Talking Geek with Dan Foster

Sometimes, I ask a question while I’m interviewing that I think I already know the answer to, but instead get something completely different. When I asked Dan Foster about common narratives about the military in news and entertainment, I was glad to see an answer that was completely not what I expected. (And I’ll be keeping my expectations to myself for a while, because I’m more interested in what veterans who are also creatives are thinking.) And now, on to Dan’s interview!

Q: First, please tell us a little bit about yourself.

A: I joined the Army from Sierra Vista, Arizona in 1993 as a 97E Interrogator. I spent a year at DLI learning Russian, then after AIT was stationed at Fort Hood, TX. From there, I did a deployment as a linguist and Intelligence Collector in Bosnia-Herzegovina before return to DLI for Advanced Russian. Afterward, I wrote training and doctrine for Intelligence Soldiers at Fort Huachuca, AZ before applying to become a Human Intelligence Warrant Officer.

As a Warrant Officer I conducted or managed Collection operations in Kosovo, and later in both Baghdad and Baqubah, Iraq in three deployments. I spent an additional three years at Ft. Huachuca leading the HUMINT Warrant Officer Basic Course and then retired in 2014 in the Olympia, WA area after managing a JBLM Debriefing mission.

I published my first book (Draft Distro) just before I retired, a collection of short stories I had written throughout my career. I also worked with a Director who adapted one of my stories into a short film which was a 2014 Tacoma Film Festival selection. Currently I am finishing up my first novel, while writing a series of Steampunk-influenced penny dreadfuls published by Art-Horse Studios here in Washington.

Q: You mentioned when we were setting up this interview that you don’t write DIRECTLY about the Army, but that your experience informs your writing nevertheless. Can you talk a little more about this, perhaps share some examples?

A: I had been writing since I was very young; indeed my first book is dedicated to my Third Grade teacher who was one of the first people who encouraged me to take all the weird ideas running around in my head and give them some form of substance on the page. As I grew up I wrote either a lot of science fiction, or Star Trek fan fiction primarily as an escape (more on this in the next question!). I found writing to be a way to examine perspectives on a situation, and to work through emotions or process events. Being in the military exposed me to a lot of new events, ideas, situations, and people, and I decided I wanted to “save” same of those things along the line. Already being a fan of speculative fiction though drove me to incorporate the “truth” (as I saw it) of a situation or a character into a different setting, one which I controlled. Then I felt more comfortable breaking it down and examining it.

I have tried a few times to just write a straight military story, and have occasionally gotten one through, but I seem to have a predilection for tossing a spaceship or a monster in, even when I didn’t initially intend to do so!

One rare example of my military experience informing my writing without dipping into my internal Geek would be my short story “Pendleton” about a small, dying Arizona town in the 1950s filled with wounded WWII Veterans and a young Soldier coming home from Korea who gets embroiled in a conflict with the local troublemaker. I didn’t want to deal directly with war, but rather what comes after. The characters meanwhile were based in many ways off the people around me on my deployment to Bosnia, as we were dealing with a place trying to start the post-war healing process.

Q: From stalking your Facebook page, I see you are a fellow nerd. From personal, anecdotal experience, you are not alone among veterans. What, in your opinion, draws service members and veterans to genre fiction, i.e. science fiction & fantasy, whether as fans or creators, or both?

A: I initially thought the preponderance of people enjoying the books, films, and games I did came from being surrounded by “MI Nerds” for the first part of my career. As I got out into the Army however, I found just as many Infantry and Army soldiers who could quote Obi-Wan, wanted to argue Kirk or Picard, or had rolled the D20.

I would have no doubt there is a certain amount of escapism to it. The factors that led me to SF when I was young mostly came from my Dad showing me that though we were not particularly well off financially, and lived in a socially depressed area, there was always a Galaxy Far, Far Away to which you could escape, or adventures you could have with GI Joe, or a place where you could Boldly Go. My Dad encouraged a lot of my consumption of such things, bought me a lot of Star Wars figures and GI Joes (often to our financial strain) and my Mom kept me reading constantly. It turned out to be a healthy distraction from the drugs and boredom to which a lot of my peers succumbed. Those were the same factors that led me to eventually leave my hometown by joining the military. The Army provided the final escape to a situation to which Science Fiction provided an internal escape. I would doubt I am alone in using the Military as the tangible manifestation of the new worlds SF afforded.

That being said, we seem to be in a period of geek renaissance, apparently brought on by Star Wars in the late 70s. As Generation X, we seem to be the first to have NOT gotten rid of our toys when we hit puberty, and to have ensured superhero movies and science fiction movies literally bring in billions of dollars of box office. I may be over-reading the connection between the military and the nerd; it might just be that society finally accepted the nerds were cooler.

Q: What are some of the common narratives concerning veterans that you’ve seen in the news/entertainment media? Do they coincide with your own themes? If you could choose to expand the range/variety of veteran stories, what themes/aspects would you choose and why?

A: I think we still see a lot of media portraying the military in general as a mindless adversary to well meaning heroes — look at a film like “Avatar” — but I do think popular culture is getting better at dealing with the individual Soldier. I have to admit to a little ignorance here: I have completely lost interest in watching any war movie that doesn’t also have “Star” in the title; unless they are completely out of hand ridiculous like “The A-Team” or “GI Joe: Retaliation,” I just don’t want to sit down and realistically expose myself to certain situations again. As such, I haven’t seen films like “The Hurt Locker,” “Lone Survivor,” or “American Sniper.” And I don’t feel I need to.

It’s not that I don’t want to see the Military portrayed in a negative light; there are many aspects of what I lived through where the Organization was wrong or misguided (or I was); but I don’t know that the movies that set out to portray the Military in a purely positive light are providing the truth their audience needs. I don’t want to see the Military treated as unfairly negative either. Despite the bad things I experienced, and the separations from my wife and children, the Army took care of them financially and medically, and as a kid who left Arizona with a 2.7 GPA on my high school diploma, the Army helped me get two associates, a BS with a double major, and a Master’s. The Army’s true face is neither wholly good nor wholly bad, and I don’t know if movies want to handle that ambiguous truth. Maybe they do; I however have lived that truth, and have moved on into retirement for a reason. I don’t feel the need to re-experience it in my fiction.

Q: What are some common areas of military life you wish you would encounter more in fiction?

A: I don’t think a lot of fiction really gets how side-splittingly funny military service can be. From the most mundane days sitting around the motor pool waiting for the LT to sign off on your PMCS forms [Interviewer’s Note: WE were waiting for the XO, sorry!], to days huddled behind sandbags while missiles fall out of the sky, invariably there is going to be something ridiculously funny going on. It might be something simple your hillbilly Sergeant says about the world that makes no damn sense at all, or it might be some macabre black humor involving the death and destruction around you, but it will be a story that later will make you laugh until you cry. I know there are Army comedies, and there are Army dramas, but I don’t know if there’s been anything since “M*A*S*H” that managed to capture the balance between horror and humor war can be.

Q: Who are some fellow military/veteran writers you might recommend? What makes you recommend them?

A: Classically, I of course have to point out Gene Roddenberry who was a WWII pilot, and his feelings on war obviously make their way into the original Star Trek; indeed, he felt Nicholas Meyer in “The Wrath of Khan” was far too violent, and over-militarized Starfleet. I would also recommend the works of Joe Haldeman who turned his experience in Vietnam as the inspiration for his “Forever War” series. He uses the conceit of relativistic time dilation as an allegory for the way the world has changed when you come back from war to simply amazing effect.

Some folks I know personally worth looking into are Weston Ochse, whose “Seal Team 666” series is just the right kind of nerdy action fun; also Sani McPherson who is behind a number of projects including indy comics and short films involving his superhero concept “The Enhanced.” We served together in Iraq, and I would like to think some of the stuff he does in the series comes from some of our post-op BS sessions.

Q: What advice would you give to veterans who are interested in writing their own stories?

A: Just write. It only has to be honest to you, because in the end, regardless of what your audience thinks or interprets, you know what you want to say. If you haven’t written before, don’t expect it’s going to be “Band of Brothers” when it comes out of your pen. Get the truth down first (even if it’s fiction) and the “writing” can come later.

There’s also a lot of different ways you can express yourself. I did a series of “fan fiction” toy photographs on Deviant Art called “Imperial Voices” giving the average Stormtrooper’s view of Star Wars. It proved to be fun from the fan perspective but also cathartic from the Soldier’s perspective, and a few real world gripes certainly made their way into those 25 chapters.

Q: Anything to add?

A: This has been great fun, thank you for the opportunity! And you are welcome to FB stalk me anytime…it’s going to stay nerdy though.

If you’d like to check out Dan and his work…

This is the link to my “Official” FB:

Most things can be found from there. However, the “Etherverse” stuff I am doing for Art-Horse is for sale on their FB:

Thanks again for stopping by!