In Hold It ’Til It Hurts, the debut novel from New Orleans native T. Geronimo Johnson, a 22-year-old black man named Achilles Conroy tries to make sense of his life after serving two rugged tours in Afghanistan.

What did you want your protagonist Achilles to learn about the world, and himself, during his travels after he returns to the U.S.?

In a word: empathy. As is often the case, Achilles’ journey into himself is simultaneously his return to the world. His return to the world, so crucial for a young man who has spent two years in combat, entails, at least in Achilles’ case, a thawing out, evolving from apathetic to empathetic.

How did writing this novel help you explore race in America?

While some individuals celebrate postracialism, others question whether anyone can be truly postracial in a country that is not yet entirely so. This becomes a theme in the book, one that often reveals a generational divide. It also plays out in Achilles’ and his lover Ines’s relationship, along with the conflicts that spring from the latter being from an urban environment, the former being from a rural/suburban environment, the latter a Southerner, the former a Northerner, the latter being of the old guard and the former postracial.

You portray military life with a gritty realism. What was your research process like?

I watched documentaries and read widely, actively seeking out fiction, nonfiction, blogs, and even scholarly tomes on the psychology of killing. I also had on hand research done for another project a few years back. At the time I was writing about cops and investigating the ways in which living under threat of violence and with the power to deliver the same influences how one views the world, and how that experience forges incredibly intimate bonds.

Do you see the different fates of Achilles and his brother, Troy, representing those ex-soldiers who make it, and those who don’t?

In Achilles’ case, combat forged a camaraderie for which he had yearned all his life, and untangling those conflicting emotions becomes one of the book’s central concerns. That was not the initial focus of the story, but it became apparent that re-entry must be addressed.

Why did you want the brothers’ relationship to become so complicated?

I started with the basic fact that enduring, emotionally intimate relationships are necessarily complex. Troy and Achilles care for each other, but have difficulty expressing that affection. That communication gap, the resulting tendency to misread each other, and their competitive spirit causes tension. At the same time, they feel immensely protective of each other, even as each denies needing the other. We love people because of, as well as in spite of, who they are. With this in mind, I found myself fleshing out scenes so that their personalities mirror and illuminate each other.

Can you elaborate on your interests in portraying the modern family?

You can pick your friends, but you can’t pick your family is a familiar adage, but, in truth, more people are picking their families. We have more volitional families. Those may be the most stable of all, but only time will tell.