I have wanted to feature this lovely lady and writer-friend in my Debut Author series for a while, and I’m so happy to have her here today. Siobhan Fallon, author of You Know When the Men Are Gone, offers tales of life on a contemporary American military base that have been inspired by her own experiences as an Army wife living at Fort Hood, Texas, while her husband was deployed to Iraq for two tours of duty. Siobhan, whose eight loosely linked stories take readers inside the homes, marriages and lives of a variety of military families, writes with compassion and honesty, and her work has been showered with praise—her collection was featured on National Public Radio’s “Talk of the Nation” and Publishers Weekly gave the book a starred review, noting that Fallon writes “with both grit and grace.” So without further ado (and, yes, I know I’m already a day late!), a warm welcome to Siobhan!
Name of book: You Know When the Men Are Gone
Book genre: Literary fiction/short stories
Date published: January 20, 2011
Publisher: Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam
What led you to write a collection of short stories rather than a novel? I think the form of a short story collection is actually a metaphor for military life – families, although distinct, have this important thread that connects them, much like your stories. There seem to be so many possibilities with a collection, more leeway with plot and scope, than with a novel. Instead of concentrating on how one character, or how one character’s family, was dealing with a deployment, writing stories allowed me an incredible freedom to go from a completely different world to another, from Fort Hood to Iraq, from the apartments of a military housing complex to an off-post home with a creepy basement. I could focus on a myriad of problems, get up-close and personal, and try to demonstrate how each character weathers the stress of a deployment.
A short story collection also allowed me to have the characters intersect occasionally, sometimes appearing in another story, maybe playing a large role or merely mentioned in an offhanded way, without having to tie every life neatly together the way you’d expect of a novel. And, yes, as you pointed out, the style of a story collection seemed to mirror life on base, the vastness of it all, the chance encounters you might have, the abrupt departures and arrivals that happen every day.
Where did you write? Describe your work station. Until recently, I would write wherever I could. I’d set up my laptop on the kitchen table or on a desk in our guest room, or maybe sit and type at the coffee table in our living room. Nowadays, I have a home office, but only after years and years of writing wherever it was quiet. Or not so quiet. I spent a lot of time writing You Know When the Men Are Gone in a Burger King at Fort Hood. Fort Hood had this amazing rule that if your soldier was deployed, you received sixteen hours of free childcare a month. FREE! I was determined to use every minute for writing. The Burger King was right next to the child development center. I’d drop my daughter off and then run inside with my laptop, buy a huge coffee, and type my fingers off. I wrote there out of necessity, but it also ended up being inspiring—it was the perfect place to see a cross section of the entire base, from the young, single soldiers getting energy drinks and watching basketball games on ESPN to the Family Readiness Groups who would meet in the Burger King play area so their kids could go nuts in the air-conditioning (very important during the summer in Texas).
Did you keep writing when your husband was back home or strictly when he was deployed? Oh, I have always been writing. My output fluctuates, of course, depending on what’s going on in our Army lives, but I am usually working on something, and have been for as long as I can remember. My husband and I have been married for eight years, and in those eight years the Army has moved us seven times, and within that same time frame he has deployed three times to the Middle East. If I couldn’t write during upheaval and absence, I’d never manage to write at all.
What does your husband think of this work? In your acknowledgments, you say he is your “first and last reader.” How influential was he in creating this collection? I couldn’t have done it without him, in so many ways. He is there at just about every stage of my writing, from when I first get an idea and stamp around the kitchen, drinking too much coffee and talking the new story out to him, to reading my first, second, sixth drafts. He has a great eye, I am always so amazed at his insights and the way he can see the “big” picture of what I am trying to write. I feel like I had to spend a lot of money getting an MFA to arrive at the sort of insight that comes naturally to him.
I wrote a draft of most of the stories in You Know When the Men Are Gone when my husband was home in Texas between deployments and I was pregnant with my daughter. I don’t really like people to read my stories when they are messy drafts, so it wasn’t until they were more fleshed out, and he was again deployed to Iraq, that I asked him to start taking a look. I’d email them to him, and when he had the time, he would read and send me suggestions. He was my military consultant and my firsthand witness to what Iraq really looked and smelled like. He would check the Iraq settings, correct all things military (references to guns, uniforms, helicopters, etc.), and tell me if my male dialogue sounded authentic. I never quite managed to create the eloquent obscenities of young infantry grunts, but my husband definitely helped them sound a lot tougher than they did in my early versions.
Do you read fiction about military life or watch television shows, such as Army Wives? Do you think these works “get it right”? What do you think is unique about your take on military life? I watched the first episode of Army Wives. I kept meaning to watch more of it but haven’t gotten a chance. I am a fan of anything that brings a dialogue about our military to the forefront. And I do try to keep up on works about military life, if I can. I especially like Alison Buckholz’s memoir, Standing By (the story of a Navy family), Lily Burana’s I Love A Man in Uniform (she illustrates how diverse the military community really is), as well as Elissa Montanti and Jennifer Haupt’s upcoming memoir I’ll Stand By You (Elissa is not affiliated with the military, but her memoir deals with her efforts to help the wounded children of war torn countries, including Iraq).
What is my unique take on military life? I talk to a lot of book clubs, and am often told that my readers do not know anyone in the military, and that they appreciate seeing both sides of the military equation that my stories offer: the soldiers away as well as the families that wait at home. Readers tell me they have gained more insight into what a military life in this time of war really means.
I am so grateful when people ask me questions about Army life and want to know more about soldiers and their families than the reductive headlines you see on the news. My mother’s cousin was killed in Vietnam, and my mom remembers my aunt getting anonymous phones calls from people saying her son deserved to die. That is so monstrous to me. Today it seems like people, regardless of where they fall politically, are more aware of issues our soldiers face, are willing to discuss them, and are also concerned for our returning veterans. And I am thrilled to be able to play a small role in spreading that understanding and keeping that discussion going.
I understand you are writing a novel. Do you find the writing process different than working on short stories? Absolutely. I know I can write short stories! Before the collection, I had a fair amount of short stories appear in literary magazines and win the occasional prize. So I am somewhat confident of that style. But the novel is a different creature for me. Physically, a novel is massive compared to the small-scale world of a story. I could concentrate on my twenty or thirty pages and know everything backwards and forwards, but how can you manage three hundred pages in the same way? I have tried writing novels before—two, in fact. I began one in 2000, and another in 2005. And, well, obviously they haven’t made it onto the shelf! So this is tricky territory for me. Please wish me luck.
What would you say is the most challenging part of writing a book? I think all of it is challenging. First, you actually have to write the book. You have to find the time to put all of those words down on the page. And that’s the fun part! Writing all that fresh material, juggling the new ideas and characters buzzing around your brain.
Then you have to rewrite it. Over and over again. Even when the writing is going great, it is hard. People seem to think writers spend the morning sipping lattes, the afternoon typing up perfect scenes and chapters, and the night emailing those chapters out to a rich and indulgent editor. But it is grueling. It is work and then rework. My collection is made up of eight short stories, a somewhat slight 223 pages. It took me three years to write those stories. I had drafts down for each of them in about eight months, and all the rest of the time was spent rewriting, rethinking, getting rid of characters, adding new characters, having my reader buddies tear the stories to pieces and then me trying to stitch them back together again.
Did you experience writer’s block? I’ve never had the kind of writer’s block that stopped me from completely writing. Sometimes I need to work out a new story or chapter and am at a loss as to where to take things next. When that happens, I tend to turn to older stories or chapters and edit or reread them, just to keep working on something. And sometimes it helps just to sit down and force myself to write, even without any ideas to go on. I tell myself that it is OK to write total junk, that I just need to get the characters moving around and talking to one another, and sometimes, while I am forcing it like this, a moment will spring off the page and actually be sharp and authentic, it will set a whole new scene into motion, and my mental block will be over.
How long did it take you to write this book? Almost exactly three years.
Tell me about the publishing process. How long did it take to find an agent? Well, this time I was lucky—my agent found me. From 2000, when I graduated from the MFA at the New School in New York, until 2008, when I signed with my incredible literary agent, Lorin Rees, I had been searching for an agent and failing miserably. I won a couple of lit mag fiction contests soon after getting my MFA from the New School in 2000, and a couple of agents approached me then and asked if I had a novel. At that time, I did not, and they weren’t interested in my short stories. Then, in 2008, Lorin read one of my short stories in the excellent Boston literary magazine, Salamander. He contacted me, asked to see what I was working on, and signed me after reading three or four of the Fort Hood stories I had completed at that time. Then he stayed with me while I finished writing the collection. He had a tremendous faith in my stories, and he also had a very strong critical eye (he had no problem sending the stories back to me and saying that they weren’t ready yet, that I needed to keep rewriting them.) Finally, in late 2009, Lorin told me to stop rewriting, that it was time to send the manuscript out to editors in New York.
What would you say is the biggest misconception about writing a book? That anyone can do it. I do think that everyone has a story to tell, but I don’t think that everyone can actually sit down and be disciplined enough to get that story out on the page.
What was your favorite aspect of the writing process for this book? The beginning is, for me, the best part. When all of it is so new, and you are figuring out your characters, and your brain is exploding with ideas. And something will come to you in the middle of the night, some perfect piece of dialogue or backstory that explains everything, and it feels like you have just aligned all the colors of a mental Rubik’s Cube. You’re on fire with the story. I love that. It comes and goes but while you have it, it’s the greatest. I am in that stage of writing right now with a new book, and it is electric.
How has life changed for you since the publication of this book? It has changed a lot. I am living my dream. There is tremendous validation in getting your book out there, on the shelf, into the hands of readers. But there is a lot more work (often unpaid) involved in the dream than I thought there would be. I think writers have a tendency to think that publishing is everything—I assumed I’d put a book out and everything would suddenly be easy. But my agent had been shopping around some of my new short stories, and they are getting rejected all over the place, just like before publication. If anything, I feel like I have to work harder now, I have to live up to higher expectations than when I was sitting in a Fort Hood Burger King, working on stories that I thought no one would read. But of course every ounce of rejection, and stress, has been worth it, just knowing strangers are reading and relating to my work.
My favorite last question: Oprah once famously said that there is no such thing as luck, without preparation and a moment of opportunity. Would you agree or disagree with regard to your own success as a writer? I would absolutely agree. I think there is a tremendous amount of luck involved in the publishing industry, but a writer also has to be ready for the luck to strike. When agents first approached me back in 2000, well, I didn’t have a novel, and the stories I was writing were not strong enough to form a book of their own. But when Lorin Rees came calling in 2008, I was ready. I had the stories and the experiences that went behind crafting the stories. And when I think of the two novels that haven’t seen the light of day, I feel like they were worth it, they made my current collection stronger. Writers talk about this all the time, how so much of publishing depends on timing—what if Lorin Rees hadn’t picked up the issue of Salamader that printed my story? Timing comes your way, you have to be in a place ready to capitalize on it. For me, I feel like everything I wrote in the past that failed has made my current writing stronger, and who doesn’t want to put their absolute best work out there? Maybe my greatest stroke of luck was that no one published my first two novels, and it forced me to keep writing new material, and eventually to write this collection.