Author Interview: Yancy Caruthers (Northwest of Eden)

Northwest of Eden by Yancy Caruthers

Click here to read my review for Northwest of Eden

Every so often we stumble onto a book that seems to have been destined to cross our paths; one such for me was Yancy Caruthers’ Northwest of Eden. I’m exceedingly grateful to the friend who gifted it, for along with it she passed to me the gift of witnessing compassion, laughter and glimpses into a world I didn’t know much about, but should.

Northwest of EdenI knew before I was halfway through I would be reviewing this magnificent work. Less than 200 pages, it is accessible and gripping, but ought not to be mistaken for a breezy beach read. Filled with insight and questions, the sights, smells, events, colors (or sometimes desert lack thereof) will provoke laughter and tears as it, in the words of a recent reader, “takes you deep into Iraq.” An Amazon top reviewer called it “M.A.S.H for a new century,” and Soldier of Fortune magazine printed a five-page excerpt in November 2014.

Northwest of Eden is now on my forever shelf, and it will be a definite re-read. I also look forward to more by this author.

To read my review for Northwest of Eden, click here

We are so fortunate here at Before the Second Sleep to have been paid a visit by Yancy Caruthers, who so kindly answered a few questions.

The “About” section of Northwest of Eden states, “[Yancy Caruthers] soon found himself back in the desert writing this story.” Would you say you’re an “accidental author,” as that sentence seems to imply, or have you always planned to write?

This memoir took seven years to complete. Did others in your environment know you were writing it? What made you want to write this particular book?

Caruthers
Photo courtesy Yancy Caruthers

Let me answer both of these questions at once. During my first deployment, I kept a journal for my children. It was full of everyday, meaningless things, along with terrifying accounts of what was happening. I sealed it in an envelope where it remains today, unread. When I returned to Iraq again as part of a hospital unit, I knew I wanted to write for a public audience. I knew there would be intense experiences, but I didn’t know what they would be or when. For example, I knew there would be a time when a Soldier or Marine under our care would die. I didn’t know when, but I knew it would happen, and I wanted to capture that moment so that others could understand the experience. By writing about my life as it happened, I noticed something strange was happening: instead of just existing, I focused more on my own reactions as well as the reactions of others. I paid more attention to my own Soldiers. I think it unintentionally made me a better leader.

Apart from the obvious immediate influences on your writing, what else informs how and what you put to paper (or the screen)?

I’ve learned a lot from my best friend, Sam, who I also my cover artist. Sam is a writer as well, and he’s been at it a lot longer than I have. We’ve been best friends since second grade, so if a passage reads badly, he’ll tell me what he thinks I need to do to make it better.

Northwest of Eden references violence committed and some rather heartbreaking passages—these events occur in a war zone, after all—yet there also are moments of great humor and wit. Were you at all concerned this might put some people off?

HH-60 Black Hawk, Photo by SSG Dayan Neely, Courtesy Yancy Caruthers (Click for full article)
HH-60 Black Hawk, Photo by SSG Dayan Neely, Courtesy Yancy Caruthers (Click image for full article)

Not at all. That was a reflection of how it was. Humor, sometimes of the darkest kind, is one way that people cope with that kind of stress and heartache. If there isn’t a mechanism, then people go cold and stop caring about their jobs. When lives are at stake, that’s the last thing anyone wants. My team and I were a bunch of clowns in the off-time, but we cared about what we did – we laughed hard, but we trained hard, worked hard, and cried hard when it didn’t go right. It made us human.

What is the most important thing you believe readers need to know about your book and genre?

Truth. For good, bad, or ugly, that’s the way it was. It’s different for combat troops, drivers, or pilots, but my story is mine. War is horrible and stupid and unnecessary in every sense of those words, but the people around me were the way I made it through. Maybe I’m not quite intact, but I made it. That’s the thing to keep in mind about reading a war story. It requires an open mind. Each story is what it is.

Where do you hope to take your writing in the future? Would you like to try your hand at another genre?

Photo courtesy Yancy Caruthers
Photo courtesy Yancy Caruthers

I’ve told my story, and I’m trying now to tell the stories of others, which has been different and fun and a little sobering. My current work in progress is called “Medic!” and it is a series of six true stories about military medics in each of the living wars. I’m finished with Desert Storm (Part 4) and Iraq (Part 5) is coming out soon, but finding older vets willing to talk about WW2, Korea, and Vietnam is a lot harder. The subject of Part 6 will be the hardest to find – I am looking for someone who served in Afghanistan who was a small child on 9-11 and not old enough to remember what it meant.

Do you listen to music as you write? What kind of music do you like?

I’m a big 80s music fan, but I prefer quiet time to write. Background noise is okay if I’m on a roll. I draft about 1,000 words/hour at full throttle, but average only about 3,000/week of final product.

Type or longhand?

I type, unless I hit a wall. Then I’ve been known to print out a few pages of hardcopy and sit in bed, writing all over it in longhand. The two actions seem to be a different part of my brain, and when one is stuck, the other sometimes works.

E-books or paperback?

Both. The future might be in e-books, but I love to talk to people, so I do lots of public events and book signings. As a result, e-books are only about 40% of my sales. I’m trying to figure out what works for me in promoting my online presence, but most venues have so far turned out to be snake oil.

Any writing quirks?

I’m very easily distracted, because I think in 3-D and I’m always thinking about unimportant stuff. Facebook is the bane of my writing existence.

Any projects currently on deck?

As I work on “Medic!” I’m getting in front of several veterans’ groups. I’m hoping to do a big publicity push on Veterans’ Day this year. One of my area communities does a big festival and I am working to be a part of that.

Is there anything else you’d like to mention?

Just that writing isn’t always fun, but the process should be. It’s about telling a story. The likelihood of writing a great book, posting it online, and selling a million copies without ever opening the shades is just not realistic. I love getting out, talking to people, and speaking in front of groups. Anyone who wants to write seriously should be doing the same. It isn’t always comfortable.

Yancy Caruthers, thank you so much for joining us here today, and I wish you great success with Northwest of Eden as well as all your future endeavors. It’s been a pleasure.

About the Author:

Photo courtesy Yancy Caruthers
Photo courtesy Yancy Caruthers

Yancy Caruthers is an Iraq war veteran, registered nurse, retired Army Reserve officer, and former U.S. diplomat. He is the author of Northwest of Eden, a memoir of his second deployment as the second-in-command of an Army emergency room in the heart of Anbar province. He lives with his family in southwest Missouri.

Yancy is currently working on “Medic!,” a series of true stories about combat medics in each of the living wars. They will be released separately as e-books and eventually combined under one cover, assuming the author doesn’t get distracted.

You can learn more about the author and his works at his website, at Facebook or follow him at Twitter. Northwest of Eden is available for purchase at Amazon and Amazon UK.

Note: This post has been updated to include purchasing and review links.

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I would also like to extend a deep thank you to Yancy Caruthers for his unflagging patience with my questions on- and off screen, and for his service and continued dedication to others.

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Book Review: Northwest of Eden

Northwest of Eden by Yancy Caruthers

Tomorrow: Interview with author Yancy Caruthers

Northwest of EdenThe cover images for Northwest of Eden drew in my eye as connections formed: outline of Iraq, Red Cross and Red Crescent symbols and helicopter, all indicating military emergency medicine. But what about that chair? I was sufficiently intrigued by it and the main theme to open the book and from the beginning was entranced.

Author Yancy Caruthers writes in this memoir of his time in northern Iraq, serving as second-in-command of an Army emergency department, flight nurse and leader of the station’s air transport team. Anbar, al-Asad airbase’s location, is also the home of Fallujah, at the province’s eastern edge on the Euphrates and location of the 2004 ambush and gruesome murder of four civilian contractors. Ramadi, too, sits within Anbar’s provincial lines and saw internecine tribal fighting, breakdown of law and order and street battles, and grew to be the center of Iraqi insurgency, followed by the 2007 surge, when Caruthers begins his second deployment.

Opening near the end of a 27 + hour flight to Kuwait, during which he and a comrade commit ordinary acts under a duress borne of desperation, the book takes us with the reservist to Camp Buehring, a staging post, before moving on to Combat Support Hospital (CSH) al-Asad, where he will spend the next year. For many readers it may be unsurprising to find the “nuclear sun” and its oppressive heat referenced frequently as he and others attempt to transition into an environment so unreal most people simply cannot seem to grasp it.

Kuwait’s climate was the closest thing to Hell the planet had to offer, so even several hours after dark, the outside air was still hotter than my inside air. It reminded me of burning leaves in the back yard—sometimes the pile would burn hot enough that I would have to turn away. Here, there was no place to turn to.

I had tried to explain the heat to people back home, and inevitably someone would ask, “But it’s a dry heat, isn’t it?”

I would reply, “So is your oven, go ahead and turn it on low and stick your head in it…for a year.”

Desert outside Camp Buehring
Desert outside Camp Buehring about which a colleague laments, “You can’t see anything for miles.” Photo courtesy Yancy Caruthers

Upon arrival at al-Asad:

I stepped off the bus next to the housing area, and blinked against the dust. The air was thick with it, flavored only by the stinging hint of the smell of burning shit.

As the reality settles in and Caruthers simultaneously bides his time and gets to know his new unit, he shows us around with well-crafted dialogue and narrative that informs us of the amenities at Asad (known to Marines as “Camp Cupcake”), navigates the procedure for utilizing electricity without causing a fire and introduces some key figures who will be part of the year to come.

Although we already received a taste of military humor—the interior of a cargo jet used to transport troops, a “canister,” is said to be “what the inside of a can of whoop-ass looks like”—there is lots more to come. Caruthers had by this time already captured me, though I worried a little we might begin to see people who grow so hard on the outside as a protective measure that they become almost unlikeable. It wasn’t until later I realized I had at this point already deeply bonded with the book: this story and its individuals were so important to me it mattered; I cared if they became people even they wouldn’t want to be.

As it turns out, not only does this not occur—and one can’t help but credit his leadership skills for this—but also Caruthers has a way of relating events as if we were sitting across a small table from him: his words convey the tone in his voice, the sensation of hesitation in the moments he describes, and the anticipatory way in which the outcome hangs in front of us, veiled, so that putting the book down isn’t an option, for we simply must find out what happens next. And when he returns to a previous topic of discussion, we lean in closer at that small table, crying out, Yes, that’s right! because the previous threads had drawn us in tightly, but we are thrilled to be given another glimpse at how they tie together.

Humor is a large part of this procedure, though Caruthers expresses it in a natural, unforced manner, and readers will indeed laugh a great deal. Lots of what he writes is funny either because it just is, or it may reveal insight into human nature when dealing with a variety of circumstances. My previous fear about angry people taking over the narrative disappeared quickly, and I settled further into a book I could not bear to pause.

Even the author reveals himself at times to have been surprised by events in which people sought relief. One passage tells of a subordinate who asks for advice; Caruthers believes he might be having issues with leadership or at home, though the problem was actually much bigger.

“[Sir,] I need to get back at Koen, but…[i]f I strike out on my own without the proper guidance, I might accidentally kill him.”

 “And you suspect that I am both diabolical enough not only to possess this knowledge that you seek, but also to give it to you to use for your own nefarious purposes?”

 “That pretty much sums it up.”

 “I can help you, Padawan. Do you have any Oreos?”

 As time goes on we see pranks more and more involved and recognition of when someone was in on one or anticipation of oneself being the next victim. There is a sort of sadness to the whole thing, yes, because they are carried out by people bored silly during the down times of emergency feast or famine, and also reveal the need to escape the reality of their current environment. But, too, they represent the determination to retain a hold on a side to life that makes us whole. The refusal to succumb to soul-crushing desolation shows us a strength of character that makes us care about them more than we already do.

Map w T-E
Arrow points to al-Asad; SSE are Ramadi and Fallujah, on the Euphrates River (Click to enlarge)

None of this, of course, is to say that Caruthers doesn’t ever become angry—I’d be worried if he didn’t. Toxic leadership, higher ups whose arrogance gives rise to territorial decisions, a condescending preacher with an obtuse manner, the prolonged deaths of people who never had a chance, celebrities overconfident of their own understanding of war—these are some of the circumstances he and his colleagues have to work through and humor becomes a tool as necessary as any of the equipment on the Blackhawk.

The author has nothing to prove—at least not to readers. He doesn’t hesitate to let us in on some of his moments of doubt, physical pain or heartache, even while he has a strong resolve and the spine to stand up. Through all of this he openly speaks of his ongoing competition with a damaged chair, dogging him through his deployment with a continuity much like that of the broken leadership ailing their unit, and responding to it similarly: in a variety of ways.

He also paints pictures with words. In a theatre of war this may come as a surprise to some, but many elements of life still apply, and to see beauty amongst war machines and deathly horror embeds a portion of who one is into the place where they are: “The sun had dropped behind the mortar walls, but a gap in between allowed the deep orange sunset to breathe though and silhouette the Cobra attack helicopter on the adjacent pad.”

CSH AL ASAD
Photo courtesy Yancy Caruthers

As we see throughout, Caruthers also is always honest with readers and doesn’t pose as anything he is not. Never surrendering his compassion, his words and experiences remind us that strength doesn’t always mean that once a soldier’s tour is over, he or she goes home intact—or even alive. But if they do make it through, it will be having picked up a knowledge that always comes with a price. For better or worse change arrives and he addresses this late in the book with a curt statement that made me laugh aloud.

In the end, nothing is easy to define at al-Asad, so contradictory is it all, not least of which remains the awareness that massive bloodshed has occurred and countless lives lost in areas not far from the speculated location of the Garden of Eden. The fertile crescent embracing the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the easternmost portion of which leads to the Persian Gulf near modern-day Kuwait, is said to be the site where

out of the ground the Lord God made every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

—Genesis, 2:9

Caruthers tells his story without attempting to diffuse these contradictions—it is what it is. Evil has soaked into the ground God fertilized, the tree of life is surrounded by death and destruction, upon a bountiful land dwells poverty so destitute it stunts the growth of children, and knowledge requires awareness of the terrible as well as the good. Neither are we as readers spared this paradox: the tears flowing from our eyes will convey merriment as well as pain.

Northwest of Eden gathers the recollections of a man who spent one year under conditions most of us could hardly imagine, let alone participate in. Many of us believe we know as much as we need to about the war, and don’t hesitate to make commentary upon it. The reality is that no one knows it like the men and women who served in it, and Yancy Caruthers shares with us what he saw and experienced: the additional conflicting nature of trying to aid and comfort military and civilian alike when others went to so much effort to kill them.

It is an enlightening book and recommended for anyone interested in the war, military medicine and relationships. But more than that, it will have a universal appeal because it is about humanity, and what we do with ours.

caruthers about pic
Photo courtesy Yancy Caruthers

About the Author:

Yancy Caruthers is an Iraq war veteran, registered nurse, retired Army Reserve officer, and former U.S. diplomat. He is the author of Northwest of Eden, a memoir of his second deployment as the second-in-command of an Army emergency room in the heart of Anbar province. He lives with his family in southwest Missouri.

Yancy is currently working on “Medic!,” a series of true stories about combat medics in each of the living wars. They will be released separately as e-books and eventually combined under one cover, assuming the author doesn’t get distracted.

You can learn more about the author and his works at his website, at Facebook or follow him at Twitter. Northwest of Eden is available for purchase at Amazon and Amazon UK.

Click here to read my interview with author Yancy Caruthers.

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Note: This post has been updated to include photo credits, purchasing and interview links.

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