A Conversation with Randy Brown, aka Charlie Sherpa

Photo courtesy of Randy Brown.


Embedded civilian reporter Randy Brown, a.k.a. “Charlie Sherpa,” poses with Sgt. 1st Class Timmy, a therapy dog assigned to 254th Medical Detachment, Bagram Airfield, May 2011. Photo credit: U.S. Army Capt. Theresa Schillreff.


Randy Brown embedded with his former Iowa Army National Guard unit as a civilian journalist in Afghanistan, May-June 2011. He authored the poetry collection “Welcome to FOB Haiku: War Poems from Inside the Wire.” His essays, journalism, and poetry have appeared widely both on-line and in print. As “Charlie Sherpa,” he writes about military culture at: www.redbullrising.com, and about military writing at: www.aimingcircle.com. He is a member of the Military Writers Guild.

Q (Infamous Scribbler): You’ve worn a lot of hats professionally, and sometimes even masks. Can you give readers a little background before we jump into your latest project with the Military Writers Guild?

A (Charlie Sherpa): I started Middle West Press as a solo freelance writing and editing business in 2003. I had previously been an editor of national newsstand and trade magazines—as well as an editor at small metro and community newspapers. In 2015, I reorganized the business as a limited liability corporation, and extended operations into independent publishing. We’ve published three books so far—two poetry collections and a collection of journalism—with an objective of publishing from 1 to 4 books annually.

While our mission statement focuses on finding unique stories and voices of the American Middle West, the Military Writers Guild “Why We Write” anthology project stems from a parallel interest in finding new ways to bridge the “civil-military gap”—the lack of mutual empathy and understanding often present between civilians and those with military experiences. The latter can include service members, veterans, family members, contractors, and more.

Q: The project’s call for submissions seeks stories of “how individual military-writing practitioners promote professional and/or popular discourse,” which is a theme after my own heart. Talk to me a little about where this theme came from?

A: When I was a member of the Iowa Army National Guard, I started military blog called called “Red Bull Rising.” I was preparing to deploy to Afghanistan, in what was later billed as the largest call-up of Iowa troops since World War II. While I didn’t work in public affairs, my duty position potentially involved blogging and social media. I wanted to learn by doing, so I started an off-duty blog under a pseudonym, based on a nickname: “Charlie Sherpa.”

In my early childhood, I grew up in an active-duty U.S. Air Force family. I remembered my mom and me recording messages to my dad, on these little reel-to-reel tapes. He was a navigator, then flying in and out of Vietnam. When I was in college, my dad was still flying as a reservist, and sent letters home while deployed to Operation Desert Shield.

My personal blog was originally intended to be my gift to my kids—like those tapes and letters from Dad had been to me. They were too young to understand why Daddy was leaving them to go to Afghanistan for a year, but I hoped they’d want to hear my stories when they got older.

In the meantime, I expected that my blog might entertain my citizen-soldier buddies. What I didn’t expect was that I’d get enthusiastic responses from wives, husbands, parents and relatives of soldiers, thanking me for explaining what was going on in our training—and in their loved ones’ interior lives.

I found myself writing not only for my kids, but for everyone. I was bridging the gap, before I knew there was one.

Q: So where does the Military Writers Guild anthology fit in? What sorts of stories you are hoping to receive?

A: Fast-forward to present day: Much to my surprise, I’m now longer just a magazine editor and writer. I’m an award-winning blogger, a military veteran, and even a published war poet. The greatest joy has been in finding a new tribe—finding people like you—who are also out there, telling military stories.

I’m not talking about “expressive” or “therapeutic” writing, although that can be a motivation for some. (I always joke that writing can be therapeutic, but it sure as heck ain’t therapy.) I’m talking about writing for literary merit—writing for the love of words, and great stories, and new ideas. Stuff that can change the world, or other people’s perceptions of it. If you’re lucky, you even get paid for it.

Through organizations like the Military Writers Guild, I’ve been fortunate to encounter other practitioners—novelists, essayists, historians, think-tankers, policy wonks, Sci-Fi writers—who ground their work in military themes, topics, and milieu. From poetry to policy papers to pulp fiction, we’re all doing similar work—sharing military stories and exploring possibilities for our society’s present and future—in wonderfully diverse ways. Broadly defined, military writing is a Big Tent—one that’s “General Purpose, Extra Large.”

And many of us are writing in more than one category.

In my Army days, I often found myself assigned to “lessons-learned” roles—documenting and sharing stories of organizational successes, and sometimes failures. The idea was that everyone has something to teach, based on his or her experiences.

So, in the Military Writers Guild’s “Why We Write” anthology, I’d hope to see stories of how and why writing professionals apply their skills, regardless of genre or objective, in capturing and communicating military stories. What inspires them? What storytelling techniques do they use? What great research finds have they discovered?

I expect we’ll be surprised. I expect we’ll hear from writers of military history and humor and doctrine and theory and practice and things we’ve even never heard of. It should be awesome!

Q: This is not your first project to solicit and spotlight the writing of other veterans. I’m currently reading my way through “Reporting for Duty,” a 668-page collection of military public affairs reporting from Afghanistan. How does that relate to the your work as a publisher, and to the Military Writers Guild anthology?

A: When my buddies got back from their 2010-2011 deployment to Afghanistan—I visited them briefly as an embedded civilian reporter, toward the end of their time there—we noticed that all the great public affairs reporting that the brigade had done was in danger of getting lost on the Internet. This was publicly released information—stories that had previously been published on division and brigade websites—but the public-facing websites were rotting away. Different units take over the mission downrange, websites change and disappear.

In short, we worried about a small-scale “Digital Dark Ages.”

As a former print-media guy, I suggested that one answer was an old-school trade paperback, one that could be a useful, permanent resource on the shelf of every family historian and county library. In many ways, the “Reporting for Duty” project was an exercise in preserving and promoting Midwestern history.

It was also an exercise in military history. For those interested, I wrote a lessons-learned article about it, which won an award from Small Wars Journal.

Middle West Press LLC has previously published two collections of military-themed poetry from Midwestern authors: My own “Welcome to FOB Haiku: War Poetry from Inside the Wire,” and Eric Chandler’s “Hugging This Rock: Poems of Earth & Sky, Love and War.” Those helped us validate our production processes, in a relatively low-risk context. In poetry, if you sell more than 100 copies of a book of poetry, you’re near the top percentile. If you sell a thousand, you’re a lyrical rock star.

The size of the “Reporting for Duty” project validated our capacities and capabilities in the production of larger work: Collecting, curating, editing, indexing. So, when the board of the Military Writers Guild wanted to illustrate the breadth of what “military writing” encompasses, we knew that we could deliver.

The great thing is, they’ve opened it to non-members as well! If you’re working and writing on military topics, themes, characters, stories—we’d love to hear from you!

We’re planning to launch the anthology parallel to the 30th anniversary celebration of the War, Literature & the Arts Journal. There’s a conference scheduled Sept. 20-21, 2018 in Colorado Springs, Colo. I hope to see a lot of my fellow military writers there!

Photo courtesy of Randy Brown.

Q: How does this project fit into Middle West Press’s overall publication schedule?

A: We’re planning to slowly grow production over the next couple of years. We’ll looking to publish another Midwestern poetry collection in 2018—not necessarily from another veteran, although I suppose that might make a nice progression or series. It would really be great to publish a collection from a woman veteran and/or person of color. There is a growing number of published collections from 21st century war poets, but few from non-white cishet perspectives. The military is like the American Middle West, and vice versa—our uniformity camouflages our true diversity. To paraphrase Walt Whitman: We contain multitudes.

We’re also looking at a themed war poetry anthology—announcement of that project should take place in January—and another, non-Midwestern, mostly non-fiction military anthology. I say “mostly,” because there may be a way to include flash-fiction and poetry. We’re still play-testing concepts for that one. Prospective contributors writers can stay tuned at Middle West Press website here: https://middlewestpress.submittable.com/submit

Q: Anything to add?

A: Thanks for the opportunity to talk with you and your readers! The call for submissions to the “Why We Write” Military Writers Guild anthology is here: https://middlewestpress.submittable.com/submit/99751/call-for-military-writing-essays-on-craft-why-we-write-anthology

And, remember: You don’t have to be a member to contribute to the anthology! More information on the Military Writers Guild is here:

Website: www.militarywritersguild.org

Facebook: www.facebook.com/milwritersguild/

Twitter: @MilWritersGuild

Hello? Hello? (tap tap) Is this thing on?

Okay, first of all, never tap the mic to see if it’s on. You will piss off the sound person and damage the equipment. Second, you know it’s been a long time since you blogged if the URL no longer autofills with your http address.

THIRD!! Writerpunk Press has revealed the cover for its next anthology, Merely This and Nothing More: Poe Goes Punk. In three … two … one …

Merely This Cover

Ta-DAH!! Isn’t it fabulous?

Among the stories will be included my story, The Case of the Lonesome Cigar Girl in the Sixpenny Temple, which is a steampunk riff on Poe’s story, The Mystery of Marie Rogêt. It will be out in May, so prime your Amazon one-click’s and get ready to purchase a copy. Also, it’s a charity anthology, so you will also be helping puppies and kittens. Really, buying a copy of this book is for the good of humanity. For real.

For those Poe fans out there, the Mystery of Marie Rogêt was the second, and least-well-received of his detective stories featuring Detective C. Auguste Dupin, the first being the Murders in the Rue Morgue and third being The Purloined Letter. It was based on the facts of a widely known case at the time, namely the murder of Mary Rogers, and Poe claimed that he would solve the case in his story (a claim that was mostly responsible for getting the story published and little else.) The entire story can be found in Daniel Stashower’s excellent nonfiction book The Beautiful Cigar Girl: Mary Rogers, Edgar Allen Poe, and the Invention of Murder, upon which I relied heavily while plotting my story.

When setting out to write a punk version of “Marie Rogêt,” I knew that I wanted to first, set the story in the world of my steampunk detective series. Second, I wanted to use the same device that Poe did, namely that the main detective character is confined to chambers, and solves the mystery through the information gleaned from the newspapers and other characters. In my world, this allowed the secondary characters a little time to shine, and showed that my main character could solve a mystery using her brains (and not simply luck or her fiddly little devices.)

(I may also have an ulterior motive in that someday, once reprint rights revert, I hope to publish a collection of these detective stories. But I have to write a few more for that to happen. To get a taste, my first story was published in eSteampunk Magazine, and the second has been accepted for an Emby Press anthology that has yet to go to print.)

And lastly, I wanted to highlight some of the issues that the stories of the time addressed, but not in a deconstructive way. Mary Rogers was, in some part, written off as a light-skirted female who, although no one came outright and said it, was seen as someone who invited unwanted, scandalous male attention that eventually resulted in her downfall. Without giving away the ending, it became important for my story that a female detective was on the case, bringing to it a perspective that understood without judgement, and concluded without condemnation.

If you like punk genres and Poe, this is the anthology for you. If you like punk genres, period, check out the first two Writerpunk anthologies. If you are a writer and would like to submit to future Punk anthologies (we’re currently working on an “English Class Goes Punk” project), come join us in the Writerpunk group on Facebook!

Until the next time, my friends!


A look at “Accessing the Future” …

About a week or so ago, I found myself at the Accessing the Future Indiegogo Campaign Web site, reading about this speculative fiction anthology, which aims to “explor[e] disability & the intersectionality of race, class, gender & sexuality.” The campaign, which has currently raised 73 percent of its $4,000 goal, not only will publish an anthology that addresses this topic, but also wants to do so in a way that will fairly compensate all the contributors to the project. Both of these aspects I can very much get behind.

As part of the campaign, the publishers arranged a blog hop, with a certain set of questions that create a lens for bloggers and writers to turn on their own current works. I’ll admit, this was a little uncomfortable for me. I write a lot of action and adventure, with characters who look an awful lot like my abled self. But in the spirit of self-examination, and getting the word out about the project, I decided to participate. The first part of the blog hop is an interview with Djibril al-Ayad and Kathryn Allan, the co-editors. I’m going to step aside and let them tell you about the project, but before I do, I encourage you to visit the site and contribute. Not only is it an excellent project, but they have some great contributor rewards as well! And now, without further ado…

Infamous Scribbler: Please introduce yourselves and explain your involvement with the project.

Djibril al-Ayad: I am the publisher of The Future Fire magazine of social-political speculative fiction and a series of associated anthologies under the umbrella of Futurefire.net Publishing. My background is as a scholar studying history and academic technologies, and although there’s no direct connection between working with speculative fiction and deciphering ancient magical texts, I do feel a parallel in concerns about how the world and its truths are reflected in our more fantastickal representations of it. I am running the Accessing the Future fundraiser, and will co-edit the stories in the anthology with Kathryn.

Kathryn Allan: I split my time between running Academic Editing Canada (my editing & coaching business), and pursuing independent scholarship in science fiction and disability studies. I edited an academic collection of essays, Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure (2013, Palgrave Macmillan), am the inaugural Le Guin Feminist Science Fiction Fellow, and my writing appears in both scholarly and popular venues. I’ve been wanting to edit a disability-themed SF anthology for many years, and after getting to know Djibril through my involvement with The Future Fire (as Reader and Associate Editor), I knew I found my ideal co-editor and publisher. I pitched the anthology idea to him at the start of the year, and here we are now!

accessing the future1

IS: How did the idea for this particular themed anthology come about?

DA: Both of the anthologies we’ve published over the last couple of years, We See a Different Frontier (postcolonial-themed stories) and Outlaw Bodies (for which Kathryn wrote a critical afterword) addressed a range of issues, including not only race, gender, sexuality and class, but also able-body privilege and disability. When Kathryn, who is a scholar of disability and science fiction, joined the TFF magazine editorial team, she immediately suggested that our next anthology should address this issue, and I jumped at the idea.

IS: On the crowdfunding page, you list several questions you hope stories will address. I would like to ask your personal perspectives on the last question—what do you think an accessible future looks like?

DA: The first thing it looks like is accepting. This is a social-SF question, rather than a techno-cyberpunk portrayal. By this I mean that an accessible future is one in which social attitudes strive to make more roles in society fully accessible (than one in which technology makes the “problem” of disability go away). As a result of these enlightened social attitudes, of course, technology might be deployed to make our world more accessible to people with a variety of abilities and needs.

KA: In my idealized vision of an accessible future, ALL people have equal access to employment opportunities, health care, community support, and whatever technological aides and devices they require to live as they want to live. An accessible future means respecting an individual’s right to present themselves as they desire—and for society to accept them as they are. This means we will need to do away with binary understandings of ability/disability, male/female, and so on. People exist on a spectrum of ability, gender, sexuality… I want the future to reflect that complex variety of experience and knowledge.

IS: Follow-Up—What might be our path from here to there?

DA: Same answer: accepting. We need to stop defining people with disabilities as less “normal” than able-bodied people; we need to stop measuring people’s worth by what we contribute to a capitalist society (we all have lives worth living in our own right!); we need to stop using economic austerity as an excuse to demonize and vilify people with disabilities as a drain on the system. I’m not saying SF will be the path to these changes, but we can certainly play our part by not contributing to the eugenicist, othering and fear-mongering instincts of popular scientists, entertainers and politicians in our society.

KA: What Djibril said. Plus, getting comfortable talking about disability, whether that involves visible physical disabilities or invisible mental health issues. It’s essential that people understand that we create disability as a society: our governments, medical institutions and social communities create barriers to access.

IS: To a spec fic fan (which I am) this seems like the perfect genre to engage this question. For those who might not be as familiar with spec fic, what elements of the genre in particular lend themselves to exploration of the theme?

DA: Well, on the one hand all fiction, regardless of genre, is the “literature of the imagination”; any fictional world is a consensual illusion filtered by the shared perceptual filters of the author and reader. And a lot of science fiction is more reactionary and establishment-reinforcing than “literary” novels. We can do beautiful things with speculative fiction; it’s a genre in which we’re allowed to dream, to show the world as it should be, to let story and metaphor blur into one another. But it doesn’t happen automatically, and we can’t afford to be cocky. (Just look at the criticisms of historical accuracy in fantasy faced by people who write women warriors and rulers and people of color in European history.)

But yes, ever since I started reading science fiction, I devoured stories like Le Guin’s Word for World is Forest and Left Hand of Darkness that were overtly political and gender bending; Moorcock’s bisexual assassin in the Jerry Cornelius series. I came across alien species with mores and behaviors very different from what we’re allowed to admit in ourselves. I visited utopian societies that eschewed nuclear families and binary genders. Safe in the realm of the unreal, I learned not to be afraid of people and communities that fell outside of the tyrannical norms we’re used to. I think that’s the magic that speculative fiction allows us to work with: not the unreal, but perhaps the unfamiliar.

KA: I’d also add that SF is an effective mirror of the society in which we live today. Because SF is set in the future (however far or near), writers can more easily criticize our politics and culture by imagining the potential consequences of our actions and attitudes today. SF acts as both an early warning system and as a test ground for new ideas.

accessing the future2

IS: Once the crowdfunding campaign is concluded on 16 September, what are the next steps?

DA: Immediately the fundraiser is over, once we know how much money we have raised and how much we can therefore afford to pay for fiction (we’re aiming for $7000 which will allow us to pay 6¢/word, the generally accepted “professional” rate), we will open the anthology to submissions of short fiction. We want to make sure the CFS is as visible as possible, in literary as well as genre circles, especially outside of the community we already know about, so we’ll be pushing outside of our comfort zones there. We expect to be reading stories for 2-3 months, and hope to have a final table of contents by the end of the year.

IS: Are there stories you don’t want to necessarily see submitted? If so, what are you not looking for?

DA: Oh, absolutely! We obviously don’t want to see stories in which a poor, pitiful person with disabilities is miraculously “cured” by some combination of magical future technology, the benevolence of a rich and powerful individual/corporation/government, or personal willpower and genius. We don’t want to see stories where disability is made “not to matter” by the mortification of the flesh through cyberspace or transhumanism. We don’t want to see stories about freaks or crippled veterans or socially inept neuroatypical people who exist only to draw pity, to entertain, or to be an “inspiration” to assumed able-bodied readers.

Actually, beyond the obvious, it’s pretty hard to pin down the line between a good story about people with disability and a bad one. What will make the difference is sensitivity, awareness (or experience) of the issues and conditions, and of course the instinct of deeply intersectional thinking: the understanding that injustices and marginalizations such as sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and ableism do not act in isolation, but in various combinations of exacerbation of one another. A story that handles disabilities issues and characters wonderfully, but in the process vilifies a specific culture or another marginalized social group, would not be welcome at all.

IS: Anything to add?

KA: We are also running a blog hop that anyone—writers and readers—can take part in. The goal is to get as many people engaging with the conversation about disability in SF as possible. Check out our home post here for details: http://djibrilalayad.blogspot.ca/2014/08/blog-hop-accessing-future-fiction.html

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IS Final note: Please head over to the campaign page and contribute before September 16! And if you can’t contribute, please click and share widely to spread the news. Thanks!