Every great songwriter is also a great storyteller. It's no wonder, then, that Odie Lindsey names Willie Nelson, Guy Clark, and Townes Van Zandt as some of his influences. In his new collection of short stories, We Come to Our Senses (Norton), Lindsey, who teaches literature and medicine in The Center for Medicine, Health, and Society at Vanderbilt, tells some powerful tales of the harsh realities of failure, of the staccato punches of social hypocrisy, of the relentless and haunting memories of life in a war zone that veterans carry back to the home front. Many of his characters might be having a hard time adjusting to life after deployment, but they didn't have a very easy time in life before they served their country in a blank battle zone where the enemy turned out to be other members in the same outfit as much—and maybe more than—it turned out to be soldiers from a foreign nation.
The stories in We Come to Our Senses feature characters already living at the margins of our society—women, lesbians, gays, transgender individuals—whose marginalization slides into an abyss upon their return from the front. In "Evie M.," a lesbian combat vet, now an office clerk, faces her trauma over what for her is a terrifying moment with a jammed copy machine. In "Colleen," a female vet confronts her commanding officer, demanding to know, "Was I the first? Or did you burn other girls?" The final story, "Hers," illustrates the traumatic character of homecoming for women vets in a culture that hesitantly and unenthusiastically—even diffidently—embraces the heroines of the culture. All of these stories are set against a backdrop of a South in which the cycle of honor and shame is deeply embedded in a narrative of a war of lost cause. Lindsey expertly draws the darkness and claustrophobic character of such a culture to which these heroes return to face, embrace, and discard their new identities.
I caught with Lindsey by phone for a chat about his new book and about the influence of music on his writing.
Henry Carrigan: What led you to out together this collection of stories now?
Odie Lindsey: Well, the genesis of the collection was the 2003 invasion of Iraq. I'd written a couple of novels that were really awful, but one thing I'd never written about was my deployment. So, back then I was watching this deployment of troops, and I thought, "Here I am 12 years later, and it's the same war and a president with the same name." Nothing had changed. But what I really wanted to write about was what it's like to be home. Also, I started asking myself why women's stories or LGBTQ stories are so often left out of the narratives about returning veterans. So, I started writing stories that featured characters who were often already placed on the margins of society even before they left for the war and telling the stories of what they had to face returning. In 2012, the Iowa Review published "Evie M." I wrote many of the other stories over the past eight years.
HC: One of the common themes in these stories is this weird, often repugnant but strangely compelling, yet beautiful character of place in the South.
Lindsey: I did my M.A. in Southern studies at Mississippi, but while I was there I studied with Barry Hannah, so I absorbed some of that from him. I turned in a story to Barry that I'd worked on really hard, but I could tell there were no guts to it. Barry was relentless in his reading and critique of that piece; it was a lesson in humiliation. Then I did an M.F.A. at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. My teachers there were the opposite of Barry; they're not going to tell you that you can't do something or that you're doing something wrong. In Chicago, though, my friends and I were able to strike out and listen to all kinds of music, and we had a band and even put on some shows. You know, you can't help but get some wisdom about the South by looking at it from the outside, and those years in Chicago helped me gain that wisdom. But I learned from Barry that when I really started diving into a story, I was diving into the truth.
HC: Tell me about the role of music in your life.
Lindsey: Music was my thing; it was far more prevalent for me growing up in the 1970s than sports or even writing. I knew every word to the every song on Willie Nelson's Red-Headed Stranger album. In fact, I learned how to tell a story and construct a narrative by listening to that album. My family lived close to this place called Gruene Hall; my dad used to take me to shows there—I heard people like Doug Sahm—and we used to sit outside and listen to the music when I was too young to go inside. When I got to be a teenager, I rejected all of that music and crossed over to the hardcore punk of the 1980s. Then, when I was deployed, I heard Uncle Tupelo's "No Depression," and it brought me back to the music I'd left behind as a teenager. Eventually, I did an internship at Fat Possum Records and then worked for Phil Walden at Capricorn Records. I had to log in the magazines that came in, and No Depression was one title that grabbed me right away; the writing stuck with me. I just hope my stories have some musicality to them.
HC: If you had a party with musicians and writers, living or dead, whom would you invite?
Lindsey: Toni Morrison: I want to sit beside her so I can light her cigarettes and cater to her every whim. I want Morrison, and I want to be present at that party in the last scene of Heartworn Highways [Guy Clark, Rodney Crowell, Steve Earle, Steve Young, Jim McGuire, and Richard Dobson are all present at that gathering]; if I could be there, I wouldn't even have to host my own party. (laughs)
HC: What are you reading these days?
Lindsey: Eudora Welty's The Collected Stories; Brad Watson's Miss Jane—he's a friend of a friend of a friend; Mary Miller's The Last Days of California; I'm also reading Ellen Gilchrist, Larry Brown, and Alice Randall: I'm phenomenally grateful to her; she's someone who nurtures other writers. Also, Harry Crews: the most important lesson I learned from him is that if you're gonna write you have to keep your ass in your seat.
HC: What themes do you hope readers take from your book?
Lindsey: I hope folks will start to ask questions about who gets a war story; I hope these stories will help readers see the legacy of the war brought home and all the spaces there the memories of war get lived out.