War Stories, and the Women Who Write Them
As long as war has been fought, war literature has been written as a means of explaining, questioning, and coping with the horrors that have taken place on the battleground. It has taken us to the front lines, to the decision rooms, to the prison camps, and to the training grounds. Much less frequently though, has it taken us to the home front, where battles of a different sort are played out every day. We get a sense of this other side of military life in You Know When the Men Are Gone, Siobhan Fallon’s debut collection of short stories. Published in 2011, the emotionally fraught collection takes us inside the homes of Fort Hood, Texas, where women engage in solo navigation of children, marriage, and friendships while their husbands are deployed, and where soldiers return and readjust to life outside a war zone. The stories were drawn from Fallon’s own observations and experiences: she herself is married to an Army officer, and lived at Fort Hood before moving to Abu Dhabi, where her husband is currently stationed. We caught up with her by e-mail to discuss her work, the role of female war stories, and her creative process.
NEA: What is your ten-word bio?
SIOBHAN FALLON: Whoa, you’d be a wicked editor to work with. [Ed. note: Not true! At least I hope not.] Only ten words? Here you go: Siobhan Fallon is a fiction writer living in Abu Dhabi.
NEA: You’ve discussed how intense pride within the military community can make you “want to protect that pride by only writing about the positive.” Is there a balancing act between your goals and needs as a writer and your role as a military spouse?
FALLON: Absolutely. That’s our natural animal instinct, to protect what we love, and I am sure most writers deal with that reflex on some level when writing about their families or communities. But I think the best writing springs from resisting this instinct and writing with honesty, as unvarnished and as true as you can, no matter what you are writing about.
NEA: Do you think this pride is why so little war literature has been written by women? Or is there something else at work that has prevented women from sharing their experiences of war?
FALLON: Women are writing. And there’s a wealth of contemporary war writing by women out there: fiction by Laura Harrington, Katey Schultz, Erin Celello, Emily Gray Tredowe, Roxanna Robinson, Cara Hoffman; nonfiction by Tanya Biank, Allison Buckholtz, Kayla Williams, to name just a few. They represent civilians, military members, spouses, and family members; they are writing gritty stories set in the Middle East, and they are writing stories about the domestic issues on the home front. Their writings reveal how war impacts society at every level. Maybe the question isn’t ‘why aren’t women writing about war?,’ but ‘why aren’t women writers who focus on war getting the same critical attention as male authors?’
NEA: As your stories make clear, being a military spouse can be filled with anxiety, loneliness, and overwhelming responsibility. Has writing about these experiences made them easier to cope with in day-to-day life?
FALLON: Perhaps. I think writing the stories helped me reach a different level of empathy for military families who were dealing with situations much more difficult than my own. I wanted my characters to be fleshed-out and multi-faceted, and most of all human. Especially those who behave badly. Suddenly the issues that look so black and white when splashed across the front page of a newspaper were no longer morally obvious when I was scrutinizing the details on the page. More than once I thought to myself when I pushed a character to the breaking point, “If that had happened to me, I might have done this very same thing….”
NEA: Not all of your stories are told from a military wife’s perspective; you also write from a soldier’s point of view. What was it like to write from the other side, so to speak?
FALLON: I originally hesitated about writing from a male point of view, afraid I wouldn’t get it right. But at every picnic, barbeque, military ball, I’d hear soldiers tell these incredibly vivid accounts of Iraq and Afghanistan. And the lives of military spouses are so attuned to the cycles of deployments—knowing where the soldiers are, what they need, when they will call, if there have been firefights or mortar attacks or IEDS at the forward operating bases—that it seemed like I needed the soldier stories in the collection to balance out the spouse stories, to give a fuller picture of what the Army community experienced in that specific point in American history: Fort Hood during the troop “surge” of 2007.
NEA: Can you describe your creative process?
FALLON: Ideally, I try to spend a couple hours working on my current novel-in-progress each day, five days a week. Every day builds on the other and I feel like the work gets stronger the longer I’m in it. If I’ve left it for a few days, it’s harder to ease myself back in, to clearly hear my characters’ voices. New writing takes a solid block of time—maybe two to three hours—in order to write something fresh and worth keeping.
If I don’t have a few hours clustered together for creative writing, I’ll edit, catch up on work e-mails, read a new galley I’ve been asked to take a look at, or attack whatever might be piling up on my desk. I have a one-and-a-half year old (and a six-year-old) and fortunately I have someone helping me watch her during the week so I have more time to write than I ever have before.
But writers have to work with what they have. When I was writing You Know When the Men Are Gone, spouses of deployed soldiers at Fort Hood were given 16 hours of free childcare a month. I would drop my eldest daughter (who was about the age of my baby now) off at the daycare center and work in the Burger King next door so I didn’t waste any time traveling. That food court was noisy, busy, the tables sticky, the coffee over-cooked. But I watched soldiers and their families, took notes and sewed those details into my stories. So sometimes it’s all about stealing whatever time you have and desperately putting words on the page. You get it down. You keep plugging away until it’s done.
NEA: What are your five essential writing tools?
FALLON: 1) Coffee. I am a very nervous writer. I’m always biting my nails or getting up and walking around, frustrated, and mentally working something out. If I have a huge mug of coffee, it keeps me in the chair longer, sipping and figeting with my cup instead of wandering around my apartment and potentially getting distracted.
2) Laptop. Hot pink and small enough to slip into my purse so I can always take it with me. 3) Notebooks. I carry little notebooks in my purse as well (it is a BIG purse) and jot down things all the time, especially when I am traveling or living abroad. I find myself turning to those notebooks when I am writing. 4) Internet. I’m often looking for something bizarre as I work on my novel-in-progress, like the average temperature in Jordan in March, or the biblical story of doomed Babylon. So while the internet poses temptation, it is mostly very helpful to me. 5) A good night’s sleep. Call me spoiled, but I write better well rested. In the old days I’d stay up all night working on a story, but now I need a functioning brain.
NEA: The motto at the NEA is “Art Works.” What does “Art Works” mean to you?
FALLON: Art busts its butt. It’s not all about inspiration and bursts of genius. There aren’t little cobbler fairies who come in the middle of the night and write your stories/novels for you. Art is hard, hard work. I feel like people don’t always appreciate how musicians, writers, directors, painters, choreographers are spending hours and hours honing their craft, toiling at it, throwing material away and constantly reworking what they have. So readers out there, please support your local bookstores, galleries, museums, theaters. Make time in your busy schedules to attend the poetry readings and plays in the parks. Expose your children to as much of it as you can. We all want art to be a part of our culture, we want artists to live in our communities, please support their work in any and every way you can.