Why I Write About Iraqis: Novelist Helen Benedict on the obligations of fiction


I am neither Muslim nor a war veteran, Middle-Eastern nor a foreign correspondent, so when people find out that I have written two novels (Wolf Season, Sand Queen) featuring an Iraqi woman and her family, their first question is often, “Why?”

This question arises because it is still so unusual for American novelists to write about Iraqis that people genuinely don’t understand my interest.

Of the increasing number of novels and story collections, and even movies, coming out of the latest Iraq War, only a smattering feature Iraqis as full human beings. Most do the same thing Vietnam war fiction did for so long – tell the war story entirely from the point of view of American soldiers, while the population of the country they occupy fades into background. When Iraqis do appear, it is usually as either a clownish interpreter or a villain.

This trope is even worse when it comes to women. For years, no Iraqi women have appeared in American fiction, except as wailing widows or black-clad figures in the distance. The only American fiction I know of, other than mine, that features an Iraqi woman as a full character is Matt Gallagher’s novel, Youngblood.

Why do we keep writing about the war and leaving out Iraqi women? After all, the UN tells us that more women and children die in today’s wars than men. Yet war remains, as it has for millennia, an almost entirely male story.

When it comes to the U.S. war with Afghanistan, we writers have done somewhat better. Flashes of War by Katey Shultz, The Watch by Joydeep Roy-Battacharya, and A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini are all powerful works of fiction featuring Afghan women as fully realized characters. I might point out that all these authors are civilians, one is a woman, and two were not born in the U.S.

I was first drawn to writing about Iraq when we invaded in March of 2003 and began raining bombs down on the citizens of Baghdad. Very soon after “Shock and Awe,” as our initial attack was so gloatingly called, a blog called Baghdad Burning began appearing on the internet, written by an anonymous young woman who called herself Riverbend, a computer technician with English so perfect she sounded like an American college student.

I read that blog religiously. Riverbend’s thoughts and feelings were just as “like us” as my own daughter’s, yet she was describing day-by-day what it was like to live under the U.S. invasion – what it was like to live through the overwhelming, heart-freezing injustice of war.

I then began reading other Iraqi blogs, along with every translation I could find of Iraqi poetry and fiction, most of which was written by and about men before our invasion. I also turned to YouTube and found videos and documentaries made by Iraqis. The most remarkable was one made by an anonymous woman who put on a burqa, hid her handheld camera under it, and drove around the Iraqi countryside interviewing women about what they were suffering. What she was doing was so dangerous, she explained into the camera, that the video would only remain up on YouTube for a day or so. Sure enough, it disappeared. I only hope she didn’t disappear, too.

After that, I sought out Iraqis around New York, former interpreters for the U.S. military, journalists, or government, and their families, all of whom had been granted the special visas reserved for those who have served us for two years and passed over a year’s worth of security checks.

I met Nour, who had been imprisoned and tortured in Abu Ghraib at the age of 16 for writing a poem Saddam Hussein didn’t like. Having learned English out of love for language and literature, she later become a translator for an American journalist. She and the journalist were kidnapped in Baghdad and shot in the back. The journalist was killed, but Nour survived and came to the U.S. with the help of his widow.

I met Hala, who had fled Baghdad with her husband and children after her brother and 15-year-old son were killed in the war. She and her children spent hours with me, helping me with the kinds of details I needed to create my Iraqi characters. When her son, who was nine at the time, heard my English accent, he insisted I had written the Harry Potter books.

I met Mohanad, who had grown to love the American soldiers he had worked with as an interpreter in his country. He had taken the job because he hated the brutal dictatorship of Saddam Hussein and wanted his people to have a true democracy. He was now living in Albany, learning a trade and hoping to make a life free of war and death.

I met Yasir, who, as an interpreter for the U.S. Army, had saved many lives, risked his own many times, and had become close friends with his American sergeant. Now he was in Boston, studying. He and his wife gave me a bountiful and delicious Iraqi lunch.

With the help of all these generous people, and out of Riverbend and my reading, my characters Naema Jassim, her husband Khalil, and their son, Tariq, were born.

Now, as Wolf Season comes out, the Trump administration’s latest attempt to ban Muslims from our shores is about to go into effect on October 18, and we are once again in a political climate invested in dehumanizing and villainizing refugees. So, I fully expect to once more hear the question, “Why do you write about Iraqis?”

Here is my answer.

I write about Iraqis because we have hurt them so badly and taken no responsibility for it. Because we owe them. Because it is the mission of artists and novelists to fight stereotyping that reduces people to nothing but targets. Because Iraqis are human beings who deserve all the rights and dignity and sympathy and understanding that we ourselves think we deserve.

I write about Iraqis because all of us need to stop being afraid of the victims of our wars and brutality, and embrace them instead.

Helen Benedict is a professor at Columbia University and the author of seven novels, including the just-published Wolf Season, and her previous novel, Sand Queen, a Publishers Weekly “Best Contemporary War Novel.” She writes frequently about justice, women, soldiers, and war. Her coverage of sexual assault in the U.S. military inspired the Academy Award-nominated documentary The Invisible War, and her work instigated a landmark lawsuit against the Pentagon on behalf of victims of military sexual assault. Benedict has spoken at West Point, the U.S. Air Force Academy, Harvard University, TED Talks, and the United Nations, among others.

A recipient of both the Ida B. Wells Award for Bravery in Journalism and the James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism, Benedict is also the author of five works of nonfiction, including the book, The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women in Iraq, and a play, The Lonely Soldier Monologues. She lives in New York.


PRETTY MUCH TRUE a sobering examination of the price paid by those on the home front of the War on Terror

Pretty Much True   Kristen Tsetsi aka Chris Jane

Pretty Much True

By Chris Jane

Penxere Press: Jan. 18, 2015

260 pages, $12.95

The last several years have seen women writers, of both fiction and nonfiction, addressing the manifold issues involved in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are, in general, distinguished by a focus on the experiences of returning soldiers and the effects on those on the home front of the “War on Terror.”

Roxana Robinson’s Sparta and Cara Hoffman’s Be Safe I Love You follow a male and female soldier, respectively, as they try to negotiate the emotional land mines of civilian life in a home they no longer recognize. Katey Schultz’s Flashes of War offers a multi-faceted look into virtually every aspect of the war through several dozen pieces of flash fiction. Siobhan Fallon’s story collection, You Know When the Men Are Gone, explores life on the Fort Hood army base following the Iraq invasion in 2003. Laura Harrington’s Alice Bliss is a sensitive coming-of-age story about a girl whose father is fighting in Iraq. Helen Benedict’s Sand Queen depicts the Iraq experiences of a female soldier facing harassment from all quarters.

The latest addition to this impressive collection of fiction is Chris Jane’s Pretty Much True, an intensely focused look at the life of Mia Sharpe, a young woman who is coping with loneliness, anxiety, and depression after her long-time boyfriend/almost-fiance, Jake Lakeland, is deployed to Iraq as part of the invading forces. Mia is living near the base in Tennessee, where she has few friends and little in the way of a support system. Formerly a part-time college English professor, she has walked away from her work in frustration and taken up cab driving as a stopgap measure.

Pretty Much True follows Mia as she struggles to maintain her spirits against an onslaught of worries. Is Jake alive and will he return as the man she loves? How can she earn a living from her unpredictable income as a cab driver? What is she to do about her friend Denise, the wife of Jake’s best friend William, who appears to be straying? Why is she having difficulty developing a relationship with her neighbor Safia, whose nationality she is unable to determine? How will she manage to tolerate Jake’s manipulative mother, Olivia?

But the most intriguing aspect of the plot is Mia’s tentative friendship with one of her regular fares, “Doctor” Gary Donaldson, a damaged Vietnam vet who alternates between two realities, only one of which he shares with Mia. Donny is an intriguingly complex character who provides an ominous picture of one possible future waiting for Mia.

Chris Jane has written a riveting character study that convincingly depicts the distress experienced by those still at home while the people they love are halfway around the world in harm’s way, often incommunicado for weeks or months. The supporting characters are realistic, the plot arises organically from the characters and conflicts, and the dialogue is pleasantly idiosyncratic. The novel’s strongest feature is Mia’s narrative voice, which holds us to the spot and forces us to confront what this 12-year-long war is really like for those who are entangled in it – and what their lives will be like when it is officially “over.”

If you’re wondering about the book’s title, the source is Kurt Vonnegut’s surreal anti-war classic, Slaughterhouse-Five, which contains the now-famous lines, “All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true.”

24 Authors’ Favorite Books of 2014 (updated 1/4/15)

To wrap up 2014 in a suitable fashion, I asked several writers to share their favorite book of 2014 written by a woman. You’ll want to have your To Be Read list handy so you can jot some additional titles down. Although this completely random selection of writers did not generate a consensus choice, Marilynne Robinson’s Lila, Robin Black’s Life Drawing, and Dylan Landis’s Rainey Royal came up a few times. Active links will take you to my reviews or the author’s guest essays written for Read Her Like an Open Book (RHLAOB). The contributors and I would love to hear your thoughts on their choices — as well as your personal favorites — so we encourage you to leave a comment below. And may 2015 be your best year of reading yet!

Helen Benedict

Helen Benedict

Three books by women come to mind as great favorites of the year: All The Broken Things by Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer, about a young Vietnamese boy, his pet bear and his little sister, severely deformed  by Agent Orange. Moving and funny and surprising all the way through. Also, Be Safe, I Love You, by Cara Hoffman, a tense and honest book about a woman soldier newly home from war. And a book of short stories about the Philippines in World War Two called The Caprices by Sabina Murray.

Helen Benedict is a novelist and journalist, best known for her writing on injustice and the Iraq War. She is the author of six novels, including Sand Queen (Soho Press, 2011) and The Edge of Eden (Soho Press, 2009). The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq (Beacon Press, 2010) and Benedict’s other writings on women at war inspired the award-winning 2012 documentary, The Invisible War. Benedict has been a professor in Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism since 1986.  She has received fellowships from Yaddo, MacDowell, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, The Ragdale Foundation, The Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Ireland, Palazzo Rinaldi in Italy, and the Freedom Forum.


Robin Black by Deborah BoardmanPhoto by Deborah Boardman

Robin Black

I have had an incredible reading year. The Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante and the Old Filth trilogy by Jane Gardam were both new to me and both – in very different ways – gave me a three book immersion that will stay with me always. But my “you should read this and may not have heard of it yet” choice is An Unseemly Wife by E.B. Moore, the story of an Amish woman who is taken on a perilous journey from Lancaster County heading to a perhaps illusory Idaho composed of dreams of expansion and seclusion, both. The story is based on Moore’s family history and it’s a powerful, intimate look at a culture into which “foreigners” can rarely glimpse. And for nonfiction, Without You, There Is No Us, by Suki Kim, takes us into an elite “university” in North Korea – speaking of cultures many of us can’t glimpse. It’s informative for sure, and also heartbreaking.

Robin Black is the author of the acclaimed short story collection, If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This (2010) and the novel Life Drawing (2014), which was chosen as the favorite book of 2014 by Beth Kephart and Dylan Landis (see below). Her essay for Read Her Like an Open Book, “On Learning to Spell Women’s Names While Men Buy My New Book for Their Wives,” was the second-most read post in 2014. Robin’s stories and essays have appeared in numerous publications including The Southern Review, The New York Times Magazine. One Story, and The Best Creative Nonfiction, Vol. I (Norton, 2007). Her work has been noticed four times for Special Mention by the Pushcart Prizes and also deemed Notable in The Best American Essays, 2008, The Best Nonrequired Reading, 2009 and Best American Short Stories, 2010. She holds degrees from Sarah Lawrence College and the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers. She lives outside Philadelphia.



Jessica Anya Blau

I was thrilled when I discovered that Dylan Landis’s new book, Rainey Royal, was all about my favorite Landis character, Rainey, a girl who makes some unforgettable cameo appearances in Landis’s first book, the collection Normal People Don’t Live Like This.  In Rainey Royal we follow the title character from age 14 to 26—the years when she is navigating a profoundly messed-up adolescence while experimenting with her tremendous powers of beauty, talent and youth. Rainey is infinitely alluring and sometimes startlingly dreadful. She’s a hard-to-love girl who you can’t help but take deeply into your heart and carry around as if she were someone you once knew intimately.

Jessica Anya Blau is the author of the bestselling novels The Summer of Naked Swim Parties (2008), Drinking Closer to Home (2011), and The Wonder Bread Summer (2013). In May 2014, she was one of the first authors to contribute an essay to RHLAOB, “My Favorite Women Writers of the 1950s.”  She grew up in Santa Barbara, California but lives in Baltimore and teaches writing at Johns Hopkins University.


Kim Church

Kim Church

2014 has been an amazing year for books. I can’t single out a favorite, but I’d like to mention a couple that surprised and delighted me:

The Game We Play, a debut story collection by Susan Hope Lanier (Curbside Splendor). Lanier, a photographer, writes with an eye for close-up, using the smallest objects to talismanic effect. These are growing-up stories about characters trying to form themselves when everything around them is deformed. The game conceit that unifies the collection (most obvious in the final story, “At Bat”) is a nod to Lanier’s love of baseball, which she calls “the perfect game because it is complex in its simplicity. There is drama in every pitch if you watch closely enough.” The same could be said of these stories—minutely observed, deceptively simple, emotionally complex.

Are we allowed to mention books by men? If so, I recommend All I Have in This World by Michael Parker (Algonquin), about a couple of down-on-their-luck strangers who go in together on a used Buick Electra. I love the mesmerizing rhythm of Parker’s sentences. And I’m a sucker for stories about unlikely friendships.

Kim Church is the author of Byrd, which was published in 2014 by Dzanc Books and long-listed for the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize. Kim earned her B.A. in English from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and her J.D. degree from UNC School of Law. Her short stories and poetry have appeared in ShenandoahMississippi ReviewPainted Bride Quarterly, Prime Number Magazine, the Norton anthology Flash Fiction Forward, and elsewhere.


 pamela erens by miriam berkleyPhoto by Miriam Berkley

Pamela Erens

I was taken with so many books published this past year. In fiction, these included An Untamed State by Roxane Gay, Life Drawing by Robin Black, The Hundred-Year House by Rebecca Makkai, Orion’s Daughters by Courtney Elizabeth Mauk, The Sixteenth of June by Maya Lang, Department of Speculation by Jenny Offill, Danceland by Jennifer Pieroni, Life In, Life Out by Avital Gad-Cykman, and Cutting Teeth by Julia Fierro. In nonfiction: My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead, The Other Side by Lacey M. Johnson, Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay, On Immunity by Eula Biss, and Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast.

But if I had to pick the one 2014 book that I have been returning to the most in my thoughts and in conversation, it would be The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison. The final long essay in the collection, “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” knocked me out. It’s an exploration of representations of and beliefs about and the experience of female suffering, and the bottom line is that Jamison made me see her subject anew. She advanced the conversation, so to speak, and it seems to me that books yet to be written are going to be shaped by hers. I want to add that I think that something of the same is true for Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State.

In 2015, I plan to get to at least two 2014 works in my to-read pile that I know will engage me: Rainey Royal by Dylan Landis, a follow-up to her powerful 2011 collection Normal People Don’t Live Like This, and the Elena Ferrante Neapolitan trilogy.

Pamela Erens’s second novel, The Virgins, was published by Tin House Books in August 2013. It was a New York Times Book Review and Chicago Tribune
Editors’ Choice and was named a Best Book of 2013 by The New Yorker, The New Republic, Library Journal, and Salon. The novel was a finalist for the John Gardner Book Award for the best book of fiction published in 2013. In April 2014, Tin House Books reissued Pamela’s debut novel, The Understory, a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing.  Her short fiction, reviews, and essays have appeared in a wide variety of literary, cultural, and mainstream publications, including The New York Times,Vogue, Elle, Salon, Los Angeles Review of Books, Tin House, and The Millions. For many years Pamela was an editor at Glamour magazine.



Lisa Gornick

My shout out goes to an elegant piece of long-form journalism and literary criticism by Kathryn Schulz, “The Story That Tore Through the Trees,” published in the September 9th issue of New York Magazine.

Schulz masterfully weaves together an account of how Norman Maclean, a retired University of Chicago literature professor, began at 73 what would become his posthumously published and wildly influential Young Men and Fire about the tragic Mann Gulch conflagration; the stories of the thirteen smokejumpers who died in the fire and the three who survived; an examination of the split-second decision of the crew foreman, Wagner Dodge, to light a match and fight the looming flames by encircling himself with those of his own making; and her analysis of how Maclean mythologized the events of that day in a way that  spoke to American themes of conquest and purification, but evaded the fundamental ecology of fire.

“To love a book,” Schulz writes, “is to acknowledge the power of stories to move us; but we should also acknowledge that not every story moves us in the right direction.” Schulz’s story, though, does move us in the right direction. Both an intellectually muscular piece of writing, encompassing science and cultural history, and a classic story of men in battle — the kind of writing usually associated with male writers like John McPhee — her essay lays bare the impact of romanticized notions of masculinity on our views of nature and on policy making. I was inspired that it was written by a woman.


Lisa Gornick is the author of Tinderbox (Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux and Picador), a novel which touches on the history of the early smokejumpers. Her collection of linked stories, Louisa Meets Bear, will be published in June, also with Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Gornick wrote a fascinating essay for RHLAOB about the sources of inspiration behind Tinderbox


Laura Harrington

Laura Harrington

My favorite book of the year is Reading Like A Writer by Francine Prose. The trick to writing, Prose writes, is reading – carefully, deliberately and slowly. How does she make this a wonderful read? A master herself, Prose breaks down the process into words, sentences, paragraphs, narrative, character, dialogue, gesture, with brilliant examples culled from hundreds of books. Unlike James Woods’ How Fiction Works, which cites 81 books, only 8 by  women, Prose is much more democratic. Her final chapter, “Reading for Courage,” is worth the price of the book alone.

Laura Harrington spent 25 years writing for the theatre, and in 2008 she received The Kleban Award, given each year to “the most promising librettist in American Musical Theatre.” She took time off to write her first novel, Alice Bliss, which explores the impact of the Iraq War on the home front through the eyes of a young girl whose father is halfway around the world. Harrington contributed a powerful essay, “What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About War,” to Read Her Like an Open Book in March 2014. 


 Beth Kephart

Beth Kephart

This is an impossible task. I thought 2014 was an exquisite year of work by writers taking broad and beautiful risks.

For compression and the elegance of the time it portrays, Samantha Harvey’s Dear Thief:


For a fascinating perspective on a desperately unwinding woman, Catherine Lacey’s Nobody is Ever Missing:


For a book richly steeped in the twin geographies of movable time and malleable possibility, Stacey D’Erasmo’s Wonderland:


For a beautifully paced story about the private wants that are rarely spoken, Robin Black’s Life Drawing:


For a harrowing and brave and deliciously odd story of a woman who is trying to regain her footing, to know who she is, to find a rope in the well, Jenny Offill’s Department of Speculation:


And for a timeless, genre-less autobiography in poetic prose, Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming.

Beth Kephart is the author of Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir (Gotham/Penguin, 2013), Small Damages (Philomel Books, 2012), and Going Over (Chronicle Books, 2014), a YA novel set in Berlin during 1983. Chronicle will publish One Thing Stolen, set in Florence in April 2015. Kephart maintains a blog, Beth Kephart Books, and reviews books for the Chicago Tribune. Her essay for Read Her Like an Open Book, “Urgency. Please.” last August was one of the most-read posts of the year. 



Dylan Landis

Life Drawing, by Robin Black, contains one of the keenest, most distilled passages about marriage I’ve read: “There are often two conversations going on in a marriage. The one that you’re having and the one that you’re not. Sometimes you don’t even know when that second, silent one has begun.” All of Life Drawing is penetrating, disturbing and, at a couple of points, shocking. It’s the story of friendship and betrayal, told from the point of view of an artist, Gus, whose marriage to a struggling writer, Owen, is shadowed by her past affair. The writing is beautiful, the plot is taut, and the voice is both intimate and wise.

Dylan Landis is the author of the novel Rainey Royal, a New York Times Editors’ Choice selection, and the linked story collection Normal People Don’t Live Like This, a Newsday Ten Best book.


 caroline leavitt

Caroline Leavitt

Rainey Royal by Dylan Landis. It’s a raw, gutsy portrait of a dangerous upbringing and of a young woman finding her place in the world. It’s also unlike anything I’ve read before.  Plus, the language is gorgeous.

Caroline Leavitt is the New York Times bestselling author of Is This Tomorrow, Pictures of You, and seven other novels. Her many essays, stories, book reviews, and articles have appeared in Salon, Psychology Today, The New York Times Sunday Book Review, Publisher’s Weekly, People, Real Simple, New York Magazine, The San Francisco Chronicle, Parenting, The Chicago Tribune, Parents, Redbook, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe and numerous anthologies. Her next novel, Cruel Beautiful World, will be published by Algonquin in 2015. Her guest essay for Read Her Like an Open Book, “My Life in Lawsuits,” was one of the top 5 posts in 2014. 


 Lisa Lenzo

Lisa Lenzo

From the minute I began reading Making Callaloo in Detroit, I felt as if Lolita Hernandez had taken me by the hand and the rich cadences of her Caribbean characters were leading me with their voices. After I finished the second story, I thought I knew what the next stories would be all about, and I was perfectly pleased to follow Hernandez further, down similar roads. But then the third story took me into a wholly different zone—an auto factory in Detroit– and I realized that Lolita Hernandez has more than one type of story to tell me. So if you want to smile as well as be surprised, pick up Making Callaloo in Detroit, open to its first page, and let this wonderfully talented writer lead you into her spicily seasoned, often sensual, sometimes gritty, and always rewarding realms.

Lisa Lenzo is the author of Strange Love (2014), a novel-in-stories published by Wayne State University Press as part of their Made in Michigan Writers Series. Lenzo’s first collection of stories, Within the Lighted City (1997), was chosen by Ann Beattie for an Iowa Short Fiction Award and published by the University of Iowa Press.”Strays,” from Strange Love, won the 2013 short story contest sponsored by The Georgetown Review. Lenzo contributed an essay for RHLAOB on turning real life into fiction. 


Paulette Livers

Paulette Livers

First impulse answer: Lila, Marilynne Robinson’s follow-up to Gilead and Home. I stopped and made myself scour through all the other wonderful books I read this year to be sure I wasn’t reflexively going to an author I adore. But Lila gave me everything I want. Compelling voice, deep interiority that manages to remain mysterious—sometimes even to the narrator herself, which is the best kind of mystery. Robinson’s mastery of the craft never falters, something the reader only discerns when she is forced to leave the vivid and continuous dream that is first-rate fiction, and attend to life around her.

Paulette Livers is the author of the novel Cementville (Counterpoint, 2014), winner of the Elle magazine Lettres Prize 2014 and finalist for the Center for Fiction’s Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize and Chicago Writers Association’s Fiction Book of the Year. Her work appears in Southwest Review, The Dos Passos Review, Spring Gun Press, and elsewhere, and can be heard at the audio-journal Bound Off. A member of PEN America and the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, Livers lives in Chicago. Livers contributed a powerful piece to RHLAOB, “How NOT to Write a Political Novel,” earlier this year. 


 Laura Long

Laura Long

I was enchanted by the boldness and precision of The Drum Tower, a novel by Farnoosh Moshiri about a family in Iran at the cusp of the 1979 revolution. At the center of this lyrical, psychologically astute novel are Talkhoon, a young woman confined to the Drum Tower basement, and her violent uncle, Assad. Moshiri reveals the madness of a revolution and of individuals, and a search for knowledge that includes the mythic bird Simorgh. This is the fourth novel by Moshiri, who fled Iran and lived in refugee camps in Afghanistan and India before relocating to the U.S.

Laura Long is the author of the novel-in-stories, Out of Peel Tree (West Virginia University Press/Vandalia, 2014) and two collections of poetry. She is the Geraldine Lyon Owen Professor of English at Lynchburg College in Virginia. She earned her BA in English/Creative Writing from Oberlin College, MAs in Anthropology/Folklore and English/Creative Writing at the University of Texas in Austin, and a Ph.D. in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Houston.


Rebecca Makkai 2013

Rebecca Makkai
While I’ve talked a lot elsewhere about my favorite novels of the year, I haven’t had much chance to gush about two strange and miraculous debut story collections: The Lovers Set Down Their Spoons, by Heather A. Slomski, and A Different Bed Every Time, by Jac Jemc. Slomski’s work reminds me of Etgar Keret — surreal and even fablelike — until it doesn’t. Her final story, “Before the Story Ends,” while slightly experimental in point of view, is realist and devastating, a counterbalance to everything earlier. Jemc’s experimentalism is often more verbal; I sometimes feel like she’s getting fresh with the English language in the backseat of a car. And her characters are hungry, desperate, illogical people. But this works, and the stories work. I kind of want to set these two collections up on a date. They’d have gloriously weird children.
Rebecca Makkai is a Chicago-based writer whose second novel, The Hundred-Year House (Viking/Penguin, July 2014), is the story of a haunted house and a haunted family, told in reverse; Library Journal called it “stunning, ambitious, readable and intriguing.” Her first novel, The Borrower, was a Booklist Top Ten Debut, an Indie Next pick, an O Magazine selection, and one of Chicago Magazine’s choices for best fiction of 2011. Makkai’s short fiction was selected for The Best American Short Stories for four consecutive years (2008-2011), and appears regularly in journals like Harper’s, Tin House (her story “K-I-S-S-I-N-G” is featured in the Winter 2014-15 issue), Ploughshares, and New England Review. Her first story collection, Music for Wartime, will appear in July 2015. She teaches at Lake Forest College and in Sierra Nevada College‘s MFA program, and runs StoryStudio Chicago‘s Novel-in-a-Year workshop.


lydia netzer

Lydia Netzer

My favorite book written by a woman and published in 2014 was Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy by Karen Abbott. She writes so brilliantly about female spies in the Civil War, from the battlefield to the bedroom, I was completely caught up in the story of these four women. Learned a lot, laughed, gasped — this book was captivating.

Lydia Netzer is the author of two novels that are almost as smart, quick-witted, and quirky as she is. Shine Shine Shine, about astronauts, autism, marriage, and the struggle to be normal, was named one of the New York Times’ 100 Notable Books of 2012. How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky (2014) is about two close friends who decided to raise their son and daughter together and then separate them with the intention of having them fall in love and marry as adults. 



Ann Packer

Angela Pneuman’s gorgeous coming-of-age novel Lay It On My Heart knocked me sideways.  Charmaine Peake is the 13-year-old daughter of a self-proclaimed prophet in a small Kentucky town. When her father suffers a breakdown, Charmaine and her mother, the hilariously and yet compassionately drawn Phoebe, have to take up residence in a trailer and navigate the intimacy forced on them by their new circumstances. (And you thought your mother had poor boundaries.) At the same time, Charmaine starts junior high, one of a handful of church kids in a large secular community. One of my favorite scenes occurs toward the end of the book, when Charmaine has an encounter with an older teenage boy who has been tormenting her on the school bus. It’s an unforgettable interlude: dirty, funny, and excruciating in the best way. By turns darkly comical and deeply moving, this intense and beautiful novel is cause for celebration and also no surprise to readers familiar with Pneuman’s stellar first book, the short story collection Home Remedies. Angela Pneuman is one of our best.

Ann Packer attended Yale University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She is the author of two national bestsellers, the novels Songs Without Words (2007) and The Dive from Clausen’s Pier (2002), which won a Great Lakes Book Award, an American Library Association Award and the Kate Chopin Literary Award. Her most recent book is Swim Back to Me (2011), a novella and five short stories. Her next novel, The Children’s Crusade, will be published by Scribner on April 7.



Steph Post

My favorite book written by a woman in 2014 is Nayomi Munaweera’s debut novel, Island of a Thousand Mirrors. Munaweera has been compared to Michael Ondaatje, but her work–lyrical, fearless and unrelenting–has set Munaweera onto a pedestal of her own. Her unflinching tale of women warriors, survivors, and refugees of the Sri Lankan civil war is at once heartbreaking and inspiring. Quite simply, Island of a Thousand Mirrors took my breath away.

Steph Post is a novelist (A Tree Born Crooked, Sept. 2014), short story writer, editor, reader, teacher and dog lover. Her essay for RHLAOB, “Writing Under Fire,” was published in November. She lives in Florida. 


 Virginia Pye

Virginia Pye

Euphoria, by Lily King, is a cleverly constructed novel about a love triangle between three brilliant characters, each an anthropologist in New Guinea, competing in intellectual prowess and love. The woman scientist in the mix is based on extensive research about the great Margaret Mead, who readers may recall from old textbooks. But nothing about Nell is musty or dull—in my opinion, she’s more vibrant and distinct in mind and body than any female character in recent fiction. [King’s essay for RHLAOB about her creative process, “Pencil and Paper,” was her first-ever contribution to a blog and one of the highlights of the year.]

Virginia Pye’s second novel will be published by Unbridled Books in Fall 2015. It is set in North China in 1937, twenty-five years after her first novel, River of Dust, took place there, and tells the story of an American missionary widow and her teenage son as they try to escape the escalating war with Japan and the dramatic rise of Communism. She wrote for RHLAOB about the writer’s ever-expanding skill set in “Hawking My Wares.” 


 robinson_roxana with book cover

Roxana Robinson

My nomination is Elena Ferrante’s Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, the third in her Naples trilogy. The novels begin in impoverished post-war Naples, in a community infested by the Camorra. The author calls herself Elena Ferrante, but doesn’t make public appearances, and so has created a mystery around herself. But whoever she  is, this writer is brilliant, savage and relentless. In her trilogy starting in Naples in the  1950s, she traces the deep lines of connection between crime and family, violence and children, deception and women, and shows the devastating consequences of corruption. Interestingly, because of this writer’s refusal to appear in public, rumors have sprung up about her real identity. The claim is made that she’s a man. Really? Why would you say that? Because she’s so good? Because it’s impossible to imagine a woman writing so well and so candidly about something so savage? Honestly, I can’t see any reason for these rumors except misogyny.

Roxana Robinson is the author of nine books: five novels, including Sparta (2013), Cost (2008), and Sweetwater (2003); three collections of short stories, including A Perfect Stranger and Other Stories (2007); and the biography Georgia O’Keeffe: A Life (1987). Her work has appeared in The New YorkerThe AtlanticHarper’s Magazine, The New York TimesThe Washington Post, BookForumBest American Short StoriesTin House, and elsewhere. She teaches in the Hunter MFA Program and is the current president of the Authors Guild.


Leora Skolkin-Smith

Leora Skolkin-Smith

My favorite book this year was Andrea Scrima’s A Lesser Day. Profound in both form and content, this overlooked novel deserves center stage.

Leora Skolkin-Smith is the author of the novels Hystera (2011) and Edges (2005), which was edited and published by the late Grace Paley for Paley’s own imprint at Glad Day books. Edges was nominated for the 2006 PEN/Faulkner Award and The PEN/Hemingway Award by Paley. Skolkin-Smith was raised in New York and Israel and earned her BA and MFA at Sarah Lawrence College.



Lee Upton

One of my favorite books released in 2014 is The Woman Who Borrowed Memories: Selected Stories (NYRB Classic) by the Finnish writer Tove Jansson (1914-2001), best known as the author and illustrator of children’s books featuring charmingly blob-like creatures called Moomins.  The Woman Who Borrowed Memories is the first full-scale English translation of Jansson’s stories for adults, bringing together work written over the course of twenty-five years.  Often these fully original, beautiful stories are about the small changes that transform a life from the inside, changes that may be imperceptible to others and baffling to the person experiencing those changes.  Jansson tends to write about artists—sculptors, cartoonists, illustrators—who reveal an obsessive dedication to precision, a dedication much like, apparently, the author’s own.  Many of her characters love silence and solitude.  Sometimes they encounter animals, and those encounters, closely observed without sentimentality, elicit admiration for the animals’ feral qualities. (Her animals tend to bite.)  In “The Monkey,” a pet monkey acts out a sculptor’s own urges.  When the monkey, off her leash, scales a tree in winter, the sculptor’s observations make for a keen portrait of artistic ambition:  “You poor little bastard.  You’re freezing, but you’ve got to climb.”  Jansson frequently asks questions.  Here’s a sampling, plucked from the slowly whirling weather systems of several stories:  “What is it that’s happened to me?” “What shall we drink to?”  “What are you angry about?”  “What is it that’s wrong?” “What do you want?” “What’s life about?”  The funny thing about these limpid, bracing, fierce, and yet welcoming stories: they create the sensation of our being enclosed and alone in a quiet place. Distractions melt away and we may begin, like Jansson, to think about fundamental things.

Lee Upton’s collection of short stories, The Tao of Humiliation, was selected as one of the best books of 2014 by Kirkus Reviews. Her sixth collection of poetry, Bottle the Bottles the Bottles the Bottlesrecipient of the Open Book Award, is forthcoming this year from the Cleveland State University Poetry Center.  A professor of English and writer-in-residence at Lafayette College, she is the author of thirteen books, including the novella The Guide to the Flying Island, and a collection of essays, Swallowing the Sea: On Writing & Ambition Boredom Purity & Secrecy.  Her awards include the Pushcart Prize, the BOA Short Fiction Award, the Miami University Press Award for the Novella, the National Poetry Series Award, and awards from the Poetry Society of America.



Laura van den Berg

[If I had to pick] a favorite, I’d say All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews, a brilliant examination of death and sisterhood and survival.

Laura van den Berg earned her M.F.A. at Emerson College. Her first collection of stories, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us (Dzanc Books, 2009), was a Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” selection and shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Award. Her second collection of stories, The Isle of Youth (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2013), won the Rosenthal Family Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts & Letters and was named a “Best Book of 2013” by over a dozen venues, including NPR, The Boston Globe, and O, The Oprah Magazine. Her first novel, Find Me, will be published by FSG in February 2015. The recipient of a 2014 O. Henry Award, Laura currently lives in the Boston area and is the 2014-2015 Faculty Fellow in Fiction at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. 



Mary Vensel White

Mary Vensel White

My favorite 2014 book by a woman was Marilynne Robinson’s Lila. Because her previous novels, Gilead and Home, both claim a spot on my Favorites of All Time list, I anticipated this new novel with barely-contained glee. So, it’s no surprise that I loved it. Perhaps Lila is more narrow in scope than the others and in fact, I spent the first section wondering if readers who were new to the series would love it as much as I was. The main character, Lila, is the same who appears in those previous novels and this new one focuses on her version of the story we already know. But then I stopped wondering, and became captivated by Robinson’s evocative writing and Lila’s world. Robinson is a master of the subtle, a soft-focus spotlight on the frailties and wonders of human feeling, and a creator of one of the most beloved characters I’ve ever known, John Ames. The unlikely love story between this elderly minister and the guarded Lila will squeeze your heart into a pulpy mess. In a good way.

Mary Vensel White’s debut novel, The Qualities of Wood, was published in June 2014 by Authonomy, an imprint of HarperCollins. She graduated from the University of Denver and lived for five years in Chicago, where she earned an MA from DePaul University. White wrote an essay for RHLAOB about the novel that changed her life, Lolita, last May. She lives in Orange County, California with her husband, four children, and two badly trained dogs.



Joan Wickersham

I’ve admired the novels of Deirdre Madden for years. Her latest, Time Present and Time Past, is proof that a novel of ideas doesn’t need to be ponderous — it’s a deft, brilliantly economical meditation on memory and the limits of knowledge, and it is also a deeply sympathetic, charming, subtly shaded family portrait.

Joan Wickersham is the author of the memoir The Suicide Index: Putting My Father’s Death in Order (Mariner, 2009) and the short story collection The News From Spain: Seven Variations on a Love Story (Knopf, 2012). Her op-ed column appears regularly in The Boston Globe. Wickersham has read her work on National Public Radio’s “On Point” and “Morning Edition.” She has received the Ploughshares Cohen Award for Best Short Story and has been awarded grants by the National Endowment for the Arts, The Massachusetts Cultural Council, the MacDowell Colony, and Yaddo. She graduated from Yale with a degree in art history, and she lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts with her husband and two sons.

What Are Some of Our Favorite Women Authors Reading This Summer?

Summer is the season when readers have more time to read than usual. Accordingly, there seems to be more talk than usual these days about what people are reading or planning to read. Inspired by a recent post on Robin Kall’s Reading with Robin blog, I thought I would ask several writers about their summer reading. 

I posed three questions to them: 

1. What have you read recently that impressed you (and that readers should know about)?

2. What are you currently reading?

3. What is in your To Be Read stack?

I received the nine responses that follow, each of which includes a book or books you will almost certainly want to read. There are more good books being published than ever, and there are still all those earlier books, from classics to last year’s overlooked books, so the options for readers are truly unlimited. 

Check back later this week for the second installment of Authors’ Summer Reading, featuring Katie Crouch, Kimberly Elkins, Patry Francis, Mira Jacob, Dylan Landis, Rebecca Makkai,  Virginia Pye, and others. 

summer book preview clarke winspear morris lusbader mccollough o

Laura McBride

I really enjoyed Molly Wizenberg’s memoir Delancey and Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, I am loving Euphoria by Lily King right now, and I am looking forward to Long Man by Amy Greene, Funny Once by Antonya Nelson, and The Hundred-Year House by Rebecca Makkai.

[My review of We Are Called to Rise is here.]

Kahakauwila Paradise

Kristiana Kahakauwila

I just finished the novel The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vasquez (translation by Anne McLean), a lyric meditation on what it means to be Colombian, on fate and death, and at the same time, it reads like a murder mystery.

I’m reading Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony right now. I’m embarrassed it’s taken me this long! She handles that close third so intimately that I’m taking notes for my own first person narration.

And finally, next up is Boris Fishman’s A Replacement Life. His nonfiction is thoughtful and lovely, so I’m looking forward to this first novel of his.

[My review of This is Paradise is here.]


Laline Paull

Recently impressed by Horses of God by Mahi Binebine (translated from the French by Lulu Norman, Serpent’s Tail Press). Brutal, elegant, truthful imagining of the life of a young suicide bomber, from beyond the grave. Eloquent and compassionate, it asserts how poverty, ignorance and inequality, ultimately breeds atrocity. Not a beach book.

Also impressed by Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut (Atlantic). Wonderful biographically accurate imagining of the life of E.M. (Morgan) Forster, before he wrote Passage to India. About class, empire, love, loss, and the mysterious alchemical process of writing. Believe it or not, a beach book – for me, anyway.

And I must mention the delightful The Vacationers by Emma Straub, and not just because of her amazing review of The Bees in the New York Times Review of Books — but because it is a sly delight, with characters as real and familiar as Armistead Maupin’s, and a delicate structure full of tension, pathos, and comic irony.  Loved it.

Next on my reading list: Her by Harriet Lane, and a lot of non-fiction research for my second novel, which I’m going to keep to myself for a bit.

And I’m currently reading My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult, as my 15-year-old daughter demanded I do, so that we could discuss it. Jodi Picoult does for emotions what Lee Child does for the thriller — just keeps you turning the pages. Not sure how much I loved it — but I most definitely did admire her story-telling ability, which is brilliant. And even though I resent it a little, because I wasn’t love-love-loving the book, I did actually cry.

[My review of The Bees is here.]

2013-07-10-JessicaBlau  Wonder Bread Summer

Jessica Anya Blau

I just read Let Me See It by James Magruder. Fabulous. Deeply sad but also very funny. About two gay men coming of age in the era of AIDS. I also just read Love, Nina: A Nanny Writes Home by Nina Stibbe. Charming, funny, and sweet letters written by a London nanny in the early 1980s.

Currently reading Patti Smith’s biography, Just Kids, and loving it. When I’m done I’ll be reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s latest book, The Signature of All Things.

[My review of The Summer of Naked Swim Parties is here.]

qualities-of-wood-pb-   Mary Vensel White

Mary Vensel White 

A book that recently impressed me, and in my opinion did not receive nearly the attention it deserved when it was released in May of this year, is Amy Rowland’s The Transcriptionist. It’s a unique novel that reminded me of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Both novels get inside the mind of someone living by, for, and through books; both maintain a sort of nostalgia for words and stories and both speak to current state of affairs between burgeoning technology and the printed word. The story concerns Lena, the sole transcriptionist of a fictional newspaper. She spends her days mostly alone, transcribing stories that come over the wires, and she relates pretty much everything that happens to books she’s read. When a blind woman with whom she had a brief encounter is killed by zoo lions, Lena becomes determined to find out more about what happened. It’s a timely, multi-faceted novel that will appeal to anyone who has spent a life in books.

I’m currently reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, but before you become too impressed with my erudite summer selection, I will tell you that I’m operating at about a 70% comprehension rate reading this book. I don’t know what the problem is—I had a minor in history, after all (!)—and normally love historical fiction. Maybe it’s the huge cast of characters, most of whom are named Anne, Mary, John or Thomas, or the way the book jumps from place to place. But it’s something about the style, too. In and out of Cromwell’s thoughts, confusing perspective, pesky pronouns. Every so often, a paragraph begins with “He” and I have no idea who she’s talking about. Most of the time, it’s Cromwell, but still, it drives me crazy. This book is a rollercoaster for me; there are times when I think it’s utterly brilliant and other times when I’m not sure how I’ll finish the next five pages.

Next up is book two in the trilogy, Bring Up the Bodies, so hopefully, I’ll have found a groove with Mantel’s style by then.

[My review of The Qualities of Wood is here.]

Vanessa Blakeslee Train Shots

Vanessa Blakeslee

Last month I was in residence as an Edward F. Albee fellow and devoured several collections by Alice Munro that I’d never gotten to: Dear Life, The Beggar Maid, Runaway, The Moons of Jupiter. To me, Munro is always impressive for her time-jumps, her use of dreams and subplot devices, and the sheer breathtaking force of her characters’ illuminations. But The Beggar Maid impressed me the most, for how those stories could be read as distinctly separate but when assembled, achieve the effect of a novel so naturally, without a hint of strain. As someone who is wrestling with two different novel-in-stories projects for several years, I’m in awe.

I’m currently reading two books by Pamela Erens, The Understory and The Virgins, as a review assignment for Kenyon Review Online.

I’m eager to read Edan Lepucki’s California and the short stories of the Russian Nobel Prize-winner Ivan Bunin, which another writing fellow at the Albee Barn recently recommended. I’ll also be revisiting Aristotle’s Poetics, Horace’s Ars Poetica, and Douglas Glover’s Attack of the Copula Spiders for an upcoming podcast at The Drunken Odyssey with John King.

[My review of Train Shots is here.]

Sand Queen   Helen Benedict

Helen Benedict

I have just finished Abide By Me, by Elizabeth Strout, a lovely novel about the evil powers of gossip and the struggles of a good if simple man to stay that way. Strout is very good and getting to the heart of people in a few swift strokes, and encapsulating the culture of a small town.

Right now, I’m reading Sabina Murray’s collection of stories about the Philippines in World War Two, called The Caprices. I’m truly impressed by how well she captures the sinister absurdity of war and how she brings to life this obscure part of history. She inhabits her male characters brilliantly, and every story shows off a different voice and tone. The book won the PEN Faulkner when it came out. I can see why.

Next up is Orphan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence. I was just in Istanbul and want to keep reading him.

[My review of Sand Queen is here.]

Ronlyn Domingue   the-chronicle-of-secret-riven

Ronlyn Domingue

Wolf Skin by Mary McMyne. So I’m blatantly giving attention to one of my best friends here. Mary writes in several genres, and her first poetry chapbook released this summer. It’s a spectacular mix of fairy tale retellings and a woman’s reflections about her mother. Author Jeannine Hall Gailey describes the poems as “at the nexus of science and mythology.”

The Greek Myths by Robert Graves. This is on my stack for research purposes. Along with the myths—written in a serious yet descriptive style—Graves includes the sources where he found the myths and comments to explain or expand on the narrative. Every time I pick it up, I keep thinking it’s time for us to evolve into a new era of myths without so much power-over, rape, and vengeance.

Bees Make the Best Pets by Jack Mingo. My mom gave me this book because I love bees. It makes for quirky, relaxing night reading and, as a bonus, lets me get some enjoyable research done at the same time. Fun fact…when bees fly, the sound of their wings makes the note B natural.

[My review of The Chronicle of Secret Riven is coming soon!]

An Unexpected Guest   Anne Korkeakivi

Anne Korkeakivi
Impressed, in an unfortunate way: I’ve read many excellent books this past year, but in early summer, I hit a rut where I managed to read five thoroughly disappointing novels in a row. The experience reminded me what a delicate balancing act writing fiction is.

I am currently reading an ARC of Michelle Bailat-Jones’s beautiful novel, Fog Island Mountains, winner of The Center for Fiction’s 2013 Christopher Doheny Award.

Pulling one book off my TBR shelf is scary, a bit like that old game Pick Up Sticks. Will they all tumble? I *think* next up will be Evie Wyld’s After the Fire, A Still Small Voice.

[My review of An Unexpected Guest is here.]


Women Writers on the Iraq War: A Collection of Reviews & Interviews

With the situation in Iraq back in the news once again, it seemed like an opportune time to share my reviews of these books about the war and my interviews with the authors.  All are highly recommended.

Sparta cover art

Roxana Robinson — Sparta review    http://wp.me/p3EtWm-5R

Roxana Robinson — Interview     http://wp.me/p3EtWm-6q

Flashes of War

Katey Schultz — Flashes of War review     http://wp.me/p3EtWm-6E

Sand Queen

Helen Benedict — Sand Queen review     http://wp.me/p3EtWm-9k

Be Safe I Love You

Cara Hoffman — Be Safe I Love You review     http://wp.me/p3EtWm-aq

Cara Hoffman – Interview    http://wp.me/p3EtWm-aT

You Know When the Men Are Gone

Siobhan Fallon — You Know When the Men Are Gone review     http://wp.me/p3EtWm-bE

Siobhan Fallon – Interview    http://wp.me/p3EtWm-bM


Beverly GologorskyStop Here review   http://wp.me/p3EtWm-dM


A conversation with Cara Hoffman on class, family, women in the Iraq war and PTSD

Cara Hoffman   Be Safe I Love You   


As someone who comes from a military family, it was important for me to tell this story about what war does to domestic life.

What led to your interest in writing about the Iraq War? Did you have a war-related novel in mind first, or a novel about a family dealing with poverty and class issues, or was it always about the challenges of homecoming?

It was always my intention to write about the wars the U.S. has been fighting this past decade because it’s part of the fabric of our culture, we’re steeped in it. For the working poor, who make up the majority of army personnel it’s even more immediate. As someone who comes from a military family, it was important for me to tell this story about what war does to domestic life. Exponentially more people than the one who enlists are affected by a deployment, a death, or a mental illness. We’re seeing this all unfold daily in the U.S., and we’ll be seeing it for a long time.

How did Lauren Clay come to you? I’m interested in the character you created, an academically gifted student with a rare musical talent who comes from a family that has fallen apart. Lauren is not your typical soldier, even beyond the fact that she is female.

Lauren is musically gifted but I don’t think she’s atypical of people in the military. There are plenty of musicians, artists, and creative people who enlist, especially if they don’t have another recourse to making money and can’t afford school. Lauren’s decision to join the army is good for her family economically, but bad for her personally and it’s this conflict that drives the central narrative. She trains to kill instead of continuing to train her voice.

Lauren is a classically trained singer with an opportunity to study at a prestigious school. I know you have a background in classical voice. Why did you choose to add this passion to your portrayal of Lauren Clay?

I trained as a classical musician, and still sing in a choir. (We’re doing Mozart’s “Great Mass in C Minor” this May!) Part of Lauren being a singer is simply about writing what I know; the other part has to do with the symbolism of sacred music and holy minimalism. Vocal music is primal, deeply emotional, something that requires immense training to perform. A book about war is well suited to all of these things.

Can you discuss Lauren’s increasing obsession with the Jeanne d’Arc basin oil fields in Canada? It is an unfamiliar place that provides haunting imagery, as well as a key symbol in the story.

Jeanne d’Arc is a salient symbol throughout the novel; a teenage soldier who had to disguise herself as a man, who suffered hallucinations, she’s the precursor and a counterpoint to Lauren, who is a grounded, capable, loving woman burdened by an enormous responsibility for her whole family. Jeanne d’Arc becomes a saint the way most saints do — connection to religious phenomena, and terrible torture. Lauren’s view of religion is cynical at best and often hostile, but she holds things sacred and makes sacrifices, she’s inspired by holy music and recognized for her gifts, she’s rational and practical, but is transformed by her service in the military, imprisoned by the needs of weak men around her. And unable to break free. The actual physical site is a mirror of the place she came from. These reflections and poles and “distorted mirrors” are an essential part of the narrative.

The relationship between Lauren and her younger brother Danny is central to the story and her motivations. Danny seems to be her reason for living, the way spouses or lovers often are for those at war, rather than her boyfriend Shane or her parents. Danny is such a special kid, a really well-drawn and memorable character. How does her love for Danny anchor her through her post-war storm?

Thank you. Danny and Lauren have a bond based on intellect and humor. They’ve cared for each other emotionally while their family was disintegrating, and Lauren has provided for Danny materially. Her main motivation in life is that he should do better than her, he should have everything, be happy, see beautiful things. Understand the world better. She believes deeply that Danny, if well cared for, has the power to transform the terrible environment they come from. Seeing him do well and preventing him from experiencing pain is her commitment to staying in the world. Whether she’s able to keep that commitment is the primary question of the novel.

There are certainly some memoirs and non-fiction accounts of war by women, which is a good thing. But it’s going to take about a generation, and a lot more women publishing fiction, before we can see if there’s truly a distinction [between war novels by men and women].

There are other novels about soldiers suffering from PTSD. But what I especially liked about Be Safe I Love You is that much of the stress in Lauren’s life is caused by her family’s situation and her relationships with her parents, rather than just her nightmarish experiences in Iraq. I loved the family scenes, which reminded me of the realism of Russell Banks and Richard Russo, who are the bards of rural upstate New York.

Thank you, Bill. I am very flattered to be compared to those guys. I love them both, and obviously we come from the same environments, so we are describing some of the same landscapes and poverty-related issues. A person’s early environment is a big contributing factor in PTSD, but I’ve yet to read anything about war that really explores that, and I wanted to write about it.

You have a distinctive prose style that is both muscular and lyrical. I was occasionally reminded of James Agee’s writing in A Death in the Family and Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (although you avoid his Faulknerian sentences). Did you begin as a poet? Do you write poetry as well as fiction?

When I was a child I wrote poetry. The language in Be Safe all has a particular lyrical sense and meter and dynamic because I wrote it to mirror musical composition. I wanted it to be like a song. The phrasing and prose is very deliberate, but the language is not “tarted up like Faulkner,” as my brother likes to say.

What would you say distinguishes the recent flurry of books by female authors about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars? What do women have to say that male authors don’t (or at least haven’t said yet)?

I don’t think we’ve seen enough fiction about war written by women to know if there is a difference yet. There are certainly some memoirs and non-fiction accounts of war by women, which is a good thing. But it’s going to take about a generation, and a lot more women publishing fiction, before we can see if there’s truly a distinction. I would say in general so far, there’s less aestheticising of violence done by women war writers. They don’t lovingly linger over the carnage, you don’t get the ambient sense of solipsistic machismo from it. There’s a maturity to it, less ambivalence. They’re not writing about being victims of the killing they signed up to do.

If you could put one book in the hands of President Obama, the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and members of Congress, what would it be, and why? Would you want every American to read it as well?

I would want every American to read Close to the Knives by David Wojnarowicz. It was written at a time when the U.S. government actively contributed to a plague raging unchecked throughout the world because they thought it would only kill queer people. The book is so filled with transgressive beauty, it’s staggering. I cry every time I read it.

What have you read recently that you recommend?

Katey Schultz’s Flashes of War. It’s a fantastically written, morally responsible, brilliant book, containing multiple perspectives. I’m very excited to be part of a panel with Katey and Helen Benedict at Word Bookstore in Brooklyn on April 24th. Helen’s writing on women veterans is groundbreaking. [See my review of Flashes of War here: http://wp.me/p3EtWm-6E; and my review of Benedict’s Sand Queen here:  http://wp.me/p3EtWm-9k]

I was intrigued by your biography. You have such an unusual life story that I think you have the material for a great memoir. What made you decide to drop out of high school to travel and work in the Middle East? How did a job delivering newspapers eventually lead to working as a full-time reporter? And I have to ask: How did you manage to gain admittance to an MFA program without a high school diploma or college degree? (For that alone, you are no doubt a heroine to many.)

Well, thank you. That’s a pretty big question. I didn’t like school from an early age because it interfered with the things I wanted to do and study. I was always working on a number of projects and ideas as a kid and an adolescent; and living upstate, going to schools with no funding and terrible teachers, was an immense drag. Deadening. I started skipping school in 9th grade, only going when there were tests, so I could maintain good grades. I read independently and did no homework, focused on voice lessons and music theory, reading literature, and writing. By 10th grade I went only for extracurricular things I was involved in—Allstate Choir or Model UN, I was still enrolled in AP classes and getting college credit. Finally I dropped out, got two jobs and my own apartment, and began writing. I worked seven days a week in a restaurant, and later in a bookstore. When I saved enough money, I left the country, but quickly learned that to make it on my paltry $1,500, I’d need to live in a squat or sleep outside, and that meant getting somewhere warm.

I lived for quite a while in Athens, Greece working under-the-table jobs and then later in Israel, working in an orchard and on a landscaping crew and meeting my son’s father, who was also a musician. When I came back to the States three years later, I’d nearly a whole manuscript and enough material for a lifetime. I’d also soon have a baby, but no means to support him, so I took a job for a weekly independent delivering papers, hounding the editor to let me write. Eventually a staffer couldn’t make it to cover a Teamsters’ strike and I got sent. It was my first assignment, and I actually had my baby with me. After that the editor put me on a beat covering environmental issues. I worked there for four years, moving my way up to the City Desk, amassing enough clips and doing enough investigative work to eventually get a job at a daily covering government and crime.

The whole time I was also writing fiction, reading lots of great stuff like Jean Genet and Celine and Zora Neale Hurston. The idea of studying any of these things at school seemed ridiculous and I never would have applied to graduate school at all, but I wanted to teach community college, and needed a MFA to do it — so I applied to the only school I was philosophically interested in (Goddard, which comes out of the tradition of John Dewey and the idea that education and experience are intricately linked). I was accepted based on a portfolio of fiction.

So Much Pretty – which was based on an abduction and murder I covered in my early 20s — sold the third semester of school, but I still wanted to teach. Community colleges are simply amazing places for dialog and social change, and class issues are not swept under the rug. They’re full of organic intellectuals, people who’ve had to work hard their whole lives, and generally have a depth of emotional and experiential intelligence that makes them some of the smartest, quickest people I’ve known. After I’d lectured at places like Cornell and Oxford, I valued my students and work in the Bronx more than ever, and was grateful I’d gotten the degree.

What are you working on now, or what do you have in mind for your next project?

I’m writing a novel about homeless bookish kids living in Greece, a woodland fire fighter living in the Pacific Northwest, and the poetry of John Donne.

BE SAFE, I LOVE YOU: a riveting portrait of a female soldier’s homecoming

Be Safe I Love You  Hoffman__Cara

Be Safe, I Love You

By Cara Hoffman

Simon & Schuster, 2014

304 pages, $26.00

The latest in a remarkable series of books by women about the Iraq War, Be Safe, I Love You tells the story of returning soldier Lauren Clay and the challenges she faces in re-entering the lives of her family, friends, and civilian society.

What makes these female-authored novels distinctive is the authors’ decision to focus on aspects of the war that usually fly under the radar of both media and public awareness: what it’s like to be a female in the military; what life is like for the wives (and, increasingly, husbands), children, and family members left behind; surviving the homecoming; coping with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder; and adjusting to a world in which the war seems distant both literally and figuratively and civilians often have inaccurate and distorted views of the war and what our military personnel are doing while on deployment.

Hoffman’s book is both a fever dream of one soldier’s struggle with PTSD and a domestic drama about a splintered family and an isolated upstate New York town with little to offer the soldier or its civilian residents. When Lauren Clay arrives in Watertown, her severely depressed father Jack and precocious younger brother Danny are understandably overjoyed to have her home and in one piece. Seemingly. But it soon becomes evident to Lauren’s boyfriend Shane, best friend Holly, and even to Danny that “she is not herself.” She tries valiantly to “act as if” she is well and happy to be home, and in occasional moments, she is. But there are warning signs: she is sullen, distracted, and preoccupied. She has a hair-trigger temper and is particularly annoyed when people fail to do what she says. As a sergeant with a platoon under her command in Iraq at age 21, she is used to giving orders and being obeyed without hesitation.

“She’d come home to a world of fragile baby animals. Soft inarticulate wide-eyed morons with know-nothing epiphanies and none of them — not one of them — did what she said, which was beginning to grate on her, cut to the heart of how wrong things were. Still, she could accept that these people didn’t know how to lead or follow, but they could at least shut up. If anyone owed her anything for serving in Iraq it was to shut the fuck up.”

She refuses to talk about her experiences in Iraq or even what the war was like generally. It is a nightmare best ignored. When her father’s best friend, PJ, a Vietnam veteran, says she can tell him about Iraq later, she thinks, “She would not be wasting one more second talking about acts that shouldn’t be described and couldn’t be undone.” Later she thinks about the soldiers who relied on their religious faith to get them through the war. She didn’t understand how they could believe, and in time she couldn’t understand the war. “People loved this religious stuff because it actually made no sense. Just like the war made no sense. And she knew now for certain that feeling of mystery, that impenetrable false logic was necessary to make people do stupid things.” The morning after a fight with her boyfriend, Lauren realizes “[s]he’d seriously fucked things up with Shane but she wasn’t about to let him get close to the thing she brought home that lived inside her skin. And she needed to protect herself, make sure she didn’t get soft.”

We learn the key elements of Lauren’s back story. Following her parents’ divorce, she took care of her depressed and bed-ridden father and younger brother all through high school while having no contact with her mother, who remained incommunicado in Buffalo. Lauren is a gifted student and singer with a bright future at the college of her choice. But with the family’s money problems, she feels obligated to join the Army for the relatively lucrative pay. She puts her college education and singing career on hold to take care of her family the only way she can devise. During her time in Iraq, she is caught in the double pressure-cooker of her family’s needs and her duties as a sergeant in a surreal war environment.

Her thoughts of Danny helped keep her sane while in Iraq. “[S]he felt the world order itself in the sound of his voice, his throaty baby laugh. This was the thought she called upon in training, in transport, in the emptiness of waiting that would never again be called boredom. It was with her the whole time, that sound. And there was no way she would have come home without it. No place outside that sound where she could live. No home, no country, no body to inhabit. It was the last breath of music she still felt in her belly, a little fire that she needed to stoke and carry.”

We also learn that she became very close with a fellow soldier, Daryl Green, with whom she made plans to reunite and possibly work together in the Jeanne d’Arc oil basin off the coast of eastern Canada. Daryl remains a mystery to us, presented only through Lauren’s memories of their time in Iraq and thoughts of continuing their friendship at home. But something doesn’t feel right about this situation, and the foreboding feeling only grows as the story progresses. Lauren’s relationships with everyone except Danny, whom she adores, soon deteriorate and she becomes increasingly obsessed with visiting Daryl and moving ahead with their plans in order to establish the new future she desires. After reestablishing tenuous contact with her mother, who asks her and Danny to come visit, Lauren decides to make the trip, but only after a detour into Canada to visit Daryl and the coastal oil fields, to which she feels she must make a pilgrimage. The mystery deepens, the ominous mood increases, and the last quarter of the novel becomes a suspenseful psychological thriller as we watch Lauren’s untreated PTSD play out.

Lauren is trying to escape from herself, with little success. “[S]omehow she’d forgotten that she had not returned at all. The woman she was supposed to be, was meant to be, would have been, could never exist at all now, and she was stuck dragging around this ruined version of herself. She owed it to the memory of her real self to get rid of this doppelganger that she was trapped inside….”

Although the plot was compelling, I was equally impressed by the quality of Hoffman’s writing, which alternated between a powerful directness and moments of haunting prose poetry. The supporting characters of Shane and Holly, Shane’s three uncles (so similar they are known as “the three Patricks”), Lauren’s eccentric Gulf War-damaged vocal teacher Troy, and her mentally ill father are well-drawn and credible, and they play a key role in making Lauren’s story realistic and riveting. The reader cares about these people and wants things to turn out well for them.

Be Safe, I Love You is just Cara Hoffman’s second novel, but you will know you are in the hands of a master here. You can add Hoffman’s name to those of Benedict, Fallon, Robinson, Carpenter, and Schultz as writers who have shown us the true and long-lasting consequences and costs of war.