EA: Yeah, I think that’s fair. In the book, Wedge, the pilot, winds up as the commanding officer of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 323, the Death Rattlers. One of my oldest friends is at this moment deployed to the Persian Gulf as the commanding officer of the Death Rattlers, so using that squadron was an homage to him.
But with novels—the ones that I enjoy reading, and the ones I try to write—often you’re showing the topography of people’s interior lives. And past a certain point, the characters I write are all me, or some version of me.
For instance, with Wedge, there’s an opening refrain in the book where he talks about wanting to be close to it, and the it is flying on instinct, by the seat of your pants—something that his great-great-grandfather had done in the Second World War. He feels he’s never had the opportunity to do that when the book opens up, and so much of his emotional journey is trying to be close to this it. I was never a pilot, but it, the quest for something real, is definitely an emotional journey that I feel familiar with. There are other characters too, like Chowdhury, who is in the National Security Council. He has a complex personal life and is divorced. I’m divorced.
And I’ve lived in DC, and have worked in the government and felt the crush of anonymity that comes with some of these bleak government jobs. Chowdhury talks about that; that’s part of his character. I know how oppressive the bureaucracy can feel, but also how, even while you’re dealing with that feeling, you know you’re sitting at the fulcrum of major decisions.
So, oftentimes you’re excavating things from your own experience, your subconscious, and putting them into these characters.
MS: With all these characters, as I read this book, I had a strong feeling … well, I kept asking: Why don’t they just stop? Just: Don’t hit the button, don’t drop the bomb. This book is an intense cautionary tale, but the people who have control don’t stop. Is that just me, not having much of a sense of what it is like to be in the military, with the imperatives that come with orders and chains of command?
JS: I would say this isn’t a military thing. I think this is a sociological, human thing. Just look at the last hundred years or so—years when we are supposedly evolved as a species, when we trade with each other routinely and we elevate the rights of women and minorities, all the marvelous things of the last 100 years. Yet we stumbled into two massive world wars, one from 1914 to 1918 and one from 1939 to 1945. Collectively, we killed 80 million people in the 20th century.
We see bad leadership, certainly, around the First and the Second World Wars. Those people could have stopped, but again and again they didn’t. And we see that events take on a momentum of their own. This happened in particular with the First World War—the sleepwalkers, as they’re sometimes called, these nations that were intertwined by blood and marriage and trade and similar political systems, yet they blunder into this devastating conflict. And you can draw a plumb line from that war to the Second World War.
EA: The question you ask is one of the central themes of the book: Why do we as humans do this over and over and over again? Another theme is that it’s rarely good to start a war: You want to be the one who finishes a war. So much of our American century is predicated on the first two world wars: Those are wars that we did not start, but, you know, we damn sure finished them, and they set us up with great prosperity. If a war is started between the US and China, how does that war end? And is it even possible for it to end to the benefit of either party? Thematically, that goes throughout the book.