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Writing About Soldiers and War

Q&A with SPOILS author Brian Van Reet

Q: Who was the hardest character to write in Spoils and why?

A: Cassandra Wigheard. Not just because her experience in the army is very different from mine, but her captivity presents its own narrative challenges. When a character is physically confined and otherwise robbed of her agency, you have to get creative and invent ways for her to interact meaningfully with the world, while still maintaining the inescapable truth of her situation.

Q: How did you come up with the title?

A: The title came to me before the book. Many years ago, I read an article about a U.S. soldier who stole a significant amount of cash in Iraq. He managed to smuggle some of the money home, but the crime haunted him. Eventually, he destroyed the remaining money. The whole thing seemed like a good metaphor for the American experience in Iraq, and I began to try to write a novel that explored the theme of “spoils,” literally and figuratively. It took a few failed attempts before I hit on these characters and this story, but the title Spoils was always there.

Q: Are any of the characters in Spoils based on people you know?

A: Not particularly. These characters are fictional composites made up of research, lived experience, and imagination.

Q: What’s the best part of being a debut author?

A: You’re an unknown quantity: the sky is the limit.

Q: What’s the hardest part of being a debut author?

A: You’re an unknown quantity: the abyss is unfathomably deep.

Q: You’re stranded in the desert for a month, what do you bring to read?

A: I know this is taking the question too literally, but I spent about a month in isolated camps in the Kuwaiti desert. What I read and wrote during that time were emails and letters to and from home, as well as the odd magazine. Fiction had little appeal to me then. In my experience, the closer you are to being truly stranded, the less you want a lifeline to the interior (i.e., a novel) and the more you want to connect with actual human beings. On the other hand, when I am stranded in a crowded airport terminal, a novel is one of my favorite ways to pass the time.

Q: Why did you choose to write from a female soldier’s perspective?

A: I wanted the narrative viewpoints to be radically inclusive and also relevant to the qualities that make these post-9/11 wars unique. Although women did serve in uniform during past American wars (my grandmother was in the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II), they were typically stationed stateside or in rear detachments away from the front lines. That’s not true anymore. The number of women who’ve fought in direct combat in Iraq and Afghanistan is many times greater than in all previous American wars combined. I believe this fact should be represented in fiction. Having a female protagonist also allows me to explore some of the ways that war –any war — can be a gendered conflict.


Brian Van Reet was born in Houston. Following the September 11th attacks, he left the University of Virginia, where he was an Echols Scholar, and enlisted in the U.S. Army as a tank crewman. He served in Iraq under stop-loss orders, achieved the rank of sergeant, and was awarded a Bronze Star for valor. He has twice won the Texas Institute of Letters short story award. This is his first novel.