Medium: Did you really join the Navy after seeing ‘Top Gun’?
Will Mackin: Cheesy as it sounds, I went on a double date to see Top Gun when it came out in 1986 and immediately knew that’s what I wanted to do. I didn’t know how I was going to do it, but I felt, “Yeah, I want to fly something that fire shoots out the back.” So, when I got to community college, I buckled down and majored in physics, took heavy math. The Navy pegged me for a nuclear power officer in charge of reactors on a submarine, a job that I wanted nothing to do with. But I played the game until my junior year, when I got an ROTC scholarship to University of Colorado. When I got there, my ROTC adviser didn’t have my records, so when he asked what I wanted to major in, I told him, “English.” And when he asked what I wanted to do, I told him flight school. He wrote both on his form, and right there I completely changed the course of my Navy career.
Did the two paths conflict while you were in college?
I didn’t see a conflict until the very end of school. The deal going into ROTC was the Navy paid for your education, and you served a certain amount of time to pay them back. But when I graduated, it was December 1990, and they were downsizing the military. So the Navy offered us a buyout: They would forgo our service obligation and, on top, give us $75,000. I had to make a choice. I wanted to fly, but with buyout money, I could do an MFA program without debt. I talked to the Navy, and they were like, “What the fuck is creative writing?” So I went to one of my creative writing teachers, sure that she was going to endorse the MFA plan. She asked what would I write about. I said, “I don’t know, growing up in New Jersey, being a punk kid.” She told me, “Don’t go right to a graduate program. Take some time and live life. You need to join the Navy so that you have something to write about.”
I was thinking, “Who the hell is going to read about a navigator?” I felt if I had no control of the plane, I had no control of the story.
So you were off to flight school?
I graduated and was given rank and sent to flight training in Pensacola, Florida. My very first physical, I failed the eye test. Whoever was in charge told me I could become a lawyer, an oceanographer, or go to nuclear submarines. I thought, “Fuck, no,” and started doing exercises to improve my eyesight. It improved enough to where I could be a navigator.
Were you writing?
I started a journal, mostly bitching about school, but it was writing. I was also thinking, “Now I’m screwed — who the hell is going to read about a navigator?” I felt if I had no control of the plane, I had no control of the story. I didn’t give up though. I still thought I’d pay back my obligation and then give writing a go. But things changed: I got married and started having kids. I couldn’t give up a steady job with guaranteed promotions and a retirement to roll the dice in an MFA program.
After flight school, what was work like?
I was like Goose. I was the back-seater in the Prowler, the EA-60. I was in flight school from 1990 to about ’93—that’s when I got my wings. And then ’93 to I’d say ’97 was my first squadron. Every flight squadron was attached to an aircraft carrier, and prior to cruise we were training all over the world for a nine-month period. It was really busy, but it was fun. Then we’d drive into the Persian Gulf for like four months, flying in and out of the no-fly zone in southern Iraq.
Were you writing?
By then, I was journaling in earnest. Every day I’d sit down and try to write funny stories, things that were happening on cruise. But then we’d pull into port or do a mission, and I started to feel like this could be something. I was getting over the fact that I was a navigator. It didn’t seem to make much difference when it was all said and done.
Were you taking any workshops or classes to improve your writing?
[In August 1999,] I was selected for a scholarship to study French at a French university. I was still on active duty but had summers off. [During the school years, I was in France, and in summers,] I took two writing courses in St. Petersburg, Russia. I met George Saunders there and just kind of stayed in touch. After I completed the scholarship in August 2001, I returned to flying as a navigator with my EA-6B Prowler squadron, based on Whidbey Island, Washington. We deployed to Bagram, Afghanistan, and Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia.
Did anyone in the Navy read your writing?
Every officer had to submit an article to a Navy safety magazine. Mine got published. The admiral read it and wanted me to be a speechwriter. You can’t say no when the admiral asks. So, in 2005, I became a speechwriter for an admiral at the Pentagon, a pretty high-visibility job that puts you on a certain track. While I was there, these SEAL guys would come and brief the admiral on their top-secret missions. I knew one of those guys and asked, “Can you please get me the fuck out of here?” Not to say I didn’t enjoy the job, but I was sitting on my ass writing these bullshit speeches for the ladies auxiliary when there’s a war going on, you know? Eventually, I got an opportunity to interview with the SEAL team.
What was the application process?
They do two interviews and a physical screening, an obstacle course, a run, and a swim. And then you get into what’s called the actual screen, where they’re training you and evaluating you. You can wash out at any time. If you make it, they put you in a team, and if you don’t, you go back to doing whatever it was you were doing before. I deployed to Iraq in July 2006 with a special ops task force, which turned out to be my trial run working with the team, doing missions with them. But I wasn’t a full-fledged part of the team.
Because everything we did was top secret, just writing down anything would raise suspicion: “What the fuck’s he writing? Is he going to Snowden?”
You were then attached to a SEAL team in Iraq and Afghanistan as a joint terminal attack controller (J-TAC) — the flight officer on the ground coordinating all the air support resources and directing air strikes for your team. But you were not a SEAL. How did that affect, as you said before, your ability to control the story?
There were a lot of members of the team who were non-SEALs. I can’t get into numbers, but only like an eighth of the group were the ones actually kicking in the door and running through the house. Everybody else — communications, leadership, medics, interpreter, intel guys — would be on the outside, doing the perimeter. We’d all get together in this one helicopter and go do these missions, and then everybody would get dropped off at their separate location, and then we’d do it again the next night. The SEAL team guys were very insular, but sometimes they’d kind of let you in, give you a glimmer of their rituals. As a writer, I almost preferred being on the outside. Being in the same circulatory system but not in its heart allowed me to observe, and I found that very valuable.
What did your writing practice look like at this point?
With the SEAL team, writing seemed a very extraneous, ridiculous thing to do. Back in garrison, you were either working out, planning, or asleep. If I took even a half-hour to sit in my room to write, people would wonder, “What of those three things are you doing in your room that you have to have the light on?” And because absolutely everything we did was top secret, just writing down anything would raise suspicion: “What the fuck’s he writing? Is he going to Snowden?” So I would wait until I was by myself and write in the dark. I wouldn’t turn on a light—just open the book to a blank page I’d marked and start writing. Then I’d flip the page and write on the next one, trying to visualize how to space my words out.
But out in the field as a J-TAC, I was always keeping track of which aircraft we were assigned, what their fuel states were, what weapons they had on board. I’d stop and write that information on my arm all the time. I started writing details on my arm, too, which didn’t create any suspicion.
What were you writing down?
Just details, mostly. They had these wells in Afghanistan, and one of them smelled like cinnamon. I remember transferring that detail from my hand to my arm, from my arm to a piece of paper, and from a piece of paper to my journal.
How many years were you on the ground?
I was in the field almost seven years. By the time I was done [in 2011], I could’ve retired. But there was no way I could go from what I was doing to searching for a job. I needed a buffer. The Navy offered to make me the commanding officer of the ROTC unit in New Mexico. I would have a civilian schedule, and I wouldn’t have to decide immediately what I was going to do next.
Did you think, “This is great. I can just hide out in an office and write all day”?
It was the easiest job I ever had. But I actually didn’t write all day. I’d ride my bike to work really early in the morning, listening to writing podcasts to get myself dialed into the mindset. I would write in my office until the students showed up, then I’d go out and run with them. I had a pretty good connection with the students. They were so optimistic, and the ones who had troubles, I could easily see a way to help them. Compared to what I came from, that job felt like the land of make-believe.
You had your journals full of details and an office to write in. Did you think publishing was only a matter of time?
That’s what I thought, but it wasn’t that easy. The first story I published, “Kattekoppen,” was pretty much in my head already. It was going to be nonfiction. I had a bunch of things [I wanted to write about as nonfiction], but I just couldn’t get the mission-driven, factual stuff to come alive. And I was putting pressure on myself not to misrepresent anyone — I couldn’t show anyone [I’d served with] in a bad light. All of this pushed me toward fictionalizing, not just to remove that responsibility, but to allow a bit of expansion in the stories.
“Kattekoppen” was published in the New Yorker. Did this lead to your book deal?
I sent George Saunders a copy of “Kattekopen,” and he really liked it. He gave me some suggestions that I worked on for another six months. George sent that to the New Yorker and notified his agent, who got in touch with me. She said, “Send me what you’ve got.” So I sent her four more stories. I’d say only one was publishable. And she sent those to an editor and sold the book, which eventually turned into Bring Out the Dog. He edited those stories and sent them back to me, but I didn’t think they were ready. I’d only sent them out because I thought my agent wanted to get an idea of what I was like. So the editor and I had a really open conversation, and he realized this was going to be a much longer process than he had signed on for.
Do you quit your job and write full-time?
I stayed in ROTC another 18 months, working as much as I could in the mornings, then retired in November of ’14. It took four or five years to get the rest of the stories together. I was kind of lost, because I was working through a chip on my shoulder.
What kind of chip?
I was still very much in the SEAL mentality. When we were deployed and needed someone from an Army unit, we would just walk in and say, “Give me him.” No care what the impact was to them. The mentality was that we were more important. So, to come from there to ROTC — which was not important in anybody’s mind — my self-justification went into overdrive. I didn’t voice this. I didn’t get in fistfights. I was just a very angry person. When I would write stories, it was, “I’m gonna show these fuckers. This is the real shit.” I guess every writer needs a little bit of that, but I had too much. The little or the more interesting thoughts got drowned out by “fuck everybody.” I had to work through that to get the stories I cared about.