After 5 tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, a Silver Star, and a Purple Heart, Elliot Ackerman needed to reinvent himself to return to civilian life. Embracing his creative side, he became a best-selling author and journalist, writing fiction and non-fiction inspired by his experiences in military service. Listen as he tells us about his experience transitioning from soldier to author and the importance of communication in an increasingly divided society.
Elliott Ackerman: [00:00:00] The books are like children, so it’s you know, you wouldn’t say which of your children do you love the most but you still appreciate the different attributes of your various books…
Sam: [00:00:13] How do you reinvent yourself for civilian life after multiple tours with the U.S. military? Elliot Ackerman is a best-selling author and military veteran. A recipient of the Silver Star and Purple Heart, he did five tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is the author of several books, including Waiting for Eden and Green on Blue, and has been published in several magazines, including Time and The New Yorker. Elliot, thank you for your service and it’s so great to have you on the show today.
Elliott Ackerman: [00:01:03] Thanks for having me.
Sam: [00:01:06] So you’ve written several books at this point. Which of them has been the most meaningful to you? And tell us why?
Elliott Ackerman: [00:01:14] Well, I think it’s very difficult to say which one is the most meaningful. I mean, you know, I mean, authors often often comment and I believe it is true that, you know, books are like children. So it’s very you know, can you say which of your children do you love the most? But you still appreciate the different attributes of your various books. At this point, I would say if there’s one of my books that stands out, it’s the memoir I wrote just because it’s the single book-length work of nonfiction that I’ve done. But aside from that, you know, each of my books, they’re different, frequently, the themes within them are recurring themes in all of my work. So there is definitely a through line in my writing.
Sam: [00:02:02] I love that. I love the analogy to children. It is so true and you know, writing a book is like going through the process of having a child. I mean, it sort of takes over your life for a little while. So tell us how do you feel about writing fiction vs nonfiction.I mean, obviously totally different. They probably take very different amounts of time. How do you think about that mix for yourself?
Elliott Ackerman: [00:02:34] Or just to go back to what we were just talking about, you know, books are very much like children and so much as you know, the graduation day is akin to like the publication day. And although you’re very happy when a book is published out in the world, there’s also a certain kind of melancholy that attends to that. You feel you know, you feel a little bit sad. And then once a book is out in the world and people are reading it, it’s sort of like watching a child out in the world. You know, you hope it does good things and finds readers. But there’s not much control you have at that point. But back to what you were just asking, about the contrast between fiction and nonfiction. You know, I don’t get too wrapped around the axle with each. I mean, obviously, nonfiction has to be true in so much as you know, I can’t make up facts the way I make up facts and work of fiction.
Sam: [00:03:28] I’m so glad to hear you say that, because that isn’t the tone of our political discourse currently.
Elliott Ackerman: [00:03:32] Well, no, but I hope I’m doing something different than our political discourse. But the effect that you’re trying to create, I think is a similar effect. And I am, you know, always basically just trying to create the types of books that I enjoy reading. So you’re trying to create the same effect but you’re doing it with a slightly different toolkit.
Sam: [00:04:01] That makes sense. The advent of Amazon and e-reading and e-books has changed and threatened the way we browse and buy books for some time now. You know, Amazon, sort of the hundred pound gorilla, 72% of adult new book sales online. How have the changes in the industry over the past decade affected an author like you – are there other industry changes that you think are still in motion that continue to have an effect on writers?
Elliott Ackerman: [00:04:34] I think the publishing industry has changed a great deal in the past 10 years. Some of it bad, some of it good, mostly just change. And I think you know, the only thing that’s consistent is that there will continue to be change, just as there always has been change. So is it a good thing that, you know, people go on audible a lot more and listen to books in ways they never used to listen to books because of all these phones? Yes, it’s a great thing. It’s a great way for people’s work to get out there. You know, is it a bad thing that the bigger publishing houses suck up a lot more of the oxygen? Yeah, you know, it’s probably not great for cultivating an extremely diverse and exciting literature, but it was difficult to say that we’re heading in a good direction or necessarily just a bad direction. I think we’re just seeing consistent and steady change and that change will be enduring.
Sam: [00:05:29] That is here to stay I agree. You started writing for the public around 2013. Tell us what made you choose this career path after your return to civilian life? I think there were a couple of stints in the government, right? But that in a nonmilitary capacity as well that came in between.
Elliott Ackerman: [00:05:53] You know, it’s funny. The people who know me the longest don’t say Elliott, isn’t it funny that you were in the Marines all these years and you wound up kind of, you know, in an artistic career as a writer? The people who know me the longest say, Elliot. Isn’t it funny we always kind of thought of you as this artistic kid and isn’t it weird that you end up in the Marines for so long? So I think, you know, we all sort of contain, you know, as Walt Whitman says, “we all contain multitudes”. And you know when I was in the military and in government service, there was a part of my personality that I was engaging with. You know, that was more action based. That was more interpersonal. And there was a part of my personality, more creative parts of my personality that I wasn’t able to engage with in the same way. And now that I’ve left the military that dynamic has flipped. So for me, you know, there is a through line, but the through line in my career is more one of just, you know, doing work that engages with different aspects of who I am.
Sam: [00:07:04] And yet, you know, the age that you were at when you went into the military and then the duration that you spent, there must have been such a formative period for you.
Elliott Ackerman: [00:07:16] Yeah, absolutely, you know, I started down the path of going to the military when I was 17, and I left that world when I was thirty one. So, you know, the bulk of my life. And amongst veteran friends of mine will often say of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is that, you know, this idea that we sort of grew up there. And people have sometimes asked me, hey, Elliott, how did the wars change you? And I don’t even know how to answer that because the wars didn’t change me, you know, the wars, the wars made me. How did your parents change you? Parents don’t change you. They make you, they help you become the person you are. And those experiences made me the person that I am.
Sam: [00:08:00] I love the way you articulated that. Your first novel came out twenty in 2015, but you’d been writing journalistic pieces for some time before that. What made you pivot into fiction or had it always been part of the game plan?
Elliott Ackerman: [00:08:17] You know, I don’t really pivot into fiction, I mean, I continue to write journalism. I think at this moment. I have like 4 different pieces I’m working on at this moment while I’m also working on a book. And that’s sort of always been how I work. So for me, the journalism oftentimes, you know, feeds the fiction. So my first novel came out in 2015. But I’d been working on it for a number of years. And at the same time, I was publishing pieces of journalism along the way.
Sam: [00:08:46] Did the inspiration for the novel start while you were still in the military? I mean, was that, you know, was coming out and writing more something that was on your mind while you were still there?
Elliott Ackerman: [00:08:59] I always suspected while I was in the military that I might write and I studied history and literature in school. My mother is a writer, so I grew up around other writers, so it didn’t seem so foreign to me. While I was in the military, I actually had one or two false starts. Just like maybe I try to write about this and I never felt right or even frankly, that kind of appropriate to be doing it while I was in the midst of those experiences. But actually, it might sound trite, but I was in Afghanistan and had made the decision. It was literally right when I made the decision that I was going to be my last deployment there and I was going to leave the service. It was literally the next day that I would say I started making what I consider my first serious attempts at writing fiction. And I think what I actually needed was – I needed a psychic break. I needed to know that one chapter in my life was over so that I could let the next chapter begin. And that freed me up mentally to begin applying myself to writing.
Sam: [00:09:57] How are you staying creative during the quarantine and sort of all the after effects of the pandemic that we’re dealing with? Is 2020 being a different year, a tougher year?
Elliott Ackerman: [00:10:08] I think it’s been an incredibly creative year because anything is possible, right? I mean, who would’ve thought we’d be sitting here, you know, a year ago we’re wearing masks and dousing ourselves and hand sanitizer? And I mean, I think kind of like—
Sam: [00:10:21] Straight out of a science fiction novel.
Elliott Ackerman: [00:10:23] This year has emphasized that anything is possible. You know, being a writer is by definition only a sort of solitary pursuit. And I would say in that respect, I’m very fortunate in that the pandemic and kind of the narrowing of all of our lives hasn’t been felt, I’m sure as acutely for me as it has been for other people. So I’m lucky in that this period, you know, I’ve been able to work consistently through it. And I recognize that there are many people whose work is their passion and have been taken away from it. So I am able to keep working and then keep applying myself to products I’m interested in. I would just only add that, you know, the one thing that I draw a lot of creativity from is reading, you know, you can’t be, I think, a good writer if you’re not a very serious reader. And, you know, I’m always reading and I culture a lot of sustenance from that.
Sam: [00:11:19] 100%. I think, you know, so many writer friends have always emphasized this, that they almost spend, you know, just as much time or even more time reading as they do writing.
Elliott Ackerman: [00:11:30] Absolutely.
Sam: [00:11:31] So as a writer, Eliot, you are effectively your own business. Who are the people you look to and rely on for support and advice when it comes to your work life? And being married to a writer, I imagine, helps as well.
Elliott Ackerman: [00:11:47] It does. Lee is a great source of support and a great set of eyes, you know she reads all of my work before it goes out there. My mother’s a writer and she’s always been a great supporter, you know, and then I have friends who are other writers. You know, my editor, my agent, and people like that. I think it’s very important as you get going to sort of find your people. Yes, I guess it is sort of you know, you’re a one person business, but you definitely have a group of people, you know, who you are in business with and who are your champions. And for me, that group has been totally instrumental in whatever success I can climb.
Sam: [00:12:35] It’s a great group to have around you and you feel so much support from them. What keeps you up at night right now?
Elliott Ackerman: [00:12:44] Well, one of the things you learn after a career in the military is how to sleep anywhere. So I actually sleep pretty well at night. I think what worries me, you know, I think the things that we’re you know, I have kids. I worry about all of our kids right now that they’ll be able to kind of navigate this period of a pandemic with resilience. And the optimist in me hopes that this will be a moment that they carry with them throughout their lives as sort of the first real challenge where they had to see they were, you know, part of a society and how that society worked and that, you know, perhaps from all of this, you know, trauma, we’ll see some post-traumatic growth as opposed to just, you know, stress. So, you know, like any parent, I worry, I work with my kids, you know, to be honest. Like, I’m worried about the country right now. I think this country needs to figure out how to bring itself together. And that goes for everybody on the right and everybody on the left. I think we are all behaving in ways as Americans that are beneath us. And I hope we can see our way through our divisions to come together around the things that matter.
Sam: [00:13:55] It’s such a challenging time. And I think, you know, separating cause from effect in terms of has the country become more divided as a result of the pandemic, or is the division amplifying the effects of the pandemic? It’s so hard to disentangle in some ways.
Elliott Ackerman: [00:14:11] Well, there’s certainly people who are who are incentivized to divide us. And division is the lifeblood of their political enterprises. And I think, you know, one great thing we can do as citizens just interpersonally, but also in art, you know, it’s one of the great things that art does is, you know, art is this constant drumbeat of affirmation, affirming the ways we are the same. That, you know, when we experience a work of art, we all feel something, because we all feel something from the work of art, we are all intrinsically human. So we need to find the ways in the things that we can unite around despite our divisions, because sadly, there are people for whom their entire business model is divide, divide, divide. Your rage keeps you glued to your phone, to your social media, to your television screen. And the more angry they can make us, the more divided they can make us, the better off their political ventures will be. Their business ventures will be. And I think it’s just important to be conscious of the ways in which we are often manipulated.
Sam: [00:15:17] Do you, you know, as effectively, in a sense, a member of the media, do you feel that there is enough discussion and thought and conversation on this sort of overall tone of negativity? I forget what the exact number is, but there is a statistic, right, that 95% of news stories are a negative. And you know the media is not interested in covering topics that don’t result in a negative news story these days. Is there any sort of soul searching around that? Because as you said, it’s leading to an engagement that is almost entirely fueled by anger.
Elliott Ackerman: [00:15:59] I think that it is not an issue that is discussed enough in the media because the media is not incentivized to discuss it because so much of the media’s model is again, is eyeballs on screens. So the more eyeballs you have to screens, you know, the higher profits will be. And what draws eyeballs to screens is, you know, is anger, you know, and division and negativity, as you noted. And that’s not something that gets talked about nearly enough because the people controlling the conversation are incentivized to keep everybody under.
Sam: [00:16:39] If you think about one or two sayings that might be able to bring us more together in the US, what would those be?
Elliott Ackerman: [00:16:48] I think leadership. I think the fixation on micro identifying every facet of our identities and the ways that we are different is not bringing us together. We are Americans and I think being Americans is what brings us together. That doesn’t mean we can’t be different, but we should be fixating on our identities and the many transgressions one group has prepared perpetrated against another group. I don’t think that takes us anywhere, it’s a cul de sac. It’s not going to make my kids’ lives better, it’s not gonna make your kids’ lives better. So I think, you know, having conversations that are more about how we transcend our differences as opposed to how we remain fixated on our differences are the conversations that can take us somewhere. But sadly, I think right now the majority, the majority share of voice is given to those who would want to fixate on our differences and, you know, air out various grievances. And I think we’re seeing a lot of that. And I think we’re seeing the results of a lot of that, which is an incredibly divided society.
Sam: [00:17:51] It’s such a challenging time because, as you said, we’re watching and the events of today are sort of amplifying all of these social divisions at the same time. Many of these conversations are overdue. Why is it, do you think that and I’m you know, I’m struggling with this in the context of our children’s schools. You know, all the different institutions that you are as parents are involved in with our children. The conversation is an incredibly charged one. And so however much that someone talks about wanting to have that conversation in a safe space. It is in a safe space because it’s hostile to somebody. And as a result, the conversation doesn’t really get had. And we’re sort of back to square one and everyone goes back to their corners. And that ability for dialog is really being lost as a result of this. And as you said, these bases of micro identity have. So detracted from the fact that in the end, we are all American. And that’s clearly something we should be able to unify around.
Elliott Ackerman: [00:18:59] Absolutely. I mean, the metric of a healthy and a functioning society is how inclusive it is of people. But the way you get to inclusively is not by further and further dividing down your identity into the most granular or low level, where it’s basically you and your immediate family against everyone else. Inclusivity is growing an enormous tent and a constant, consistent drumbeat of recognition, how everyone in this tent is the same. We all have these things in common. We are the same. Saying over and over again we are the same in bigger and bigger and bigger ways. And that is the obverse of so much of the conversation right now. And, you know, I’m all for and think it is essential to have respectful, you know, cordial discussion. But oftentimes the call for safe spaces is not a call truly for a safe space and for geniality. It’s a call for the silencing of any dissent. That safety means no dissent is allowed in this place. And that is extremely dangerous. And you might get the silencing of dissent for a short amount of time, but it won’t last. And ultimately if you look historically or even a look at present events, the time you see violence manifest in societies and societies get to the point where they can’t talk to each other. And my concern is increasingly we’re seeing conversations shutting down where groups of Americans cannot talk to each other. I think we’ve probably all experienced that.
Sam: [00:20:34] 100%.
Elliot Ackerman [00:20:35] And what follows after at a certain point, people can’t speak to each other and people hold real convictions, you know, you see violence. I mean, I’m not trying to sound too alarmist about it, but that’s that’s how it goes. And so we should be you know, the lack of discourse in this society is not just sort of, you know, quibbling over manners. It is fundamental to the long term health of our country. If we live in a country where people can’t, in good faith, have conversations about challenging issues and real differences over those issues, but have them in good faith and move forward, we’re not going to have a country that holds together much longer.
Sam: [00:21:14] I absolutely agree. I think what’s preventing so many of these conversations from even happening increasingly is the lack of an ability to have a fact based discussion, right that’s really been lost. And there are lots of reasons for it. But certainly one amplifying reason that is undeniable is that social media has sort of created these echo chambers that obviate the facts and just sort of create this repetitive loop of a very selective exposure of people based on whatever it is they’ve signaled an interest in before. And that ability to not be able to have a fact based discussion and not to be able to agree on the basic facts of an issue is so deeply destructive to any liberal democracy, not just the US. I mean, we’ve seen this play out in the U.K. and other parts of Europe.
Elliott Ackerman: [00:22:12] I totally agree with you. And I think we also live in a culture, you know, like we’ve all heard this word, like, you know, my truth. That’s my truth. You know, like you don’t get to have your own truth. That might be your experience, I might be how you feel about something, but my truth. That doesn’t mean anything.
Sam: [00:22:30] I couldn’t agree more.
Elliott Ackerman: [00:22:31] Truth. Truth is universal. That’s what makes it true. If it’s just true to you and it’s true to no one else, then it’s not true. It’s just something you think. So, you know words, you know, as a writer, words really matter. And so, you know, I agree with you. Like, we have a problem with facts. We also have a problem where emotions become facts. Just because a person feels a certain way does not liberate them from having to hold the facts. And just because you feel a certain way or lived a certain experience doesn’t give you the ability to own all the facts around that experience. Like, it’s actually it’s ironic. As a veteran, I have felt that, you know, because I am part of sort of a, you know, a subset identity group. And I find it extremely upsetting when veterans will believe that they have, you know, the authority to be the only people who can speak about war and peace in this country because they fought. You know, there’s an old joke: it’s some ‘how many Vietnam vets does it take to screw in a light bulb? You wouldn’t know, you weren’t there.’ That type of thinking, I’ve seen it in my own community of veterans and it is poison and it hurts veterans and it doesn’t allow us to contribute positively to society. And it basically relegates us to a little ghetto-identity, where we sit around and quibble among ourselves talking about how no one in society understands us and how aggrieved we should be and that’s not good. And I see that that trend that can exist amongst veterans and absolutely not all veterans, but it can exist. You know, we can go there. And I see it manifesting in many other groups and everyone’s got to have their truth and everyone has to— and they have to own the conversation for their group. And it’s going to take us and it is taking us right now nowhere.
Sam: [00:24:30] I couldn’t agree more. We’re in a very strange place. Elliott last question, if you could fast forward to three years from now, where do you see yourself and your writing?
Elliott Ackerman: [00:24:42] I see myself continuing to write books and tell stories. And I hope that those then, you know, and write the journalism that I write and the columns that I write and I hope people will still find them meaningful. So I feel very blessed. I’m doing the things that I love and I just want to keep doing it.
Sam: [00:25:09] That’s well said. Here’s something else you should know. In March 2020, total U.S. book sales were down 8.5%, reflecting the pandemic’s early effects on book centers. But given everyone’s yearning for art during lockdown, we remain optimistic that they’ve bounced back, thanks to New York Times and The Journal for the data used in today’s episode. Elliot, we’re inspired by your journey, your service to the country and your ability to reinvent yourself and work across these different media to your fiction and nonfiction writing. Thanks so much for joining us today.
Elliott Ackerman: [00:25:48] Thanks for having me Sam.
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