Teen Read Week is officially October 16th through 22nd, but here at The Hub, we’re celebrating all month long with 31 Days of Authors. On each day in October, we’ll bring you author interviews and profiles and reflections on what YALSA-recognized books have meant to us.
Mark Kurlansky’s new YA book, Battle Fatigue, will be released on the 25th. The book tells the story of Joel Bloom, who grows up surrounded by the war stories of his father’s generation, but he becomes a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War. Today, we feature an interview with Mark.
You have written mainly for an adult audience in the past. What led you to this foray into young adult literature?
I have written three children’s and one YA book before this. This is the first YA novel. I am a great believer in writing for children. They are great readers open to new ideas and with great intellectual limberness. If you believe that writers are supposed to have an impact on society, your best shot at that is to write for kids. Most adults have pretty much made up their minds about everything. This book came about because I was looking at YA novels and I was struck at how many of them are about war, even glorifying war. I thought someone should give them a story about refusing to go to war. There would be far less war and violence in the world if we stopped glorifying it for young people. Of course if kids didn’t believe in war there would be no soldiers. I wouldn’t be unhappy about that, but it is the reason why kids are given so much war propaganda. I have listened to recruiters pitching to students. I think kids deserve a little more truth.
This is a war story, but it is unlike many war stories out there for young readers. Can you talk about what led you to this story?
This is a novel with fictional characters and fictional experience but much of it mirrors my own experience. I was born in a blue collar New England town, the son of veterans, surrounded by combat veterans and I did refuse to fight in Vietnam. I had friends who did go. I believe that mine is a unique generation with a unique historic experience and that kids can learn a lot from our experience if it is told honestly.
The main character, Joel Bloom, is surrounded throughout his childhood by war from the stories of his father and uncles; to the games he plays with friends; to the movies, TV, and books that he watches and reads. This leads to his sense that war is inevitable for him. Do you think this feeling was common for your generation?
I do. We felt that every generation has its war and when we turned 18 ours would be there. Kids don’t think that way any more but it was a valuable experience because it made you ask questions about war and about yourself. When the war comes, what will I do? Of course all that thinking about war turned a lot of people against it. War is easier to accept if you don’t think about it too much. I meet young boys today that are very enamored of war and militarism from books, movies, videos, but they don’t really imagine themselves facing it in any kind of realistic way. I grew up around a lot of people who were psychologically injured in war. When I thought of war, I feared psychological damage more than physical.
A follow-up or continuation of the previous question: Is it accurate that “the war” seems to work as metaphor throughout the book to mean the inevitable stand that Joel must take against the war?
Not to be evasive but yes and no. Joel’s war was Vietnam in a literal sense. He believed every generation had one and he recognized this one as his. This was the war he would have to decide what to do about. But then the Vietnam War became less about Vietnam and more about standing up to Washington and the people who supported it. So the nature of the war shifted but still this was his war, the one he had been expecting.
The detail in which you talk about specific baseball games in the book is amazing. Did it take a lot of research or are you one of these guys who commits all stats to his head?
I am a big baseball fan but not a fan of stats. I love the game for its elegance and its tendency to invoke metaphor. I looked up the stats. See, you don’t need to memorize them. All of the baseball games mentioned were games that I remember from my child hood especially the 1956 World Series when Brooklyn lost to the Yankees and the 1960 world series with the shot to Tony Kubek’s Adam’s Apple and Bill Mazeroski’s ninth inning home run winning the series for the Pirates against the Yankees which remains one of my all time favorite baseball moments.
Joel’s obsession with baseball is an interesting aspect of his character that seems to thwart the reader’s expectations at times but feels so natural. Can you talk about the decision to include baseball as such a central part of the story and of the character of Joel?
When I was growing up baseball was the only sport that mattered. Kids lives revolved around it just the way they do in my book. It was what America was like.
You draw many similarities in the book between World War 2 and the Vietnam War. Do you see any similarities between the Vietnam War and our current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?
All wars are the same but different. Certainly Iraq was like Vietnam in that it was not clear how it started or why but it does seem apparent that the US government lied. Afghanistan and Iraq also have in common with Vietnam that they are all examples of the US trying to use high technology military might to force a small poor country to do what we want. And like Vietnam, these was have been pursued with tactics that have led to the death of a huge number of innocent civilians. This used to be considered a war crime but now it is done so often that it has gained acceptance.
Do you expect any controversy when the book comes out?
There are always people who get upset when you don’t glorify war. Most of them have never been to war. I usually get a lot of support from combat veterans. It was covering war as a journalist and really seeing it that really cemented my own feelings. Some will like it and others won’t, and that is probably the way books should be. But kids ought to be exposed to as many ideas s possible even if they don’t agree. Everybody doesn’t have to love my point of view. But I come about it honestly. Even if you don’t like Joel’s ideas, I think you have to recognize the reality of such a person.
What do you hope young readers will take away from the story?
A number of things including an understanding of people who oppose war and also an understanding of my generation. But most importantly, I want them to see that standing up for your own unpopular ideas is the most rewarding experience life has to offer.
At one point the female character, Rachel, is talking about revolution and refers to the police as “pigs.” Joel points out that she has never met a police officer. Joel has a friend whose dad is a police officer, and he refuses to refer to the police the same way as Rachel. It struck me that this happens a lot in the book. You have characters making strong judgements of hippies, communists, African-Americans, etc… I get the feeling that the characters with these strong opinions have never met those whom they are condemning. Was this an intentional theme or is this just the way the characters developed in your mind?
The anti-war movement of the sixties, which I participated in, was very classist. Having grown up in a blue collar area, this very much bothered me. Conflict is always about the lack of empathy, not knowing or understanding the other person’s point of view. Labels are designed to abbreviate thought. Hippie, Communist, hard hat were all words used by one side or the other to avoid understanding.
How do you think the Bulldogs will fare in the upcoming basketball season? (Mr. Kurlansky attended Butler University in Indianapolis.)
They always surprise and hopefully they have another surprise in them.
— Joel Bruns is currently reading Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Harms the Planet and Threatens Our Lives by Michael Specter and listening to The Secret History by Donna Tartt.
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