In both a short video interview and an extensive text Q&A, Siobhan Fallon discusses her first book, You Know When The Men Are Gone, her life as an army wife and much else.
What led you to write this book?
There is an entire canon of incredible war literature out there but much of it deals with the battlefield rather than the home front. As a military spouse, I know every soldier has a family waiting at home, mothers and children, cousins and friends, all of them worrying, grieving, and hoping their soldier will return to them. Those stories are fascinating to me, all those moments that lead up to a deployment as well as the moments that follow a homecoming, and I wanted to show readers that very specific and somewhat neglected world.
You tell the stories of many different characters, both women and men, mostly at Fort Hood but also in Iraq. How closely are the characters based on real people? How much of your own experience is in this book?
I was inspired by issues that I've seen come up again and again when soldiers deploy, but ultimately this is a work of fiction.
Yes, there are echoes of my own experience - since our marriage in 2004, my husband and I have lived in four different states, and are getting ready to move yet again. Also, since 2004, my husband has deployed three times, once to Afghanistan, and twice to Iraq. Which means that when I finished writing this collection in 2010, my husband had spent half of our marriage, three of our six years together, being deployed. When he left for his most recent deployment in 2008, our six month old daughter hadn't even begun to crawl, and when he returned a year later, she was walking, talking, and picking out her own tutus. I think my army spouse experiences, the constant moving around from base to base, the long separations, the children who grow and change while a parent is away, the stress of trying to maintain a healthy marriage when a spouse is in a war zone, might seem strange to the civilian world but are universal challenges faced by all in the military community.
Fort Hood, where your stories are mainly set, is the largest military base in the United States. Where is it located? What is the size and scale of it?
Fort Hood was created in 1942, on 340 square miles in central Texas, about 60 miles north of Austin. It is the largest active duty armored post in the United States Armed Services. Right now there are over 40,000 soldiers who work on Fort Hood as infantrymen, cavalrymen, tankers, engineers, mechanics and health care professionals. It is also the home of a division with a long and proud history, the First Calvary, which includes Custer's 7th Cavalry Unit. So, there are a few traditions you would only find at Fort Hood, such as the First Calvary Horse Calvary Unit, which is the last horse mounted cavalry unit in America, or the way the First Cavalry "dress blue" uniforms include Custer-era hats and spurs. Like other bases, Hood also has its museums with retired tanks and helicopters out front, war memorials, distinctly military named streets like Battalion Avenue, Hell-On-Wheels, Tank Destroyer, or Warrior Way Commissary.
I have lived near quite a few bases, but Fort Hood, to me, is the most all encompassing. Even twenty miles outside of the Fort Hood main gates, in the outlying towns, you see soldiers in their camouflage uniforms grocery shopping or eating at restaurants or mowing their lawns. You see pick-up trucks or Prius with bumper stickers that say, "My other ride is a tank" or "Half of my Heart is in Iraq." In Fort Hood, you never forget that you are living in a military world.
It was a bit of culture shock when my family and I moved here to Monterey and started meeting neighbors who have no association with the military whatsoever. I was so used to having deployment topics as fodder for small talk and suddenly I was in a place where that was no longer a shared experience.
What are some of the physical signs that the men are gone from the base?
One of the most shocking things, especially in a base like Fort Hood, is how empty everything is when a brigade or division deploys. Suddenly there are parking spots available in the front of Wal-Mart, no more lines in the Burger King drive-thru, and tables open on a Friday night at Texas Roadhouse. I think it is a struggle for the local business community to handle the dearth of customers. Suddenly twenty thousand soldiers, who each day needed to eat lunch, buy gas, get a patch sewn unto their uniforms, are gone for an entire year. And that's not including all the families that might move to their home towns when their soldiers deploy. This exodus can be devastating to the mom and pop businesses around a base.
One the more positive ways you know that a brigade is deployed are the billboards that you see everywhere, the "We Support of Troops" or "Come Home Safe" signs in the windows, the flags and the yellow ribbons and military discounts. Local businesses from pizza joints to retirement homes might adopt an army company or battalion and send them care packages or phone cards. I always found that incredibly comforting, how the entire community around Fort Hood seemed aware of the soldiers at war, and did their best to show their support.
What is the Family Readiness Group, and what role did you play in it?
During my husband's most recent deployment to Iraq, I volunteered as a Family Readiness Group leader. The Family Readiness Group is a support network composed of families attached to an army company, a unit of around 160 soldiers. My husband was the company commander who dealt with the soldiers, and, almost by default, I tried to deal with all the questions and issues of the spouses. Officially, my role was to act as an information consultant, telling spouses about services the army offered them, trying to co-ordinate assistance, and giving them authorized news about their soldiers when the soldiers were training or deployed. We also had monthly meetings, holiday parties, made posters and sent packages. But the most time consuming part of my role, and also the most rewarding, was when I was fielding phone calls, from giving directions to the Tri-care office, to trying to get food pantry supplies to wives who didn't have enough money for Thanksgiving dinner, to finding the phone number for a marriage counselor or chaplain for a spouse afraid that her soldier was cheating. It gave me a tremendous amount of empathy and insight into the lives of soldiers and their families.
Some of the relationships in your book don't survive the separation of war because of adultery, both at home and overseas. How prevalent is it?
I don't know if adultery actually occurs more often in the military than in the civilian world. But I think the present situation of every-other-year-deployments puts a lot of strain on even the best of marriages. 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. And when adultery does happen, well, the army is a fairly small community, a soldier doesn't have much individual privacy, and life on a base can feel a bit like living in a fishbowl, so sometimes word gets out.
On the other hand, some relationships are strengthened by the trial of separation. Both wives and husbands are able to forgive adultery and other hurts and move on. Is there anything you've observed that tips things one way or the other?
One of my husband's commanding officers used to say, "Deployments make strong marriages stronger." I think the inverse is also true. Upheaval is intrinsic to military life with the constant moves and readjustments. A deployment naturally amplifies preexisting trouble in a relationship.
How do children, and particularly the children in your stories, react to separation from their soldier parents?
My own daughter was very young during my husband's most recent deployment and she couldn't articulate her feelings when he returned. 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 I think that that helped. And nowadays a lot of people can Skype with their deployed soldiers, even at some of the smaller and far-flung operating bases. 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 an entire year in 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.
How did you meet your husband? Did you ever think you'd marry a soldier?
I met my husband at my father's Irish pub. My dad had been in the Army during the Vietnam War and I had been raised right outside of the United States Military Academy of West Point, but I never really dated soldiers or West Point cadets. Their lives seemed so different, so regimented and alien somehow. When my husband and I met, we exchanged email addresses, and then proceeded to write to each other for a few months before our first date. He's a handsome, hunky, funny guy, but his writing and love of literature won me over. After we had dated for a few months, well, the regimented lifestyle of the army didn't scare me anymore; I had never met anyone like him and I would have followed him anywhere.
How did you handle being separated from him during his two tours of duty in Iraq and one in Afghanistan?
I kept busy. I didn't watch the news. I cried a ridiculous amount at weddings. I sent care packages. I adopted too many stray cats. I wrote and wrote and wrote.
There was an incident that occurred while your husband was in Iraq, when you knocked a valve off your sprinkler system. What happened? And why was that such a significant incident for you?
During my husband's last deployment, I knocked a valve off my sprinkler system while gardening, causing a fire-hydrant-like geyser I couldn't stop. It was a Sunday afternoon. I called the company who installed my sprinkler. I called the contractor who built my house. I called the water department. Standing in my front yard, dripping wet and covered with mud, no one answered my call. Almost all of my neighbors' husbands had deployed but I remembered there was one house that still had a man inside it, a pilot whose name I later learned was Tim.
Tim answered his door. He followed me down the street, bringing his wrench. He got the valve back on that gushing pipe. A few days later, my neighbors and I were outside, our children playing, and I told them about my soggy lawn. It seemed like each of us had knocked on Tim's door and he had left his family at the dinner table, come into our homes, tried to fix our problems, his only qualification being that he was a man. He never said no. He acted as if it was his duty to care for us while our husbands were away, perhaps hoping we'd watch over his family when it was his turn to go.
When you are a living in a military community, especially when your spouse is deployed, you want to believe that when you need help, someone will be there for you, that there is a shared sense of family. That day with the sprinkler fiasco means so much to me because it proved that this was true, that in a crisis I really could depend on my neighbors.
You describe a sense of self-containment and isolation from the rest of the world at Fort Hood that is typical of most military bases. Do you think that sense of isolation may have contributed in any way to the incident at Fort Hood that has been so much in the news recently - the mass shooting in November 2009, in which 13 people were killed and another 30 were wounded, allegedly by a U.S. Army Major serving as a psychiatrist?
The consolidation of the larger bases and the closure of the smaller bases, I think, have exacerbated the isolation from larger society that members of the military might feel. With a few scattered super-bases, like Fort Hood or Fort Bragg, rather than small bases all across America, civilians miss out on the daily interactions with the military and vice versa. There becomes this idea of "us" and "them" rather than everyone being in this together. This makes it easier for civilians to see a stereotypical soldier with a gun and a stoic face on the news, rather than a neighborhood dad or mom who coaches soccer and attends town council meetings.
Personally, I don't think this had anything to do with Major Hasan's massacre. Moreover, he had never deployed so the myriad issues of Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome also do not apply to him. He was an unstable man with extremist tendencies. While I wish the FBI, the US Army, and Major Hasan's chain of command had identified the warning signs and had acted to prevent his crime, I don't think the Army or Fort Hood contributed to his murdering of thirteen people on November 5, 2009.
Did you personally know anyone who was killed or wounded in that shooting, or members of their families?
No. My family and I moved from Fort Hood to Monterey, California, in late July, 2009. I was shopping at the commissary at Fort Ord, in Monterey, when the Fort Hood shooting happened. And suddenly my cell phone started ringing non-stop. Spouses who were acquaintances, even the parents of some young soldiers who had been in my husband's company, thought that I was still at Hood and wanted to know if their soldiers were OK. It brought me back to the kind of calls I had gotten when my husband was deployed. Whenever there was an explosion or reported casualty in the vicinity of our soldiers' forward operating base in Iraq, spouses would get, understandably, very anxious until they heard from their soldier. But you never imagine that you would need to fear for your soldier while he was still on American soil, in the safety of his own base, surrounded by fellow American soldiers. That was a horrible, horrible day for the military, to feel like our certain refuge, a very secure army base, could be the site of such terrorism and betrayal.
Do you have a sense of how life has changed on the base since then?
Actually there are very few people at Fort Hood that I know right now. That is one of the strange things about military life, the cyclical nature of our moves. When my husband's battalion returned home to Hood in 2009, most of my friends and their families were packed up and shipped off to different bases across the country, and an entire new wave of people moved in.
There's a sign on the way out of Fort Hood that is says, "You Survived the War, Now Survive the Highways." What are some of the challenges that face soldiers and their families upon their return, and how are they shown in your stories?
The Army is really striving to help returning soldiers transition back into their lives at home. But it is an enormous task. 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, and mows the grass. She has figured out how to manage on her own, this resiliency 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 then 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 24 instead of Army Wives. 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 things make up daily life.
How often are soldiers on active duty moved from one base to another? This must make it very difficult to put down even temporary roots.
Ideally you spend about three years at a base. But, depending on other assignments or mandatory professional development courses, it is often less. So yes, it is difficult to put down roots, for the spouses to find jobs outside of the homes, to make friends or find a church or a dentist that they like before they have to pick up and move all over again. But there are also benefits. All the other families have gone through the same thing and are willing to help each other out. And I am not exaggerating when I say that a military base is its own little world - they all have their own daycares, libraries, grocery stores, post offices, shops, schools, hospitals, barber shops. So I can show my military ID and drive through the main gates of Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, or Fort Benning, Georgia, and, no matter where I am, I know I can pretty much find whatever I need. That's comforting. That makes you feel like you are home.
Your husband is a West Point graduate and an Army major. As an officer's wife, did you feel an extra level of responsibility to the other wives? Is there any kind of class separation between officers' wives and the enlisted men's wives?
I feel more and more responsibility the longer we stay in the army, not because of my husband's rank but because my experience is something I want to share with younger wives. It can be intimidating when you first become a military spouse or just wash up on the shores of a new post, there are so many things to do: military IDs and security decals for your cars, signing up for the healthcare, attending social events or training classes.
Occasionally, you might come across a spouse who tries to 'wear her soldier's rank' but I don't think it is any different than in the civilian world, where spouses may expect certain deference because of their partner's employment or position. The Army strongly discourages this sort of behavior, and I don't think it happens very often these days.
Your daughter turned three in October 2010. Was it a difficult decision to have a child while your husband was on active duty in a war zone? One of your characters regrets not having a child after her husband is killed. Did you and your husband have similar fears?
I think everyone has those fears and has that conversation with their spouse before a deployment. There is a running joke about among military spouses. We seem to all have "R&R babies" (babies conceived during the two week mid-tour leave during a deployment) or "Deployment babies" (babies conceived almost immediately after a husband has returned from a deployment). You can go to a company or battalion picnic and figure out who has had similar deployment schedules according to the age of their children. Quite a lot of my friends at Fort Hood had children around my daughter's age, which made for great play dates when our husbands all deployed again.
Why do you think so little attention has been paid in fiction to the experiences of the families of our service members during our current wars?
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 there hasn't been the pressing need for fictionalized accounts. And, though almost a decade of America at war in the Middle East is a horribly long time, ten years in terms of fiction is not. There are about ten years between Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections and his latest novel, 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. So perhaps there are many more novels and story collections about the experience of military families out there percolating. And perhaps, as soldiers continue to come home, think and talk about their experiences, they and their families will start writing them down in a fictionalized way.
Your book is not political. But do you think the rest of the country is doing enough to support emotionally and psychologically the families of service members, and the service members themselves?
I think that the Army does its best to create support systems for soldiers and their families, with everything from the Family Readiness Groups to the counselors at Military Life Consultants. At Fort Hood, the military daycare gives the families of deployed soldiers sixteen free hours of daycare a month per child. That's amazing! That's enough time for a doctor's appointment, a hair cut, a couple of grocery store visits, maybe a chick flick matinee. That is a real attempt to alleviate the stress in a spouse's day-to-day life. If I didn't have those sixteen hours, if I wasn't told that not only was it OK to put my daughter in daycare but it was FREE, I would not have been able to write this book.
In regards to the rest of the country, even now, almost ten years into the war, whenever my husband is out in his uniform, he is inevitably thanked for his service. During his deployments, he has received care packages and cards from country clubs, elementary schools, retirement homes, churches, and book clubs. He has helped clothe Afghani orphans and stock a university library in Iraq just from the donations of concerned and generous Americans. That being said, our all-volunteer military represents a small minority of the population of the United States, and they are carrying a very heavy burden, deploying again and again, facing hardship and possible death for long periods of time. So no matter how proud these soldiers are of our country, no matter how much they love their jobs, I think there is only so much they can continue to give, or how much their families will allow them to.
You're currently living in Monterey, California, while your husband attends the Defense Language Institute. Your family is scheduled to be stationed in the Middle East in the spring of 2011. What are your feelings about that? Are you excited? Nervous?
I am incredibly excited about moving to the Middle East. I want a glimpse of the culture we have all been hearing so much about for the past ten years. My family and I will be living in Amman, Jordan, and from what I've read, Jordan is very welcoming of Westerners. King Abdullah, the king of Jordan, was just on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart a few weeks ago, which I think demonstrates that he is quite open-minded. So going to Jordan feels like an adventure. And my husband and I have spent so much time apart, I am really grateful that my daughter and I will able to accompany him.
Now I just have to learn Arabic...
Why did you become a writer? Was it a lifelong goal?
I've always loved to write. And my family has always been incredibly supportive of my writing. My father is from Leitrim, Ireland. Yeats' grave is near the town where he grew up and, for as long as I can remember, my dad has been giving me things that relate to famous Irish authors: bookmarks with Oscar Wilde quotes, postcards of Brendan Beehan, James Joyce novels he picked up at an odd library sale. My dad also owns an Irish pub, The South Gate Tavern, in my hometown of Highland Falls, New York, and my brother, sister and I have all spent long shifts working there. So there were always plenty of stories in my house, lots of sitting over hot pots of tea talking about the people who came in and out of the bar. I think bartending trained me to observe, listen, and take note of all the different characters.
What writer or writers have had the greatest influence on you?
When I was working on You Know When the Men Are Gone, I read Benjamin Percy's Refresh, Refresh and was completely mesmerized. Percy's title story is about these scrappy teenagers trying desperately to become men. Their dads are deployed and their absence hangs over the action, it creates the momentum, but the reader learns very little about the actual soldiers, instead an echo of the war reverberates in every daily action of the fatherless boys. And in Percy's latest book, The Wilding, he has a character who is a wounded veteran. I admire how Afghanistan and Iraq inform Percy's fiction; he doesn't let the reader forget what is going on in the world and how soldiers are affected. He keeps the dialogue alive. Likewise, in my stories, I'm not as focused on the bombs on an Iraqi street as I am on the small, rippling tragedies that occur in American homes.
Are you working on a new book yet? Can you tell us anything about it?
I am working on a novel. It's the story of Evie Parker, a young, up-and-coming chef whose husband deploys to Afghanistan shortly after their marriage, leaving her in Oahu, Hawaii. She's a feisty, clever, unreliable narrator who faces many of the issues that my characters in You Know When the Men Are Gone deal with. Evie is almost neurotically aware of right and wrong, but she is really good at making terrible decisions. She works in the competitive world of fine dining and it is easier for her to lose herself in her culinary creations, and perhaps in the company of another angry young chef, than to be the good wife and pine for her deployed husband. And then her husband returns.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Don't give up. Try to say things in a way only you can say them, and then just keep at it until someone notices. And eventually someone will notice. It's been more than ten years since I got my MFA, and there were plenty of times I started to lose faith in my writing. But right now I know all those years of rejection, of writing in my own little praiseless vacuum, were worth it to have ended up with my wonderful literary agent, Lorin Reese, and my extraordinary editor, Amy Einhorn.
What do you hope readers will take away from You Know When the Men Are Gone?
I hope they come away with a new understanding of military families. Military life, especially since 9/11, is so different than civilian life and I wanted to capture the reality of this small portion of society that deals daily with war, the pride and fear and loss that is never far from an Army's family's thoughts. Even the ordinary things that happen, kids doing poorly in school, husbands and wives fighting over bills, seem to take on a different meaning because everything in their lives is heightened by the stress and threat of deployments.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher.
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