Fighting Monsters by Jim Matthews
Former British soldier Jim Matthews hit the headlines when he was arrested on terrorism charges – for fighting against ISIS. The charges were eventually dropped.
Jim gave up a lucrative career teaching English in Saudi Arabia, and headed to northern Syria to fight ISIS. But why, after years as a left-leaning, anti-war protestor, did he find himself pulled once more into a conflict zone?
Did he miss war?
What is the reality for those fighting ISIS in their own country, and for those like Jim who join that fight? This book attempts to explain, in his words, what it’s like there…
An intelligent and evocative memoir, Fighting Monsters explores the reasons for one man’s war, while bringing to life the twisted roads, broken border towns and dusty battlefields of Syria and Iraq.
Q&A with Jim Matthews
Jim Matthews is a former British soldier who fought for a year in the ranks of Kurdish-led forces against Daesh (IS/ISIS/ISIL) in Northern Syria – an area known as Rojava by the Kurds. He wrote Fighting Monsters to give a frank insider’s view of the situation, often inaccessible to journalists.
What inspired you to write a first-hand account of war, when there are so many out there already?
My first goal was to show, in simple terms, what it’s like there. Bookshop shelves are already crammed with accounts of combat – but the experience of travelling alone to volunteer with a peoples’ revolutionary militia is not like that of the western soldier on operations. It’s a different world and I don’t pretend to understand it completely, even after a year there. But I can share what I do know.
There were also, when I wrote my book, plenty of serious and informative works around on the history and politics of this particular conflict, region and culture; but I saw nothing which really gave a worm’s-eye view of the day-to-day, frontline reality of Kurdish-led forces fighting Daesh. Even the press coverage, scant anyway, seemed typically formulaic, superficial and imperceptive – whether from mainstream press or more alternative sources. People might think they understand, but they almost certainly don’t. I felt there was a gap in the collective, public awareness.
How does it feel to know your characters are out and about in the reader’s imagination?
Mixed feelings; mainly good. I wanted those people to be known about and remembered, and I’m glad to have captured some of their moments. Yet inevitably I’m uneasy too, because they are/were real people and doing them justice was a heavy responsibility.
As I wrote more and more, I saw this book as a way to keep my fallen comrades alive – for myself, primarily. I was dealing with the irreparable loss of so many magnificent people, and talking about them felt like a way to bring them back. The Kurds say ‘martyrs never die,’ and while it’s a concept I struggle with in various ways, the thought of those people living on in the mind and memory – of myself and others – is a huge comfort.
Do you miss writing about them?
Yes I do. One of the hardest things was deciding which of the many moments shared with those people to select, and which to leave out. It took me nearly three years to write, and I must have written three times as much material as made the final cut. It was a long, exhausting process which conjured up the full spectrum of emotion for me personally. I hope the reader feels some of that.
There’s a lot of down-time in my book – people sitting around talking, whiling away time in various ways. That’s just how it was: brief, urgent moments of action and long periods of waiting; as with most wars. But I didn’t have to write it like that – I could have skimmed the quiet times and described the fighting more fully. That approach, perhaps paradoxically, would have made for a less interesting book – since many of the battles and firefights played out in similar ways and involved much similar detail. I wanted to invest more in the people, both individually and collectively: to convey the ‘vibe’ of a world which was so intense in so many ways: alien, chaotic, but also very warm and human. If I’ve done my job properly the reader should enjoy hanging out with those people, as I did. And feel something of their loss.
What was your publishing journey highlight?
Having the approval of the families and friends of those written about. The book may not be a blockbuster, but people I care about are on side. Nothing could be more important than that really.
What was the last book that made you laugh out loud?
Possibly Lint, by Steve Aylett. The use of language is so unconventional and refreshing, the jokes catch you by complete surprise. His work is very rich and innovative. A writer’s writer.
What was the last book that made you cry?
My own. However that sounds. Sorry…
If you were on an island for a year, what two books would you bring?
One of Aylett’s – they’re very compacted and multi-layered, so can be read and re-read. Though God knows which one; possibly Novahead. And perhaps Hillary Mantel’s third Thomas Cromwell book – if it was published by the time I set sail. I’m a slow reader and it’d probably take me a good part of the year to get through…
Lastly, what is your favourite book quote?
‘Partial knowledge can polarise opinion. Scholars insist St. George didn’t kill the dragon, which means either it never existed or it’s still out there.’
Thank you so much to Jim Matthews for taking time out to talk to us about Fighting Monsters. It is out now in all good bookstores.
In the name of full transparency, please be aware that this blog
contains affiliate links and any purchases made through such links will result in a small commission for us (at no extra cost for you).