Scott Montgomery: How did Iceland end up as the major location for Peter’s latest adventure?
Nick Petrie: The first time I went to Iceland, I wasn’t planning a novel – I was just backpacking with my son. But Reykjavik is a quirky city, and the rugged, lonely landscape outside the capital is richly evocative of Iceland’s epic history. The whole experience was deeply compelling. And at the end of our trip, as we waited in the airport, an entire novel appeared in my head, beginning to end.
This had never happened to me before, so I grabbed my notebook and scribbled as fast as I could. I got about twenty minutes before the novel disappeared again, and I spent the next eighteen months trying to recreate that strange, singular vision. The result is The Wild One.
SM: Is it easier to write about a location fewer readers know, or is it more of a challenge?
NP: In each of my books, I’ve felt a lot of pressure to get setting right, whether the California’s tech coast, Denver’s cannabis culture, or the richness of Memphis. As a writer, I’m always very conscious that I’m an outsider, and that readers will definitely let me know if I haven’t done justice to the place they call home.
Iceland was more of a challenge than other settings because, in terms of language,
history, and culture, it felt so very different from the U.S. and thus harder to step into, imaginatively, than other places I’ve written about. For me the breakthrough came when someone described Iceland as the Wyoming of Europe. I’ve spent time in a lot of places where the road comes to an end, Wyoming included, and that comparison helped me understand the personality of the place, and that maybe Iceland wasn’t so different after all.
SM: Was there anything about the city or country you were looking forward to portraying?
NP: Writing about place is important to me – I think of setting as another character and treat it as such. So I was really looking forward to seeing Peter, my protagonist, in conflict with the essential, unchanging Iceland, its landscape and weather. What I didn’t anticipate was how much fun it would be to write about strong, stoic, individualistic Icelanders. No matter what I may have planned for a book, the characters always surprise me.
SM: What’s interesting about the plot of The Wild One is that the reader is piecing things together, but they are a little ahead of Peter. How did you pull off that balance?
NP:That was one of the major challenges of the book. The Wild One is really two stories told in parallel, and that form didn’t evolve until fairly late in the writing. The trick was to keep the tension of each storyline intact, even as I alternated between them, simultaneously managing what information the reader gets from each. There was a lot of tweaking at the end to get it just right. Funny, but if I’d actually set out at the beginning with this form in mind, I don’t think I could have done it. Sometimes, when we’re lucky, the choices writers make out of desperation can turn into something sublime.
SM: Is there something you have to keep in mind when writing a character who suffers from PTSD?
NP: When writing about post-traumatic stress, I feel a huge amount of responsibility to those veterans who suffer from it, especially because I’m not a veteran myself. I’ve done a great deal of research and spoken with many veterans about this. PTS is often vastly oversimplified in fiction and on the screen, and I’ve found that veterans really appreciate a nuanced approach not only to PTS but also to the experience of surviving war, with its complex stew of pride, dignity, humility, regret, and shame.
Veterans reach out to me all the time, telling me how well I’ve captured what they’re going through, and that means the world to me. It also means that I get to convey this same feeling to readers who have not served in the military or gone to war. Because of our highly professionalized all-volunteer armed forces, most people have no idea what life after war is like for our veterans, and helping readers understand the hidden cost of armed conflict is part of my personal mission.
SM: While you deliver a lot of action, Peter always carries the weight of his violence, justified as it may be. Do you feel an author has a certain responsibility when portraying violence?
NP: This goes back to your previous question. I don’t know how other authors feel, but the consequences of violence – and the attractiveness of it – is one of the central themes of my work.
People join the military for many reasons, including family tradition, opportunity, and the chance to be of service to something larger than oneself. But there’s a reason that most boys play with toy swords and toy guns from a very early age. The dirty little secret of war, and the secret reason our young men (and it is mostly young men) continue to sign up to fight, is that war is exciting as hell. I’s a chance to test your mettle, to prove yourself in a certain arena. The chance to be a hero and to blow shit up.
But most who join the military have no real idea of the long-term consequences of combat. Yes, there is pride and a sense of identity, not to mention powerful friendships that will last until the end of their days. But many veterans have told me that the experience of combat has never left them. I know many Vietnam vets who still go back to that war in their dreams, night after night, more than fifty years later. And it’s not just military veterans, either. I’ve talked with long-time police officers and firefighters who suffer the consequences of that challenging work, too.
Sometimes violence is necessary, either individually or as a group. To stop bad people, to correct the course of a society gone off the rails. But there are always consequences to that violence, even if it’s not convenient. Good people pay a price. We saw it writ large after Vietnam, and after almost twenty years of war in the Middle East, we’re seeing it again. As a writer interested in capturing a slice of America on the page, that’s compelling stuff. And also, I think, necessary.