Fierce new book, ‘Surrender,’ is the perfect collection of USMC stories

Ruddy Cano Avatar
surrender author o'hare

The Marine Corps, to the uninitiated, would seem like the last place to find inclusion and diversity. The culture of our beloved Corps is often misunderstood from the outside looking in. But the reality is, Marines will set aside their differences to accomplish the mission. Surrender is the only book I’ve read in recent memory that made me think differently about the Corps. Not in the stiff, inspection-ready way or deployments kind of way. The collection of short stories felt like vivid memories through the eyes of another.

For the first time in a long time, I thought about my brothers and the quiet moments between the rush and crush. A military slice of life, the raw moments that turn Marines from strangers to brothers. It’s the type of book that when you put it down there is a somber feeling, not because anything is particularly sad, but because it’s over. It’s fiction but it feels so authentic, real even. Surrender is one of those books that earns its spot on the shelf so you can revisit it, time and time again.

Brian O’Hare is the winner of Syracuse University Press’ 2021 Veterans Writing Award. His military career started at the Naval Academy and he served as a U.S. Marine Corps Officer, Logistics/Supply Officer, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment. He has written and produced over 20 films with more on the way. His work has appeared in War, Literature and the Arts; Santa Fe Writers Project; Hobart; and other journals, and he has been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes. He was named a Writing Fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and recently served as Visiting Writer at CUNY/Kingsborough, Brooklyn.

Syracuse University Press

WATM: The characters in your book seemed so real. I especially enjoyed the authentic banter in the short story Casino and what one Marine says to the other at the end. It felt like something a Marine would say to an officer in that situation; how did you go about that?

I’m glad you responded well to Casino. I think you and I can relate to that ’cause we’ve all been in that hole, or whatever [situation] it is with a bunch of our fellow Marines. You just have a moment, you know what I mean? It’s more of a tone thing than anything. It’s the relationship we all have with these guys who you know probably better than people in your own family because you spend so much time with them.

WATM: You have said this book is dedicated to the U.S. military, specifically to the Marines—your Marines—whom you call the most diverse ‘tribe’ in the history of humanity. Tell us about this and how it has changed the way you view the world – specifically how this diversity/acceptance/inclusion has impacted the United States and by extension, the world.

That’s the kind of thing that I loved about the Marine Corps. The thing that I love the best was that it really took me out of the bubble that I grew up in. A guy from this little class suburb of Pittsburgh, very white, and it put me in this other world and met these other people that are the best people on the planet. I got to know them so intimately and still to this day have a relationship. I just had an Instagram friend of mine from the Marine Corps, he’s something like a long haul trucker. He just messaged me and said, ‘Hey I’m in downtown L.A., are you around?’ You know, that’s an amazing gift I think, to be able to have this kind relationship. So, that’s kind of what that story is about mostly. It’s just these people who in society might not hang out together because of whatever their race and their class and their family background or geography but here they are in this hole! They all kind of get something about each other and understand and love something about each other that is pretty deep.

WATM: What inspired you to write this book?

That’s a good question. I think I just got some bad career advice like back when I was 18 or something, ha! Somebody should have said, ‘Hey, what do you see yourself doing it in your 50s?’ I would have been like, ‘Oh, yeah, I see myself as a writer and filmmaker but instead I got the advice to like, ‘Oh you should go to this amazing engineering school called The Naval Academy.’ Of course my father was a Marine pilot: 307 missions, shot down, just like like somebody out of a comic book or a movie or something — this larger than life guy. Sadly, he died from Agent Orange exposure in 1998 at age 56. So, I’ve officially outlived my father at this point. So, of course I was gonna go into the Marine Corps because, well, I wasn’t gonna go into the Navy.

I always knew that I want to do something with my people, the people who I met in the Marine Corps, and so probably one day about seven years ago I just sat down and started writing. Originally, I started writing as a backstory for an idea for a novel that I had. I wrote short stories. I figured that if I couldn’t write a 15-page short story and make it good like, then I couldn’t make a 300-page novel. So that’s sort of like a practical kind of side to it. Otherwise I’m too stubborn. Memories that are in my head or things that struck me and in order to understand it better, I just I felt like I had to get it out to try to make sense of these experiences that I had. These people I’ve met. So there’s kind of a quality of exorcism about it, that I needed to get this stuff out of me or else, you know, like my brain would would not be a very peaceful place. I give my perspective on what it’s like to be alive and in my body you know in 2022 or 1991 or whatever. So that was the inspiration.

Brian O’Hare.

WATM: What advice would you give to, let’s say the active duty Lance Corporal or Corporal, who’s about to get out and is interested in pursuing a similar career?

Well, now that’s a great question! Something that I wish I had done more of when I was in the Marines would be to keep a notebook or something like that. I do that now. There’s something someone will say a certain way or you meet a certain kind of person or you see somebody like on the bus or on the street or something, and think, what’s the story? Now I write that stuff down. I documented — almost like a journal I guess but I don’t like journal, sounds kind of pretentious. I just write shit down. So, I would say to be more conscious of that, to start to practice that, because it’s like a muscle in your head. It’s like doing pushups and stuff like that but for your imagination and you know after a while you’ll have all this great material for stories.

Whether it’s a screenplay, a film, short stories, books, poetry, whatever — you’re gonna have this! I have this theory that there are two kinds of writers: there are architects which is somebody who’s like, ‘I’m gonna go build the Empire State Building’ and then they sit down and with words they build the Empire State Building. Then there are the gardeners. I’m a gardener. It’s where you collect seeds, basically memories, [for example] ‘so I met this guy, he spelled his name with two D’s, that was crazy.’ Well, there’s a story there. What was his mom thinking at the time and so that’s a seed that I planted, but then it’s something else… ‘What if he and I worked in Okinawa?’ Expand on that seed, like, ‘yeah he got into a fight.’ Then you sort of cultivate that, water the seeds that grow, to see what it yields. You kind of snip off a little bit and you let it grow. You know after a while of cultivation it’s like oh, wow, it’s a palm tree!

You know I thought it was gonna be a rose bush or a stalk of corn or something and it’s it just comes up like this. So, definitely a gardener. I would say again for these young Marines or whomever; it’s the collecting of seeds and it’s so practical. Then you need to read. Yeah, I think the secret for anybody to learn how to write you have to read, constantly, challenge yourself. Which fortunately from the Marine Corps background, you know with the Commandant’s reading list and stuff it’s already kind of there. It’s interesting because the Marine Corps is like a marriage of violence and scholarship. It’s a kind of an interesting combination but despite the whole crayon-eater sort of stereotype of Marines, we’re very serious about what we do. The Commandant’s reading list reflects that.

The Marine Corps museum in Quantico is terrific. It’s just a terrific museum. It’s not just a terrific Marine Corps museum, the history division of the Marine Corps is great! So, read and then write. Write, even if it sucks, read, write, be patient and never quit. It’s a lifelong thing but I think Marines are really well suited to that. We’re used to getting punched in the face, metaphorically or physically. We’re particularly well-suited for rejection ’cause we don’t give up.

WATM: Absolutely, I agree. I believe that I would also be subscribed to the Gardener one as well.

I think for a long time I was gonna jealous of architects [types] and it made me feel like maybe I was kind of BS, because I would say, ‘Why can’t I do that?’ I wanna build the Empire State Building or whatever and it sort of seemed like I was just kind of jerking around, playing almost. I think you have to accept the way your creative process works. It’s just as valid and it allows I think for a lot of discovery too.

Discovery is a huge part of this thing. I like surprising myself, like, ‘Oh wow, didn’t see that coming in a million years.’ Another thing that we are as Marines in particular are good at is we can lead, we can follow. We are equally comfortable doing whatever somebody emerges and it’s like, ‘Look here’s the plan.’ We can go, ‘Yep. Totally makes sense. Just tell me what I can do. Yeah, OK, got it.’ Taking the initiative, which we’re great at, and again, something that serves us well in what you and I do and what some young Lance Corporal maybe wants to do in this world. I just I love hiring guys that were in the military in general. Of course I love hiring Marines in particular because again because of this initiative thing. It’s really hierarchical, making a film. I mean we get that. We understand that. If I’m a PA and we run out of, for example, beef jerky, I’m not gonna go tell the producer. That’s jumping the chain of command and I’m gonna get killed and, well, I deserved it. So, yeah I think making films and stuff is really well suited to people from our background because it’s mission oriented, it’s all logistics, it’s collaborative, morale needs to be maintained. Anyway, we’re really well suited to this life.

As far as guys who are thinking about being writers, screenwriters, in the Marine Corps, in the military in general, there’s so many amazing examples of classic literature of men and women that came from the military. They are amazing writers. The guy that was the judge of the veterans writing award, which I’m aligned, is Phil Klay. A Marine officer and a National Book Award winner. He’s an incredible writer and we have so many great examples to, that we can turn to, to inspire us or to guide us or to help us continue to push on. This is the literature that can stand with anybody in the world, ever written. [To] the people in the Marine Corps, or the military in general: just ****ing go for it, you know. We’re suited to it. That’s what I got to say about that!

WATM: Absolutely! So what is what is next for you?

I’m a writer and a filmmaker. I just recently produced a Farsi language film called Rizoo about a girl in Tehran who is deciding whether to wear the hijab for a class picture or not. That’s one of those crazy things that you know all of us have no control over timing and we started shooting this back in February and my producing partner Azadeh Navai is from Tehran. She’s been in L.A. for a bunch of years now and she just came up with this story. Now all sudden it’s like it’s one of the big stories in the world. So, timing is something we have no control over but again if we take the risk, take the initiative. We’re doers and do the ideas that we have, sometimes timing works out for you. If you don’t take the shot and do the thing, well then you’re like ‘oh shit, man I should have done that thing about hijab’ because all this stuff is going on. We’re doing that, it’s a terrific film.

I have a feature documentary almost ready to come out called Cannon Shot about the world’s largest croquet match between the U.S. Naval Academy, where I went to school, against their across the street neighbors St. John’s College. When I say it’s across the street, I mean it’s right across the street. Like you could throw a beer bottle from the yard at the Naval Academy and hit Johnny in the head on the other side of the street. St. John’s college is the third oldest school in America; Harvard, William and Mary, St. John. Saint John is like 1696 I believe. It’s got like 400 students, Naval academy’s got 4,000, there is no interaction between these two schools 364 days out of the year. Oddly enough, but one Saturday in April, 10,000 people show up for a f***ing croquet match between these two schools!

On the surface you know these the schools look like philosophical opposites on the spectrum. Obviously you would think stereotypically the Naval Academy, arguably the world’s premier Military Academy, is on the far right-stereotypically. Saint Johns College, their curriculum is based on the Great Books Program, there are no grades, there are no exams. They don’t have professors, they have tutors, because the books are the real teachers. These guys are on the far left, opposite ends of the spectrum. It’s a way of looking at the red and blue divide in America. Through the lens of this seemingly silly lawn game. There’s a lot of humor in this thing because you can’t be a serious croquet player and not be a bit of a character. [I’m] doing that and I’m working on a novel after this book of short stories (Surrender). And then it’s on to the next thing.