When Will Mackin was in sixth grade, his English teacher, Mrs. Miller, assigned her students “The Outsiders,” a coming-of-age tale about two rival gangs. To reinforce the book’s central theme, she blasted The Who’s “Baba O’Riley” on a boom box at the front of the class, the lyrics (featuring a chorus with the phrase “teenage wasteland”) underscoring the angst-ridden struggle of the characters in the famous young-adult novel by S.E. Hinton.
“Because that song was very much in play at the time, it was very much part of what I felt was the real world and my interaction in it … [the song and the book] struck a chord,” said Mackin, the Perrin Moorhead Grayson and Bruns Grayson Fellow at the Harvard Radcliffe Institute. Kurt Vonnegut was next on the curriculum, Mackin recalled during a virtual Radcliffe talk last year. And “That’s all she wrote,” he said. “I wanted to tell stories, and I wanted to tell them in a way that affected me the same way that these had.”
That early impulse has blossomed into a successful writing career. His first book, “Bring Out the Dog,” based on his 23 years in the U.S. Navy, won the 2019 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Short Story Collection and critical praise for its clear-eyed portrayal of the brutal, frightening, and tedious aspects of deployment.
At Radcliffe Mackin is at work on his next series, “Animals,” featuring a selection of stories left out of his first collection, many inspired by the animals he came across while on duty with a SEAL team in Afghanistan and Iraq. Whether he was trekking through darkened fields or searching houses for possible suspects, animals were in the fabric of his Navy experience, he said, helping highlight the absurdity of war.
During a phone interview late last year, Mackin described the packs of wild dogs that would rush him as he patrolled in the “middle of nowhere,” their angry barking amplified in his military headset; the jumping goats in the countryside, providing welcome comic relief; and a giant sleeping bull that he tiptoed past while on an evening raid. The eyes of pigs or donkeys would shine in his night-vision goggles, he said. “You could tell that they were thinking ‘What are you doing here?’ and it made me wonder, ‘What am I doing here?’” The animals, Mackin added, “made me reflect on a lot of things,” including pack mentality and the idea of war as a “uniquely human exercise.”
Outlining his process to the Radcliffe crowd, Mackin explained how an operational military template employed by soldiers heading into battle helped him organize his thoughts around character and storyline. In a military brief, Mackin said, the word “situation” refers to an enemy force’s position, numbers, and capabilities. “Artistically, though, situation, or forces, are more psychological in nature” he said, “and for that I am going back to the things that I put in my journal, or my memories, things that occurred to me that I can’t seem to forget.”