Dragons in Literature and War: Part Two of an Interview with Troy Carrol Bucher

Mar 2020
10-minute read

Our research has led us to a variety of wonderful stories and their writers--including LTC Troy Carrol Bucher, author of Lies of Descent and several short stories, and editor of Razor’s Edge, a military fantasy anthology.

Bucher recently visited El Paso Community College (November 2019) to continue the lively conversation he’d begun in ourrecent blog interview .  Chatting with students and veterans, he brought them a deeper understanding of why literature and writing are critical to being successful in their own lives--no matter what their career paths.

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LTC Troy Carrol Bucher our Mellon Foundation Guest

I.          Story and Reflections in Real Life

Troy, your novel Lies of Descent is filled with complicated roles--we are confronted with the “good and the bad” on “both sides” of the conflicts. Can you give us a bit of background on how you came up with the “not clear cut” heroes and villains? Is that from the literature you’ve read through the years and/or your personal military experience? Would you say your character development reflects the military conflicts you’ve been in? 

Nothing is ever black and white. If you find yourself arguing for one end of the spectrum, you’re probably the one who is wrong. I also think fantasy is getting darker. Maybe it’s a reflection of the political climate. Maybe it’s because people are more acutely aware that there isn’t always a happy ending. Maybe it’s a British influence on American fantasy. Maybe we’ve all traded in the romantic side of sword and sorcery for a dose of realism. Look at the popularity of Game of Thrones—war, greed and sharpened steel do not make for happy endings where everyone comes away unharmed. In truth I expected my writing to be a little darker than it came out, but I found that while there are dark spots, there is hope for something better . . . for fixing what is broken. Just don’t expect the characters to come away unscathed and dance down the yellow brick roadand don’t expect good people to never do bad things and vice versa.

Why did you write your novel in the fantasy genre? 

Because fantasy and science fiction have always been my first loves. I grew up in a rural area of Arizona, so the few kids around lived a fair bit away from each other. There was, however, never a time when there wasn’t a stack of books in the house. My mother is an avid reader and devoured all the greats of science fiction and fantasy: Bradley, Donaldson, Saberhagen, Cherryh, McCaffery, and so many others. I picked up Tolkien in the fourth grade and never stopped reading. My library at home has well over two thousand books in it. Mom’s in her 70s now, and she puts me to shame. I can’t keep up with her. She goes through two or three books a week. It also didn’t hurt that I grew up next to an aspiring renaissance fair blacksmith who was into martial arts and read the same books.

Another important reason is that writing fantasy or science fiction allows the freedom to create the world I want, and no one can argue that I have it wrong. Joe Haldeman, a giant in science fiction and a Vietnam Veteran, once told me that if you went to war with 99 other people, they would come back with 99 different stories that didn’t match yours. Writing in science fiction or fantasy allows the expression of the themes, events and feelings without the other 99 standing up and saying, “That wasn’t my war,” or, “That’s not how it happened.”

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Fonrt cover artwork of Anne McCaffrey’s book DragonFlight

How do your writings reflect real life war?
This ties into the last answer. There are plenty of incidents in Iraq that find their way into my writing, but you will never know that this is where they come from. You have to take the same feelings, the fears and the joys, the same heartbreaks and pain, and transform them into events in the story. Readers may never know that this is where they come from, but there will be an authenticity to the voice of the writing that is unmistakable.

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Major Dan McCarrey and LTC Troy C. Bucher at the USO in Bagram, Afghanistan.

II.        Dragons and What They Mean

What are your some of your favorite dragons and the stories they are in?
Favorite dragons. Well, the memories start with Smaug in The Hobbit [by J.R.R. Tolkien]. Melanie Rawn wrote a six-book series that does a fantastic job of creating a plausible world where the dragons are not quite the enemy we think they are. Robin Hobb does a great job of creating a whole world wrapped around the lifecycle of a dragon, from seaworm to a cocoon to hatching versus the notion of eggs that is popular. And, of course, no list of dragons in writing would be complete without the works of Anne McCaffery, which are in some ways more science fiction than fantasy.

In what way would you say these dragons represent war and what are their roles in the wars? 

To me, dragons represent one thing when it comes to warfare: the end of the age of chivalry and the beginning of modern, industrialized warfare. For Tolkien, you have a life not unlike Hemingway’s. They were both born in the 1890s and experienced the end of any sort of romance with warfare after the senseless carnage that was WWI. Tolkien served in the Battle of Somme where over one million men were wounded or killed, and, of course, Hemingway served with the American Red Cross. Death in WWI was random, gruesome, and unstoppable, a vast machine that chewed up soldiers. Look at the fire and death that Smaug rains down on the village of Dale and Lake-town. It is senseless and unstoppable.

What is the impact on soldiers and common folks--how are they affected by the dragon’s presence in the war?

Going with the previous interpretation, it would be the struggle with futility and the sense that death is random or inevitable. Which then leads to the questions that can drive a person insane, why was it him or her and not me? What could I, or what should I, have done differently to prevent a death or injury around me? Survivor’s guilt can be crushing, the senselessness and the inability to know “why” can be difficult to overcome, and the absence of meaning and tangible results can destroy the spirit. 

Which incident in your life has had a significant impact, perhaps even changed the way you think today?

Probably the war in Iraq. I was a captain, and my unit was assigned to patrol an area in southern Baghdad in early 2005. It was right about the time the roadside bombs (improvised explosive devices, or IEDs) were becoming a serious problem. It was up-close and personal, and I lost several good soldiers. It made me realize the true costs of war. It also made me realized that we are trapped assessing other cultures through the lens of our own society. As long as we are stuck in this frame of reference, we will never truly understand each other.

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Troy in Iraq.  He has served 30+ years in the U.S. Army.

III.       The Writing Journey Continues

What else is occurring in your writing life? What other writing ideas might you be working on?
I have another series on the back burner. I pull it out every now and then to keep it simmering. It’s a bit different than Lies of Descent. For one, the protagonist is a 62-year-old woman, and it’s set in a very different world that is far less focused on the nature of gods or good and evil.

 You went to graduate school at Seton Hill University. What are some of the most important things you learned when attending the University’s
 Writing Popular Fiction program?  How has your idea of writing changed over the course of your writing since those years?
I know it is cliché, but writing is a journey, and no two people have the same journey or write the same way. You have to keep trying new things until you find what works for you. Once you get this right, your true voice will come out in your words.

Who would you say are your mentors in your writing career?
Every single author I’ve read. Thousands of wonderful science fiction and fantasy books. I have a bit over two thousand in my library, and I’ve read them all—the better ones two or three times. There are hundreds more that I don’t have any more because I’ve lost them or given them out. That’s one thing that amazed me when I was completing my Master of Fine Arts in Writing Popular Fiction, the fact that many aspiring writers are not well read in their chosen genre. Besides the pure enjoyment of diving into other worlds, of getting to know so many great characters, books are the greatest teacher. I mean, forget the writing guides and the “how to” books and use that money to buy more fiction. There are a million success stories only an online click or a bookstore away. Notice a pattern here?

Go forth and read, read, read, if you want to be a good writer.

IV.       Reflections from the Audience

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Troy Carrol Bucher, R. Danielle McGill, & Andrew Younkin

Troy helped us with our research, and he also visited with students and local community members--giving talks about creating fantasy and its connection to military life, and his own writing journey. A few of the attendees share what they found most interesting about this writer’s life.

Jennifer Baeza:
The author "Meet and Greet" was my first-ever experience doing something of that sort. . . . Hearing about how Troy was a soldier while writing his novel was nice. When I think of writing a novel, I think of a person sitting in the corner of a room looking out daydreaming, not a person out in the field fighting for their country. . . . It’s pretty nice to see the other side of a novelist because all we see is the green grass and flowers and not the struggles. This gives me motivation to continue chasing my own dreams.

Keiry Aguilar: The most interesting thing I got from him is that everyone is always scared of other people reading their work. I thought he would feel very comfortable, but just like all of us there is that fear that others won’t like our work. . . . It’s also ironic how he used to hate English classes and how he now feels the need to read and write.

Pedro Mendoza: Troy talked about how he must keep his military mindset apart from his writing mindset, even though he does use some military references in his own writing. . . . When I write, I can use parts of my life to influence me, but I can always find inspiration in other things. Also, it helps to read other people’s work to make you a better writer. . . . Troy said good writers are good revisers, and that’s what I strive to be.

Hailey Jaramillo: Troy’s presentation taught me a lot. I never knew about writing as a career. I’ve only ever heard about the success of writers, but never the struggle, anxiety, and rejection that comes along with it. . . . The life of an author, I realized, is an unfair one. It’s the equivalent of baby turtles squirming to reach the ocean, hoping to not get pulverized by seagulls. Just like the turtles, very few writers "make it."

Susana Mancinas: Troy is the first author I have ever met. It was especially interesting to meet him because his book was very good, and we could ask him a lot of questions. It was interesting to hear how he comes up with the characters in his books by everyday interaction with other humans.

Amanda Luna:  I find it interesting how Troy comes up with his characters in his writings. It can be anyone he meets, even if it was his first time meeting them. He sees the small details in that person, whether it be facial features, the shape of the person’s body, their height or their age. Just by getting three or four details he adds on more to the character, little by little, and with his imagination he creates what he wants the character to become.

Denise Montoya: I thought it was incredible how Troy creates such a deep connection to his characters, just like we do, that he even teared up himself knowing he had to kill someone out of his book. I found it hilarious and so genuine how he mentioned bawling his eyes out at Starbucks.

Leslie Rosales: What I learned from Troy’s visit is that writer’s block happens to anyone. . . . That is one of the biggest problems I have. . . . Understanding that it happens to the best of writers will help me not to get frustrated. No only that, but it will help me to be more patient with myself.  

Issa C. Olivas: When he started talking, I realized Troy is great fun and quite funny. . . . I used to think that if you were a writer, the only thing you thought about was writing. Apparently, writers “have the cleanest houses” because they don’t always want to sit and write.

Grecia Morales: Thanks to this presentation I learned to never give up, always follow my dreams despite obstacles, and that success takes hard work.

We wish to thank Troy Carrol Bucher for joining us, and we hope he’ll be back in El Paso to visit us again, very soon. You can learn more about Troy and his work at his website.

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Front cover arywork of Troy Bucher's novel Lies of Descent

If you have ideas about dragons or have any favorite dragon stories, we would love to hear from you. Please post them on Twitter at @mchinesly

Written by R. Danielle McGill, Faculty Fellow; and Andrew Younkin, Undergraduate Research Fellow
El Paso Community College, The Humanities Collaborative at EPCC-UTEP

Banner image credit: British Library Board

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