The Bookshelf: Portsmouth Veteran Details Iraq War Experience in 'Tower 13'

Nov 12, 2015

The Bookshelf is NHPR's series on authors and books with ties to the Granite State. All Things Considered features authors, covers literary events and publishing trends, and gets recommendations from each guest on what books listeners might want to add to their own bookshelves. 

If you have an author or book you think we should profile on The Bookshelf, send us an email. The address is books@nhpr.org.

All this week on NHPR, we’ve been exploring veteran’s lives and the issues they face here in New Hampshire. So this week, The Bookshelf features Portsmouth author Nathan Ritzo, a veteran who has written about the experience of war.

In his novel Tower 13, army veteran Ritzo merges stories he experienced firsthand while serving in Iraq with those he heard from his fellow soldiers.  Take a listen to Ritzo's conversation with All Things Considered host Peter Biello, or scroll down to read the Q&A below his book picks.

1.   Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville. "It's usually standard reading for most college students in a political science class (which is where I first encountered it) and yet I am fascinated by this book. Every time I read it, I get something new out of it and it is as though I am reading a new piece by de Tocqueville. He had an amazing insight to our unique American society, culture and government that is extremely entertaining and still relevant to our nation today, even though it was written when this country was very young."

2.   Losing Bin Laden by Richard Miniter. "A conspiracy theory this is not. This book is the result of over a year's worth of reporting from the hotbeds of the war on terror and is the handiwork of an extremely talented investigative journalist. He offers some very cogent facts that relate to how complicated Washington bureaucracy may have prevented his capture in the 1990's, leading to the evolution of al Qaeda, 9/11 and the Global War on Terror. We don't have to deal with bin Laden any longer, but it is still a compelling read for anyone interested in contemporary American history relating to the ongoing War on Terror."

3.   Shrouds of Darkness by Brock Deskins. "This guy is an old Army buddy of mine who self-publishes and posts his stuff on Amazon. He's built up a very impressive cult following and the reason why is because his stories are really good! Yes, it's self-publishing, but you will get a professional, copy-edited read and more action than you ever expected. In this one, a vampire in NYC has to earn a living as a body guard, detective and 'hired muscle' when he is fired as an enforcer from his vampire enclave. Leo, the main character, is hired to find a certain werewolf, and when he does all hell breaks loose. Don't pass it by, give this a read! It's good 'apocalyptic fantasy' fun, and is a departure from the contemporary vampire stories."

4.   Groucho and Me by Groucho Marx. "Groucho Marx was a very funny man, of course. When the cameras weren't rolling he was all business, and this book is an amazing self-portrait of the man, his drive and his life story. Growing up poor on the Upper East Side, the Marx brothers had nerves of steel which carried them through the shady world of Vaudeville and the Great Depression to amazing success and work that is still admired and adored today. This book is the 'behind the scenes' account of that success and an inspiration to all who read it."

5.   The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon by Stephen King. "Any true Red Sox fan, or even just a passive one, will enjoy this thriller. A nine-year-old girl who is a huge fan of Red Sox closer Tom Gordon is trapped in a dysfunctional family and is on a hiking trip through the Appalachian Trail with said family. She gets separated from them and is chased through the wilderness by a demon disguised as a bear. When it looks like it may be over for the little girl she remembers the spirit of her hero and gets another chance as a result. I think it's one of King's best works."

Thank you very much for being here, Nathan.

Thank you, Peter. Appreciate it.

And welcome home.

Thank you very much. I’ve been here for seven years now, but I still appreciate it.

From what I hear while reporting on veterans, I've learned it’s almost never too late to say welcome home, because the memory of being overseas deployed almost never fades.

Oh no, never. Never. It’s always going to be with you. It’s always going to be a part of you.

So, let’s talk about Tower 13 and about Matthew Duffy, your protagonist. How did you go about forming this protagonist?

Well, he’s partially based on me, you might have picked that up. But, he’s also, sort of borrowed from other people I knew, other NCOs. And he’s kind of indicative of how the story’s going to go, because the story itself is partially based on my experiences, but also other people’s experiences, as well. And other stories I heard. Sort of an amalgam of experiences for both Sgt. Duffy and the plot of the story, as well.

Sgt. Duffy is 27 at the start of the novel, correct?

Yeah.

And the novel takes place on July 1st, 2004.

Yes.

Tell us why you chose to set the novel on that day.

That was the day of Saddam Hussein’s arraignment, which was the first time that the world saw Saddam after he’d been pulled out of the septic tank in 2003. It was November of 2003. And they cleaned him up and brought him into the courthouse for the arraignment and the cameras were rolling, and he got up there and said, “I am still the president of Iraq, I am still the king.” You might remember the incident, it was on TV, everyone saw it. And it happened at Camp Victory, where I was stationed.

And because it was televised and because he made such a spectacle of himself, it turned Camp Victory and this place Tower 13 into kind of a target. And that became a lot of the action of the book. Of course, in the beginning of the book there’s a huge explosion, some Iraqis are killed, Americans are thrown in disarray, and that sort of propels the narrative forward, that this one day became almost a microcosm of the stuff that was happening in 2004 in Iraq.

Yes, yes, very much so. The incidents that happened in this book, they’re all compressed into one night, but I was able to take the incident of Saddam Hussein’s arraignment and include everything that happens in the plot of this book as sort of a greatest hits package for that deployment. I took the most notable things that happened to me, my friends, stories I heard, and rolled them all into one night.

Now, if all that had really happened in one night, that soldier would have gone home and become a resident of the 13th floor, as we would have said.

Meaning he would have been mentally…

Yeah.

I won’t give away exactly what happened necessarily on that day, and since you’ve mentioned that this character is at least some parts of you, I wanted to ask you about one thing this character said, and he’s talking about not wanting to carry around pictures of his daughters, because he had this superstition that his daughters could see everything he did. You have a couple of daughters, I don’t know if this is inspired by your feelings about your children.

Partially. When I was deployed, I wanted to keep them isolated from the event, only because when I was doing a mission like the characters in this book are doing, to see their faces would have softened my heart. And a soft heart on a mission like that will get you killed. So, I wouldn’t bring pictures of them with me on missions like the guys engaged in this mission are on.

So, now that this book is out, they have a chance to read it, they have a sense of, not necessarily to the letter what happened - it’s fiction after all - but they get the spirit of what’s happening. Do you talk to your daughters at all about what happened in war?

No.

Why’s that?

It’s not because I won’t, I’m just going to let them ask me.

And how do you feel about that day, when and if it comes? Are you dreading it? Are you looking forward to it?

I don’t think it would be a bad thing, but if it never happens I’m not going to fret. One thing I will say about them is, for little kids, they went through a lot with daddy being gone a couple of times, like most military kids go through. It’s not easy, and I’m sure part of them doesn’t want to think about it again either. Even though they were quite young when it happened, I’m sure they still don’t want to remember it.

And they’re just happy now that you’re here.

[Laugh]

Maybe not.

Most of the time. We’ll see.

So I wanted to ask you about whether or not this was therapeutic for you. Or maybe another word is better to describe the process of writing this, because, after all, you revisit in your mind all of these places where potentially traumatic things happened.

Yes, very much so. In fact, I’ve found that that was the benefit of doing this.

The benefit of writing the book.

I get to exorcize these demons, and a lot more at peace with things that happened on that rotation. And I, well, let me be flat out honest. My post war years have not been easy. I have a pretty strong rating for PTSD. I do have a diagnosed traumatic brain injury. It’s been hard to find work in general. Obviously you know the economy since 2008 when I got back from the second rotation. There has been quite a few obstacles to climb and I remember saying to my father one day: How do I make this better? And then I said to him, I said, you know, if I can find a way to take all these negative experiences that I have, all these bad things that happened to me, and if I can turn them into something that’s beneficial for me, then they will have been worth it. And I think I did that with this book. I think I pulled that off.