Samuel Finlay’s autobiographical debut, Breakfast with the Dirt Cult, follows Tom Walton, an American soldier sent to fight Al-Quaeda in Afghanistan. Our review called the novel “a sobering examination of a man's maturity…[and] a righteous condemnation of self-serving cultural roles,” noting that it is “fiction as it should be: dangerous, hurtful, and cathartic.” We caught up with Finlay and talked about his writing process, self-publishing, and the fiction of war.
When did you become interested in writing? Was it before or after your deployment?
Before the deployment. Writing was one of those things that just sort of happened. I toyed with writing a book in college, but whenever I tried to write fiction it always wound up reading like a lame imitation of the stuff I'd read, so I put it away to avoid further embarrassment. Basic training changed my mind. We had to get up at 4:00AM to clean the barracks, and at night we'd have an hour of fire watch, so we didn't get much sleep. On top of that, the drill sergeants would sometimes mess with us by setting off the fire alarm. We'd then have to get up and go stand outside in formation like a bunch of idiots until they decided to turn it off and let us go back to bed.
While standing in such a formation one night with the alarm ringing and not a flame to be seen, I got mad and resolved to write a book about it all and shout from the rooftops telling everybody how much actual nonsense went on in the Army. Bill Murray had lied to us!
However, I wound up getting thrown into a great platoon full of guys who were just asking to be written about, and then there was 9/11, Walter Reed...and by the time I decided to pull the trigger on it, the story had changed on me. So I guess maybe Bill Murray was right after all.
Why did you decide to publish on your own?
Around March or so of 2012, one of my friends had suggested I self-publish. I didn't want to, due to the whole "vanity publishing" stigma, but I'd noticed some bloggers doing it with varying degrees of success. I thought, "What the hell." I'd do it myself and finally be done with it. Maintain complete control over my words without fear or favor. Guerilla-style publishing. I finally got it out in October 2012.
In another interview, you commented on the difficulties of finding a publisher for the book due in part to its subject matter. Why do you think American readers tend to shy away from fiction about recent wars, but seem to be more open to ones that are buried far enough in the past?
I think part of it has to do with the fact that for a long time now we have had only a small percentage of the citizenry who have either seen a war or have friends or loved ones who have. I believe this is particularly true among those who drive culture and ideas. For many I think the whole thing is just too foreign of a world, so such stories get spun and marketed within the context of a certain gimmick, whether as a simplistic good vs. evil narrative, or in a kind of smug "violence is never the answer"/"military people are authoritarian fascist squares"/MASH-esque sort of way.
Stories involving war that try to portray it in all its honesty, confusion, humor, misery, glory, tragedy, and complexity tend to throw a monkey wrench into all our modern, feel-good isms. They force us to look at hard truths that we'd rather not; namely, that utopia ain't an option. Conflict is a part of life whether we like it or not. Hubris is dangerous. The Law of Unintended Consequences is still in effect. Loyalty and discipline matter. "Do as thou wilt" makes for a hell of a fun weekend, but all too often is a good way to wind up becoming a selfish prick or doing something stupid that hurts yourself or others.
How does a publisher sell a book in the current market that deals with stuff like that? We'll see. I suspect it'd be like inviting to the party that cranky old man who's always yelling at those damned kids to get the hell off his lawn. For the people attending, he's either their new buddy and they'll want to hang out on the porch with him and maybe talk girls, guns, books, or brick work; or they'll just hope he gets drunk fast and makes everyone laugh by telling wildly inappropriate stories from back in the day.
Was there a particular message you wanted to get across?
When I finally sat down to write the thing, I didn't have any one particular message I was trying to convey. I just thought that I'd met some people and seen some things that mattered, and felt compelled to share them. However, as I remembered it all, and tried to put it to words, things came out. For the fun of it, I'd like to leave readers to find all that on their own. As guy who likes to read, I think chasing that sort of stuff is a part of what makes books and their ideas so exciting.