It’s worth mentioning that the idea for the story came from another historical period. Last year, at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, I found myself watching a video about An-My Lê’s photographic series Small Wars, which had been exhibited there back in 2008. These explored the mock battles staged by Vietnam War reenactors in the forests of Virginia. It was clear from the photos that some of the men were too young to have ever served in the war. I was struck by the way that Lê treated them with gentleness and respect, while at the same time posing questions about the psychological need fulfilled by participating in these events.
Munday: Teddy, the main character in the story, is a refugee from World War II; he’s also a Civil War reenactor. Is there something specific to the Civil War that spoke to him?
Mason: Teddy chooses the Civil War, I think, precisely because of the profound Americanness of it. At least on the surface, the Civil War was a domestic conflict, the arch-American war. It made sense to me that someone grappling with belonging would be drawn to it. At the same time, it is such a complex field for patriotic sentiment; as we see today, its wound remains a very raw one. It would have been a less complex decision for Teddy to have been drawn to reenacting the [American] War of Independence. On some level, I think he knows this, knows that the history he wishes to claim for his own is fraught and painful.
Munday: “For the Union Dead” is narrated by Teddy’s nephew, who travels with his father (Teddy’s brother) to sort through Teddy’s possessions after his death. The narrator’s perspective often gives way to his father’s own stories of Teddy, which themselves contain the stories of others. Why use this technique of nested narratives?
Mason: I tried different voices for a while, before the first lines came to me and the rest of the narrative followed. I can conjecture why this voice worked for me while others didn’t. On a certain level, it is a story about a person who experiences life at a distance. The “wars” that Teddy fights in are not real wars, but—to use your term—nested narratives in his life. It is quite a lovely word for this story, actually, “nested”: not only in the sense of something “placed within,” but in the sense of making a home.
Munday: Teddy’s inner life remains elusive to readers, and also, to a large degree, to his family. The narrative acknowledges the futility of truly knowing someone as well as the need to try. Do you think fiction, as a form, can bring us close to intersubjectivity?
Mason: I hope so? Just as I hope it can bring us closer to knowing oneself, too. At the beginning of this story, Teddy is presented as somewhat of a reduced person, of interest to his nephew mostly for his television set. It is only as the narrative continues that his complexity begins to reveal itself. And yet, in the end, I feel that the narrator is left with the sense that Teddy is ultimately beyond his reach. In the same way, I think, the narrator doesn’t know himself. He begins by downplaying any relationship with his uncle, but as we learn more, we increasingly see moments of love shared between them.