MaryAnne Kolton: My first question is going to be a compound one. Who are you? Where did you grow up? Brothers and sisters? What was your family like? What drew you to reading as a child? Please let us know a bit about the “you” before you became the wife of a soldier.
Siobhan Fallon: I come from a family of bartenders. My father was born in Ireland and came over to New York at sixteen, working his way through high school in Queens, doing a stint in the Army during Vietnam, then settling down when he married my mother. They chose to live in the small town of Highland Falls, about an hour north of New York City, because my father fell in love and purchased a bar/restaurant there, the South Gate Tavern. Part of this particular Irish pub’s charm is that it stands right outside of the front, or south, gate of the United States Military Academy at West Point. And in a small town like ours, where everyone has gone to school with everyone else, the South Gate Tavern has become a large part of my family’s identity.
I credit bartending with teaching me as much about story writing as my MFA. There’s a tradition in my family of sitting around the kitchen table with hot cups of tea and sharing whatever wild happenings unfolded at the bar the night before, and we had to vie for the best hook to get our listeners’ attention, the best delivery and story arc.There are the mundane moments to bartending—handing people their pints as they watch Army football games, refilling the hand soap in the ladies room, washing glasses until your knuckles ache from the hot water. But there are a lot of transformations as well, from the shift of a mellow after-work-crowd to the take-it-to-the-face college kids or soldiers, to the fellow in the bar stool in front of you slowly changing from sober to drunk. People of course have a tendency to reveal secrets, to say and do incredible things when they have been freed by a touch of alcohol. The bartender is the observer, the person who tries to keep things easy, handing out vodka or conversation or music on the jukebox, but she is never truly part of the party, she is outside of it all, aware and ready.
Bartending taught me to examine both the small gestures and the life-changing ones, to take note of the careful beat of human emotions, to watch and listen and remember.
M.K.: Such great links and connections here. The family bar, a small community in its own way, the military base, also a community within a confined space, followed by your collected, interconnected stories, You Know When the Men Are Gone. Sounds like you’ve been collecting and compiling for a long time. When did you first decide you wanted to write these narratives?
S.F.: I began writing these stories when I was living at Fort Hood, Texas. My husband had already deployed to Iraq and was getting ready to deploy again when I began the title story “You Know When the Men Are Gone.” During his first deployment out of Hood, I found myself alone in an empty house with unpacked boxes, not knowing my way around the base or how to navigate the intricacies of military spouse life. Less than a year and a half after my husband returned, he deployed to Iraq again. By the time that tour rolled around, I was more connected with the Army community, had made incredible friends I could depend on, and had given birth to our daughter. In the course of those deployments, I went from being a shy and somewhat misplaced wife to being a spouse who could handle a deployment with knowledge and confidence.
And, yes, you are so right, a military base is a confined community, much like living in a very, VERY small town. The soldiers work together on base, or, more intimately, spend an entire year deployed together, while the spouses attend company picnics and meetings, shop at the PX or Commissary, go to the same military doctors, perhaps live in the same on-base housing development. So there tends to be a great deal of overlap in the professional and personal. You can’t help but learn details about peoples’ lives that you wouldn’t necessarily hear in the civilian world. The Army also tries to instill a collective feeling of soldiers, as well as spouses, taking care of each other and “watching each other’s backs.” This blurring between friendship and responsibility can make it difficult to draw the line between being helpful and being downright nosy.
Add the detail that Army housing is notorious for having thin walls, and, well, of course I had to write a story about eavesdropping, about knowing too much about your neighbor. Eavesdropping comes up again and again in my collection, it is something I am fascinated with, how an eavesdropper, at best, will only get bits and pieces of the life they are trying to listen in on. There will be countless inaccuracies and the eavesdropper can’t help but unconsciously supply what they want, or don’t want, to hear. It seems like an allegory of loved ones separated by deployments.
With such a chasm of distance and time, a spouse can never get the whole story of what their mate is going through. No matter how much a couple tries to communicate, moments and memories will be lost. You can’t fill in all the details of twelve or fifteen months apart with dropped calls or sporadic email or Skype sessions. And with this nebulous unknown growing between two people, each person can’t help but imagine what might be happening to the person they love. Sometimes these imaginings will be right, sometimes they will be wildly wrong.
M.K.: Having been known to eavesdrop—on rare occasions—I do agree that most often details important to the whole remain unknown. Moving back to You Know When the Men Are Gone, the story “Inside The Break” is a perfect example of how strong a woman can become given a certain situation. I admired Kailani so much for her bravery in not questioning her husband. I didn’t think much of Natalya in the title story at first, but found her endearing and courageous when she did what she had to do to save her self. All of the characters in these stories seem to be making decisions outside of real time. Does that make sense to you?
S.F.: I am so relieved that you found Kailani brave. I do too, and she is the character that seems to bother readers the most. I have read reviews and blogs that take issue with her acceptance of the possibility of Manny straying, and I am often asked during book club discussions if Manny indeed committed adultery. When I say an apologetic “yes,” people react strongly, some readers sigh and say to their friends, “I told you so,” and others have said to me, “Well, I don’t think he did.” So the story has a tendency to touch a nerve. For me as the writer, it wasn’t really a tale of adultery, it was, as you point out, another example of a character having to do something to save himself. Kailani comes to the realization that her husband may have seen and done things when he was deployed that he would never do when he was safe at home with his family, and she forgives all of it, accepts him, moves forward.
In regard to making decisions outside of real time, I guess I didn’t want the characters’ decision making process to be completely translucent. Especially in the title story, when everything about Natalya is filtered through Meg’s slightly skewed vision. And Kailani’s dedication to allowing Manny to keep his secrets, well, I think she surprises herself there. Her first reaction when she finds out about his affair is indignation, grief, determination to leave him—the rational reactions I think most American women would have in her shoes. Kailani doesn’t count on her suave husband returning haggard and a bit broken, doesn’t realize that she will swerve from wanting the truth to unthinkingly and fiercely wanting to protect him, wanting to keep him and her family intact above all else. I think people make emotional choices like this all the time, and they aren’t necessarily wrong. But they may be something we live with for a lifetime.
M.K.: What did your friends on the base think about the book? Is it possible any of them will recognize their experiences in your stories?
S.F.: To tell you the truth, I was a little worried about what friends at Fort Hood, Texas, would say. We moved from Fort Hood to the Defense Language Institute of Monterey, CA, in July of 2009 and the hardcover came out in January of 2011. Some close military friends in California had read the galleys of the book and, the way friends ought to, spoke positively and said the stories resonated with them. But, really, what else could they say?
The first stop on my national tour was at a huge Barnes and Noble bookstore just outside of Fort Hood. I was scared to death. Scared because I am always terrified when I show up at a bookstore 1) because I get quite nervous speaking in public and 2) I have no idea if anyone will come to hear me read. But that night was a full house, no empty chairs, people were standing in the aisles with their baby-strollers, and afterwards it took me an hour to sign books for those waiting. But best of all, everyone seemed to like it, so many people came up and thanked me, nobody threw rotten tomatoes or hissed.
Members of my Family Readiness Group were there, as well as old neighbors, so it really felt like an extraordinary moment of having both friends and the Fort Hood community behind me.
And, to specifically answer your question, no one has ever asked me if a particular story was written about them. I would have been devastated if my craft wasn’t strong enough to weave truths into fiction. Of course I was inspired by issues that seemed to come up again and again when soldiers deploy. I’ve seen quite a few soldiers with the sort of boot/cast that my character Kit Murphy wears, and I would often wonder what had happened to them. My husband, when he was a Company Commander at Fort Hood while I was writing the stories, had soldiers in his unit who had sustained serious injuries due to IEDs. And, unfortunately, I would occasionally hear rumors about spouses having affairs while their soldiers were away, or, more rarely, I’d learn of a spouse who was afraid her deployed soldier was carrying-on with another soldier. So while I wanted the stories to feel as real as possible, I also very carefully constructed the backgrounds and love lives and experiences of my characters so that they were very different from the people we knew.
“Nick held on to his knife all through dinner, listening to another man tease his daughter, listening to another man chew and eat his wife’s food….opening beer bottles and quenching his thirst with all that Nick loved.”
From “Gold Star”
“It was the moments in between that she (Josie) was the most afraid of forgetting, the small moments that were too ordinary for photographs.”
While I loved all the stories in the collection, “Leave and “Gold Star” were the hardest for me to read. Two completely opposite characters, both emotionally victimized by a war beyond their control. I so wanted for Nick and Josie just to be “normal” again with no memories of the past. Can you tell me a little about how they affected you?
S.F.: An IED explosion is mentioned in the third story of the collection. That attack reverberates throughout the book, dominating some of the stories. One of the characters most affected by the attack is the spouse who is made a widow, Josie Schaeffer, the protagonist of “Gold Star.”
This final story is a military spouse’s worst nightmare, so, yes, it was difficult to write. I had a very clear mental image of a woman surrounded by photos of her soldier husband, and how those static pictures might begin to alter her memory of him, reduce him to posed, flat images devoid of the moments that create a life. I am not, thankfully, a war widow, but when my husband was deployed, it was the small moments that I found most devastating.
Sure, it was tough when he missed my birthday, an anniversary, or Christmas, but I could be prepared for the holidays. The times that snuck up on me were harder to control: seeing the food he loved at the grocery store, glimpsing his winter coats hanging in the closet, seeing men playing soccer and for a moment thinking my husband was running across the field with them. Those moments seemed the most laden with grief for me separated from my spouse for a year at a time, and, I imagined, for a new widow.
I also wanted to give readers more than the stereotypical image of a widow holding a folded flag at a military funeral, I wanted to show all of her mixed emotions: rage, grief, confusion, regret. It was important for me to demonstrate that Josie has a future ahead of her, which is why I brought in a character who appears earlier, Kit Murphy. Kit was hurt in the same IED explosion that killed Josie’s husband, and his own life has been irrevocably changed by the injuries he sustained. Kit and Josie’s friendship seemed like a way to offer redemption to both of them, and also to end the book on a hopeful note. I’ll admit that I still tear up reading the last paragraph of “Gold Star,” because I know what my husband’s camouflage uniform feels like against my cheek, and I can’t imagine what life would be like if I was never able to rest my cheek there again.
Writing “Leave” was a bit of a departure. There is a fantastical, almost ghost story element to it, so it felt more separate from my own military spouse experience. And it was almost fun to indulge in the spooky elements of a stranger lurking in the basement while a woman and child ignorantly go about their lives above. Nick is the husband and father, and yet his deployment, the constant uncertainties of his time in Iraq, have transformed him.
I originally wrote it with a very different ending. I don’t want to spoil anything for those who haven’t read the collection, but earlier drafts had Nick walking out of the house and heading back to Iraq instead of standing over his wife’s bed in the middle of the night. But my literary agent, Lorin Rees, as well as my husband, told me that this bomb-diffused kind of ending would never work with the character I had created, that if Nick had gone to these lengths to hide and spy on his family, he would never be able to meekly disappear. That’s when the story became a lot less “fun” for me, with many, many rewrites. Like you, I cared too much for Nick and didn’t want things to go off the deep end. But ultimately I had to be true to the story rather than make my character do something that wasn’t in his nature.
M.K.: I love ambiguous endings because they force the reader to become more invested in the outcome. . .I hear you are working on a new book and can’t wait to read it. Any hints as to content?
S.F.: Yes, I am working on a novel. My family and I were recently stationed in Amman, Jordan, while my husband helped train Jordanian soldiers in multi-national operations. It was obviously a very exciting time to be living and traveling in the Middle East, waiting to see where the Arab Spring would take root next. My daughter and I were lucky enough to be able to join my husband on his trips to the Sultanate of Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. So naturally a large part of the novel is about an American family trying to make sense of an Arab world very different than their own.
And thank you, MaryAnne, this has been a really lovely interview with insightful questions no one has asked before! So good of you to take the time to chat with me.
M.K.: Siobhan, it was absolutely my pleasure. You are so generous and forthcoming. I am looking forward to reading the new book.
Siobhan Fallon is a military spouse and writer whose husband has deployed three times to the Middle East, including two tours to Iraq out of Fort Hood. She and her family have recently moved from Amman, Jordan, to Falls Church, Virginia, where her husband remains an active duty Army officer. Her stories and essays have appeared in Publishers’ Weekly, Women’s Day, Good Housekeeping, New Letters and Salamander, among others. You Know When The Men Are Gone earned a spot on several Best of 2011 Lists including New York Times Janet Maslin Book Picks of 2011 and The San Francisco Chronicle. It is now available in paperback. Siobhan is currently working on a novel and writing a monthly fiction series for Military Spouse Magazine. She earned her MFA from the New School in New York City. She can be found at facebook and http://siobhanfallon.com/author.html and http://siobhanfallon.com/blog