Kevin Jones: A lot of people join the military for a new life or to make a fresh start. Rudy, the main character in your story Last Battle Aboard the Old Pro, seems to be one of these people (even if he’s making a hash out of it). Why did you join the Navy? What were you looking for? Did you find it?
Jeffery Hess: My high school senior trip was a seven-day cruise to two ports in Mexico and Key West. I was seventeen years old in international waters on a cruise ship full of alcohol and high school seniors. It was a non-stop party. A couple buddies with me were already signed up for the Navy. I might have been thinking about the Navy before the cruise, but I enlisted just two months after graduation. It seemed to me that a job that took you places couldn’t be all bad.
On some level, I believe I also joined the Navy out of some noble call to defend my country and I’m very happy that that was the result. But the pressing motivation for enlisting was that I wasn’t ready for college and I didn’t want to spend all my time at a job at a point in my life when I didn’t know what else was out there in the world. That senior cruise gave me a taste and I wanted more.
Beyond the cliché of seeing the world through a porthole, though, the Navy offered honest, hard work, the potential to advance incrementally in rank, while serving my country and making my parents proud, all with the opportunity to see at least part of the world. I couldn’t pass that up. During my six-year enlistment, I saw a fair amount of the northern hemisphere. I worked hard and played hard and made a lot of great friends. It was as productive a gig as I could imagine between high school and college. So, yes. I’ve never really thought about it before, but I suppose I did find what I was looking for.
KJ: The Old Pro in the story is a relic in an otherwise high tech Navy (I was particularly taken with the comparison between the ship’s minimal defenses and the Soviet Union’s high powered naval forces). How does that fit into the narrative? Were you making a conscious decision by placing the events on a ship that’s basically waiting to be decomissioned?
JH: I served two years aboard the very ship named in the story. The USS Proteus. We called her The Old Pro because she was the oldest ship in the fleet — she had been present at the Japanese Surrender with six Japanese submarines moored on each side. When I arrived for duty in her homeport of Apra Harbor, Guam, forty years later, the ship was in dry dock. Various repairs were being made and a number of equipment upgrades were getting installed, but the ship was a weathered hulk built during the Roosevelt administration whose sole purpose was to serve as lactating sow for all her submarine pups.
The Proteus was a submarine tender with barely enough fire power to make a balloon burst by shooting into a clown’s mouth. At the time, I resented the thought that my ship was equipped with undersized weaponry. I felt trapped on the little island when we were in port and vulnerable to the enemy while we were at sea. Years later in civilian life, I realized that our weapons weren’t the guns aboard our ship, but rather the submarines that we tended were. Each sub that stopped by for refueling, restocking, or repairing was like a giant torpedo filled with missiles and more torpedoes. Collectively we were a powerful and important factor in the Cold War. (I spent the last three years of my enlistment aboard the newest ship in the fleet, a guided-missile cruiser, with all the latest and greatest firepower. My enlistment ended about a month after the Berlin wall came down.)
Of course, the crew didn’t know the Old Pro would be decommissioned a few years later. And I can’t say I set the story there for any greater reason than it’s loosely based on actual events and it all seemed to fit.
KJ: This feels to me like the first chapter (or certainly an early chapter) in a novel. Is it? Was it meant to be at one point? We read a lot about short stories growing into novels, but the reverse also happens (the novel that hits a dead end and becomes a short story or two). On a larger level, how do you deal with stories that end up in different forms than you’d hoped they’d be when you started?
JH: This story was written as a stand-alone story, but now that you bring it up, I’m amazed to consider the fact that this story is exactly the kind of backstory the protagonist would have in the novel I just completed, which grew out of a totally different short story. As for this story, I wouldn’t be surprised if it ended up the basis of a chapter or a large flashback in my next novel.
As for the forms stories take as they’re being written, I’d say that I’m pretty flexible. The story I’m working on now changed recently from being about an Ensign aboard a ship to being about his wife back in their homeport. All the hardcore Navy stuff I had from this guy’s point of view had to be scrapped in favor of this woman who doesn’t deal well with time alone. It’s a totally different story than the one I began writing, but the character was so real to me that she took over and demanded to be written about. I’m pleased with the direction it’s going, but I wouldn’t have discovered all this crazy stuff about her if I had forced myself to write about her Ensign husband out at sea. So, in a sense, the character directed the form, the focus, whatever. If it doesn’t work, I can always go back to the ship with her husband at sea.
KJ: Military-themed fiction runs the very real risk of turning into cliché, but yours avoids this entirely. How do you maintain the conventions of the genre while keeping the story fresh?
JH: I’m flattered that you consider my writing fresh. That’s a huge compliment. I hate to answer your question with self-deprecation, but I don’t know. I think I just try to tell a story as close to the way it would have happened. I’ve never deconstructed or analyzed one of my stories for this sense of freshness, but I think my characters tend to be put-upon, or somehow downtrodden and fighting against circumstances to get what they want, even when they don’t succeed. This is often set in the shadow of the Navy or prior Navy service because that was a formative time in my life and it’s vivid to me and fertile ground for such stories that entertain me and hopefully others as well.
KJ: Do you see yourself as a military writer or a writer who just happens to write characters and stories with military backgrounds? Are you concerned about being thought of as a military writer?
JH: I think this ties into your previous question, based on your compliment of my bringing a freshness to the stories. Most of my stories and even the novel I recently completed involve characters in or recently out of the Navy. There’s something unique about the confinement of ships out at sea and of the workshops on those ships. People of various ages from often very different backgrounds are thrown together and there’s no escape. You can’t call in sick on a ship. And you can’t quit. That can lead to all sorts of situations. And there are situations, decisions, and emotions to deal with after getting out, as well.
I don’t see myself with any kind of label though I’d be fine with someone considering me a military writer. I once described a story of mine as Navy Noir because of the dark characters and the elements of crime and violence. I’ve never seen that term anywhere, so perhaps that’s a new label. Who’s to say? Maybe I’m a crime writer. Many of my characters are also from Florida, so would that make me a Florida writer, too?
There’s a sense of expectation that comes from labels. Perhaps that’s a good way to keep writers on track. But when I’m banging away on my laptop, alone, at night, I’m not thinking of labels or expectations, I’m just writing variations of the stories I’d like to read.
KJ: You run a creative writing workshop for military veterans. How has that affected your work? What changes, if any, have you made in your writing process since forming this organization?
JH: I got the idea for the workshop while finishing my MFA program. The Navy was very good to me and we were in the middle of two wars. In an attempt to show my gratitude, I wanted to share my passion of writing and reading with others who have served.
In advance of the first workshop, a reporter from the Tampa Tribune interviewed me over the phone and one of her questions was, “Do you write about your own military experience?” The rest of the interview is a blur in my memory because I was so unprepared for that question. It seems stupid to me now that I wouldn’t have anticipated that question, but I didn’t and I had no ready answer. To that point, most of my writing contained main characters who had some past or even distant affiliation with the military, but I didn’t draw directly from my experiences in my writing, using the backdrop of my experiences aboard ship and in various ports. I’ve been making up for lost time ever since.
The workshop has affected my writing positively since we began in late 2007. We have a dedicated group of writers who inspire and challenge and entertain me. Being in that kind of creative environment and sharing comments on the work each week helps cement my writing knowledge and enables me to pursue new knowledge to share with the group. I’m constantly learning.