Jeffrey Wilson has worked as an actor, a firefighter, a paramedic, a jet pilot, a driving instructor, a Naval Officer, and a vascular and Trauma Surgeon. He also served two tours in Iraq as a combat surgeon with both the Marines and with a Joint Special Operations Task Force. His short stories have won fiction competitions. The Traiteur’s Ring is his first published novel. It is a brilliant blend of military thriller and supernatural horror. No one is better placed to write this than Jeffrey Wilson, who draws on his experience with the SEALs to write realistically about military experiences. His second book The Donors is scheduled for release in the summer of 2012. He met me at The Slaughterhouse where we talked about his military experiences and parallel universes.
Did working with the SEALs change you?
I suppose we’re all changed by any major event in our lives. Before 9/11 I had made some choices to follow a new direction in my life– to become a surgeon and live a “normal” life. After the attacks I decided to switch back from the reserves to Active duty and a few years later, once I had completed my surgical training, I was in Iraq as a combat surgeon with the Marines out in the Wild West of Anbar province. War changes everyone that is touched by it, including families who sacrifice in time lost with loved ones or the permanent loss of someone. You see things in war you can’t unsee.
After that first deployment I was invited to serve with a Naval Special Warfare Command, a team within the Navy SEALs, as a surgeon. I provided surgical support and training support to the very finest people I have ever known. I had an incredible experience. I learned things I never imagined I could master. I did things and went places I wouldn’t have guessed I was capable of. Mostly, I was affected by serving beside the most professional, capable, courageous people in the world. Deploying with these folks was unlike anything I have ever done and it will always be the accomplishment of which I am the most proud.
As a writer, I have always tried to bring rich characters and realism to my work. You’re always told to write about things you know and when you write supernatural or horror stories I think it is even more important. If you make your characters come to life and their personal stories real and believable, the reader accepts much more readily the supernatural elements you want them to accept. Serving with the folks I served with and in the places we went allows me to bring a story like THE TRAITEUR’S RING to life in a believable way because I know the men and women I’m writing about.
Graham Greene said writers have a piece of ice in their hearts. As a surgeon what do you make of his observation?
Well, as a Vascular Surgeon and not a Cardiac Surgeon, I should qualify that this is a little outside my field. I’ll give my amateur answer.
I’m not familiar with the context of the quote so I’ll have to speculate a little. I will say that I do tend to fall in love with my characters, so when bad things happen to them (as they inevitably do in my kind of stories) it’s a little tough. I’ve had people (including my wife) actually get annoyed that I “allowed” bad things to happen to characters they care about. My current publisher was very emotional that one element of my current novel wasn’t different. So maybe that’s the ice Graham Greene is referring to– the ability to let a story hurt or kill these characters that we, and hopeful our readers, develop real feeling for. You have to be able to do it, though. Unless you write children’s stories, you can’t have all happy endings and silver linings. People suffer. War happens. There is loss and pain in life. As a writer, YOU create these things. You want to take your readers through a very diverse collection of reactions and feelings. In my genre, terror and fear are among them. That ice in your heart allows you to do it.
Who are your literary influences?
I have pretty eclectic tastes in books and music. Growing up I loved spy thrillers–Ludlum novels, Ken Follett, and the like. I enjoyed the early Clancey books and now I really like Vince Flynn. Like most writers in my field I have been influenced tremendously by King and I particularly like his later works. I find Joe Hill’s work to be an exciting new source of great, character rich, horror stories. Dean Koontz, Jonathan Maberry, Joe Nassise. There are so many that do it so very well.
What do you strive for in your writing?
What I strive for in my writing is what I love as a reader– solid stories that are character driven and unique. I want to finish a book and feel like I have known the characters– whether I loved them or loathed them– my whole life. And of course I like it when I wish there was just one more chapter I could spend with them. If I do it a tenth as well as the illustrious list I gave you I will consider myself a great success.
Tell us about The Traiteur’s Ring.
THE TRAITEUR’S RING is a blend of contemporary military thriller with supernatural horror elements of Cajun Voodoo and ghosts. I tried to draw on my intimate knowledge and experiences on deployments with the SEALs to create a character driven story with realistic military action that would make the supernatural elements easier for the reader to swallow.
Navy SEAL Ben Morvant is an operator and combat medic who is haunted by his past. Raised in the Louisiana bayou by his grandmother, a traiteur or spiritual healer, he is still haunted by nightmares of his past and the mysterious circumstances of his grandmother’s death. His home in the Teams and the brotherhood his team mates provide gives him a perfect escape from those hauntings, until a mission in Africa goes wrong. Unable to stop the slaughter of a peaceful village at the hands of Al Qaeda terrorists, Ben witnesses first hand the incredible healing power of the village elder when he heals the mortal wounds of a baby girl with a simple touch. Moments later he is killed by a terrorist’s bullets, but with his dying breath he passes to Ben a gift– a simple ring, unremarkable except for its ever-changing color and the feeling of power emanating from within.
Soon after accepting the ring, dark visions begin to haunt his dreams– images of pain and death, of evil and destruction. Even worse, many of the visions are familiar and point him backwards to his past. He also discovers he has strange new powers– like the ability to heal his wounded team mates with a simple touch– or to kill with a single thought. Soon he must return to his childhood home in the bayou to face the dark secrets from his past. His journey reveals more than he wanted to know about himself and what he must become, because he is a soldier in a greater battle than he or his fellow SEALs could ever have imagined. Together they’ll have to find away to control Ben’s new found power, because the forces that prey on mankind’s fear and anger threatens not only to destroy them, but everything they care about.
Rather than build the caricature, superhero characters of Navy SEALs we usually see, I tried to develop characters more like the men I had the great honor of serving with. Fathers and husbands, brothers and friends– real people with amazing talents and incredible responsibilities. I hope very much that I did them justice.
What made you interested in the supernatural?
Man, I would love to be able to tell a story about the sentinel event that led to my interest in horror and the supernatural– some story about the old woman who warned me about the washed out bridge, who later I found had died twenty years earlier, or the whispered voices from the woods out back that we eventually learned had been an Indian burial ground. Not so I’m afraid.
I do remember being in elementary school and getting a collection of Poe’s stories from somewhere– the library I think. I stayed up late in my bed and read those stories and scared myself half shitless. I remember it was “The Tell Tale Heart” that kept me wide eyed most of the night. Then next morning, tired but still a little excited, I realized two things: one, if you’re only twelve, night time is most definitely not the best time to read Poe and two, I really, really liked that feeling. I gravitated towards supernatural and horror fiction from that time on, though I always had other reading interests as well. The first story I ever really wrote was called “Freedom” about a man who escapes from prison. I was 14 when I wrote it. I tried to really build the suspense of how he got out, would he make it, close calls etc. In the end the reader finds the man had actually been shot and killed in the first few moments of his escape and the rest of the story was just in his head– looking for some kind of freedom in death. I was so proud of that story. Ever since, there has always been some kind of supernatural twist in my stories.
As an adult, I’ve had a pretty diverse life and it’s true I have seen some pretty horrible things and lost people who were close to me. Those experiences probably sealed the deal for me as a writer, but the tendency had long been there. I tried once to write classic crime thriller, but the whole time there was this little voice asking questions like “Wouldn’t it be cool if his partner turned out to be a ghost who was helping him to find his own killer?” or “what if he shot the killer– but he didn’t die, because he was dead already?” I gave up and went back to what I really like– taking those other genres and adding the supernatural twist. My next book, THE DONORS, comes out next summer and it is a medical thriller blended with horror elements.
I guess I just can’t shake it.
What are you working on at the moment?
My second novel, THE DONORS, is due out in June so shortly I will be hard at work wading through my editors comments, I’m sure. I find writing to be a total joy, but editing is much more like work.
I’m a little superstitious about talking too much about unfinished work. I’m nearly done with my fourth novel, tentatively titled JULIAN’S NUMBERS. It’s basically a story about a young boy named Julian with a mysterious and frightening gift, a father with a haunted past, a mother who falls victim to some very nasty ghosts, and the family sailing vacation from Hell. I’ve taken short breaks from it to finish “The Writer”, a rather long short story that will appear in JournalStone’s WARPED WORDS 2011 anthology coming out December 20th and “Calling Home”, a short story that will be released in Buzzymag in 2012. I also just finished a new story “Doll’s Eyes” for which I’m shopping for a home.
Oh, yeah. Also still squeezing in some day jobs and of course chasing around my 3 kids (and my wife, though she does a better job at getting away).
How would you like to be remembered as a writer?
That’s kind of a tough one. I’m not sure I set out on this path looking for a legacy of some kind. Honestly, I write because I enjoy the process of writing itself. I have a ton of weird weird “what if” kind of thoughts that gel into stories and I love taking the concepts and turning them into a tale. As I write, it’s entertaining for me because I really want to find out where the characters will take me and what will happen next. I don’t know if it’s that way for all writers, but it’s sure that way for me.
So that was kind of evasive and not really an answer, I guess. I suppose I hope that when readers think of my books they think of the characters they met there. That’s what I really try to do– to make the characters in my head come to life in the story. I have no delusion that I’m creating great literature that will change the way people see the world. I just hope the reader is entertained and, for a little while, complete engrossed and eager to find out what happens to the characters I introduce them to.
Do you believe in parallel universes and if so how does the concept appear in your fiction?
That’s a really fun question. I don’t know that I believe in parallel universes in the traditional, Sci-Fi way we see portrayed. I love the concept, however, and what a rich trough for our literary imaginations. I don’t watch much TV, but one show I really like these days in “Fringe” and that is a heavy part of the plot.
I DO believe that there is a lot of shit going on right here in this universe which we are no where near understanding or even describing well. Near death experiences, ghosts, evil forces, mind control, manipulation of time and space– the list goes on. There are few people walking around these days who can honestly say they have never had an experience that they didn’t fully understand. I think the great draw of Science Fiction, supernatural, and Horror fiction is the desperate desire to understand a world we have no hope of understanding– that and loving the ride itself, of course.
I have seen a lot of death in my life– some personal losses, death I have seen as a doctor, horrible war time deaths– and I can tell you that there is this moment– this weird instant when someone is just “gone”. It’s not the flat line on the EKG or the loss of a pulse. It’s more than that. It’s something LEAVING somehow. Sounds weird, I know, but there is a huge difference between a dead guy and a guy with no pulse, no breathing, and a flat EKG. Stuff like that opens up for me the reality of ghosts, life after death, and even powers– good and bad– that we don’t understand.
And it makes for fun writing and great reading!
What has serving in wars taught you as a man and a writer?
Well, for one, war is a horrifying thing that is best avoided. Don’t misunderstand– I’m not a pacifist or an isolationist and I do believe that war is sometimes an absolute necessity, but the decision to commit to such an act and all of the consequences it has on individual young men and women, a generation of their families, and the collective national psyche should never be taken lightly.
I have seen in war the most horrifying things that convince me there truly is evil in the world. As writer, especially a writer in the Horror and supernatural genre, I tend to paint that evil as an outside force, another dimension of experience that keeps it fiction– and at arms length. Maybe you’re braver than me, Richard, since you write about evil the way it really exists in the world– inside man– like in APOSTLE RISING. But I believe there really is evil in this world as ghastly as anything in any work of horror fiction– perhaps even more terrifying because it is inside man himself. I remain amazed and perplexed by the things that humans are sometimes able to do to each other. I guess that seeing that evil first hand allows me to write about evil with some confidence and authority– and realism, I hope.
On the other hand, I have also seen in war some of the very best of mankind and the human spirit. I have seen a gentleness in young Marines, geared up in enough tools of destruction to wipe out a town single handedly, petting a stray dog or holding hands with a child lost in the confusion of a recent battle. I have seen the incredible discipline and self control of warriors– young warriors of maybe 18 or 19 years old– who follow their rules of engagement to the letter, even in the heat of battle– risking injury or death but preferring that to making a mistake and hurting the innocent. I have seen true valor and courage. I’ve learned about comraderie, true friendship, and the kind of love that allows a young man to sacrifice his own life for his team mates.
Short version– I’ve learned a lot about the human experience, good and bad. I hope that allows me to bring realism to the reader in a way where they actually give a damn about what happens to the characters I invent for them and can enjoy the supernatural stories I place them in. Isn’t that what every writer wants?
And if I give them a little a chill, cause their throat to tighten, or even scare the shit out of them now and then– well, that’s a desire I have the predates my war experiences.
Thank you Jeff for a great, humane interview. I hope it will draw new readers to your work.
Jeffrey Wilson links:
Have a look at Jeff’s website here.