Eight women make National Book Awards fiction longlist

The National Book Foundation announced the 10 finalists for the National Book Award for Fiction this morning, and it’s an impressive list full of pleasant surprises. The first is that eight of the 10 nominees are women; another is that six of the eight are women of color; and the last is the presence of several surprising dark horse selections from small presses.

    

While it’s no surprise to see Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing and Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach among the finalists, it’s gratifying to see this kind of attention given to Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko, an epic saga of the struggles of ethnic Koreans in Japan, Lisa Ko’s Bellwether Prize-winning The Leavers, and Charmaine Craig’s Miss Burma. 

Independent publishers are represented by Counterpoint Press of Berkeley with A Kind of Freedom by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton, Graywolf Press of Minneapolis with Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties: Stories and New Issues Poetry & Prose at Western Michigan University with Barren Island by Carol Zoref.

    

Finalists will be announced on October 4, with the awards ceremony to be held in New York on November 15.

The complete list:

Dark at the Crossing by Elliot Ackerman (Knopf/Penguin Random House)

The King Is Always Above the People: Stories by Daniel Alarcón (Riverhead Books/Penguin Random House)

Miss Burma by Charmaine Craig (Grove Press/Grove Atlantic)

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan (Scribner/Simon & Schuster)

The Leavers by Lisa Ko (Algonquin Books/Workman Publishing)

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (Grand Central Publishing/Hachette Book Group)

Her Body and Other Parties: Stories by Carmen Maria Machado (Graywolf Press)

A Kind of Freedom by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton (Counterpoint Press)

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward (Scribner/Simon & Schuster)

Barren Island by Carol Zoref (New Issues Poetry & Prose)

 

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Brittani Sonnenberg on Home Leave: “Certain autobiographical experiences seemed to clear their throats and step forward, demanding to be represented in the novel”

Brittani Sonnenberg with Home Leave cover

Brittani Sonnenberg’s first novel, Home Leave, was published on June 3 by Grand Central Publishing. It is the story of the peripatetic Kriegstein family (parents Chris and Elise and their daughters, 16-year-old Leah and 14-year-old Sophie) and their experiences living abroad in Hamburg, London, Shanghai, and Singapore. It is a complex exploration of the various relationships in this one small family, the nature of home, and the impact of a family tragedy on those left behind. Sonnenberg’s writing possesses a sophistication and insight that makes readers sit up and take notice. The opening chapter is as brilliant and clever a piece of writing as I’ve read in a long while (and will no doubt be widely anthologized, as it can stand on its own quite nicely).

Sonnenberg studied English literature with a citation in Mandarin Chinese at Harvard University and earned an MFA from the University of Michigan. She lives in Berlin, where she is a frequent contributor to Berlin Stories on NPR. Her award-winning fiction has been published in magazines such as Ploughshares, anthologized in the O. Henry Short Story Prize Series, and received distinguished story recognition by Best American Short Stories. Her non-fiction has been published by Time Magazine, the Hairpin, the Associated Press, NPR, Minneapolis Star Tribune, and elsewhere.

Home Leave appears to be autobiographical, at least in the sense that you lived in some of the places that are featured in the book. How do you decide which personal experiences to make use of in fiction? Do certain experiences seemingly make that decision for you? And how do you then decide how much to rework the truth into fiction?

I think that’s exactly the way to describe how it felt to write Home Leave: certain autobiographical experiences seemed to clear their throats and step forward, demanding to be represented in the novel. At other times, I would be working on an utterly fictional passage, and a tiny autobiographical sliver would insert itself. Before I began the novel, I wrote a memoir that I ultimately put in the proverbial drawer: something wasn’t coming together with it. But I still had a deep urge to continue exploring the memoir’s material (an American family overseas, a sibling’s sudden death) in fiction. It didn’t feel like “reworking the truth” since the novel’s chapters, as they came to me, felt fresh in their fictional forms. But I suppose in some corner of my brain I was reworking the truth in a playful way, like a kid playing dress up, trying out different costumes and props.

I lived in Honolulu from ages 10-12 and it had a profound effect on me (although it wasn’t a foreign country, it felt like one to me). What are your thoughts on living in a foreign country as a child? Do you think everyone should do that?

I think it makes a lot of sense that living in Hawaii at such an impressionable time changed you deeply. I think living overseas as a child is both a privilege and a burden: you’re exposed to a profoundly different way of living and thinking and being, but it also jostles your notion of where home is and who you are. I recently conducted an interview with several writers who have settled overseas as adults, who all claimed that this “outsider status” as a foreigner can be crucial for writing and for gathering material. That said, I wouldn’t recommend it for everyone.

We hear and read a lot about parents coping with the death of a child, how they never get over it, understandably. But what is that loss like for a sibling? We don’t hear nearly as much about the long-term effects within that relationship.

It’s devastating for every family member, in different ways. For a sibling – at least for me – there was a lot of guilt about surviving my sister Blair, who was two years younger than me. And I felt horribly alone in the world without the sister that had shared so many worlds with me. I still ache from that missing, although now it’s a gentler throbbing than before.

Have you always known you were going to write about a death in the family? Or did it impose itself on you while you were trying to write about other subjects?

Several of my short stories involved the death of a loved one, but the novel was the first time I tried writing about the subject in a way that felt so “close to home.” It was difficult to write, but I felt the urge to deal directly with my family’s experience, rather than through an entirely fictionalized scenario.

How long did you work on Home Leave? Did it come to you slowly over time or in a vision, as it were?

Both. Home Leave took a long time to write, and it came out very quickly. As I mentioned earlier, I had worked on a memoir for a couple of years that I finally put aside. I started from scratch on a new fiction project that dealt with similar material, and ended up writing the novel in a little under two years. But the subject of a sibling’s death and an American family’s life overseas had been on my mind for many years, and one of the chapters is adapted from a short story I wrote in college.

How many drafts did you write before you reached the published version? Who helped you produce the book as published, and what was their contribution? 

My agent, Jenni Ferrari Adler, and another reader, a close friend of mine, helped me to revise the first draft. Jenni sold the second (or perhaps it was the third?) draft to Grand Central. Several chapters then went through major revisions with my editor at GC, Helen Atsma, and even my German editor, Ulrike Ostermeyer at Arche Verlag, helped a great deal with the chapters set in Berlin and Hamburg.

What experiences, as opposed to books, have shaped your perspective and voice as a writer?

Living overseas, especially in Shanghai, was an enormous influence. I also think my Southern heritage (my mother is from Mississippi) has affected how I view storytelling and humor. And my sister’s death has forced me to think a lot about mourning, grief, love, and family, and prompted me to investigate these themes in my fiction.

Are you part of any writers’ groups, for example a group of friends from your MFA days or organized writing groups? If so, what do they offer you as a writer?

Yes, I am. I have a casual writing group in Berlin that helped me with several chapters from the novel. I also have friends from my MFA program who I turn to for help, not only with manuscripts, but also just with the daily frustrations and quandaries of being a writer. And I have a good friend in the US – a fantastic writer who works as a psychiatrist – who I often consult.

Which of your stories would you recommend to someone who enjoyed Home Leave? Where can we find them? Do you have any plans for a story collection?

Thanks for asking! My short story “Hong Kong Buffet,” about a Chinese restaurant in Mississippi, was just published by Readux Books (a wonderful small press in Berlin), and is available as an e-book and a paperback; and my short story “Taiping” (which won a 2008 O. Henry Award) can be found online. I don’t have any current plans to go out with a short story collection, but I’ll keep you posted!

You are currently living in Berlin. Why did you decide to settle there? Is it a particularly good location for Americans? It seems as if it has become the new Paris for creative types.

In some ways, my decision to settle in Berlin was something of a coincidence; I was looking for a break from the Midwest (after graduate school in Michigan) and happened to visit Berlin and fall in love with the city. I do think it’s a good location for Americans – there are a lot of us over there, especially from Brooklyn! – but one thing I truly value about Berlin is its cosmopolitanism. It draws creative types from all over the world and it’s energizing to see so many people who are so excited to be there.

What is your writing routine (if you have one)? Where do you write? What five things do you need in order to write?

I try to write for about three hours a day, usually in the morning. I read a wonderful article on establishing a writing routine by Ellen Sussman in Poets and Writers a few years back that I’ve adopted (somewhat) and that’s helped me stay (somewhat) focused. I write mostly at home, but I also have a shared office space with other writers in Berlin that I recently joined. Five things I need in order to write: a window, relative quiet, a laptop, courage, and coffee.

What are your thoughts on the issue of gender bias in publishing (such as the issue of feminized cover art used on literary fiction by women and the imbalance of bylines and books reviewed)? Joyce Carol Oates recently noted that it seems unnecessary to have awards such as the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction when women are winning so many of the major awards (the Nobel Prize, the Pulitzer, the Booker, etc.). Do you agree or disagree? Do we really need things like the VIDA Count (and, for that matter, a blog like Read Her Like an Open Book)?

This is a tough question. On the one hand, there is an objective disparity that needs to be addressed (and I feel like resources like VIDA and this blog call necessary attention to the issue). On the other hand, sometimes all the uproar drowns out the individual voices of the books and authors themselves. What everyone would prefer, of course, is a level playing field, but until we have that (and in order to get there), I think intermediary efforts are crucial.

Which authors and books are your primary influences?

Lots! But I’ll list a few…

Madeleine L’Engle A Wrinkle in Time (my favorite childhood novel)

Eudora Welty “Why I Live at the P.O.” (short story)

Ha Jin “When Cowboy Chicken Came to Town” (short story)

V.S. Naipaul Reading and Writing: A Personal Account

Pretty much anything by Alice Munro

Rainer Maria Rilke Sonnets to Orpheus

Jennifer Egan A Visit from the Goon Squad

What have you read recently that impressed you? Which authors and/or books deserve more attention?

I recently read Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote and really loved it, especially the way he paints setting. I think Jane Gardam, a British writer, now 86, deserves more attention. She wrote a fantastic trilogy mostly set in Hong Kong, the first book of which is Old Filth. I also admire Amy Bloom’s short story collection A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You. And I recently came across a poem (“Found to Be Borrowed from Some Material Appearance”) by Donna Stonecipher, a Berlin-based American poet, which I think is pretty brilliant.

“Women in Bed” probes the lives of complex women

WomeninBedRGB-330       Jessica Keener

Women in Bed: Stories

By Jessica Keener

The Story Plant, 2013

142 pages, $11.95

Jessica Keener debuted in 2012 with her novel Night Swim, which was acclaimed by the likes of Pulitzer Prize winner Jennifer Egan (A Visit from the Goon Squad) and Sara Gruen (Water for Elephants), as well as book critics  from The New York Times and Boston Globe. She returned in late 2013 with Women in Bed, a collection of nine stories that explore the lives of women who are struggling with a range of personal demons, relationship issues, and societal and cultural demands. The title refers to their various ways in which they retreat or suffer from these conflicts and challenges, both of which are often done “in bed.”

Keener’s stories contain more shadow than light, and she is not interested in writing about the lives of one-dimensional, “likable” characters. Her protagonists are complex in the way of actual human beings; they are women who are at one time or another isolated, confused, difficult, or uncommunicative. While these stories are easy to read, they don’t offer easy answers to the characters’ complicated problems, and several of the endings leave the reader to infer or predict the eventual closure (if any). As in life, some experiences are not resolved with all the loose ends tied up neatly.

In the opening story, “Secrets,” a waitress attempts to befriend a woman who comes in every day, writes in a notebook, and eats the same meal for lunch. But their expectations of each other and their relationship differ, with unsettling results. “Papier Mache” follows Leah, a college student who copes with her grief over a death in the family by going to battle with her art professor, her therapist, and her mother over matters large and small. In “Boarders” another college student is slowly realizing it is time to move on from one relationship, but she moves awkwardly toward the next one. Jennifer’s fraught romantic situation is aggravated by the elderly man from whom she has rented a room, a curmudgeon whose restrictions chafe on her.

In “Woman with Birds in Her Chest,” Cynthia decides to retire early from her job as a social worker at St. Agnes Hospital in order to focus on herself for a change. But that proves more difficult than she expects; she has concentrated on the needs of others, both her clients and her husband, for so long that she is not certain who she is and what she really wants or needs.

“Forgiveness” explores the differing responses of Jennifer and her older sister, Ruth, to the abuse visited upon Ruth by their father, who is outraged by Ruth’s early expressions of her sexual orientation. Years later, Jennifer looks back and wonders how Ruth was able to forgive him and put the pain of her childhood and adolescence behind her to create a new life with her partner in the Florida Keys, while Jennifer has remained bitter and unsettled. When Jennifer finally visits her sister in Florida, Ruth allows her to steer her motorboat. “I pushed the tiller too hard at first, then discovered how minor adjustments of the tiller, an inch left or right, kept us on course. ‘Easy,’ she said. ‘Works best.'”

Keener’s writing is the real strength of this collection. In every story you are pulled in to the character’s life and struggles. She conveys a vivid sense of place and a range of moods with a few well-chosen phrases or sentences. So while the stories are dark and haunting, the writing is sharp and memorable. Keener has been a Pushcart Prize nominee and was listed in The Pushcart Prize Anthology as an “Outstanding Writer.” The stories here provide ample evidence of her talent and reason enough to await her next book with interest.

Siobhan Fallon: “More perspectives and differing voices on the topic of contemporary war can only be a good thing.”

Siobhan-Fallon-husband  Siobhan-Fallon-pbs

Photos courtesy of PBS/WNET’s “Need to Know.”

I love the military community and feel very at home in it; I’m fortunate to have great military friends. But the stories of those who few who fell through the cracks haunt me, and it was their stories I wanted to shine a light on.

My review of Siobhan Fallon’s short story collection, You Know When the Men Are Gone, can be found here: http://wp.me/p3EtWm-bE  (published 4/27/14).

What inspired you to write the stories in You Know When the Men Are Gone? Had you done any serious writing before marrying a military man and living at Fort Hood, or did the experience turn you into a writer?

I’d been writing forever, from little stapled-together books in childhood to a few stories in literary magazines after getting my MFA in Creative Writing in 2000. But I think that it was life at Fort Hood that made me most fully embrace the axiom of “write what you know.”

An army base is a strange place. An army base in a time of war is even stranger. Especially after 4000 men pack up their duffel bags, put on their uniforms, and leave their wives and children for an entire year. I wanted to show that world in my stories, from the moments that lead up to the separation, to the long and difficult absence, to the return. Military families are wrenched apart and expected to piece themselves together again and again. Somehow, they manage. They improvise. They take the strangeness and make it normal.

Which story came to you first? When did you realize you were on to something, that the stories of the families left behind at Fort Hood needed to be told?

The first story I wrote was the title story, about Meg listening through the walls and imagining what was going on in Natalya’s life. I felt a kinship to Meg and her eavesdropping; I was also listening in on the lives of those around me, paying close attention to the details, trying to weave the realities into fiction. I was a Family Readiness Group leader while I was writing most of the stories—meaning I was in charge of getting information about my husband’s company out to all the family members. He had a 160-man Infantry unit (and the Army Infantry, at least at this moment in American history, is still a job for males alone), so all of those spouses, all of those soldiers’ moms and dads, were calling and emailing me when the men were in Iraq. I suddenly had more insight into the military world than I’d ever had before.

Sometimes I look back and think of all the things I ought to have done. There were some very, very young spouses with multiple children, and no husband or family around to give them a hand. A few haunt me still. I think that guilt is filtered into the title story and I didn’t even realize it while I was writing. Meg thinks she is helping Natalya but in the end she knows she could have done so much more.

I was trying to capture a very specific moment in history, the “surge” of 2007—when troops were at an accelerated deployment rate. A large combined arms installation like Fort Hood was hit especially hard.

One of the strengths of this collection is the strong sense of place. I could really feel the heat, the isolation, the loneliness amid the crowd, and the often desperate sense of people hanging on, waiting for their husband’s safe return. Can you talk a little about how you created that palpable sense of lives on hold?

I’m a huge fan of “place.” I like to think of my settings almost as characters and try to flesh them out as such. I started to write this collection set in a nebulous, nameless base, thinking it would better represent all bases if it was never actually situated on a map. But I think it was when I finally gave in to the pressure of Fort Hood, using the road signs and firing ranges I glimpsed every day, allowing Texas to insert its horns and heat and wide swaths of land, that the stories started to come together as a true collection.

Now I am writing a novel set in Jordan and I find myself eagerly reading everything I can get about Amman, wanting to capture that particular world as well.

“Camp Liberty” is a particularly powerful story. It is set in Iraq, where we meet a compelling female character, interpreter Raneen Mahmood. Can you talk a little about Sergeant Moge’s internal conflict and its effect on him? As with the title story, the ending is surprising and heartbreaking yet it is entirely believable under the circumstances.     

Time and time again I would hear a young soldier say how much he was looking forward to “Getting Out” (which was the original title of the story, by the way). Entering the so-called real world as a civilian began to sound like an idyllic vacation in Shangri-La (especially as soldiers began to hear rumors about friends getting “stop-lossed” [having their tour of duty extended] before a deployment and being unable to leave the Army even if they wanted to). But a few minutes later, the same soldier and his buddies would start talking about Iraq or Afghanistan and I’d be struck with the excitement and vividness of their tales. None of their civilian stories had any of that heft and fire. And I couldn’t help but wonder if these soldiers really did want to be set free from the military.

I’ve spent quite a few years bartending at my father’s Irish pub and have heard more than my share of veterans’ stories. And they tell their war stories as if that time of their lives was their most intense, most important. I wanted to explore that dichotomy, how a soldier has to choose between a life he might relish in a certain way (the companionship, the adrenaline, the intensity, the knowledge that you are doing something for the greater good) with the security and complacency of civilian life.

Upheaval is intrinsic to military life with the constant moves and readjustments. A deployment naturally amplifies preexisting trouble in a relationship. We all know that relationships are hard work, but military spouses have the added stress of being separated for long periods of time, with the husband and wife living in worlds completely at odds with one another: America vs. a Third World war zone.

“Remission” involves the domestic tension between a mother and her 14-year-old daughter. While Ellen is dealing with cancer, “wild child” Delia is struggling with the insidious effects of loneliness, abandonment issues, and anxiety about both the present and the future, although she never says anything about these problems. Are parent-child relationships on base often this complex and fraught with passive-aggressive behavior? Are a lot of kids in therapy?

My eldest daughter was six months old when my husband last deployed to Iraq in 2009, and eighteen months old when he returned. So she was unable to articulate her feelings. While he was gone I tried to play a lot of video I had of him so she would be familiar with his voice and image, and I think that helped.  And nowadays a lot of people can Skype regularly with their deployed soldiers, even at some of the smaller and far-flung operating bases in Afghanistan. There are also amazing tools available to military families, everything from free Sesame Street DVDs about how to help kids handle deployments, to the USO recording soldiers at their forward operating bases reading a book aloud and then sending both the DVD and the book to the families at home.

Despite these efforts, I think kids might have the most difficult time; they can’t understand why a parent has left them. Kids are incredibly resilient creatures, but no matter how hard the Army or the remaining parent tries to mitigate the effects, the deployed parent is still missing a chunk of a child’s life, the birthdays and Christmases, the trips to emergency rooms and school plays. You add up multiple deployments and, well, I think it’s a tragedy.

There is a great national program, Military Family Life Consultants, a service available to all of our active duty military and their family members, that has representatives at most bases across the country. It’s confidential, free, very flexible. I think there is much less of a stigma for people to ask for help these days and Military Family Life Consultants is a supportive place to turn.

“The Last Stand,” “Leave” and “You Survived the War, Now Survive the Homecoming” (the fifth, sixth and seventh of the eight stories) address the return of soldiers to their wives and life at Fort Hood. They appear to be the heart of the book, when the men are no longer “gone” and assume key roles in the stories. In each story, the homecoming seems to be as difficult as the deployment, with the men fighting jealousy, family fragmentation, and phantoms from the war. Is it always difficult in one way or another, or are there some instances where the soldier’s re-integration goes well?

One of my husband’s commanding officers used to say, “Deployments make strong marriages stronger.” I think the inverse can also be true. Upheaval is intrinsic to military life with the constant moves and readjustments. A deployment naturally amplifies preexisting trouble in a relationship. We all know that relationships are hard work, but military spouses have the added stress of being separated for long periods of time, with the husband and wife living in worlds completely at odds with one another: America vs. a Third World war zone. A lot can happen in a year apart, especially when communication is difficult at best.

On the one hand, you have the spouse, let’s just say wife, and the person she depends on the most is suddenly gone. So she learns how to handle the household for a year. She disciplines the children, pays the bills, gets the oil changed, mows the grass. She has figured out how to manage on her own, this independence feels like an accomplishment, and she thinks her soldier will be proud of her.

Then her soldier returns home and it is, of course, amazing for the first couple of weeks. But he starts paying the bills and doesn’t like how she’s balanced the check book, or thinks she’s been too soft on the kids, or wants to watch Mad Men instead of Dancing With the Stars. There is bound to be conflict. He has returned to the place he has been dreaming about, and suddenly feels like he no longer belongs, that his family doesn’t need him. The kids have changed, they have new routines, and perhaps they can’t help but resent him. And meanwhile the soldier is dealing with his own problems, the completely different life he himself has led, being surrounded by soldiers twenty-four hours a day, where he had a very specific role to play, maybe he yelled a lot to get things done, maybe he cursed like a sailor, maybe he never had to wash his hands before he ate, not to mention maybe he was constantly in danger, maybe he was wounded, maybe he saw things no one should ever have to see.

And this man and woman, who have been apart for a year, leading utterly separate lives, are sleeping next to each other, sharing a bank account and the family car, helping the kiddos with homework. They have to learn to depend on each other again, knowing that in another year, they will probably go through the same cycle of separation. So ostensibly everything should be just great, the soldier is home and whole and safe, and yet there are new issues that must be dealt with, things that seem so small and unworthy after handling suicide car bombers and kidnappings, and yet these are the things that make up daily life.

I think women writers might more often focus on different refractions of ‘war,’ how its effects ripple outward, touching more than the soldiers immediately in its blast area.

So yes, it’s hard. But let’s not underestimate our military members or their families. Over a million U.S. troops have been deployed to the Middle East and Afghanistan since September 11th. Most of them return home after multiple deployments, manage to work through any transitional difficulties, and continue being great mothers and fathers, husbands and wives. My husband deployed three times and none of them were easy; I still only hear snippets of some of his darkest moments in Iraq and Afghanistan. But we’re very happily married. I think he is a phenomenal father to our two girls. Like many military families, we weathered the storm.

Your book and Helen Benedict’s Sand Queen were published in 2011; to the best of my knowledge, they were the first two books about the Iraq War written by women. Why do you think it took so long for women writers to start addressing the war? What happened to create critical mass for these two books and the flurry of others in the past few years? What do women have to say on the subject that men either don’t or simply haven’t said?

I think that our access to the war in Afghanistan and Iraq has been so immediate, with embedded journalists, blogging soldiers, and a 24-hour news cycle, that, at least in the beginning, there hadn’t been the pressing need for fictionalized accounts. And, though more than a decade of America at war in the Middle East is an incredibly long time, ten years in the writing world is not. There are almost ten years between Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections and Freedom. Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs deals with September 11th and it didn’t come out until September 2009. Fiction, especially good fiction, can take a long time.

I don’t want to say that women writers categorically can offer something specifically that male authors cannot (because then I would be implying that the opposite is true, and the idea that women can’t write about war, or about anything, is just silly; a fiction writer, by the very nature of writing fiction, should only be limited by talent and imagination, not subject).  However, I think women writers might more often focus on different refractions of ‘war,’ how its effects ripple outward, touching more than the soldiers immediately in its blast area. For example, you have Erin Celello’s recent Learning to Stay and Emily Gray Tredowe’s soon-to-be-released Blue Stars. Learning to Stay is about a soldier who returns with severe PTSD and the wife that cares for him. Blue Stars is about family members who tackle the return of their severely injured soldiers during the Walter Reed neglect scandal of 2007. Compare those novels to the predominantly male-authored short story collection Fire and Forget, written almost entirely by combat vets. Quite a few of Fire and Forget’s stories also navigate injuries sustained in combat, but they are told from the military member’s point of view. Celello’s and Tredowe’s works stand alone as great books, and also compliment and complete those works written from the military standpoint, which are more often written by men. (Aside: Mariette Kalinowski, a female Marine, also has a story in Fire and Forget.)

It’s balance. Symmetry. Laura Harrington’s Alice Bliss is a novel about a teenage girl dealing with her father’s deployment. Ben Percy’s classic story “Refresh Refresh” depicts teenage boys dealing with their fathers’ deployments. Each tale is incredibly different, as different as the authors who penned them. As with anything, I think the more perspectives and differing voices we get on the topic of contemporary war can only be a good thing.

How has You Know When the Men Are Gone been received by people in the military world? Any difference in the reaction of service members and spouses?

For the most part, I’ve gotten very supportive feedback from service members, spouses, gold star widows, veterans, children of veterans. I’ve been invited to speak at the United States Military Academy at West Point, as well as spouse club book clubs and veteran events from NY, Washington DC, Virginia, Nebraska, Florida, and more. But I’ve also gotten a few very, very angry emails. Some spouses feel I aired “dirty laundry” and betrayed our community by not showing a more positive side to life on base. They complain that my stories are too “dark.”  And I can understand that. We get the most protective about those we love most: our families, our friends, our communities. We want to always present our best to the outside world. But you also need to honor the difficulties so many families are facing by talking about it, letting the world see that there is more going on than flag waving at homecoming ceremonies.

I love the military community and feel very at home in it; I’m fortunate to have great military friends. But the stories of those who few who fell through the cracks haunt me, and it was their stories I wanted to shine a light on. I was trying to capture a very specific moment in history, the “surge” of 2007—when troops were at an accelerated deployment rate. A large combined arms installation like Fort Hood was hit especially hard in a way that perhaps not all military bases or posts were hit. It was important to me to honor the sacrifices that these soldiers and spouses were making. The vast majority of Americans aren’t married to a soldier—maybe they don’t even know one. I didn’t understand military life until I married into it. So it was important for me to give an unvarnished glimpse of life behind the front gates of an Army base in a time of war.

You’re currently living in the Middle East. How does the life of a military wife there compare to that life in the U.S.?

It’s funny, when I live in the United States, I am very aware of being a military spouse, always carrying my military ID with me, using my husband’s Social Security number as my primary source of identification, going to military doctors for treatment or commissaries and PXs for shopping. But when I’m living abroad, I’m just aware of being an American. Here in Abu Dhabi, I’m very careful about the way I dress or interact with people. Whether it is my own megalomania or actually the truth, I tell myself that some of the people I meet, Pakistani taxi drivers, Afghani rug dealers, Emirati school teachers, haven’t met any Americans in the flesh before. Maybe they only know our country according to action films or reality TV, and I want them to see another side of us, more respectful of their ways and culture, less wanton and flagrant of our own.

I’m always interested to know whom writers like when they assume the role of avid reader.  So who are your favorite writers? Favorite books? Are there a couple of books you think everyone (or at least should read?)

I have a soft spot for novels told by unreliable narrators, especially these days as I try to write my own novel narrated by a woman who may or may not have caused her closest friend’s death.

I’ve recently read a few stellar books: We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler (I think it is one of the best novels I have ever read. I read it twice, it was so good, and it only got better on the second reading. I immediately tracked down Fowler’s email and sent her a gushing, besotted note when I finished it.); The Blazing World, Siri Hustvedt; The Woman Upstairs, Claire Messud; The Night Guest, Fiona McFarlane.

Some of my favorite writers are Ann Patchett, Lorrie Moore, Jennifer Egan, Valerie Trueblood. All time favorite books are The End of the Affair by Graham Greene and Joan Didion’s The Book of Common Prayer.

What are you working on now, and when can we look forward to reading it?

I’m writing (and rewriting and rewriting again) a novel set in Jordan. It’s about two American women who become friends when their Army husbands deploy on a NATO mission. They have very different viewpoints about how to live in the Middle East, which sets off a series of miscommunications, leading to tragedy for one of them.

I have no idea when I will finish the damn thing! I’m working on my third draft. I began writing it when I was living in Jordan in 2010 and it started out as a short story that just wouldn’t stop.

I’m finding a novel to be such a different animal than a story. I can handle thirty pages. I can know exactly what is happening in every single moment, every gesture and snippet of dialogue, in a short story. But three hundred pages! Did my character already scratch her nose, eat hummus, mispronounce “goodbye” in Arabic? I don’t know! But, for the most part, when not feeling suicidal, I am enjoying the writing. And it helps to be living in the Middle East again as I write, to look out the window and draw inspiration from the world and culture here.