She turned to descend the stair, her heart in tumult. Had she better keep her distance and question him, her husband? Should she run up to him, take his hands, kiss him now?
…And she, for a long time, sat deathly still in wonderment–for sometimes as she gazed she found him–yes, clearly–like her husband, but sometimes blood and rags were all she saw.
–Penelope upon recognizing Odysseus, The Odyssey
The quote above is the epigram to Siobhan Fallon’s amazing collection of short stories, You Know When the Men Are Gone, and this vision of Penelope, hesitating but desperate to rediscover the man – her husband – behind the clothes of a warrior, prepares the reader perfectly for the kinds of experiences the characters in her book endure. So often, we hear of military life, whether in war or in deployment, from the perspective of the soldiers. Siobhan Fallon gives us a taste of those stories and more, taking us into the hearts and minds of the families left behind. Because, nothing we do in life affects us in isolation.
I’m honored to host Siobhan Fallon here to talk about her book, life, and writing. As a bonus and a gift, she has donated a copy of her book (recently released in paperback!) for one lucky reader. At the end of her interview, drop your name in the comments. The winner will be drawn on Tuesday, January 31st, at noon.
CC: In two of my favorite stories, “The Last Stand” and “The Gold Star”, Specialist Kit Murphy makes a powerful impact. Through his experience and his interactions with the other characters, readers are given a profound, heartfelt, and panoramic view into the minds of a soldier, a wife left behind, and a wife widowed. Was there a specific character or story that impressed you the most while you were writing this book?
SF: I have to admit that I have some favorites, though it is hard to narrow it down to only one. I feel a certain affinity for Meg, of the title story, “You Know When the Men Are Gone.” She is my closest doppelganger, and I often found myself thinking her thoughts during my husband’s deployments (like staring at a grocery store’s packaged meat, the exposed bone and blood held together in saran wrap, and thinking of a soldier’s wounds). And I too I have a soft spot for Kit Murphy. I’d say that I worked on his story, “The Last Stand,” longer and harder than any other. Even after it was published in Salamander Magazine, I felt compelled to keep rewriting it, to infuse it with as much genuine experience as possible. Kit is the penultimate soldier in my eyes, the sort I unfortunately saw an awful lot of during my husband’s company command at Fort Hood, a young man just out of teenage-hood trying to do what he thinks is right, often unable to articulate how he feels, left wounded and untethered in some way when he returns from his deployment.
The final story, “Gold Star,” also gets me every time I read it. That story is my worst nightmare, the worst nightmare of every military spouse with a deployed soldier, but I also like to think that there is an element of hope and healing in the ending, when Josie and Kit are able to offer each other a moment of understanding.
CC: In this post on Quivering Pen, you make a excellent argument for the short story as the structure best fit for revealing the lives of the characters in your book, saying “the surge of electricity of a [short story’s] beginning, the disorientation dealt to readers as they suddenly find themselves with a new cast of characters, a new setting, and a new dilemma. . . . [mirrors] the military life.” Was it easy to accept that this book would be a collection of stories? Or did you struggle in the beginning to mold it into a novel?
SF: The stories came to me as just that: stories. When I started writing them, I wasn’t even sure if I would have a collection that would fit together cohesively. I wrote the title story first, about Meg listening to the seemingly glamorous life of Natalya. I had an image of a woman pressing her ear against her wall, desperately eavesdropping on her neighbor as a way to keep from worrying about her own deployed husband. The next story that came to me, “Camp Liberty,” had almost nothing in common with the first. “Camp Liberty” is about Moge, a US Army sergeant in Iraq who forms a tricky friendship with his female Iraqi interpreter. For that story, I had two themes in mind. One, I was struck with the way soldiers, even soldiers who were trying to get out of the Army, talked about their wartime exploits as if they were the most incredible and vivid adventures of their lives. Two, I wanted to write about the local national interpreters who are intrinsic to the lives of our troops, and whose stories often go untold.
Initially I had played around with the idea of writing stories all set in the housing complex where Meg lives and listens against the wall, but so often you just can’t write the things you want to write. Other things pop into your mind and seize your imagination, an overheard conversation at the mall, broken kid toys strewn across a lawn, a soldier crossing the street on crutches. People keep asking me why I didn’t writer certain stories, like a story from a female soldier’s point of view, or from the parents of a deployed soldier. All I can say is that the stories in the collection are the ones that filled me up, had me awake at night thinking about the sound of a character’s voice or his choice of childhood friends, these were the stories that excited me as a writer, these were the characters whose stories I wanted most to know.
CC: How has the publication of your book changed your experience as a writer, and/or your experience as a military wife?
SF: As a writer, there is something magical about having your words finally filling up the pages of a book and seeing that book on your shelf. I finished my MFA in 2000 (which is when I started to seriously write and submit my work). I’ve had plenty of rejections, most of the stories in YKWTMAG have been rejected by literary magazines, not to mention my often rejected story collection/MFA thesis and the two novel drafts taking up space in my home office. So having my book published is, of course, awesome, and makes the decade plus of dashed hopes worth it. But it also doesn’t get any easier. When you are slaving away, desperately hoping someone will say “yes” to your work, you imagine that once you are in a bookstore, you will only hear “yes” from then on. Not true. I finished a new story a couple of months ago and sent it off to my literary agent with the rarely felt euphoria of having written something great. But everyone he has shopped it around to turned it down. Then I was asked to write an essay for NPR’s Morning Edition. It took seven or eight ideas, pitched over a couple of weeks, before the producer found something she liked enough to put on the air. So there are still plenty of rejections. If anything, I feel like I have to work harder now, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
How has my book changed my experience as a military spouse… wow, that’s a tricky question. When I talk to civilian readers, I have to be careful that I don’t speak with too much authority. I am a fiction writer, my stories are not fact, and the things that occur in my book don’t happen to every military family in America. Those stories are from a very specific point of view, about life on a military base that had an extremely high deployment rate, during the height of the US involvement in the Middle East.
When I speak with military readers, I also walk a fine line. Sometimes mil spouse readers are disappointed that I didn’t give readers the rosy picture that an Army wife ought to show the world. But most often military spouses thank me for my honesty, for letting people see a side of our lives that we too often try to keep under wraps.
CC: What are you reading these days?
SF: Oooh, fun question. I just finished Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety. A poet friend of mine, Shara Lessley, recommended this novel, and it seemed like the perfect read for me at this point in my life. My family and I just moved from Amman, Jordan, to Falls Church, Virginia. Moving around is part of the Army lifestyle, and since 2004, when I married my husband, we have moved seven times. This transition from Jordan to Virginia was an especially hard one; we really loved the families who make up the Amman US embassy community, and leaving them made me gnash my teeth at the difficulties of sustaining connections when you move so often. Crossing to Safety is a story of marriage and lifelong friendship, and particularly resonated with me.
Other books I have read recently are Valerie Trueblood’s Marry or Burn and Shann Ray’s American Masculine, two short story collections. Reading them back to back was not intentional but they make a remarkable pair. Trueblood’s tales sometimes start with shocking hooks, a woman shooting her abusive police officer husband, or a woman attacking a bear with an ax, but the actual drama is much quieter, more about the intimacies women try to create and all too often irrevocably break. Trueblood’s stories spin out and envelope the reader, creating a kind of rapture. This is a book I will read again and again. Ray’s stories, as the title implies, deal with the other side of that gender coin, the shifting roles of men in today’s society, the idea of ‘masculine,’ the weight of expectations that can crush sons and fathers and husbands. But woven into these somewhat violent tales of the West is a current of redemption and possibility. Both books are masterful and I highly recommend them.
CC: Do you have any advice for writers on the rise?
SF: If you want it enough, don’t give up. Everyone dreams of writing a book and everyone has a story to tell (and will tell it to you, especially when they find out you are a writer)— but writers actually need to write. In the end, that’s what separates us from everyone else: the written page (and maybe those three or four discarded story collections or novel drafts under your bed).
It’s a long, long road to publication. You are going to spend a lot of time feeling like a failure and doubting every word you write. But having strangers in bookstores talk to you about the characters you created, well, that’s one of the most fantastic feelings in the world.
Siobhan Fallon’s debut collection of stories, You Know When the Men Are Gone, was listed as a Best Book of 2011 by The San Francisco Chronicle and Janet Maslin of The New York Times, has been called “the explosive sort of literary triumph that appears only every few years” by New York Journal of Books, “a terrific and terrifically illuminating book” by The Washington Post,and a “searing collection” by Entertainment Weekly.
Her stories and essays have appeared in , Women’s Day, Good Housekeeping, New Letters, Publishers’ Weekly, among others, and she is writing a fiction series for Military Spouse Magazine. More can be found at her website www.siobhanfallon.com.
To Siobhan, thank you so much. And to readers, don’t forget to leave your name in the comments for a chance to win a copy of You Know When the Men Are Gone.