“Rooms Echo Louder without Anything Inside of Them”: Hillary Leftwich Talks to Steven Dunn, Author of water & power

Steven Dunn’s second novel, water & power, is published by Tarpaulin Sky and available to order now. Shortlisted for Granta’s Best of Young American Novelists, he is the author of Potted Meat (Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2016), which was co-winner of the 2015 Tarpaulin Sky Book Prize and finalist for a Colorado Book Award. Dunn was born and raised in West Virginia, and after ten years in the Navy, he earned a B.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Denver. He is currently an MFA candidate at Goddard College.

I had a conversation with Dunn about his writing process, what water & power is all about, who and what influences his writing, and his thoughts on women writers and their power and impact on the writing world.

Hillary Leftwich: Potted Meat is being made into a movie and you have a lot of your family involved in the process. Your cousin, Drew Lipscomb, is recording the soundtrack and your other cousins are acting in the film as well. When/if water & power is made into a movie, do you want people you served with to participate in the film? What music do you see as the soundtrack?

Steven Dunn: You know, I haven’t even thought about that, though I think it would be hard to turn into a film, or maybe not. Because one of the biggest influences on water & power is Ari Folman’s 2008 animated film Waltz with Bashir, which was the narrator [Folman] interviewing the people he was with when Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982. He can’t remember what happened, but hopes to by interviewing the people who was there, or who he thought was there. So yeah, maybe water & power could be animated. But if it were live action, hell yeah, I’d want the people I worked with in the military to be in the film. And music, it would probably be similar to that 60s and 70s black anti-war music.

HL: I’m glad you mentioned the huge influence Ari Folman’s film, Waltz with Bashir, had on your novel. Hearing you talk, write, and read about your own experiences in the military runs in a similar vein to Folman’s own experiences in the Israel Defence Forces. I’ll never forget when you shared your story about the toilet exploding while you were stationed out in the middle of the ocean on a Naval vessel, but for reader purposes, it’s important to note that despite the weird and sometimes humorous recollections, water & power is more than memories. Would you mind sharing what the most traumatic experience you wrote about in water & power was like for you? Both in the writing process as well as your thoughts on sharing the story itself?

Do you relate to what Folman stated was a need to fill his own memory holes by making Waltz with Bashir with your own experience writing water & power? What and/or whom do you think is the most static influence in your novel?

SD: Thanks for bringing up trauma, because it’s a large aspect of the book. But I don’t want to privilege my own trauma (though it is part of the conversation). One of the goals of this book is to de-centralize/de-colonize trauma. Trauma, or PTSD, is usually associated with men, especially white men in combat zones. I’m not saying those experiences aren’t traumatic, but other forms of trauma caused by the military is often ignored—intentionally, or as a result of our over-zealous hero worship of military members. For instance, our culture, or military literature, rarely talk about/take ownership of the trauma caused to foreign civilians thrust into and killed in our war zones. The trauma of women in the military who are sexually assaulted. The trauma of spouses who suffer from domestic violence. The trauma of people of color dealing with racism in the military. The trauma of homosexual members being bullied or having to keep their sexual lives secret (before the lift of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell”). I don’t know what the most traumatic experience was, but I interviewed a lot of people who expressed their various versions of trauma, such as having to shoot dogs in Iraq, working at the rape center in the VA, having to hide their sexuality, seeing friends killed, killing civilians, etc. I hope the book gives enough space for these various traumas to be expressed.

As far as do I relate to what Folman said about needing to fill his own memory holes … yes, I do relate, because I know there is this collective trauma which is so complex, and I didn’t think it was fair to the book to completely rely on my own memory or imagination or ignorance, so the interviews with other people helped fill in gaps, while acknowledging that there are still gaps and hidden/ignored trauma and events.

HL: This acknowledgement of gaps while also recognizing collective trauma feels like the spine of water & power, if it were a living being. A culmination of bones, allowing movement, either forward or backward. A binding. Throughout water & power this same movement can be felt. The interviews of the people you served with vary from simple statements to more in-depth, emotional responses. You speak of taking ownership, which can feel overwhelming and to many, impossible. How does this connect with the images of water and power?

SD: How does the difficulty of taking ownership for the trauma we inflict on others connect with the images in the book? Damn that’s a good question! I think some of the images can function as mirrors when those images are placed in different perspective contexts other than the ones we usually see as military members. There’s a section where I talk about the marketing companies that have designed recruiting slogans and posters for the military throughout the decades, and then I show the visuals of the posters. So instead of seeing these posters from a glory perspective (how we usually see them), we see them from a “targeted” (see predatory) marketing perspective. These posters, when viewed from this perspective, show that the military isn’t just some patriotic glory institution, but that it is corporate, and has a bottom line like any other corporation in the US. I also have some images that are just documents from the military, and I hope to extend to the reader how it feels to come across these documents as they are, such as the comic book that’s supposed to train us on how to report gay people.

HL: What turned you on to Richard Froude’s definition of submersion and how did you originally intend to “write from the cracks”Tell me more about how this ties in with your preface and your exploration of ethnographyto explore cultural phenomena, and how this became connected with water & power.

SD: Richard Froude’s definition of submersion is “one field’s absolute disappearance within another.” It’s from his book FABRIC, which I’d read two years before starting water & power. Actually I’m always reading FABRIC, at least twice a year since 2012. Anyway, after working on the book for about a year, I realized that’s sorta what this book was telling me, that the military is set up for an individual to be disappear within it, and that disappearance is a huge source of conflict for a lot of people I know. It definitely was for me. We hear it a lot, “This isn’t your job, it’s your life.” That submersion idea is even wrapped up in the language we use when talking about not working in the military, “Should I get out, or stay in?” One of my homies, Michael Echols, even said, “You ever notice how people in the military talk about it like it’s prison, like when you meet somebody new, the first things you ask are, how long you been in, and how much time you got left?”

All of that ties into the ethnographic structure because the book is paying attention to people speaking out about these conflicts/traumas/disobediences that aren’t always in line with how the military wants you to disappear within it. Which also connects to the idea of writing from the cracks, the holes and blemishes in the glossy picture, the liquidy shit in the clear water of polished porcelain.

HL: Ah, I love and also hate your point of the comic book that serves as a training manual. It’s a very good example of how marketing can be used to manipulate people. The sections with the recruiting slogans and posters shown as “predatory marketing perspectives” was a very intense point in your book. Not only does it show how marketing has a powerful influence on us, but also how images are sometimes more powerful than words. Starting out as a visual artist yourself, do you feel you use aspects of your art techniques in your writing? If so, what examples in water & power can you share?

SD: Oh yeah for sure. Well, more directly, for the Taxidermy Museum of Military Heroes, I drew the figures that shows where the taxidermists need to cut the skin. I also sketched the outside, and made floorplans for the taxidermy museum before I wrote about it, but those sketches aren’t in the book. I kinda wanna be an architect in real life. And I often try to apply some architectural theories to my writing, which would be a more oblique way that visual art techniques are used. Like the structure of water & power—the obvious structure is that it’s a fictional ethnography, but the way it is arranged, I considered what architects call an “adaptive design method” which is basically a successful combination of a form language and a pattern language—a functional design that is comfortable for us to be in. Form Languages are the big names like brutalism, modernism, etc. Pattern Languages takes into account human movement and feeling in a space. So maybe a design that isn’t adaptive, would be like saying, “Imma build a brutalist preschool in the country.” You’re more concerned with form, instead concerned with whether or not these lil kids will feel like prisoners in this ugly ass concrete building. In the country, how will this brutalist preschool look amongst the other buildings? It might look like looming industrial death. I promise this comes back to books.

I think there’s an equivalent of that in books. “I’m going to write a military novel, or memoir, and it looks this way.” Military literature is a city full of brutalist preschools, with white men as the headmasters. My architectural problem was how to design a building in a brutalist city, that could still be recognized as “military literature” but also be functional and allow for different voices and structures of experience. Even down to the cover design and choice of fonts—I didn’t want bullets, boots, camo, and stenciled- blood-splattered font. But I couldn’t build a complete Victorian mansion. Maybe my design has brutalist elements, but not all the way brutalist. That was a long ass answer about visual art. But I don’t get a chance to talk about this much so thanks for listening to my half-assed architectural-literature theory that I need to write a book about.

HL: Ha! Anytime. I really loved your response to submersion and the idea of language and disappearing. Writing from the cracks. It reminds me of the posts on social media with a picture of a certain animal herd or flock or group and there’s always the caption underneath the picture describing how the organization of the mentioned group of animal is broken down and how we should learn from nature etc. In water & power I get the same feeling from reading the interviews and seeing the propaganda. A similar sensation almost to “don’t drink the Kool-Aid” but we are all still drinking it. How do I know that what I’m being shown is the truth? “Writing from the cracks,” as you said, looking at what is being shown to us from a different space. What do you feel, if any, you left out of water & power, that one person, place, event, or idea that maybe you couldn’t write about, or that wouldn’t fit in with the idea of submersion?

SD: How do you know what you’re being shown is the truth? I have no idea, but I think what you’re being shown are some of the truths, or speaking towards something trying to get to some deeper truths of experience. Which links to what is missing. Jenn Ashworth, a British novelist and my former teacher, pointed out to me that although I talk a lot about sexual assault and rape, there are no interviews where a woman or man gives a first-hand account of being sexually assaulted or raped. I think that’s definitely a huge flaw of the book. I went back and forth for months trying to figure that out. Although the book is fictional, I didn’t want to invent a story like that for the book, so I asked one person and I felt so ashamed to even ask. She agreed but backed out at the last minute. I didn’t know if that was a good move to ask a woman to provide that information, so I asked my wife, women in my writing group, and some other women authors, and they all said that maybe it wasn’t necessary for the book to have that first-hand account. But Jenn Ashworth had a great point, and she’s smart as hell and a great writer. So I’m still stuck: was I being a lazy writer, or was I being respectful, or was I being some other things that I’m ignorant about. I don’t know, but that is what’s missing.

HL: With the present timing and what is happening with Ford and Kavanaugh and the #MeToo movement it’s a hard and also a very personal decision to step forward and talk about a sexual assault. And certainly maybe not at the risk of the one first-hand account in a novel. But with Jenn Ashworth pointing out it may be a huge flaw in water & power, maybe the absence speaks louder than anything. If you are creating a building in a brutalist city, maybe some of those rooms echo louder without anything inside of them.

I know you recently made a decision to read at least eighty percent black women and posted this challenge on social media. Along those lines, in Morgan Jerkins’ book, This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America, Jerkins writes of “social dynamics that have dictated the realities of American black women for centuries.” If one of the impacts that social media has had on our society is steering us away from the mainstream of white male writers, where do you see women writers headed in the next ten years? Twenty? What women writers are you currently reading that make you stop and say, oh holy hell, what did I just read? Do you feel, after reading these women writers, that our own social dynamics in the present will dictate future realities for future women writers, especially women of color?

SD: I think women writers will continue to do what they’ve always been doing: writing innovative, challenging, smart, and necessary shit that disrupts our current social orders. And with VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts doing the hard work they do, women writers will be read and reviewed more by men. And with women themselves raising hell about their unfair treatment in the literary world, I think we will start listening more to what they’ve always been saying, and start taking steps to make shit better.

And here are some women writers I’m currently reading that’s making me say holy hell!

Older books: Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place and Ama Ata Aidoo’s Our Sister Killjoy.

Contemporary: Khadijah Queen, Nikki Wallschlaeger, Erika Wurth, Samantha Irby, Meghan Lamb, Katie Jean Shinkle, Genève Chao, Julia Madsen, Janice Lee, Nancy Stohlman, Jenn Ashworth, Diana Khoi Nguyen, Mairead Case, Thirii Myo Kyaw Myint, Erica Lewis, Ella Longpre, Sarah Schantz, Meiko Ko, Kim Vodicka, Kim Parko, Piper Daniels, Kali Fajardo-Anstine, Monica Prince, Meg Tuite, Ari Braverman, Caren Beilin, Claire Donato, Oki Sogumi, Danielle Pafunda, Cornelia Barber, dezireé a. brown, Ahja Fox, Hillary Leftwich, Emma Arlington M., Arielle Roberts, and Thuyanh Astbury-Nguyen.

Future (yet to be published manuscripts): Hina Ahmed’s short story collection about a young Muslim woman in the US navigating the complexities of home, desire, identity, and whiteness. Hina’s observations are sharp, and fucking hilarious, which balances with the main character’s free-spirited, sometimes melancholic, and self-assured interiority. Alicia Markowitz’s memoir about growing up in Venezuela with roots in Spain, and then moving to the US. I feel a lot reading Alicia’s work, some of which are beauty, anger, and tenderness. Suzi Q. Smith’s poetry collection is hard for me to explain right now, but I love it. And there’s a poem based of Outkast’s Aquemimi, which is perfect. Tameca L. Coleman’s hybrid work that asks tough questions about race, family, and connection. Alex Benke’s memoir is one like I’ve never seen in my life, and it fucks me up in so many ways, but I don’t wanna talk about it too much here. One day soon though, these manuscripts will be in the world, and we’ll all be lucky.

HL: That’s a hell of a list, Steven. (Thank you for including me). Allowing space for these powerful voices is a step in a positive direction moving forward. It’s my hope that more men start sharing our words rather than speaking on our behalf and perhaps sharing our successes more and allowing our voices to be heard.

It’s been a hell of a ride talking with you, Steven. I’m going to sit back and enjoy the ride that’s water & power. Let’s not forget to promote your book release readings while we’re at it:


Saturday, October 13th 7 pm at Counterpath in Denver, CO:

Steven Dunn’s water & power (Tarpaulin Sky), Julia Madsen’s The Boneyard, The Birth Manual, A Burial: Investigations into the Heartland (Trembling Pillow Press), Jason Arment’s Musalaheen (University of Hell Press), and Nancy Stohlman’s Madam Velvet’s Cabaret of Oddities.

Saturday, November 10th 3:30 pm at Bookbar in Denver, CO:

Steven Dunn’s water & power (Tarpaulin Sky), Camille Dungy’s Guidebook To Relative Strangers (W. W. Norton), and Richard Froude’s Your Love is Not Alone (Subito Press). Hosted/Curated by Hillary Leftwich for At the Inkwell Denver.

10/18 – Philadelphia, PA. Tire Fire Reading Series: Oki Sogumi, Quinton Lawrence, Warren Longmire, 7pm

10/22 – North Adams, MA. Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, 7pm

11/01 – Littleton, CO. Arapahoe Community College, 4pm

11/06 – Laramie, WY. University of Wyoming, 7pm

11/08 – Lakewood, CO. Red Rocks Community College, 1pm

11/10 – Denver, CO. Bookbar: with Richard Froude, Camille Dungy


03/25 – Vancouver, BC. Massy Books: with Soma Feldmar, Katrina Otounye, 7pm

04/26 – Grand Junction, CO. Colorado Mesa University, 7pm

05/03 – Fort Collins, CO. Northern Colorado Writers Conference

Hillary Leftwich earned her MFA in fiction and poetry from the Mile High MFA at Regis University in Denver. She is co-host for At the Inkwell Denver, a monthly reading series. In her day jobs she has worked as a private investigator, maid, repo agent, and pinup model. Her writing can be found in print and online in such journals as The Missouri Review, Hobart, SmokeLong Quarterly, Matter Press, Sundog Lit, NANO Fiction, and others. Her first book, Ghosts Are Just Strangers Who Know How to Knock, is forthcoming from Civil Coping Mechanisms in spring of 2019. She is Prose & Poetry editor at Heavy Feather Review. Find her online at hillaryleftwich.com

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