The Man Behind ‘The Long Walk’: An Interview with Author Brian Castner

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During a family dinner at home in Buffalo, Brian Castner (Pittsburgh Opera Resident Artist Ben Taylor, right) has a flashback to an episode in Iraq.

In 2012, The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life That Follows was released. The war memoir, and story of his experiences at home after his return, was written by former bomb technician and now best-selling author Brian Castner. He recently spoke with LOCAL to discuss the Pittsburgh Opera production of the story, and to tell us more about his experience creating the book and the ‘rollercoaster’ since.

On writing the book:
“When I wrote a book, I was not thinking about an opera. I was not thinking about anything, I was naive, I was a new writer. I had been in the military…and always wanted to write. But I figured writing a book would be something I would do ‘someday’, like climb Mt Everest or something. It seemed like an impossible thing. But I got to a point where I was having this experience – in the book I call it the ‘crazy feeling’ – and I needed to explain to myself what was going on and this would have been 2009, 2010, and we’ve come a long way in an awareness of things like PTS. There are still a lot of stigmas. I got this fear of being the ‘crazy Vietnam veteran’…I looked around for a book that would explain to me what was going on, and I couldn’t, so I wrote it… There was a huge response.”

On first hearing about the opera:
“One of the ups and downs of the rollercoaster ride was getting this call, just a couple months after publication, of ‘Hey they want to make an opera of your book.’ It was out of the blue, but everything was out of the blue, everything was brand new. I didn’t even know what the right questions were to ask. When they say they want to make an opera, they send you a treatment…I could see really quickly that they took it seriously. Even if I didn’t know much about opera, I could tell that the story would be in good hands and I trusted them very very quickly.”

On the story’s new significance:
“The last year [2017] has been so unprecedented. It’s a new lens that’s going to apply to everything. I never know what I’m going to see through that new lens until I put it up to my eye and look…We have such a divide in our country between the military community and average citizens…It is like we have these two separate cultures… The opera serves as a bridge. Whether they cross that bridge in 2012 in Saratoga or in Pittsburgh, they walk across that bridge for the first time.”

Jeff (Thomas Shivone) and Ricky (Pittsburgh Opera Resident Artist Eric Ferring) help Castleman (Martin Bakari) put on a bomb suit so he can make the Long Walk to disarm an IED in Iraq

On the title:
“…Bomb technicians have been calling walking the bomb suit down to the bomb by yourself ‘the long walk’, basically since we’ve had bomb suits. That’s a phrase with a lot of meaning. But of course, it’s the long walk home from the war, it’s the long walk to find yourself again. It’s the long walk to figure out how has this experience made me a different person and coming to peace with that…Trauma is trauma, nobody lives through a war, having it worse or better than anyone else… We all have these things and there’s a long walk after those to finding some sort of peace or acceptance or acknowledgement…”

On the music:
“I listened to Tosca once, I think. I didn’t know opera… I sang in the choir and I did all of the musicals, so I know theater and all the New York showtunes. I played guitar, I played drums – so I’m a grunge fan, huge Pearl Jam fan… My dad raised me on a steady diet of Beatles and Beach Boys… The Beatles are on in our house all the time. My nine year old will put the CD on in the stereo and will turn on the Beatles for himself…[In The Long Walk], there’s not just one, there’s two electric guitars and there’s a bass. There’s a busy percussionist and that’s to make it sound like a rock band… there is blues in here…very American elements. There’s just some really good music in here, and, both in Saratoga and Salt Lake City, people told me how happy they were… it’s the kind of thing that you walk out and are happy you gave two hours to.”

On first seeing the opera:
“It’s been a process where first they write the libretto and flew me to New York for a libretto reading… I don’t get flashbacks, certainly not now, but even then a couple years ago…just the libretto reading, it pushed my stomach and I had to run outside and have a cigarette. I had the out of body experience. It was like a gradual thing. To the point where I say, some of it rings really true, and the other parts of it, I recognize what a great story it is and so, I realize I’m a … there’s not a lot of new opera written, especially new opera that’s written about a subject that’s still alive. I see it as it’s really a gift to my family. My kids have this opera of their childhood that they can go back to when they’re adults, when they’re my age and that’s really … I see it like that and certainly not some invasion of privacy… we were involved in all of this. I could imagine some people would think you feel exposed on stage. But that’s not how I felt. I felt proud to be associated with it…. All of the singers had created this amazing thing.”

Brian Castner (Pittsburgh Opera Resident Artist Ben Taylor) struggles to read a bedtime story to his children Samuel (River Beckas), Virgil (Simon Nigam), and Martin (Harrison Salvi.)

On how it adapted the novel:
“I think it’s better. I told them that. There are lots of writers who do – I have music in my head while I’m writing, but it can be hard to apply that musicality and tone and background feeling to the page sometimes. [In opera], you don’t have to mess around, you can do that. It’s all these forms – it’s the storytelling, it is the music, it’s the singing, it’s the most complex music human beings try to perform with an orchestra… There’s this really visceral thing that happens when you’re not reading a book and something is being shown in front of you…Text is artificial…Having people in front of us is how we are built to interact with the world and opera turns that up to 11. It’s like they took what I was trying to do and then put everything in focus. It was crystal sharp, like you’re going to cut yourself on it.”

On the Pittsburgh Opera production:
“There’s some beautiful, incredible voices in there. What’s exciting about it is when there’s another cast, crew, director and company that take it on and make it their own, it’s like life is breathed back into it… It’s exciting to see…”

The Castner family as portrayed by the artists of the Pittsburgh Opera. Front row: Samuel (River Beckas), Martin (Harrison Salvi), and Virgil (Simon Nigam). Back row: Jessie (Pittsburgh Opera Resident Artist Leah de Gruyl) and Brian (Pittsburgh Opera Resident Artist Ben Taylor)

The Long Walk will be performed on January 26th and 28th at the Pittsburgh CAPA School Theater downtown with ticket prices starting at $50. To buy tickets or to learn more, please visit the Pittsburgh Opera website at https://www.pittsburghopera.org/current-media-releases/pittsburgh-opera-presents-the-long-walk.

Photos courtesy of David Bachman and the Pittsburgh Opera.