Will Mackin became a literary friend when we both wrote briefly for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. His excellent “Dispatches from Iraq” there (written as Roland Thompson) were sharply observed and sometimes surreal.
“I can understand the dogs, too,” he says in the final installment. “[One] looked at me and said, ‘Sometimes sedition, sometimes blight.’ Months later, after I returned home, I looked up ‘sedition.’ I also looked up a poem by Rudyard Kipling called ‘Boots,’ which the dogs liked to recite when covering large distances.”
A veteran myself, I struggled to understand what exactly Mackin did or was still doing in the service. He said he was a speechwriter for an admiral in the Pentagon but then said he was being put in charge of convoys in one of our wars. I learned he had been a weapons system officer aboard a carrier-based jet. When he went overseas, I sent him books to a military post office box, which obscures location, and in return a pint glass arrived with a Naval Special Warfare Development Group logo etched on the side.
Now I guess we can know where he ended up: serving in Afghanistan with a SEAL team.
And now Will is everywhere. He has published in The New Yorker, GQ, Tin House, The New York Times Magazine, and The Best American Short Stories. His first book, a short story collection about special operations troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, called Bring Out the Dog, came out with Random House earlier this year.
The Common Reader: Hey, Will. In addition to being a literary biggie on the go, you were an extra on Breaking Bad since retiring from the Navy and work as a consultant in the oil fields? You drinking deeply of life or what?
Will Mackin: I enjoy the consulting job more than I thought I would. Rigs are loud, unruly contraptions that are only a few steps removed from carnival rides on the evolutionary scale of machinery. And rig crews are very similar, personality-wise, to the guys I worked with in the Navy. So it’s a nice mix of the strange and the familiar.
TCR: Your bio often notes you were a student of George Saunders, but I get more of a Denis Johnson, Isaac-Babel, Tim O’Brien feel. Considering your life, experiences, and education, what was important to the words?
WM: George Saunders turned me on to Isaac Babel via a story from Red Cavalry called “My First Goose.” It’s about an Army clerk, ill-suited for fighting, who, after being reassigned to an infantry unit, ingratiates himself to his dubious platoonmates by choking a goose to death. They then eat the goose for dinner. I related to the clerk’s desire to fit in, and how the requirement to fit in sometimes runs counter to my natural tendencies. During my time in the Navy I left a trail of dead geese in my wake.
TCR: As you know, class snobbery in the military is rampant, perhaps nowhere more than in the rivalries of special operations. What do various kinds of units (SEALS, Rangers, Green Beret ODAs, USAF Combat Control teams) do that is unique in a theater like Afghanistan, and who does their job best?
WM: Back when I was deploying, special operations were focused on nocturnal kill/capture missions, or night raids. I don’t like to be parochial, so I’ll say that everyone (and therefore no one) was best.
TCR: One of the most striking things in Bring to me was how often the guys in your stories use night vision goggles, to see, to find their way, and to attack. That many instances mark some kind of symbolic value. Why did that technology capture your imagination in portraying the experience of this war?
WM: Night vision was my portal to the war, and the images it presented, which were often brutal, were also very dreamlike. That contrast stuck with me.
TCR: You have said you write slowly. When can we expect the next book?
WM: I’m hoping that the next book will come quicker than the last, and the reason I’m hopeful is because I haven’t started writing it yet.
TCR: Thank you, Will. Check out Bring Out the Dog here.