In a tiny house off of South Sixth Street, writing at a desk in a converted laundry room between a washer and a dryer, Odie Lindsey spent hour after hour trying to figure out sentences.
“I’m a slow learner, but doggedly determined,” says the author of “We Come to Our Senses,” a book of 15 tough yet immaculately crafted short stories. “It was here I realized that editing would be 95 percent of the work. I was coming to love that process for what that process was.”
At some point, though, he could see movement. Characters, often combat veterans like himself, braided themselves slowly into scenes of postwar haze.
“Lindsey has captured perfectly the lives of the damaged and the fractured,” writes Paul Yoon, author of “Once the Shore,” a set of praised short stories, about “We Come to Our Senses.” “Of those seeking solace, running away, at war, coming home. These are raw, beautiful stories — a book we will dream about, and one that will haunt us and keep us going.”
Lindsey, who grew up in the San Antonio area and who has returned periodically to Austin, did not write about his wartime experiences when he returned from Desert Storm in the early 1990s.
“Fellow soldiers didn’t speak about it,” he says. “We didn’t know how to think about this war that was deemed an absolute success. But we knew something happened.”
In 2003, as another president deployed another set of 19-year-olds to fight in the same part of the world, Lindsey was overwhelmed with emotion.
“I was making lists of things I remembered, that my friends remembered,” he says. “Anything tangential about the culture of war or war-making. I made a fact-finding audit of my memories. It was a really depressing state of mind.”
At one point, he ran across an image of Shoshana Johnson, the first African-American female prisoner of war. That pivotal moment led Lindsey to the recurring topic of female veterans.
“I knew because of her gender she wasn’t going to earn a combat patch or honors that would go to a male soldier,” he recalls. “I had served with women. I had a combat patch. They had seen the same missiles, but they wouldn’t receive that kind of attention.”
A broken pathway
Lindsey, 45, teaches literature and creative practice to pre-med and science majors at Vanderbilt University’s Center for Medicine, Health and Society in Nashville. He was born in Lexington, Ky., and his father, who worked for Maytag, came from an Alabama family, as did his mother.
“I’m the fourth Odie,” he says with a laugh. “My grandfather at one point went by O.A. When I told my father I was going to have a daughter, he said: ‘Odie is a strange name for a girl, but she’ll get used to it.’”
Lindsey admits to having been a fairly horrible high school student, smitten with music, always ready to head up to Austin for punk shows. He joined the Army Reserves in 1989 at age 17, with the help of his dad’s signature. That got him into the University of Tennessee.
Fairly soon, however, he was mobilized as part of a combat engineering group with the 82nd Airborne, then deployed to the northernmost border between Saudi Arabia and Iraq for 11 months.
“We came in after the air war,” he says. “Our duty was to lay the road that would serve for the ground invasion of Iraq. We were watching things in the periphery blowing up. It was a short actual campaign, followed by many months more of waiting to see if there would be more engagement. Most service people chew up a lot of time waiting.”
That sensation of marking time plays a big role in Lindsey’s stories of postwar life.
Back in the States, Lindsey pursued music and writing, stretching his skills on short stories and a screenplay at one point. He worked in the Nashville music industry and, after grad school in Chicago, starting tutoring as well as teaching around the country. From 2008 to 2012, he served as an adjunct professor at Austin Community College while polishing the “We Come to Our Senses” stories.
Why the subject of veterans after war?
“I didn’t want to tell the kind of boots-on-the-ground combat stories,” he says. “And I was trying to focus on nontraditional soldiers, also, the culture of war and the longevity of trauma or vulnerability. By this time, I was 12 years removed from an experience that I didn’t know how to process. And I had been in a relatively docile area of engagement, which made me wonder what’s going to happen to these 19-year-olds now at war.”
He admits that the stories are pretty bleak.
“Part of the process for me was to try to put combat into your living room or at your family reunion,” he says. “One percent of Americans have an immediate family member deployed in combat, so a goal was to throw war back into the domestic space of the 99 percent that don’t.”
Readers took notice. One of his stories, published in the Iowa Review, was chosen for the Best American Short Stories anthology. After that, a literary agent contacted Lindsey to ask whether he had a novel as well. He was already working on a draft. W.W. Norton & Company wanted to publish the stories as well as the novel.
“I’m in a cage match, a death match with the novel now,” he says. “I will win!”
The novel’s protagonist, Colleen, appears in the short stories, which were published in July.
“I wanted to see who she became five, six years later,” Lindsey says. “It’s about five people living in the postwar South, though in this case ‘postwar’ ties an Iraq veteran to a civil-rights-era battle. I wanted to come at the idea from different viewpoints.”
Although he doesn’t consider himself a public advocate, he has spoken with veterans and with family members who are veterans about his stories. He also appeared at the Texas Book Festival with another veteran, Maximilian Uriarte, who wrote “The White Donkey: Terminal Lance,” which deals with war and PTSD.
What do other veterans think about his take on the military?
“They are happy to be on the radar,” he says. “My work is not applicable to all experiences. But everyone has been pretty fantastic about these really dark stories.”