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On The Table Read Magazine, “the best book magazine in the UK“, Patrick Smithwick talks about the experiences that inspired him to write his book, War’s Over, Come Home, A Father’s Search for His Son, Two Tour Marine Veteran of the Iraq War.
Written by JJ Barnes
I interviewed Patrick Smithwick about his life and career, and the experiences that inspired him to write his new book, War’s Over, Come Home, A Father’s Search for His Son, Two Tour Marine Veteran of the Iraq War.
Tell me a bit about who you are.
I am Patrick Smithwick, the father of Andrew Smithwick, who fought in the Iraq War and is now a homeless survivalist with PTSD. I have just finished writing War’s Over, Come Home, A Father’s Search for His Son, Two Tour Marine Veteran of the Iraq War, which is being released May 16. This is my fourth memoir.
I never thought I’d be writing a book about searching for my homeless son.
As I hoisted Andrew up on his pony, as I buckled his ski bindings, as I zipped up his chaps, ran alongside him on his new bike. As I held his youthful, gangly, long-legged body in my lap, my hands over his compact boy-hands gripping the steering wheel of our old pickup truck. As we prepared for his first sparring session, practicing his karate moves over and over, until they were crisp, clean and fast. As I sprinted beside him up steep hills—“pump those arms, Andrew”—on his cross- country meets. As his entire family swelled with pride and happiness at his graduation from Marine boot camp at Parris Island, as we received his thoughtful, upbeat letters from battle-torn Iraq. . . .
Not for a moment did I imagine that one day I’d be pulling blankets off the faces of homeless men in Seattle, San Diego, Santa Fe, New York, Baltimore, Orlando, or tapping on their shoulders, and asking, “Is that you, Andrew?”
I’ve worked as a steeplechase jockey, exercise rider at racetracks, Chesapeake Bay waterman, bartender, high school English teacher, college professor, public relations director, newspaper reporter, magazine writer, and as handyman, groundskeeper, stall mucker, weed eater and field mower of this farm. All along I never thought I’d be funnelling my energies into writing about some of the most pressing, controversial, and relevant issues of our day: homeless vets, PTSD, drugs, the VA, HIPPA and the police.
Working on War’s Over was quite different from galloping a horse around Pimlico racetrack, shovelling fifty bushels of oysters off a skipjack, teaching a class on Hamlet, giving a reading on my Racing Hall of Fame father, banging out a newspaper story under deadline on a manual typewriter with the editor-in-chief pulling the sheets out as they rise to the top. None of the above activities encompass the reactions and emotions that my wife, son and daughter now experience, with no warning, on a daily basis:
Outbursts of sudden tears and having to excuse myself from a social gathering.
A reminder—a soldier in uniform at the airport, a man begging on the sidewalk, a tent pitched in a city park, men and women lined up at a soup kitchen—causing me to be engulfed in a claustrophobic, shrinking cinderblock cubicle of worry about the future.
Embarrassment, discomfort after someone makes a casually condescending or even demeaning remark about the homeless. Fight or flight? Wanting to wade in and strike on one hand, wanting to leave the scene on the other. Feeling like you’re walking around in an invisible cloak of loneliness, and for a split second, you are there with him, striding with him in his visible cloak of loneliness: you, the father, have become him, the son. Son/father are one.
Seeing the pain, the worry in your wife’s eyes, feeling it in your guts, as you drive past a tall homeless man with a beard pushing a bicycle loaded down with gear. You slow, check him out without telling her; she checks him out without telling you. No, it is not Andrew.
The ongoing, relentless daily worry: what does the future hold?
The ambiguity of the loss: We have lost him. Yet, we have not lost him. We know he is alive, pushing his bicycle and camping somewhere in the Southwest.
Uncertainty. A void. Emptiness. Why did this happen? Couldn’t I have done this, done that, to prevent it? Am I doing enough right now to find him, help him?
What to do?
Keep searching. Keep living. Keep loving. Keep writing
I’m the author of the award-winning Racing Trilogy, Racing My Father, Flying Change and Racing Time.
Racing My Father: Growing up with a Riding Legend (pub. 2006) is about growing up in the hell-bent-for-leather world of Thoroughbred racing as the son of Hall of Fame steeplechase jockey A. P. “Paddy” Smithwick and my deep love for my father.
Flying Change: A Year of Racing and Family and Steeplechasing (pub. 2012) focuses on my return to the life of a steeplechase jockey in my 50s. It follows the difficult road back from complacent middle-age to athletic fitness … the doubts, joys, and setbacks along the way.
Racing Time: A Memoir of Love, Loss and Liberation (pub. 2019) celebrates my life-long friendships with three men—each outspoken, authentic, and a lover of the out-of-doors. Racing Time delves into the psyche of men, taking the reader through the joy of shared youthful experiences, into the camaraderie of adulthood.
I’ve won awards for the writing of newspaper features, short stories, and magazine pieces. I hold a B.A. and an M.L.A. from Johns Hopkins University, an M.A. from Hollins College, and an EfM (Education for Ministry) from the University of the South. I met Ansley, my wife-to-be, at Hollins College. It was love at first sight; we’ve been together since that moment. We live on the farm where I was raised in Monkton, Maryland, and where I write every morning in the refurbished milking parlor in the barn.
My wife Ansley and I are the parents of three children: Paddy, Andrew and Eliza.
When did you first WANT to write a book?
I was a pre-teen, twelve or so, in the sixth grade. It was a late weekend afternoon in the summer. I’d just gotten my latest book in the mail from the Book of the Month Club. I have it in my hands now: John F. Kennedy and PT-109. It was a very unusual afternoon—I had had time to relax on my bed and read the first chapter or so. Life on our farm was always go-go-go. We had show ponies, show horses, racehorses. Vans driving in and out. I’d be called suddenly to get on a pony or horse, gallop around, jump some fences, show off the horse to a prospective buyer. But this day was different.
My grandmother had recently given me a “corner desk” that fit perfectly in the corner of my bedroom. I had one window on my left and one on my right, each wide open and an arm’s length away. I sat down at the desk. A fresh breeze was blowing through. I opened up a spiral notebook. I thought it would be a great idea to write a book. I had no preconceived notion of what I would write. I just liked those fresh, untrammeled, untraveled pages before me. I picked up a pencil, still with no plan of what to write, and started writing—as I looked out over my favorite place on earth, our ten-acre farm, my “Fern Hill,” one of my favorite poems by a favorite poet, Dylan Thomas, but which I had not yet read.
I looked out one window at the stream where I built dams, at the ponies and horses grazing in the big back field where all our schooling fences were set up. I looked out the other window at our big red bank barn, where the racehorses in training were stabled and up top the hundreds of bales of straw and hay were stacked—where my friends and I made elaborate forts and tunnels. I looked to the side of the barn, over the shed, at the room that was headquarters for the Coo-Coo Lilly Club, which I had started up that summer, complete with a full book of rules and regulations and signatures and detailed explanations of initiation rites. I’d been under the influence of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain, which I had read in my tree house, and had wanted it to never end. Actually, that book, The Coo-Coo Lilly Club Book of Rules—which I made of two pieces of plywood, with thick pages, and a binding of two strips of rubber nailed into the plywood—is my first physical “book.” I have it here on my desk.
When did you take a step to start writing?
I was a junior at Johns Hopkins University taking a creative writing course. I was working my way through college by galloping eight to ten racehorses a morning, 5:30 to 9:30, at Pimlico Racecourse, then speeding in my car to nearby Hopkins, attending classes, then speeding back to the farm to get on a few more horses. And I was riding steeplechase races on the weekends. One night I read the short story “My Old Man” by Ernest Hemingway about a young boy whose father is a steeplechase jockey and has to fight hard to lose weight and is riding races at a track near Paris. I finished the story and thought: if Ernest Hemingway can write this powerful story about a subject he doesn’t even know that well, I should certainly be able to write one too.
My father, a legendary steeplechase jockey, had been forced to retire from riding at the age of 39 due to a bad fall. Now, when I was a junior at Hopkins, he was fighting cancer. I got up very early the next morning and I wrote my first full short story about the day my father had his fall; I had been there. I wrote it for my father, to give to him, to show my love for him. I showed it to my creative writing class, revised it, then sent it to my father and to a magazine. The editor of the magazine called me immediately. Loved it and wanted to publish it. Pop loved it. It was the start of my career—and it, 20 years later, was the first chapter of my first book, Racing My Father.
How long did it take you to complete your first book from the first idea to release?
Racing My Father was my first book—about growing up with my father and my love for him. He died the year I graduated from Hopkins. I never knew as a student at Hopkins that my story, Doing Light, would become part of a book. I continued writing stories about my father and about my youthful life on the racetrack over a 20-year period, publishing some of them in magazines. I shuffled them together, like a deck of cards, moved them back and forth, wrote new stories, finally wrote a big book that went back and forth in time with alternating chapters.
I had decided at the age of forty-eight, with three children and a good career, to return to riding steeplechase races. This is what spurred me to write the book, being back in the tack. One chapter would be about my love for my father and racing from my point of view as a boy. The next would be on my life as a father, my love for my children, and my adventures and challenges returning to riding steeplechase races at mid-life.
Editors wanted to focus solely on my youth and growing up with my father. At first, I was dejected! But then I expanded and fleshed out this material and it became Racing My Father.
I took the second half, expanded and fleshed it out, and it became Flying Change.
It all worked out for the best.
How long did it take you to complete your latest book from the first idea to release?
The earliest written chapter is the second—beginning on January 23, 2017, three days after Trump’s inauguration. My son Andrew, since returning from Iraq and leaving the Marines, had been going steadily downhill for a couple of years and we hadn’t known where he was. Andrew’s uncle, Graham, spotted him in Orlando and sent us a photo of Andrew in a park.
Ansley and I flew down immediately We searched for three days—every homeless shelter, every corner, every street of Orlando. We learned he had a job working construction and had been living in a homeless shelter.
On the last day, as we were on our way to the airport, we spotted him by a lake. We approached him, tried to open up a conversation. He started walking back to his work site. I followed, talking to him all the way.
When we returned home to Maryland, while it was still fresh, still hot, while I remembered every conversation with a homeless person, every visit to a shelter, ever nick and scar on Andrew’s face, I wrote it up. After that, I started writing, letting it rip, fast, no looking back, no editing, leaving it raw—that’s all I had time for—during and after our searches to cities all over.
I had a stenographer’s pad filled with quick notes as I used to take as a newspaper reporter: who to call, who said they’d seen Andrew, what policeman was helpful, names and places and events and memories and feelings, recorded fast, barely legible, as events unfolded.
I had legal pads on which I wrote longer sections during our searches—while flying, up early at breakfast, driving in the car. I had all this emotion. This ripping, exploding emotion wanting to come out, to express itself. I wanted to cry, to scream, sometimes—to hit something. I wanted to hug and kiss and squeeze my wife. I wanted to hug and love my son Paddy and daughter Eliza—and I did not want them to be going through all this. Most of all—I wanted Andrew back, safe and clean and well fed. For him to have a bed to sleep in, a sink where he could wash his face and brush his teeth. For him to have friends and relatives to talk to.
On the flights home I’d write on a legal pad what I’d seen, experienced, felt. Then, at home, in the early mornings, before I drove to school to teach English and Medieval History, I’d get all my maps, business cards, stenographer’s pads, legal pads, receipts from meals and hotels, spread everything around me: dive in, total immersion, and write a fast-paced record of what happened, without having the slightest idea of what I would do with it all.
Gradually, the notebooks of journal entries, thoughts, hallucinations, dreams, and my channelling of Andrew, imagining where he was, what he was doing, became typed pages in a spiral notebook, 300, 400, 500 pages—and I saw that a book was developing.
January of 2017 – January of 2023 – Six years I worked on this book.
Focusing on your latest release. What made you want to write War’s Over, Come Home?
War’s Over, Come Home is in many ways a continuation of my Racing Trilogy—perhaps turning the books into my Quartet. Racing My Father is from the son’s point of view and is about his love for his father. War’s Over flips that. It is from the point of view of the father, now in his sixties, and his love for his son.
Flying Change—Andrew as a boy appears often in Flying Change in scenes that celebrate wonderful times we had and also in scenes that show the beginnings of struggles Andrew would have in later years.
Racing Time—early in the book Andrew is in the background, fighting in Iraq. Later in the book, I hint at difficulties Andrew is having with PTSD and the beginnings of our searching for him. War’s Over picks up where this leaves off.
Primarily, I wrote War’s Over:
- To make people aware of the plight of the almost 33,000 homeless veterans in the United States, many with PTSD, and of their parents, siblings, friends.
- To draw attention to the lives and living conditions of the 582,000 homeless people in this country.
- To proclaim, to call out, to display the love of my wife Ansley, son Paddy, daughter Eliza, and I—for Andrew. To invite him home.
What were your biggest challenges with writing War’s Over, Come Home?
There were stages. First, and by far the most difficult part was living it: getting a phone call, a Facebook posting, flying out to a strange city, getting up early in the morning, searching the sidewalks and alleyways, pulling blankets and the hoods of mummy bags back, wondering, worrying, over and over if that was going to be Andrew, and yet—also hoping it was Andrew. There was this dichotomy all along—as we approached figures lying on the sidewalk in Seattle, up in the canyon of San Diego, under the bridge and alongside the Rio Grande in Albuquerque.
And the one time—I was at the airport staring at a tall, gaunt man in dusty clothes, carrying a bedroll, his eyes dilated. I was five feet away. Wasn’t that an older man? Was that Andrew? Could that be my son? “Andrew? Andrew, is that you Andrew?” I asked with trepidation.
And then, the reliving it while writing it, experiencing it all again. And when editing, reliving it again and again.
The one benefit of this: in contrast to many, who had deep feelings of missing Andrew, I was with him, day after day. And I was constantly bleeding myself out, as if a prescribed medieval bleeding. I was sticking that needle in a vein and suctioning out the blood. I was purging myself; it was a catharsis.
The last challenge: once the manuscript was at the publishers, they decided it had to be cut to half of its original length. I had written this as my Ulysses—opening up all the stops, employing verse, often using long Joycean or Faulknerian sentences: this was my portrait, not of Dublin, but of a country gone awry. It had many allusions to the Bible in the original—beginning with the title Absalom, My Son, My Son, Absalom! for what was originally the first chapter, and this was all stripped away. I used animals throughout—the hawk who flies up and down the stream outside my writing room, wolves, vultures, as “objective correlatives,” as T.S. Elliot called them. Not metaphors—just something that correlated with Andrew.
I watched as whole chapters that I’d refined and polished, sweated and cried over, were deleted. This was very difficult. But my editors did a superb job—streamlining the book so you could see the bones, quickening the pace of the book.
What was your research process for War’s Over, Come Home?
My main research was “boots on the ground”—hiking through splintered pieces of America that have broken off from the bright primary-colored jigsaw puzzle of the “United” States we grew up fitting together so neatly in first grade, a jigsaw puzzle now consisting of battered, isolated, hidden fragments that are impoverished, malnourished, destitute, drug-ridden, crime-encrusted, and have no laws besides survival of the fittest. I talked to hundreds of homeless men and women, many of them veterans; they were extremely helpful. I heard stories from hundreds of people I met whose families were going through similar experiences with sons, daughters, grandchildren.
I also read about and researched PTSD, studied different treatments: Cognitive Behavior Therapy through In Vivo Therapy; the newer RTM—Reconsolidation of Traumatic Memories, which I learned about through Montel Williams, host of the podcast Free Thinking; EMDR—Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy; yoga. Recently, I have become very interested in EAT—Equine Assisted Treatment for PTSD— through my association with the Man O’War Project conducted by scientists at Columbia University.
I studied in depth over three hundred pages of Process Reports from the VA focused on a four-week period Andrew spent at a treatment center. I read Bessel Van Der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score, Pauline Boss’s Loss, Trauma and Resilience, Phil Klay’s, book of short stories about Marines and the Iraq War, entitled redeployment, and Nathaniel Fink’s One Bullet Away, The Making of a Marine Officer. I met and listened to the mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters of veterans with PTSD.
How did you plan the structure of War’s Over, Come Home?
The first draft was 400 plus pages. I divided it into three sections, Parts. Each Part began with a tough chapter that didn’t show much hope, but then ended with a positive, more hopeful chapter. Each Part was parallel in many ways to the other. I created a 16 by 24 inch schemata of the book, using colors to denote reoccurring themes, motifs, and I drew all kinds of arrows and lines zipping across the sheet, showing connections.
The editors insisted on streamlining the book. As we did so, the pace of the narrative quickened, we took out the two divisions between the three parts, and we changed the chapter headings to be more focused on place.
Also, early on, for most of the life of the manuscript, I started the book right off—smacked the reader directly onto the sidewalk in Orlando looking for Andrew and being immersed in the life of the homeless. I liked it that way.
Then, one of my best reader-advisors, Harriet, mentioned that the letter I’d written her could be used as a preface, which, she gently pointed out, I needed. So, I added the preface.
Then, an agent whom I’d written, trying unsuccessfully to secure her services, told me that—to make this reader accessible for “the modern reader” (Who is this “modern reader”! I got tired of hearing about him/her!) I couldn’t just start off Chapter I this way, dropping the reader into the action. I bridled against this. I fought it. I finally gave in and added a chapter, the first chapter, which I now like.
Did you get support with editing, and how much editing did War’s Over, Come Home need?
By the time my publishing company, TidePool Press, saw their first manuscript, I had given the book to a dozen different readers, at different stages of its development, and received very helpful feedback. It was over 400 double-spaced typed pages. My editors were adamant that it be honed down to 250 pages. This was painful!
I watched as whole chapters that I’d refined and polished, sweated and cried over, were deleted. This was very difficult. But my editors did a superb job—streamlining the book so you could see the bones, quickening the pace of the book.
They took out:
- Many channelings—where I put myself inside Andrew, and hiked, and slept, and was stared at, and was hungry, and had paranoid schizophrenic thoughts, weird thoughts about my brother and sister and parents …..
- Fun times with Andrew – I could put together a book of these, the positive: skiing, riding, skating, hiking, camping, running cross country, partying – all with Andrew, and the way he mesmerized women! I had some scenes I really like where I showed women just melting in his presence, in his quiet, gentle, soft spoken, mellifluous presence.
- Many details and scenes dealing with the homeless in Seattle, San Diego, Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Orlando—the horror and disbelief of witnessing how they live.
- Humor—oh! I had this one scene I just love of Andrew hopping and laughing after he’d teased me for not being Mr. Tough when I’d been zapped by our dog’s new underground “electric fence,” and then—he’d tested it out, was zapped, and hooped and hollered and jumped up and down worse than I had. That whole chapter was taken out. And another, gentle chapter, of my love for Andrew as a small boy, of lying in bed, my arm around him, falling asleep during a snow storm. So hard to see those chapters jettisoned! I hope to somehow publish them in the future.
- I had an extremely emotional chapter set at the height of Covid where I show that I am going a bit bonkers—and that, I am glad, we took out.
What is the first piece of writing advice you would give to anyone inspired to write a book?
Most of us have a job and it is hard to find the right time and place to write.
Set up a place to write. A desk, a table, whatever. A computer and a chair. Have that place ready to go so that you can get up at 5:30, pour a cup of coffee, sit down and drop yourself immediately into your book. Or, at night, you can turn off your phone, sit at the desk. No bills, no notes about calling the plumber allowed at this table.
And the computer! It is a bit of a problem. If you write on a computer—you can turn on just the writing program, go directly to your book, and don’t have emails and messages beeping and bopping all over the screen. Too distracting. Disconnect from the internet. Perhaps have your cell off. Focus. Immerse yourself. Write your book. Either work on it a certain amount of time each day, or write a certain number of pages. Leave off at a place where you can return the next day, and pick up the flow of the narrative. You can accomplish a good amount of writing, if you do this each day for 45 minutes or an hour. And then, you keep the book in the back of your mind as you go about your day; the solutions to problems come to you; ideas come to you. On the weekends, you can write for longer periods and pull it all together.
That all sounds so complex! To sum it up, we all remember what Hemingway said: Leave off at a place where you can pick it right up the next morning. More personally, one night as a graduate student at Hollins College, I was washing some dishes alongside Annie Dillard, who had just won the Pulitzer for Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Music was playing; she’d been dancing. We finished the dishes and she set a bowl of soap suds and a sponge by the sink. “It’s like writing,” she said. “This way you’ll start right in, get the dish washed, as soon as you put it in the sink. You’re ready to go.” I envision that scene quite often.
Can you give me a hint about any further books you’re planning to write?
I have a dozen folders filled with notes and writings, partially written short stories, ideas for books, memories, memoir ideas, new and different topics, and I have many sections of War’s Over which I’d like to see the light of day. So—I’ll have to sit down one day, and focus on one project, one book, one sentence. All you need is that one sentence.
And, finally, are your proud of your accomplishment? Was it worth the effort?
Yes, I am proud of War’s Over. I am proud of my entire family flying to cities all over America, hitting the pavement, stepping around heroin needles, awakening figures sleeping in the shadows, looking, searching for our son, our brother, our nephew.
I am proud of taking on this topic—our son, a homeless survivalist with PTSD, and continuing to work on the story when it was so painful, when writing it was, as the great Red Smith said about writing his sports column, like drawing blood.
I am proud of taking this huge risk, spending thousands of hours, years of my life—taking the leap, continuing when I couldn’t find an agent to take me on, I couldn’t find a publisher.
I am proud of right now pushing and spurring myself to promote and publicize this book, my family’s story, Andrew’s story, and the story of thousands of American veterans out on the streets of America when some might think this is crazy, a waste of time, the odds are against me, I don’t have a big publisher, only a very few books ever really make it; it is just too big of a gamble.
I am proud of taking the gamble, getting on this horse and riding the race—going for it: all for my son Andrew Coston Smithwick.
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