#AuthorInterview with Jacek Waliszewski, author of Midnight in Syria
Today, Feathered Quill reviewer Diane Lunsford is talking with Jacek Waliszewski, author of Midnight in Syria: The Special Forces Connection Series.
FQ: Thank you for making the time for a chat today. Let me start by saying your book is tight and has a fantastic storyline! I’d like to begin by asking a few questions about you. The quote you captured in the beginning by Langston Hughes "Hold fast to dreams. For if dreams die, life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly." This is quite eloquently stated and I’m curious, is there a dream that died somewhere along your journey and how did you overcome the situation and keep moving forward?
WALISZEWSKI: This quote isn't about me, rather, it's about the dreams of the people who were caught in Syria in the middle of an unwinnable situation. To imagine how many dreams and aspirations were dashed at no fault of their own is an overwhelmingly sad reality, and Hughes captures this melancholy in his quote.
FQ: I applaud your views when it comes to the ‘publication game.’ We authors have certainly persevered and defied the odds because of self-publishing. It truly does come down to how well one markets oneself. What do you gravitate toward in terms of what works/what doesn’t when it comes to promoting your work?
WALISZEWSKI: It's no easy feat, that's for sure. Even though I've been in a documentary that won 3 Emmys, was Oscar shortlisted, and more, and with my prior success with Air Boat and great initial success with Midnight in Syria due to its relevance with what's going on in the Middle East right now, it's simply hard to balance a good story with "getting it out there." Case in point, Avatar 2 was a $300m movie, and they spent $150m in advertising. So self marketing is a great way to be forced into staying humble. I celebrate each and every sale of any book because I know I'm connecting with someone else out there, and I really hope they tell their family and friends about the book as well. So much of what is accomplished is by word of mouth, and by reaching out to book lover circles like Feathered Quill. It's also very difficult to get into national bookstores and large scale distributors - they have their calculated priorities. So finding the whitespace to navigate in (there's not much) is the impossible riddle.
FQ: I say a heartfelt thank you for your 18+ years of service as a U.S. Army Special Forces Green Beret! Your ‘disclaimer’ at the end touched my heart when addressing the reality (or not) of the characters and situations in Midnight in Syria. What is your philosophy toward the notion that truth is such a difficult thing to expose (and, more importantly, receive)?
WALISZEWSKI: Ah, if this isn't the ever driving question any philosopher doesn't ask themselves at least once or twice a day. Maybe I can share a story: I remember when I came back home from Afghanistan in 2021 right when the entire country collapsed - so much so that even my watch was still set to Afghan time. I was about to eat my first steak dinner at a restaurant, and the server asked where I'd been. I mentioned I had just come back from Afghanistan and that the country collapsed, and he looked at me quizzically and asked "Wait, we're still in Afghanistan? I thought we left ten years ago." I shrugged my shoulders and finished giving him my order. The point being, is that truth is available for all, it's the person who has to want to receive it.
FQ: Diving into the story, I was immediately enamored with both Dakota’s and Owen’s respective characters. There is an intentional sincerity that resonates when you pen both of their strengths, i.e., Dakota knows how to take care of herself, and Owen is definitely a man’s man, but between the two, you manage to shine light on their softer side without getting milky. Were there real people behind the fictitious characters and if so, have either of them challenged you with this notion?
WALISZEWSKI: The short answer is yes, Owen and Dakota are very real people. They read Midnight in Syria and thanked me for writing their stories in such a respectful, vulnerable, and real perspective. More so, I've met, worked with, or trained more than three thousand people in my career thus far, and I can't explain how amazing some of these people are. You get to know them in all sorts of situations, and as a "studier of people," I find it fascinating to watch people transform, rise to the occasion, or collapse under the stress - and when they see themselves after the fact and have to reason with their new reality of themselves, it's another transformation all together. Having seen and experienced so much, in others as well as myself, I try to balance this with what the reader needs to know, wants to know, and should know about each character, without bogging down the story itself.
FQ: In the end of Midnight in Syria, your final words were riveting: "Visually depicted...If each word in this story were a human, it would take eight books to account for everyone who has died, thus far." (pg. 247) WOW! Sometimes I believe the writing process is taken over through somewhat of a divine intervention. Was this a divine moment (or intentional placement)?
WALISZEWSKI: This was a depiction of reality. It's impossible not to be wrapped up and distracted in our own lives, and it's impossible to quantify everyone who's been lost along the way. But if you could imagine that you, or everyone you know, is a 'word' in a sentence, and that is a city block that was just destroyed, and cities were ravaged for years, then it becomes unimaginable - and that's just one page in a book of 'words.' Then draw that out over a chapter, then the book, then multiply that book by eight - then the scale and scope of 'broken dreams' cannot be appreciated, it's simply unfathomable.
FQ: Last (sort of) political question. As an American, I embrace the freedoms I still have to do my own research in hopes of finding truth. I can’t help but think important matters in the past handful of years are glossed over (at best), our freedoms aren’t what they were even a decade ago. However, in my opinion, this is not limited to the United States. It is happening globally. How would you "talk someone off the ledge from ranting" and teach them how to make a difference through action?
WALISZEWSKI: Ghandi perhaps said it best, where you have to be the change you wish to see in others. My Dad, for example, helped start the Polish Solidarity Revolution in the 1980s because he raised his hand during a large meeting and said "This isn't right, we can do more." And I've managed to stop or alter the course of negative events by raising my hand and saying "Is this really the best option?" - sometimes it just takes a person calling out the obvious - other times it takes a person saying "enough's enough, I won't stand for this." But in such a complicated world, there is no 'one size fits all' recommendation.
FQ: You have some extremely descriptive passages in Chapter 9, ‘The Devil’s Land’ talking about the sand fields that go on for endless miles. Yet, in the next breath, you talk about: "...They are parked in the horseshoe of a dominant lava outcropping and are hidden from sight..." (pg. 198) Have you been there? If so, give me an example of the beauty that you were able to behold in the moment and the impact it made on you.
WALISZEWSKI: I can't tell you if I've been there 😉 But I can tell you that I've been to several parts of the Sahara, and it is hell, beauty, and destroys your ego all at the same time, and without even trying. It, the desert, doesn't know or care that you exist, it's only you who knows you exist, and how insignificant you really are - because as you're standing on the desert, with dunes reaching a hundred feet tall, it's like being on the ocean, since there's a mile of sand beneath you as well. Once you start to see it from that perspective, you start to appreciate the life that exists, and you discover a special connection with those who have reached a similar understanding.
FQ: I have never been in the service but am surrounded by loved ones who have served and work now with active-duty military and veterans. I am humbled often and believe there are many brave men and women who walk this journey of life and have wounds my naked eye will never see given their experience(s). If you were asked to deliver a message of hope and healing, what would that be?
WALISZEWSKI: The pain is real, as is the tumult and frustrations associated with it. Imagine a ball of yarn wrapped in barbed wire and duct tape - it's complicated to see that, but it's even worse to have that within you and trying to undo it - since each component has its place, they just don't need to be mashed together in your mind or soul. So to those that are in pain or frustration, it's not easy, but there can be healing if we give ourselves the grace to accept what's happened, and talk to someone who has the empathy to listen (not everyone is a good listener, and not ever resource is beneficial, but if you keep looking and asking for help, you'll find what you're looking for.) I know many in the veteran community who have found great success with Equine Therapy, and that is a community that is truly a beautiful place because the horses can't judge you, they simply want to be there with you.
FQ: It has been such a joy to talk with you today and I want to thank you again for making the time to do so. I hope you have an endless series of books in this series and continue the journey of Owen and Dakota. Are you working on your next book and if so, could you give us a tease?
WALISZEWSKI: Absolutely! of Icarus is book 3 in the series, it's based on the true story of me as a bartender in D.C., just before joining Special Forces. But in order not to get in trouble with real world authorities, I'm "fictionalizing" this book as well, and once you've read it, you'll know why.
Jack meets Owen at his bar just before he leaves on his deployment (Midnight in Syria). Jack's life falls to shambles shortly thereafter, just when he's met the love of his life, and he loses nearly everything after an illegal venture with his roomate, where they counterfeited over a hundred thousand dollars. Owen returns to the bar, angry and with a thick beard, and has brought with him Luke and Kyle (from Air Boat, Book 1). They take Jack under their wing for a night out with some Navy SEALS in Virginia Beach, during which Jack sees a side of humanity he's never heard of and wants to be tied into. After that, Owen lets him loose, not because they've lost faith in Jack, but because the men seem to have lost faith in humanity. Alone again, Jack is forced to make the ultimate decision, listen to advice he's been ignoring for so long, or continue hiding from the truth. The decision is his.