a historical literary perspective, in a more theoretical way. That’s where my dissertation began. Now it’s about World War II and changing conceptions of war, mass industrial society, the 1950s. I’m working on turning that into a book.
Sarah: There’s a passage in War Porn that struck me as emblematic of your consciousness as a writer. It’s on page 85, and begins: “Up out of the ancient garden of Sinbad’s Baghdad and the nightmare of Saddam’s Ba’athist dystopia grew the fiber-optic slums of tomorrowland, where shepherds on cell phones herded flocks down expressways and insurgents uploaded video beheadings…”
You seem uniquely aware of the strange ways that the deep past interacts with the idealistic technology of today. What caused this awareness for you?
Roy: That’s a great question. I don’t know. Maybe Dungeons and Dragons? I grew up mostly consuming pop culture trash. Working class kid—my parents’ bookcase had Roots and they had some other solidly middle-ground novels, and then they had the Destroyer series about the Kung Fu guy, and Stephen King. I grew up reading science fiction and fantasy stuff to a large degree, and got into role-playing. That was a tremendous factor in my intellectual development because I got really into how to understand the past—medieval past or the twenties. How do you make that real? What are the connections between that moment and this moment? How do we think seriously about these other times? I think it started there.
That set the ground for when I went to college—to the University of Puget Sound, which I dropped out of after my first year for a variety of reasons. I was in the honors program there because I tested really well in high school, and it was a great books thing and so we started with The Iliad and then did Nietzsche and “The Wasteland” and Middlemarch. Reading The Iliad and Aeschylus’s trilogy the Oresteia especially, there’s a way that they brought this Greek world to life, and it’s sort of seeing the insane mixed tape that T.S. Eliot made out of that shit. I didn’t know you could do that. I didn’t know with poetry you could mix everything together.
It feels weird to talk about T.S. Eliot as a radical, experimental poet, because he’s now regarded so much as this conservative, constrained, repressed [poet], but “The Wasteland” is this radical poem. In a certain way, that set the agenda for my thinking for a long time. “These fragments that I’ve shored against my ruin,” —right? This idea that we’re made out of the past, but it doesn’t necessarily all go together in a smooth way.
There’s another thing—so I’m going to put T.S. Eliot and James Baldwin together in the same thought. I recently came across this thing that James Baldwin said, quoted by Claudia Rankine in Citizen, that the purpose of art is to lay bare the questions which have been hidden by the answers. So if we think about that in terms of history, we can see something like “The Wasteland,” and if not “The Wasteland” itself, then that kind of approach, if the question is: How did we get here? Who are we? Part of that unearthing has to be unearthing these fragments and unearthing these things from the past that are part of us now, that we don’t think of as discrete things, but just how we do things.
Sarah: What question comes up for you repeatedly across projects?
Roy: I remain — and this troubles me — but I remain fascinated by human violence and our capacity for violence and the ways that we desire and disavow violence. I’d like to work that out of my system somehow, but it remains something that keeps coming up as I look to new work. Also, part of it is asking how we can move past that. Part of the lesson that I try to work into Learning to Die is acceptance: how to come to terms with the human capacity for violence in a way that doesn’t just accept it as something we do; how to come to terms with it and then not do it.
Sarah: You present an antidote in War Porn, too. It’s really the same antidote that’s in Learning to Die because Wilson is different due to his engagement with the humanities, his engagement in thought.
Roy: But I don’t know how different Wilson is.
Sarah: He at least wants to be. He’s aware that he should be.
Roy: He’s aware that he should be. That’s something, I guess. That is a difference. He’s not the extreme version that Aaron is. But by the end of Wilson’s story, he doesn’t trust that impulse anymore. He doesn’t trust that just wanting to be better is enough. And I think he’s right. Just wanting to be better isn’t enough. But I also think you’re right. It’s a start. There’s this line Nietzsche has—that the whole purpose of human culture has been to breed an animal that can make a promise. That’s an enigma to me that I keep coming back to, because it’s a question of how we become different from what we are. How do we say that something will happen and then make that true? I’m very skeptical of robust arguments for free will. I don’t know that I believe that there’s a robust kind of free will in the human animal. But there’s something. We can make a promise and we can keep it.
Sarah: That’s the relationship we have with the past, right? Because a lot of what we are is “determined” by our past. What we think of, and what even comes to mind as a possibility is determined by what we’ve already been. Change is very gradual. In a lot of ways, Wilson’s past is what gave him the ability to think through all the things he thought through at all.
Roy: That’s one of the great things the novel offers: a place to think about these questions of determinism—determination vs. consciousness—in different ways and to think about what I see as the human propensity to violence, in crisis.
Sarah: Several times in War Porn, the narrator describes meat in particularly deathly, gruesome terms—are you a vegan or vegetarian?
Roy: I’ve been strictly vegetarian at certain points in my life, and tried to be more vegetarian. I’m a bad vegetarian right now. I just moved to Indiana. One can do it, but it’s hard. The Buddhist ethical reason is part of it – to decrease suffering – and I’m definitely aware of the carbon effect of beef, and to a lesser extent pork. Chicken, it turns out, is actually no worse than tofu, in terms of carbon footprint. But it’s because they’re putting them in these little boxes and cutting their beaks off. It’s gruesome.
Eating meat is one of the ways in which—especially in this society—we numb ourselves to what our lives mean, and how we’re connected to the rest of the world. If you think about the meat every time you sit down to eat it, you’re not going to do anything else—you’re going to become a radical vegan and join PETA. Which is a great choice. I try not to eat too much meat because I want to be conscious of how my life is connected to the rest of the world. It’s hard to do that. I go back and forth. Humans are not herbivores. We’re omnivores. So much of the world that has developed now has come out of what seem to me, to be genetic species traits, for hunting. We’re group hunters, and that’s how we organize our societies. That was the case 150,000 years ago, and it seems to be the case today. One of the main ways, if not the main way, we organize ourselves, is by finding somebody to attack, and going after them.
Sarah: But that should also be an argument for going away from that mode of thinking. If we’re really intellectual, thinking creatures, can’t we get ourselves away from that violence? Or can we? I don’t know.
Roy: Yeah, I don’t know. That’s where it comes back to this question of determinism. We’re an animal with an animal reaction, before even our background, our culture, our history. We are rooted in bodies, with deep biological responses, and millions of years of evolution that have filtered out certain traits and filtered in certain traits. I do think consciousness and becoming increasingly aware of all the different things that make us do the things we do is the place to start. Spinoza talks about this. This was Spinoza’s idea of freedom and where freedom comes in is from understanding the things that move us. I’ve experienced this, too, with meditation. If you can see your reaction before you do it, then there’s a little bit of space there to make a different choice.
Sarah: You wrote in Learning to Die that, “We must practice suspending stress-semantic chains of social excitation through critical thought, contemplation, philosophical debate, and posing impertinent questions.”
How do you think we create a public space in which that’s actually possible—in which people have the room in their lives to engage in critical thought. There are so many things that crowd out that possibility.
Roy: Three main things we can do: One is to create artifacts that help perform that interruption and ask those impertinent questions, and put things on the table that we need to talk about. Another important thing we can do is work to protect, strengthen, and participate in those institutions and spaces that are already there. I believe in the seminar, I believe in the mission of the university as a place for thinking, and that’s under attack right now from corporate moneymaking logic, and by the pressures of the job market. The spaces for that kind of discussion and engagement are threatened in a whole variety of ways. Working to protect those spaces, working to fund those spaces so that people don’t have to work three jobs and [go to school] on the side, I think is real. We need to fight for the universities, and for the humanities. We can’t all be STEM. I love science. I love math, but we need to do the humanities—we’re humans! The last thing is more philosophical, which is, to be willing to follow the questions to other questions. Be patient with indeterminacy, and difficult thoughts, and dangerous thoughts. Trust that if we just keep thinking it through, we’ll learn something. We may not answer the question, we may not find a solution, but we’ll learn something about ourselves and our world.
Sarah: Some of the characters in War Porn are very culturally unaware. Did you find them hard to write? Were you worried that some of the people you were in the military with might see themselves in those characters? You write from many perspectives, and I think that’s something hard to do in today’s climate without potentially facing a lot of criticism.
Roy: It wasn’t hard – I guess, spoiler alert – you’re talking specifically about the soldiers being racist?
Sarah: That, and, writing from the perspective of someone on the other side of the Iraq war, writing as a citizen of a country of which you’ve never been a citizen, from the point of view of a religious person, and you yourself are not of that religion—it’s kind of dangerous right now, especially as a white male.
Roy: I’m glad we opened that up because there are two things there. Going back to this question of the human propensity to violence, and the us and them logic, the racialization of identity as a part of warfare—that all informs the writing about Wilson in Iraq, but where that language comes from, was from my experience as a soldier in Iraq. It was not only really, really easy to be racist over there, it was really hard not to be. If you feel like your life is under threat, this us and them logic takes an undeniable validity, because there’s us, and then there’s them, and the them are trying to kill us. To work through that requires a great deal of effort.
Sarah: And to still be in the military, because in a way it’s necessary to have that logic when you’re there to kill people. You can’t like them, and if you do, you’re in a constant moral quandary.
Roy: Right. And there are ways to manage that, and ways to think through that, but that all involves some kind of cognitive work. The easy solution is most usually to just hate them, or denigrate them, or think of them as less than human. That’s a fact of the Iraq war, and it’s been a fact of American War pretty consistently, since there’s been an America.
Sarah: You do something important though, I think. In the writing you have lots of unattributed speech, and you have chapter headings that read like instruction manuals, to help us see that this is institutionalized and that the individual soldier isn’t necessarily culpable. Obviously, the end actions of this book – I won’t say what they are – but obviously he is to blame for what he did, but the actions of war—that’s a very hazy area. To hate a soldier, for the war that we’re all in a sense implicated by because it is our country. We can be hippies who eat granola and drive Priuses here and be really comfortable, but those people are still having to fight.
Roy: That’s absolutely right. That’s why it’s a novel, not a pamphlet. To sit with this reality, and this complexity—not to say it’s okay because it’s complicated, or it’s bad because it’s complicated—but just, this is the human reality, and there are institutional aspects, and personal aspects, and then there are all kinds of other things going on. How can we understand that? Can we watch it happen and not try to turn it into a happy ending? That’s also why it’s so important. This isn’t a book about Wilson struggling with his moral conscience. There’s some of that. But the story of the Iraq war shouldn’t be about the Americans’ struggle with their moral conscience. It should be about America invading a foreign country and killing a bunch of people. Our struggle with our moral conscience is a big part of that story, but this is why it was so important to write from an Iraqi perspective as well—a big risk for white male author, sure. But I took that responsibility seriously. I tried to get it right. It’s also fiction. It’s also genre. The novel in translation, the post-colonial novel, is a genre. We consume it—mostly white, educated readers are consuming Salman Rushdie. There’s a question of getting it right as far as it’s authentic to Iraqi life, Iraqi experience, the Iraqis I talked to, how Iraqis see themselves. There’s also the question of getting it right in terms of being able to read as literary genre and if it works within our consumption of narrative.
Sarah: You do two important things:
You don’t present any of these people’s experiences as one-layered. Every character has varied degrees of belief and identity, and how they identify themselves. That makes them all human, and let’s readers relate to them in a more powerful way. That leaves you less open to criticism, too, because you didn’t paint a simple picture of any of your characters.
You also present both sides as using “us and them” logic, and within the narratives they each prove the other side wrong. Some of the Iraqis see the Americans as simple, and the reverse. I thought that was really smart, and hard, probably.
Roy: It’s hard. I tried to do justice to Iraqis as human beings. One of the great things that fiction can do that very little else can do in the same way is let us experience the consciousness of other human beings. I think that’s one of the great promises of literature. To be able to inhabit, however artificially, the consciousness of another human being—that’s a great, hopeful thing. It’s part of this bigger idea of trying to understand ourselves and each other. For all our differences, we’re all still human beings. We’re all complicated and multilayered. One of the beautiful, complicated, difficult things about the world is that we all have our reasons. This goes back to the global warming thing. It’s not us and them. Even though we’re right—of course we need to save the planet and stop driving cars, but even people who work for the oil companies have their reasons.