Today I welcome author Brandon Davis Jennings to my blog. His second book, Battle Rattle, was released last month.
Where were you born and where do you call home?
I was born in Hampton, Virginia, but my family is West Virginian. My childhood was spent mostly on the west coast in California (the Mojave Desert) and in Washington State. My dad served twenty years in the USAF, and that’s made it difficult for me to pick a home. Home is where my friends are, and they are all over the place. But my wife and I have finally settled in South Bend, Indiana. We want our daughter to have a place she can call home, and it’s looking like that place will end up being South Bend, Indiana.
When did you first consider yourself a writer?
I wrote when I was in high school and in grade school too. But back then I didn’t know that a person could be a writer. I thought all the books had been written and that anyone who wrote in contemporary time was just kind of fooling around. I really started to feel like a writer when I was in Saudi Arabia during the initial invasion of Iraq. I was writing while I was there, probably as catharsis. But I never really stopped writing after I began in Saudi. And then while I was in undergrad for Journalism, I learned about MFAs in fiction. I had no idea you could get a degree in telling stories. I applied four places and got into Bowling Green State University earned an MFA in fiction and then went on to get a Ph. D in English with a creative dissertation. So it was probably Operation Iraqi Freedom that did it to me. It was the encouragement of friends, family, and mentors that kept me at it.
How much of yourself, your personality or your experiences, is in your books?
Because the vast majority of the work I’ve been doing the past few years has been nonfiction (although the book I am promoting presently is fiction), my self has infiltrated a lot more of my characters than it may have otherwise. Or another way of looking at it is that my self is a lot more readily apparent to me in my present work because all the nonfiction I’ve written has helped me to understand myself better. And I don’t think art comes from nothing, so even when a character does something I would never do, I probably have the character make that decision because I disagree with it. Stories are often more interesting when characters act in ways that we believe we would not. The Iliad is interesting in part because Achilles chooses to go to war and die: whether we like it or not. I’m more interested in Ajax the Greater, but this probably isn’t the place for a rant about that.
Have you started your next project? If so, can you share a little bit about your next book?
My next book is a memoir in essays. Some of it has been published already in variou journals. But if I had to simplify it, that book is about growing up a military brat, having been molested on the night MIke Tyson lost to Buster Douglas, and how keeping that secret for twenty years affected my life.
Do you write full-time? If so, what is your work day like? If not, what do you do other than write and how do you find time to write?
I do write full-time, but I’m also a stay-at-home dad. So I have to wake at 5 most mornings to ensure I get some writing done before my daughter starts requiring attention. She naps a couple times a day still (she’s one), and that makes it easy for me to dive in and out of projects. It prevents me from doing any marathon writing sessions, but I don think those are often as productive as the word count might lead a writer to believe. Every one has her own process of course. But writing is no different than anything else: after a while, you get tired and sloppy and what might seem like a great sentence at the time of writing it, ends up being complete garbage upon later inspection. I am more productive now that I have a daughter than I was before she was around to keep me on my toes. She and my wife drive me to make the best art that I can.
Please tell us about your current release.
Battle Rattle is my second Kindle Single and the second book I’ve written about a group of American enlisted-men who live in segments: deployments broken up by brief respites lived at home. Unlike the majority of the books about war that have been released recently, this book doesn’t focus on any one of the particular conflicts American is involved in presently. This book isn’t about The Iraq War or the war in Afghanistan. It’s about these men who’ve been enlisted and serving long enough to have been to war in many different places. It’s also about how the jobs they’ve chosen impact the lives of their families at home. What I’m hoping Battle Rattle does is show people the America that I’ve witnessed and participated in during my 35 years. And I believe that despite much of the heartache and sadness that this book contains, it is hopeful because it should force readers to see these characters fully without giving them the chance to turn their heads.
How did you come up with the title?
The title wasn’t easy. I don’t think titles are ever easy, though. There were a lot of choices: many of the titles I came up with were terrible and easy to rule out. But Andrew Eisenman (the editor at Kindle Singles I worked with on the book) suggested Battle Rattle to me and after a lot of thinking about what exactly that meant to me and to the book itself, it made a lot of sense. For anyone who is not familiar with that phrase, it is something said in the military that deals with the gear one is wearing. An airman, soldier, marine, or sailor is in full battle rattle when he’s wearing his flak gear and all the other items that are required for his specific job. The play here is sort of on PTSD and you might say someone was “rattled” if a situation had caused him stress. An explosion might rattle a person, but since this book is just as concerned with the characters lives at home, battle seemed to work well as a way to indicate that not all the rattling was coming from time spent in war zones. Anyone who’s been in a relationship knows that not all battles are fought by soldiers. There was a battle over who would change the kitty litter at our house for years. Then my wife got pregnant and she won that battle.
What kind of research did you do for this book?
A lot of the research I did for this book was mining my own history. But that isn’t the extent of it. I had to read about a lot of different conflicts and the locations where they took place. But because the book is not supposed to be tied to any specific town or city in America and because it isn’t supposed to be tied to any specific war abroad, much of the research I did that would have allowed me to make things specifically southern or specifically Iraqi had to be tossed out. I’m sure that if someone took enough time they could make a pretty solid guess about where each chapter of the book takes place. But also, I think that the place where these characters are is less important than the time they are there in. They live in an America that has been at war for nearly two decades depending on how you want to delineate which conflict started when. The war I participated in started in 2003; it’s now 2016. I’m not sure when kids start to remember things like their country being at war, but I remember talking to my students when I was teaching creative writing at Western Michigan University, and I asked them if they could remember a time when we weren’t at war. None of them could. That’s not what my childhood or early adulthood was like. I joined the Air Force in 2000, in peace time, and the war that was being fought when I left the Air Force is still being fought today. I consider all the things a writer pays attention to as research. And I’ve had my eyes and ears open while working on this for the past decade. Of course the real research for all books is in observing people, and I’ve been doing that for as long as I can remember.
Do you have an all time favorite book?
My favorite book is Catch-22: not because I think it’s funny. I think it is one of the saddest books ever written. The saddest part about the book to me is that so many people use it as a way to gauge the humor in other military fiction. Really: Yossarian’s situation is horrifying. Each time he goes on a bombing run he faces death. And he survives time and again until he’s completed all the missions required of him. And then they raise the number of missions, so he just has to go back up and do more. Don’t get me wrong; there are a lot of funny moments in the book, but it’s not a funny book. Which is probably why I like it so much. War is not funny, but some people are able to laugh in the most grim of situations and that is a large part of what makes life worth living: laughing when it seems like all hope is lost.
What book are you reading right now?
I just finished The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky. I’d tried finishing that book about ten times over the last eight years and it was only now, after I was done with Battle Rattle that I was able plow through the final 300 pages and finish it. I do not recommend it. If you’re going to read Dostoevsky, read Crime and Punishment. It’s much more interesting and engaging. And if Crime and Punishment is too daunting, there is always Notes From Underground. And if you prefer to read a living person’s work, I’d recommend The Deathmask of El Gaucho by Dan Mancilla. That book won a contest I judged; it’s really good. I’ve read it three times. I’ll probably read it again.
For Derrick “Vez” Vezcheck, dwell time – the period at home between deployments – is a different kind of battle. Swap enemies for civilian expectations and you get a sense of what Vez is up against: a patient and loving wife who’ll stick by him no matter what, a young daughter who’s a little too OK with seeing dad every six months, and a community that’s quick to thank him for his service, even if he himself has long forgotten what he’s fighting for.
In Battle Rattle, Brandon Davis Jennings’ darkly comic and all-too-real follow-up to 2015’s award-winning novella Waiting for the Enemy, the war is never out of sight and definitely never out of mind. With redeployment looming and everyone around him falling apart, Vez must choose between making things right at home and utterly destroying everything in his path—before it gets decided for him.
About the Author
Brandon Davis Jennings is an Operation Iraq Freedom Veteran from West Virginia. He is the author of Waiting for the Enemy, which won the Iron Horse Literary Review Chapbook Competition. His works has appeared in The Literary Review, Passages North, and Hayden’s Ferry Review and has been translated into German and Czech. He earned an MFA in Fiction from Bowling Green State University, and a PhD from Western Michigan University. He lives in South Bend, Indiana with his wife, Kristine and their daughter, Shannon. Battle Rattle is his second Kindle Single.
You can find out more about Brandon on his website.
You can buy Battle Rattle on Amazon.