We rotated watch, pairs of us spending three hours tucked behind sand bags piled in semicircles at the front and rear of our flatbed rail car. We seldom saw human beings in this wasteland, and after three days of lumbering progress toward the railhead, we had not seen any of the partisans who threatened our state. The tracks cut through rift valley and then, upon rising up through a limestone canyon, extended along the hard, flat, golden-yellow desert floor all the way to the horizon.

When we were moving, there was a weak breeze, and with our watches completed, we could lie in the shade of a stained tarp we had mounted on poles, our heads resting against our packs, the air smelling of the turpentine applied to the wooden flatbed to protect it from beetles. I read through the latest editions of journals I had brought from the capital.

All of us were from the capital, and resentful at being dispatched to a remote outpost. I had packed plenty of books and magazines, but already, after just three days riding this train, it was clear I hadn’t brought sufficient reading to last my deployment. Our commander, Minor-Leftenant Hillel, narrow-faced with pock-marked cheeks from recent acne, was newly graduated from military academy and the only one among us eager to take up his first posting.

The rest of us were conscripts, and considered this 18 months of mandatory service to be a cruel joke upon our youth. My friends and I had boasted we could use creative methods to shirk our duty, yet when time came to report, we were timid and acquiescing, reduced to hoping that a harmless, yet congenital condition would be diagnosed to excuse us from serving, slightly under-arched feet, perhaps.

Instead, 90 days later, we found ourselves at Central Station, clambering onto this flatbed rail car that would take us in a direction that we were told was secret, but that we could tell, upon leaving the city, was due south.

Karl Taro Greenfeld

Karl Taro Greenfeld is the author of four books, including Boy Alone, a Washington Post Best Book of 2009, Speed Tribes, Standard Deviations, and China Syndrome. A long time writer and editor for The Nation, Time, and Sports Illustrated, he was the the editor of Time Asia and among the founding editors of Sports Illustrated China. His writing has appeared in numerous anthologies including Best American Nonrequired Reading, Best American Travel Writing, Best American Sports Writing and Best Creative Nonfiction and has been translated into nine languages. Since taking up fiction writing in 2006, his stories have appeared in Best American Short Stories, The Paris Review, Commentary, The Sun, The Southern Review, The Missouri Review, The New York Tyrant, and American Short Fiction, among other publications. To learn more about Karl, visit www.karltarogreenfeld.com.

Q&A by Pei-Ling Lue

PL: Where did the idea for this story come from?
KG: Last summer there was a friend of mine from Thailand, an ex-Navy guy who was laid up at the VA here in Los Angeles with cancer. Every night, a few of us would gather around his hospital bed and have a little talk, it seemed to cheer him up. He’s a linguist, speaks Thai, Lao, Khmer, even Burmese, and is amazingly knowledgable about Southeast Asia. So we swapped stories of our travels in Asia. He also likes old movies. We were mentioning old movies we liked and I began to talk about one particular old movie I claimed I’d seen, laying out the story of this bunker, and guys in a bunker who were being picked off mysteriously and it was never clear if the bunker was haunted or if there really was an enemy out there systematically killing them. But, there was no such movie. I was just making it up as I went along. I don’t know why I was doing this, but I got sort of swept away in talking about this fake old movie. But that fake old movie was this story.
PL: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
KG: This story came pretty straight and fast. That’s how I work. If I slow down while I’m writing a story, then I know I have a problem. I usually put it away for a while. There was the larger challenge of whether any of it was working. The unnamed setting, the unclear era, the whole conceit may have been, and may well be, idiotic, but that suspension of the critical process is something we all have to do as writers.
PL: How long did it take you to complete this story?
KG: First draft was probably five or six days. And the next draft was the one you guys helped me with when you edited. Thank you for that!
PL: The desert setting informs so much of this story and I’m particularly drawn to the idea that your characters are trapped in the middle of this vast open space. What inspired you to write a story that was set in this desert?
KG: I thought about having them guarding a coastline—that’s how I told the story in my friend’s hospital room—but then when I began writing it I just found that train was going to the desert. Nothing I could do about it.
PL: This story reads like a historical fiction piece. What time period, if any, did you imagine when you wrote this story?
KG: It’s an unnamed place, sort of Turkish-seeming, maybe set in an alternate history past. I suppose it’s mildly steam-punk.
PL: Do you have any military experience or was this story a product of research? And if you did conduct research, what were your sources?
KG: No, I’ve never served. I don’t think I did any research.
PL: What do you think happens to the main character next? What about his comrades? I especially feel sorry for Gortat.
KG: I don’t know. I think the main character will find a life among the partisans and come back to the capital somehow in the van of an invading horde, sort of like the protagonist in the book he’d been reading to Gortat. Oh, they’re all going to die, so don’t feel especially sorry for Gortat.
PL: What are you working on now?
KG: I have a novel-in-stories about families in Tribeca that I keep working on and is almost finished. This week I’m thinking of it as Goon Squad for Guys. I have a collection of short stories coming later this year from Hobart’s Short Flight/Long Drive. And a publisher in Hong Kong is doing a novella and a couple of stories of mine. Also, this story is one of six I have set in this weird, alternate history, unnamed country. If I get a few more maybe I can publish that. And I definitely should mention this: I’m a contributing editor for Bloomberg Buinessweek. That’s how I’m eating these days.
PL: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
KG: From my father, he told me: all writing makes you a better writer, even writing you don’t want to do or don’t think you should do. He’s a novelist, playwright, screenwriter, journalist who spent much of his life writing movie scripts for money and magazine articles for the checks, and realized that he learned a lot about writing even when he didn’t much like the work he was doing. Sometimes that unwanted work is what makes you better. I’ve found that to be true as well. I wrote fiction when I was much younger, in college and just out of college, and then I sort of stopped for a long time, and did a ton of journalism and non-fiction, and when I came back to fiction in 2006 or so, I was much better at it for having written at places like Time Inc. and Conde Nast and all that. All those articles for all those editors made me a better writer, even though I probably saw much of it at the time as a waste of my time.