Helen Benedict Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Helen Benedict

Helen Benedict

An interview with Helen Benedict

A Conversation with Helen Benedict about Wolf Season in which three war-torn lives collide in a way that will affect their entire community.

You interviewed dozens of veterans as well as Iraqi refugees before writing about them in your nonfiction book The Lonely Soldier, your novel Sand Queen, and now, in Wolf Season. What is it about their stories that continues to inspire your writing?

All the Iraqis I met, and most of the veterans, had been through truly terrible traumas—war, after all, offers little else. What inspired me was their resilience and their honesty. Parents who had lost children, soldiers who had lost friends, adults who had lost brothers and sisters and spouses, and women who had been sexually attacked or tortured—all revealed a determination and generosity of spirit I found deeply moving. They told me their stories because they wanted to help others who had lived through similar circumstances. The impulse of many who have been through trauma is to help others. This speaks to the best side of the human spirit, just as war often reveals the worst.

Your novel prominently features three mothers. Rin is an Iraq war veteran and Naema is an Iraqi refugee. Beth, on the other hand, is neither a soldier nor a refugee but the wife of a deployed marine. What inspired the creation of her character? What were you hoping she would add to the narrative?

As this novel is about the aftereffects of war—about war brought home—I thought a military spouse like Beth belonged in the story. More American women experience war through their husbands or sons, boyfriends or fathers than they do by serving themselves. Beth is one of these. Also, I liked the idea of the three women in the novel representing different views of war: Rin as a veteran, Naema as an Iraqi, Beth as a military spouse.

Rin reacts to the world around her in deeply honest yet troubling ways. Were you concerned that readers might find her unsympathetic?

I like characters who make me, as a reader, keep changing my mind. People are puzzling and self-contradictory and vulnerable and imperfect, and even the most flawed character can be sympathetic and heartbreaking. I hope readers will feel this way about Rin.

Programs that pair veterans with rescue animals have shown great success in helping to alleviate some of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Were those programs on your mind when you made Rin's wolves such an integral part of this novel?

I was not thinking of therapy animals when I brought the wolves into Wolf Season but of a real veteran I once interviewed who lived in the woods with wolves. Rin is not like her at all, but the idea intrigued me. Later, long after I'd written a draft of Wolf Season, I found out that quite a few veterans do like to keep wolves, and that some therapy programs do indeed pair wolves and vets. However, I suspect many vets are drawn to wolves not so much as therapeutic animals but because wolves represent something pure and wild and untamable and strong, as well as dangerous and protective. This is certainly why they appeal to Rin.

Readers were first introduced to the character of Naema in Sand Queen, when she was a medical student in Iraq. In Wolf Season, we meet her again, now working as a doctor in a VA medical clinic. When did you know you hadn't finished telling her story? Will we meet her or Tariq again?

I decided to continue Naema's story in 2010, as I came to know more Iraqi refugees and saw the terrible fallout from the Iraq War in the Middle East. Having been so moved by the Iraqis I met and interviewed, I felt saddened by the negative stereotypes of Muslims gaining popularity around the world, and I wanted to push against that with Naema and Tariq. Now it seems more important than ever for us to pay attention to people like Naema and Tariq in all their humanity. So yes, Naema and Tariq are not going away yet.

Louis, an Army veteran, and Todd, an active-duty marine, reveal other aspects of war's toll on the human psyche. Do you believe that men and women experience war and its aftermath in essentially different ways?

I don't like to generalize about men and women because no one truth belongs to everybody, but I will say that many women do experience war and its aftermath differently than men. Civilian women and children die in greater numbers in today's wars than men, for one. And as I found while researching my nonfiction book, The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq, women soldiers are still often treated as outcasts by their comrades, along with being sexually assaulted at a rate of nearly one in three, which means many women veterans suffer the double trauma of combat and sexual assault. Furthermore, some 90 percent of women are sexually harassed in the military. (Men are harassed and assaulted within the military, too, but not in nearly the same proportions.) Having to fight without the compensation of camaraderie is a cruelty experienced by far too many military women, and this alters their view of both the military and war.

The three children in Wolf Season handle the challenges they face in very different ways. Why are their perspectives so vital to the story? Was it a challenge to capture their voices in such an authentic way?

The juxtaposition of children and war is particularly poignant, for their very frankness and innocence strips away the glamorizing lies that so often cloak our discussions of war. Valor and strength, weaponry and heroism—what do these matter to a boy who has lost his father and his leg, or to a girl who has lost her sight, or to a child whose family has been torn apart by the trauma of war? Worldwide, children suffer and die from war more than anyone else, yet they are rarely given a voice.

Also, I have written from the point of view of children before, particularly in my earlier novel, The Edge of Eden. Taking on the voice of a child enables me to cut through to the heart of things. And then, I am a mother and have learned to listen to and relish the way children talk.

Novelists sometimes talk about being surprised by their characters. Did any of the characters in Wolf Season surprise you?

All my characters surprised me. Rin, with her complications—her distrust of people and her love of her daughter and wolves—was a constant surprise. The children with their quirks and stubbornness. Naema, with her hard-earned patience. If a writer isn't surprised by her characters, something is wrong. Creating a character is like getting to know a friend: if she never surprises, she is not going to be interesting.

Wolf Season takes place in upstate New York, and its towns and woods almost become characters themselves. Why was it important to set the story in a small American community?

Many enlisted soldiers come from economically depressed small towns all over the United States, especially towns that offer few jobs or opportunities. My fictional Huntsville and Potterstown are placed near the real Slingerlands in Albany County, where a large proportion of families have sons and daughters in the military. Furthermore, as I found out after I began writing, hundreds of Iraqi refugees have been settled in that area, so I was able to make Naema's story historically accurate, too.

What were you trying to explore in Wolf Season that separates it from your earlier work?

Everyone who has been through the horror of war brings it home in one way or another, and this, in turn, affects families and communities. Put another way, when a soldier is wounded, physically or psychologically, so is everyone who loves her. Likewise with a victim of war. Sand Queen took place mostly in Iraq, during the war itself. With Wolf Season, I wanted to follow Naema and her family after they fled the war, and to explore how the Iraq War has affected all of us at home in America.

Interview courtesy of Bellevue Literary Press: www.blpress.org. Reprinted by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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