25 March 2013

Interview with Major General John Cantwell (ret'd), author of Exit Wounds

After reading Exit Wounds, by Major General John Cantwell and giving it 5 stars in my review, I feel very honoured to interview him here on Carpe Librum!
Author, John Cantwell with his book Exit Wounds

Good Afternoon John and thanks for joining us.  When I attended your event at The Shrine of Remembrance in October last year, you mentioned one of your goals was to get the message about PTSD out into the community.  You also wanted people to know that many people can suffer from PTSD: policemen, bushfire victims, paramedics etc.  Do you feel you have achieved this through the writing of Exit Wounds?
The response to Exit Wounds has been extraordinary. Hardly a day goes by when I do not receive a letter or email (sometimes half a dozen or more) thanking me for speaking out on PTSD. When I talk publically or attend a book signing, many people tell me their own stories about PTSD, either as someone who has wrestled with it or known someone who has. A consistent message has been that people feel my book has "given them permission" to tell their own story. The most gratifying response is when I hear that people who have been struggling with PTSD in silence or secrecy feel encouraged to get the help they deserve. It's a good feeling.  

What advice would you give a person supporting a loved one suffering from PTSD?
PTSD can invoke some difficult emotional issues, such as loss of interest in life, anger, anxiety or mood swings. This can be very hard on others in the relationship. Sleeping problems, chronic tiredness or alcohol can add to the mix. The most important thing is to encourage the PTSD sufferer to seek help. There is nothing shameful about having PTSD; indeed, it is a perfectly normal response to abnormal events. Counselling and medication can do wonders to help restore some equilibrium in the life of someone with PTSD. Early intervention is very important on the road to recovery.

How has writing Exit Wounds changed you?
Writing the book was sometimes difficult, in the sense of forcing myself to confront long-buried painful memories. Announcing to the world that I had PTSD wasn't easy either, because I am essentially a fairly private person. But it was important to me to speak out and help others, and the results of doing so have more than made up for the discomfort of laying my soul bare on the issue of PTSD. The writing process and especially the many talks I have given have also helped to take some of the sting out of issues that have troubled me in the past, so it has been a somewhat cathartic process.

Major General John Cantwell
How has Exit Wounds been received by senior members of the Australian Defence Force?
My book and related efforts to raise awareness of PTSD have been strongly supported by the ADF senior leaders. The Chief of the Defence Force, General David Hurley, attended the launch and has used my example in his own talks about the importance of getting help for PTSD. There seems to be a much more open approach to the issue of PTSD in the Defence Force since my book was published, which is great. There is still some way to go but I'm confident that the senior leaders 'get it' and are trying to make the PTSD response and support framework better. 

Which part of the book did you write last?
I wrote the Epilogue last, although I'd had it in my head for a while. I tended to write in the sequence of events that happened. I found I could construct paragraphs and chapters in my head, tossing around the words to get it right. Once I started on a chapter I could generally get it down fairly quickly. There was a bit of polishing and editing but this diminished as I found my voice. My writing partner Greg Bearup mostly helped with the polishing process. I spent a little extra time refining the Prologue, once the rest of the book was finished. 

During the First Gulf War, you shared some horrific moments with two men Steve and Pete, and later they didn't respond to your attempts to make contact.  As a reader, I found this quite sad and upsetting, wondering at their reasons.  Have you heard from them since the release of your book?
Unfortunately I haven't heard from Steve and Pete since the Iraq war in 1991. The letters I sent though the British military system soon after the war came back unanswered, so I suspect the boys left the army shortly after getting home, as so many soldiers did back then. I hope that one day word of my book will reach them and they'll recognise themselves in the story, and get in touch. (I really hope so too John).

Some of the Americans I mentioned in the book, from both Iraq wars, have discovered the book and made contact with me, which is wonderful. Best of all, many of the Australian diggers I described in the section of Exit Wounds covering Afghanistan have become firm friends, especially the wounded and parents of the fallen soldiers.

What do you enjoy reading and can you share some of your favourite books/authors?
The Yellow Birds
by Kevin Powers
In the past I read a lot of military history but I don't find the same allure there that I once found. That said, I recently enjoyed Chris Masters' excellent Uncommon Soldier which is a great account of what makes Australian soldiers special. I occasionally read broader history works, such as 1776 which is David McCullough's account of the dramatic years leading up to American Independence. These days I tend to read fiction more often. Many years ago I read Lord of the Rings at my wife Jane's insistence and loved it; I must have read it half a dozen times over the years. I often re-read books I like. I sometimes dabble in science fiction, and especially enjoy Iain M. Banks works in that genre. I recently finished The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers, which is a powerful fictional story of the recent war in Iraq. Kevin is also a poet and the lyrical character of his work is quite special. I met Kevin at a writers festival recently and was struck by his humility and thoughtfulness. Right now I'm almost finished reading Among Others by Jo Walton, which is a delightful story of a young Welsh girl who sees fairies - sounds odd, but its terrific.

Do you or your wife Jane have a favourite bookshop?
We live in the Sunshine Coast hinterland and the little village near our home only has a very modest bookshop, sadly. I love any book store. I particularly love bookshops that encourage browsing and coffee. Lately I often listen to audiobooks, which takes away the wonderful experience of buying a book and holding it in one's hands, but which is another great way to enjoy the skills of a writer (and narrator) while doing something else, like mowing the lawn. At least that way I get some enjoyment from the process!  (Really? *laughs* I can't imagine listening to an audio book while mowing the lawn, that's a new one!)

What's next?  What do you have planned for 2013?
I've got a couple of projects in the early stages of planning.  I think there is room for an account of the Australian experience in Afghanistan, through the eyes of a small group of soldiers. The idea is to follow the true story of soldiers in one particular period of the war, probably 2010, when the fighting was especially fierce. I also plan to walk the Kokoda Track next year, over Anzac Day, along with a number of wounded and emotionally damaged soldiers, plus the parents of some fallen soldiers. That would also make a good story, perhaps a long-form magazine article. Looking further forward, I'd like to try my hand at fiction. I recently entered a piece in a short story competition and found that I really enjoyed the idea of creating a character then making them walk, talk and feel. 

What would you like to tell your readers?
I'd like to sincerely thank those who bought my book and especially those who contacted me to say that it had touched them in a special way. That's a very satisfying response, especially for a first-time writer. And of course, they should recommend my book to their friends!

Anything else you'd like to add?
I really appreciate the opportunity to be part of the Carpe Librum blog!  Thanks John!  And good luck for the Kokoda Track next year, it will be a huge physical and emotional undertaking and achievement for all.

Carpe Librum!

Would you like to comment?

  1. What a wonderful interview! I just finished reading "Exit Wounds" and I was completely dumbstruck and in tears. Even thinking about it now still makes me weep. I'm really looking forward to reading his next book (be it fiction or non-fiction).

  2. Thanks for your comment Ruth, I'm so glad you enjoyed 'Exit Wounds' and my interview with Major General John Cantwell (retired).

    It's a book that really sticks with you isn't it?

  3. Oh of course! I couldn't stop crying for days (I'm still crying). This extraordinary book has changed my life in so many ways that words could never do it justice. Anyway, I enjoyed the interview with Major General Cantwell, which must have been quite a treat for you! BTW, if you'd like to check out my review for the book, here's the link



Thanks for your comment, Carpe Librum!