I just finished reading a powerful collection of short stories about a group of women whose stories often go untold: military wives. You Know When the Men Are Gone gives readers insight into the world of these strong women and their families. Here's more from Siobhan Fallon, a military wife herself, about her touching debut:
Jennifer Haupt: Tell me about your own experience as an Army wife? When and where did your husband serve, and how did your life without him shape the stories in your book?
Siobhan Fallon: My husband and I were married two weeks before his first deployment to Afghanistan in 2004. Since then he has also deployed twice to Iraq, and each of his deployments lasted roughly a year. 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, away. When he left for Iraq in 2008, our six month old daughter hadn't yet begun to crawl; when he returned she was walking, talking, doing puzzles, and picking out her own tutus. We have also moved around a great deal in the past ten years, living near military bases in Hawaii, Georgia, Texas, California, and will soon be living in Jordan, so physical upheaval has also been a big part of our married life.
Like many writers, I try to "write what I know" and the lifestyle of my characters in You Know When the Men Are Gone definitely mirrors aspects of my own. 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.
JH: How much of You Know When the Men Are Gone is drawn from women you met while living at Fort Hood? Are there women whose stories you were mindful not to include for any reasons?
SF: You Know When the Men Are Gone is a work of fiction but I wanted it to be as true to life as possible. In creating a realistic portrait, I touched on the challenges that were evident to me when I volunteered as a Family Readiness Group leader. The Family Readiness Group is a support network composed of the families of 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.
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 the almost daily task of fielding phone calls, from giving directions to the medical insurance office, to trying to get food pantry supplies to wives who needed some help putting dinner on the table, to finding the phone number for a marriage counselor or chaplain for a spouse who needed advice. It gave me a tremendous amount of empathy and insight into the lives of soldiers and their families, as well as a tremendous amount of respect and admiration for the ways spouses handle hardships and still manage to keep their families together.
It was those hardships that I concentrate on in You Know When the Men Are Gone. I took some of the recurring themes that I have seen, like the difficulties of a long separation on a family, the stress of worrying about a soldier in a war zone, the fears of adultery, and wove them into fiction.
JH: What responsibility does a writer have to balance telling what they know, and also respect the privacy of the people who let them into their lives?
SF: That's a great question, and one I think writers struggle with, and absolutely one that I wrestled with while writing this collection. On the one hand, I am trying to write stories that illuminate a lifestyle that hasn't had much of a light shining on it. And I wanted it to be as true as possible, not just a two-dimensional, idealistic portrait of smiling, flag-waving, rah rah rah families who effortlessly handle the long separations. But I also didn't want to write something too far in the opposite direction that painted a picture of dysfunctional characters running around like the Desperate Housewives.
An army base, like the rest of America, is made up of all kinds of people, and humans by their very nature, no matter how good and brave they might be, are flawed. You take human frailty, add the stress of every-other-year deployments, and even the most ordinary moments of life, paying the bills, disciplining the kids, raking the yard, are suddenly harder. So I was very aware of wanting to capture that incredibly lonely experience of being a spouse whose other half is five thousand miles away, without putting military families in too a negative light.
JH: How, if at all, has being the wife of an Army Major who served two tours of duty in Iraq challenged or reshaped your faith?
SF: When my husband is deployed, I am always a better Catholic. Traditions become more important to me, as well as making connections in a community, especially now that we have a young child. A Catholic mass is a bit like a United States military base-no matter where you are in the world, you enter one and you immediately know how things work. I appreciate having something that recalls my childhood, the ritual of standing and kneeling and making the sign of the cross, the priest's homily, the comfort intrinsic to prayer. I think is natural to want to believe in a higher power when so much of my life is suddenly unknown, when I have so little control over my spouse and his surroundings, never quite knowing what he is doing, if he is OK, and of course I can't just call him up if he is deployed. I think the adage There are no atheists in the foxholes can apply to spouses of the soldiers in the foxholes too.
Another thing I have noticed is that my husband's deployments have reshaped my faith in other people. 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. There is sort of a running joke among military wives that everything will go wrong twenty-four hours after your soldier deploys-cars break down, washing machines flood, the kids suddenly need to be rushed off to the ER. I've had to run down my street and knock on random doors, trying to find a resident husband to fix a broken sprinkler system or capture mice that my cats brought into my house, and these things have taught me that I really can depend on my neighbors.
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. We just took a trip to Disney World and were able to save a tremendous amount of money on military discounts, and everyone from the front desk clerk to the ticket gal at Disney thanked my husband (they even thanked me!). While my husband was deployed, he received care packages and cards from country clubs, elementary schools, retirement homes, churches, and book clubs. He helped clothe Afghan orphans and stock a university library in Iraq just with the kindness of strangers or acquaintances. There are so many ways that people have rallied around the troops and I am so grateful.
JH: What are some other topics you like to write about?
SF: I am fascinated with unreliable narrators: narrators who either withhold the truth from themselves or from the reader. I love to explore the facets of human duplicity, the things that we hide and the reasons we feel we need to hide. I do this a little bit in my current collection, especially in the story "Inside the Break," about a woman who must decide how much honesty her marriage can handle before it cracks. I play with this theme again in the novel I am currently working on. The novel is about a chef named Evie whose husband deploys to Afghanistan shortly after their marriage, leaving her in Oahu, Hawaii. She carries on a flirtatious friendship with a fellow cook, but the reader is never sure if Evie is revealing the entire story. When her husband returns from the deployment, Evie either doesn't know her husband very well, or she is trying to convince herself that he is someone he isn't in order to keep the marriage intact. I am trying to have Evie tell one story, but enable the reader to piece together something else entirely.
You Know When the Men Are Gone, published by Amy Einhorn Books, a division of Penguin, is available for preorder and will be in bookstores on January 20th.