Thu 28 May 2015
by Jessi Cole Jackson
Brian Toups lives part time on Earth, part time in the multiverse of fantasy. When not telling stories, he enjoys meeting new characters, both real and imaginary, and counts Aragorn, Kvothe, Pi Patel, and St. Thomas Aquinas among his confidants. He has a background in philosophy and quotes Aristotle frequently, to the dismay of his few devoted friends. His favorite sport is Ultimate Frisbee.
Jessi Cole Jackson: Could you talk a little bit about the inspiration behind “The Unwinnable Fight“? Do you have experience with soldiers coming back from war?
Brian Toups: I’ve often been told: write what you know. Never having been a soldier myself, I focused primarily on the emotions and memories I have in common with the main character, Isaac. I also relied heavily on the experiences of friends and family. My uncle Joe served in WWII with a glider division. It was a hard job because mid 20th century gliders would often lose wings and crash into forests. They were called flying coffins. My uncle Francis served with the marines in the Battle of Iwo Jima. I have also paid close attention to the stories of my peers who are currently in Berlin, Baghdad, and Okinawa.
The bit in “The Unwinnable Fight” about Isaac painting C-130s with a tiny paintbrush is real. I’m told, when a marine’s paint sprayer breaks, he or she just keeps on painting.
JCJ: You mentioned in an email you’re primarily a speculative fiction author, what drew you to Isaac and this literary story in particular?
BT: It’s true, most of the stories I write are speculative fiction, and I feel at home in that genre. I knew it would be difficult to write a literary story, but I never realized how much it would stretch my imagination. Every time I wanted to introduce immortal gods or a few good-natured dragons into the plot, I had to resist.
Some say that returning-from-war stories are worn out as an old combat boot. I wanted to write a story that treated a character, not so much as a soldier, but as a man and a son. The story, as a result, does not have much to do with the war itself. In a lot of ways, it’s easier for Isaac to risk his life overseas than risk his masculinity and his emotions facing his father. He prefers to serve and follow orders, rather than traverse the truly dangerous terrain of his own insecurities and his mother’s absence, the ever-present lack that deceives him into thinking he has no home.
JCJ: Would you tell me a little about your writing process?
BT: I always start with a character. It’s usually something vague at first, like a name or an odd habit or unusual job. In this story, I started with Isaac. At first, he was just a guy standing on a sidewalk with a bag over his shoulder. He looked more like a runaway than a soldier. Next, I figured out who he was and what he wanted, and then I went from there. Isaac’s identity as a soldier has shaped him profoundly, but not so much as his identity as a son.
JCJ: According to your blog, you’re going on a roadtrip at the end of the summer! Where are you headed? What’re you most looking forward to on your trip?
BT: I’ve spent the last four autumns in Tallahassee, FL studying creative writing. I’m excited to wake up in a different city every day and write. Changing places, seasons, and faces always get me inspired. I write every day, no matter how poorly, but when I’m traveling the quality of my work is much better.
I am ready to be spontaneous with this trip, so my current destination is west of here, the obvious limitation being the Pacific Ocean. There are plenty of friends and family along the way to keep me sane.
As a writer, sometimes I feel burdened with glorious purpose and think I have something meaningful and profound to offer the world. Other times I realize, with no small measure of humility, I am just making things up and writing them down.
I think this road trip is about doing something and hoping for something I know not what. “Chasing the wind” as Kvothe would say in Patrick Rothfuss’ incredible book The Wise Man’s Fear.
JCJ: I loved the tension in your story, particularly that it’s primarily internal–Isaac’s not fighting with anything or anyone but himself in the moments we see. What do you think it is about Isaac that readers, even those of us who have never been in the military, can relate to in his struggles and indecision? What is it about returning home that can be so very hard?
BT: He is deeply wounded by loss and by his childhood experience with being powerless. He is afraid of things he can’t control. I think, in that sense, Isaac could be anyone. There are specific details of his struggles, how he runs away from home by going to war, how he tries to break out of the crippling sameness of his town.
I think there’s another reason, too. When he’s out there, the adrenaline is kicking, he doesn’t think too much about home, and it’s easier if he thinks he has nothing to go back to. But he needs a home, and he can’t keep telling himself his home is the war, or else he’ll die inside, having nothing good and noble to fight for.
I pray for our soldiers every day. I think being a warrior or a protector is a noble profession, and it’s important to remind our men and women in the armed forces that they are invaluable, even when certain members among them make mistakes. No amount of paper or ink will ever do justice to those who serve, to those who preserve freedom on the battlefield while peace remains elusive. There is not a breath of mine that they can’t claim as their own.
JCJ: Based on twitter retweets, it appears you’re a fan of C.S. Lewis (I am as well!). Does Lewis’s work influence your writing? Who are some of your other favorite authors or thinkers?
BT: It’s good to meet another Lewis fan! C.S. Lewis is my favorite author. He beats out J.R.R. Tolkien and Ursula K. Le Guin by a lion’s whisker.
C.S. Lewis is a superb example of a man who was both an artist and a philosopher. I’m inspired by his life, partly because he was so honest about his faults and failings. Whenever he had struggles, he wrote about them. He was open about his ideological shifts: his journey from childish belief to agnosticism, through atheism, back to the Christian faith. He knew how to evoke emotion with the simplest language, and I think the use of a child’s words to explain complex ideas is the mark of true genius.
I read every day, usually fantasy, but I try to keep that balanced with philosophical, religious, or moral works, and I even inject some secular Vonnegut or Hemingway every now and then. I’m inspired by Leo Tolstoy’s philosophy of art, and what it is to be an artist. I never make it two years without re-reading Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea.
JCJ: Do you have any writing projects currently in the works? Could you point readers to anything else of yours, either forthcoming or published?
BT: I am currently seeking representation for my debut novel Star Kin.
The plot follows Ava, an evening star, after she is taken from the sky as a child. Human in appearance and raised in the wilderness by a dragon, she has legitimate identity issues. She meets Oberon, a renegade angel, and together they have to stop a mysterious enemy who is draining the light from the world.
I never stop writing. I can hardly spend three days editing my older novels without feeling the desire to invent a world or sketch a character. I hope to have more stories published in the future with Every Day Fiction and others.
Jessi Cole Jackson lives and works in New Jersey, though she’s not from there. By day she builds costumes for a Tony Award-winning theatre. By night she writes stories, questionable poetry and lots of abandoned outlines. When she’s not working she enjoys cooking, reading, and exploring local farms. You can read more about her sometimes exciting (but mostly just normal) life at jessicolejackson.com.