Brian Castner’s award-winning memoir “The Long Walk,” about his experience as an explosive ordnance disposal officer in Iraq, was recently adapted into one of the most unexpected mediums imaginable—an opera. The show ran for the month of July in Saratoga Springs to positive reviews from outlets including The New York Times, and will next move on to Salt Lake City, where it will be performed by the Utah Opera. Castner, whose writing has also appeared in The New York Times, Vice and Wired among other outlets, spoke with City & State’s Jeremy Unger about the process of adapting the memoir for the opera, the challenges veterans face in New York state and his next book, which investigates the death of one of his best friends in Afghanistan.
City & State: The opera version of your memoir “The Long Walk” debuted this month in Saratoga Springs. What was it like watching this difficult part of your life unfold on stage with strangers sitting all around you?
Brian Castner: Oh, very weird. But fortunately I’ve been desensitized—it wasn’t my first exposure. I’ve been fortunate that Jeremy Howard Beck and Stephanie Fleischmann, who are the composer and the librettist, have involved me in the process, so I’ve seen a libretto reading two and a half years ago and a concert of some of the music just with piano and guitar and voice two years ago, and there was another workshop last summer. They also had me in a week early to see rehearsals and to act as a little bit of a technical advisor so I could help some of the singers hold their rifles correctly and teach them cheek welds and muzzle awareness and that kind of thing. So it was not the first time that I’d seen it opening night and if it had I would have been completely overwhelmed. It’s still tough to watch, but I was able to handle it with some sort of composure, I guess. But you know, I wrote a memoir, I talked about this stuff three years ago was when it was published. I’ve gotten used to talking about it, and so seeing the opera version was different, but it’s through a lens, it’s not me anymore. I didn’t have control over it. It’s my name and it’s my wife’s name and it’s my kids’ names and it is some of the same experiences, but they’ve changed things. So in some ways it’s just gratifying that it’s grown into this thing and I’m honored to be associated with it. It’s not me and my wife and kids, it’s a much more general story and in that way I appreciated it for the art that it is. There are parts of the opera that work better than the book and partly that’s because Stephanie was able to interview my wife. My book is very claustrophobic and stuck in my own head. Stephanie was able to give words to my wife in a way that I wasn’t, so the story is expanded that way. They’ve also just plain made stuff up and that works well, so there’s a much more complete story arc. But I think most importantly I didn’t know a lot about opera before this got started but I’ve really learned what opera does well and what opera does better than other art forms, and that’s through the music and the singing and just the time and having the thing physically performed in front of you. You’re really able to dwell on these emotional performances and transcend narrative. I think the emotional gut punch is even more effective in the opera.
C&S: It sounds like you didn’t really know much about opera before this began, so how did you react when this idea was first proposed to you?
BC: It came soon after publication of the book actually. My agent called me and said, “I want you to sit down, not laugh and take this seriously. They want to option your book to be an opera.” He even says now that he’s never sold another book to be an opera, so this is a highlight of his career as an agent, something he can say he did. I think before this I had seen “Tosca” in Europe somewhere just to say I’d been to an opera. That’s how much I really knew about it. I knew Wagner’s got this “Ring Cycle” thing I read about in the paper and that’s about it. So I didn’t know what to expect, I’d heard the reputation about modern opera and modern classical music that it is impossible to listen to, I was a little leery about that. But they didn’t just say we want to option your book, they presented the treatment. The treatment is just pages and pages of how they’ve thought their way through it and they’d done all the hard work about how they’d convert this. They just took it so seriously. They had deconstructed the book and put it back in chronological order, they had said how they would handle the fact that some happens in the past and some in the present. I think the thing that really got me is that they said they would take my children—I have four sons—and they would make a boys’ choir of three of them, combining a little bit, and that would be the Greek chorus, and the boys in the choir would comment on the action. I can handle a lot of things now, but still I think that’s what put it over the top. They treated it very respectfully but they’re great artists themselves too.
C&S: You described in your memoir the “long walk” that bomb squad soldiers take by themselves when they go in the 80-pound Kevlar suit to defuse bombs, but you also describe the “long walk” soldiers take when they get home and lose the camaraderie and brotherhood and have to adjust to normal life again. Do you think three years later that you are still on that “long walk” yourself?
BC: You never unlearn the things you learn in a war. But that’s not all bad. You learn all these things about yourself, about violence, grief, cause and effect, how much luck has to do with life and your own mortality. I’m not sure I want to unlearn all those things because you really do that whole carpe diem thing from then on. But at the same time—and this may be the more important point—the book is a time capsule in some way. It describes the most intense part of me trying to figure this out, and fortunately I don’t have the intensity of anxiety, grief, panic, post-traumatic stress, etc., like I did then. I don’t think I could rewrite the book now with the same intensity I did then because I’m just not feeling it moment to moment. Also I have a lot more perspective on how fortunate I am. When I was in the middle of all that, I was pretty obsessive about it obviously and the fact that the feeling never went away was the worst part. There was no break and I was imagining I was going to live the rest of my life like that. Well obviously that didn’t happen and so now I can see how lucky I am that I’ve overcome the lion’s share of it. So it’s about keeping the good things you learned and jettisoning some of the really awful, anxious parts of it. But even in comparison there are plenty of guys that have PTSD many, many times worse than what I have, their traumatic brain injuries are far beyond what I have. I always knew I was low on the spectrum, so I’m extremely fortunate there. I have lots of friends who have lost arms and legs. None of my men died in conflict. I am the luckiest guy out there.
C&S: With the drawdown of American military presence in the Middle East over the past few years and more veterans coming home, what do you think is the biggest misconception that people have about veterans who have come home?
BC: I think you even asking what the misconception is implies that there is a misconception and that people have been thinking about it and I think that the most distinguishing characteristic is that it is so far out of the public consciousness that people don’t have conceptions at all, positive or otherwise. So I think that’s the biggest thing. But if they do, I think there’s been this oversimplification: Veterans get lumped into two groups, heroes and victims. Either we’re all American heroes that volunteered and fought for our country and did great things and defended our freedom and flag waving and patriotism, and on and on. Or veterans are victims who signed up for the education benefits or didn’t know what they were getting themselves into, and Bush and Cheney lied to us and they were sent over there for nothing and we’re just unwitting pawns in this game and we’re deserving of pity. Of course the truth is far more complicated. We do have an all-volunteer military and we all signed up for this and we knew what we were signing up for. I can’t speak for everybody, but I don’t know many veterans who want to be thought of as either hero or victim. You go over, you do a job. I wrote a book about being crazy and I used the word crazy and I sometimes wonder if I would still use that same term. We’re not all crazy. Not everybody has PTSD or traumatic brain injuries. Plenty of men and women are not heroes or victims, they did their job and then they came home and they went back to school and now they are going to live normal lives.
C&S: You’re from the Buffalo area and have a lot of experience with veterans in the state. What are some of the biggest issues that Albany needs to tackle to help improve veterans’ lives in New York?
BC: I think New York is doing well. What I would point to specifically is the veterans courts which started in Buffalo and have spread across the state and the country. They’re a model for how to treat veterans, to take into account a criminal’s background when deciding if they need treatment or punishment, and I think they are really important. But my concern in your question is it implies that veterans are a group in need of services, saying veterans need jobs, veterans need courts, veterans need health care that in some way feeds back into that hero and victim duality we were talking about before. Some veterans do need education, employment, health care, court services and homes, because the homeless population skews veteran, unfortunately. But I think the cultural civilian-military divide actually affects more veterans than those specific government services.
C&S: You have a new book, “All The Ways We Kill and Die,” coming out in March. What can you tell us about that?
BC: I describe it as a eulogy and a manhunt. I have a good friend who died in January of 2012 in Afghanistan. His armored truck got blown up and I asked kind of a different question than we normally do during a war. I asked who killed him. Not just what killed him, but who? So that led me to interview lots of people who are involved with how we hunt down all these bomb makers. I talk to people who collect evidence, interrogators, biometrics people, predator pilots, the contractor who pulls the trigger at the end. I kind of walk people through that.
C&S: So what’s next for the opera?
BC: Well it’s only running for the month of July in Saratoga, but it is moving on to a second life. It will be at the Utah Opera in Salt Lake City in 2017. There were a number of other opera companies from around the country who have attended performances and the hope is that it moves from place to place and takes on a life. There’s not a whole lot of new opera written, but there’s been more and more, and more opera companies are producing new opera. So it’s not just a hope, there’s real potential that this would travel the country and be performed in different places year to year.
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