Nearly every time I gave a reading or discussion about You Know When the Men Are Gone, someone would inevitably ask me why I hadn’t written a story from a female soldier’s point of view. I just didn’t have the insight or the story to tell, I’d reply, a little ashamed of my lack of imagination. So as soon as I finished watching the powerful FORT BLISS, I wanted to reach across cyber-space, find all those people, and tell them to watch this film.
FORT BLISS is the story of a female medic who returns to Texas after a deployment and tries to salvage her strained relationship with her young son. The movie viscerally sums up everything I hoped to cram into my stories, that razor-edged tight rope walk of being part of the military community, either as service member or family member, during this prolonged period of war. It strikes the right note about deployment vs. home front, duty toward country vs. duty toward family, and everything in between, without getting clouded by politics or headlines. FORT BLISS is one of the most authentic pieces of art I’ve watched or read about our current military situation. Bravo to actress Michelle Monaghan and director Claudia Myers and everyone else who made this film happen.
This Army spouse is recommending it to everyone she knows.
Last I checked it was streaming on Netflix so everyone please take a look soon…
Nearly every time I gave a reading or discussion about You Know When the Men Are Gone, someone would inevitably ask me why I hadn’t written a story from a female soldier’s point of view. I just didn’t have the insight or the story to tell, I’d reply, a little ashamed of my lack of imagination. So as soon as I finished watching the powerful FORT BLISS, I wanted to reach across cyber-space, find all those people, and tell them to watch this film.
I might be making some poor decisions in an effort to not seem like an ‘ugly American.’ It’s just really difficult to decide what is an accepted cultural norm and what is just plain-out-of-line. Like when my family and I went to the camel market in Al Ain. Maybe I shouldn’t have just giggled uncomfortably when a fifty year old Pakistani man tried to kiss my six year old daughter on the mouth. Hmmm.
I better start off by describing the camel yard. All the guidebooks claimed it was the last of its kind and something we should not miss. So, after two days of Al Ain’s forts, mountain passes, and an amusement park (Hilli Fun City, oldest amusement park in the Gulf! Ride a roller coaster that’s almost as old as the UAE! Yeah!!), we drove through warehouse area after dodgy warehouse area at sunset, with KC determined to find this fabled tourist site.
We smelled it before we found it. Pen after pen with lots of camels inside, exactly as you’d expect, if you are actually expecting to find something as odd as a camel market.
We parked our shiny white Volvo SUV behind a closed up feed store and we stuffed our youngest into a backpack contraption that KC swung over his shoulders.
There was not one other non-camel herd person there until a car full of German-looking people passed by slowly (fair haired with square, wire rimmed glasses, definitely European).
“Oh, phew, we’re not the only tourists,” I said to my husband. I wanted to wave at them, Look at us! We read our guide book too! They stopped in the road just ahead. The women in the passenger seat glanced at us, at the camels, then back at us. She said something low to the driver and they did a U-turn and drove away. Quickly.
That’s when KC suggested I take the scarf off my neck and wrap it around my head.
That’s when I should have decided to get back in the car and demand my husband take us back to our nice hotel. Instead I covered up my blondish locks and held tight to my kiddo’s hand. I’ve found that, here in the Middle East, holding on to a child always helps ease potentially uncomfortable situations, giving me the appearance of virtuous mother rather than wanton great devil whore of USA (yes, I have an overactive imagination).
We were immediately accosted by a man telling us that he had every camel conceivable, big camel, white camel, baby camel. KC began chatting with the gentleman, who said he was from the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan, as he led us deeper and deeper into the pens, farther and farther from our first world Volvo. He offered to take photos of us with his camels, and we said yes.
Every few steps, a young man would peel off from some dark corner and start following us. They were all wearing long knee-length shirts and loose pants in tones of brown, some with black and white checked scarves tied around their necks. KC greeted each; all of them seemed to be from the very place in Afghanistan where he and his infantry company had been searching for Osama Bin Laden in 2004. I couldn’t believe that he was telling these guys that yes, he knew Paktika, why, he had spent a year of his life there! Imagine that! In my mind, my husband looks every bit the Army officer he is. I also didn’t hear him say that he’d been a part of an “NGO” rather than a trigger-finger part of drone-dropping America. So when they started asking for money, I wanted to toss them a wallet and run, assuming there’d be an AK behind that grizzled so-called baby camel. Not KC.
By now we had accumulated about ten men and could no longer see the road. All of them asking for cash. KC gave the guy who took the pictures the 25 AED he had set aside for that very purpose, less than eight dollars, and then amiably shook hands with the others. Not happy with the amount, the man kneeled in front of us, grinned, and tried to plant one my eldest daughter. Who, playing it much better than her mother, smoothly ducked out of the way of the offending mustache and made a face that clearly said kissing was just plain gross.
I managed a pathetic: “Ha, ha, how about a high five?”
High fives seem to be the intimacy substitute of choice. Whenever a stranger gets too close– cheek pinching, bear hugging, random tickling, hair mussing (and then there was that time in Jordan when a guy picked Maeve out of KC’s arms and started throwing her up in the air as she screamed)– I have instructed my daughter to offer a high five. This time I understood we were outnumbered, realizing that whatever Ranger School moves KC remembered, he would not be his fighting-best with a baby strapped to his back, but thank God I was wearing cowboy boots and I was fairly certain I could gouge some eyes if need be (my Irish father didn’t show me how to beat the hell out of that punching bag in the basement for nothing).
Meanwhile Maeve coolly lifted a hand and slapped a sound high five on the man’s palm.
“Ok!” he shouted and stood. KC looked at me. I grabbed Maeve’s hand and started walking with husband bringing up the rear.
That was it. No one followed us. The sun kept setting. The camels kept making the strange noises camels make.
I didn’t take the scarf off my hair until I was inside our car and the camel market was in the rear view window.
Then we gave our six year old a long talk. High fives good. Kissing bad. And no kissing on the lips until she gets married.
Hello there. Sorry about the long hiatus— lots of things getting in the way of my writing lately—new baby (OK, not that new, but I intend on using her as an excuse until she’s at least a year old), new move, new life (Abu Dhabi, UAE!!!).
Though I’ve managed to wring some inspiration from the upheaval– namely in hotel living. I have a new story in the upcoming Holiday Issue of the Washington Post (which will come out the Sunday before Thanksgiving and Column McCann will also have a story inside). I wrote a large part of it while at a hotel (where we were stranded, stateside and in the UAE, for about six weeks), jotting things down when the baby took her miniscule naps. The story takes place in Abu Dhabi, told from the point of view of a disgruntled American who is a bit fed up with children…
But mostly I’ve been soaking up the life here, taking photos and notes in my trusty little notebook shoved deep in my purse underneath sandy pacifiers and ticket stubs.
I thought I’d ease both of us, you and me, back into my writing with an especially easy post today, more photos than words (like the books my eldest child likes best).
So, without further excuses, here is a glimpse of my new world…
Oh, and for those of you in the DC/VA/MD area, I’ll be at Howard County Community College and the Howard County Library, Miller Branch, for a few events on October 15! Please check out the details here http://hclibrary.org/index.php?page=306 if you think you can come or help spread the word.
Thanks again to all the readers, writers, and friends out there,
p.s. for more on the incredible sustainable dreams of Masdar City and Science Institute here in Abu Dhabi (free PhD program!), check out http://www.masdar.ac.ae/
Hello there. I was recently interviewed by writer Jim Mathews, the fiction editor of the literary magazine O-Dark-Thirty (and author of the fantastic story collection LAST KNOW POSITION).
O-Dark-Thirty is part of the Veterans Writing Project
The magazine contains poetry, fiction, and non-fiction written by veterans, service members, and military family members. Fantastic, right? So I thought I’d help spread the word to those of you in the military community who are looking for an outlet for your work, as well of those of you in the civilian community who want to support Veteran/Mil Family Members writing.
Here’s an overview from their website:
“O-Dark-Thirty is the journal for the Veterans Writing Project. In our seminars we give participants the skills and confidence they need to tell their own stories; O-Dark-Thirty is the platform to put those stories and others in front of readers. This is not a peer-reviewed professional journal, nor is it a judged literary contest. Our editorial style is more curatorial than other journals. Our editors curate the works submitted to this site. We have two sections. The Report is our hub. It’s where the vast majority of our work will be based.We chose the title The Report because of this quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes:
The generation that carried on the war has been set apart by its experience. In our youth our hearts were touched with fire. It was given to us to learn that life is a profound and passionate thing. While we are permitted to scorn nothing but indifference, we have seen with our own eyes, and it is for us to bear the report to those who come after us.
The Review is our quarterly journal. It will be a little tighter, more closely edited. It might have themes. It is our plan to present the finest literary writing we can find.
One of the tenets upon which we built the Veterans Writing Project is the idea that every veteran has a story. This site is where those stories get told. Sure, there are other places to hear or read the stories: around the bar, on a road trip, in some other journal. But like the man says, “This is my rifle. There are many like it, but this one is mine.” This is our journal. It was conceived by and designed for, is run by, features work written by, and provides voice to members of the military community.”
To learn more or to read issues online, please go to: http://o-dark-thirty.org/the-review-2/
To read my interview with Jim, go to: http://odarkthirtydotorg.files.wordpress.com/2012/11/odt_vol_1_4-for-web.pdf
P.S. There is an especially excellent short story by fellow mil spouse and writer Beth Garland in Vol 1, No 1, Fall 2012 Issue O-Dark-Thirty (Reintegration, page 65)… http://o-dark-thirty.org/the-review-2/ Take a look!
Hello all! Hope 2013 has been kind to you so far (I just had a baby so I am especially bleary-eyed and sleep-deprived at the moment, though I hope things get better soon, perhaps when wee wicked changeling is in preschool…)
This post is a chain self-interview; I believe it started on She Writes a few months ago. My good friend Olivia Boler, author of The Flower Bowl Spell, asked me to join the blog, and I want to thank her for thinking of me and giving me a chance to talk about a new anthology I’m a part of. (I, in turn, requested “Next Big Thing” updates from my lovely author friends Laura Harrington and Anne Ylvisaker– please take a look!)
What is your working title of your story?
“Tips for a Smooth Transition.” The story first appeared in an issue of Salamander, a great literary magazine out of Suffolk University, MA. It’s been included in the anthology, FIRE AND FORGET, which will be released in February, 2013.
Where did the idea come from for the story?
When I started writing my story collection, You Know When the Men Are Gone, back in 2007, I felt like there was so much about military life and deployments that readers didn’t hear about in the news. Things have changed somewhat in the past few years, some great memoirs and novels have come out about both the soldiers’ experiences in theater as well as the family experiences on the home front (Laura Harrington’s Alice Bliss, Alison Buckholtz’s Standing By). And, as the years go by, there has been a greater scrutiny about how deployments affect both soldiers and their families. In “Tips for a Smooth Transition,” the protagonist, Evie, is almost too aware of what her husband may have gone through in Afghanistan, and she expects him to return to her damaged to some degree. So she watches him with a critical eye, expecting his reactions to be tinged with PTSD. She also feels guilty about her behavior while he was gone. I want the reader to wonder who is more unhinged by the deployment/marital separation: the guilt-ridden wife or the returning soldier? Who can the reader trust?
What genre does the anthology fall under?
Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
Oh, fun. The spouse, Evie, could be played by Rachel Weisz. I think she is a tremendous actress, and she could perfectly express Evie’s emotional ambiguity toward her husband. The husband, Colin, could be played by Alexander Skarsgard. Don’t tell my husband, but I developed a serious crush on Alexander Skarsgard after watching him play Sergeant Brad Colbert in HBO’s Generation Kill. I’ve seen him in other roles, but, oh boy, the guy makes a great Marine/soldier. The interloper, John, could be played by Matthew McConaughey, he’s so smooth, can do a great Texas accent, and could nail a slightly slimy character who would pursue a woman whose husband is deployed.
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your story?
Evie welcomes her husband, Colin, home from his deployment to Afghanistan, unsure if their difficultly reconnecting is due to his long absence or if he has somehow found out about a dalliance she had while he was gone.
Will the anthology be self-published or represented by an agency?
The book is represented by E.J. McCarthy, and it’s being published in paperback by DeCapo Press in February.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
It took me a few years to write/rewrite the failed novel that the story is based on, and about a month to write the short story. It was a relief to turn all of that material into something I could use. I may go back the novel someday, who knows, but I loved being able to find a way to recycle some of the scenes that resonated with me the most.
What other books would you compare this anthology to?
Jeffrey Hess edited a powerful collection in 2009, Home of the Brave: Stories in Uniform, which is full of both iconic and lesser known war stories. Fire and Forget has a few names readers might recognize, like the lauded writers David Abrams (author of Fobbit) and Matt Gallagher (author of Kaboom!). Many of the other authors are newer to the writing scene. As recent members of the armed forces, they bring a freshness and urgency to the fiction about our current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Who or what inspired you to write this story?
Friend Matt Gallagher, who is one of the editors of Fire and Forget, asked me to contribute. Other than myself, all of the stories are written by military veterans. Matt was giving me an opportunity to be the one civilian/family member in the mix. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a story at the time, but I did have a novel-in-progress hanging around rather uselessly. Matt gave me a month to get a story to him, and I managed to cut the 300 page novel down to 30 pages. Fellow anthology editor, Roy Scranton, gave it a sharp-eyed edit that also helped trim the story down to the final anthologized version. The story is very different than the novel draft, but the characters and some of the situations (a supposedly romantic trip to Hawaii to celebrate the husband’s return) are the same.
What else might pique the reader’s interest?
E.L. Doctorow referred to the anthology as: “Searing stories from the war zones of Afghanistan, Iraq, and the USA by warrior writers, Fire and Forget is about not forgetting. It is a necessary collection, necessary to write, necessary to read.” And we are taking the show on the road. I’ll be doing events in DC, NYC, and Boston with some of the other writers. Please check out the website, http://www.fireandforgetbook.com/, for reviews and other details about this exciting new release!
I was lucky to catch a screening of the new independent film Bravo! Common Men, Uncommon Valor, in Arlington, Virginia last week. I was by far the youngest member of the packed audience and trust me, I am no spring chicken. As far as I could tell from the unit emblazoned t-shirts and baseball caps, and the gasps of recognition when they spotted one of their own on the screen, the room was full of Marine Corps Vietnam Vets and their spouses.
The screening opened with a brief prayer from a Bravo Company veteran, the room completely silent after his powerful final line: “Thank you for bringing us home.” And though I was standing with the military folk of another generation, that prayer felt like every prayer I have heard as an Army spouse whose husband has been through three deployments—those are the words of every single miraculous return, and unspoken in those words are the memories of all the soldiers who did not come back.
It was this universal feel of Bravo! that kept me at the edge of my seat for nearly two hours. I listened to the Vets on the screen talking about mortar attacks, about their intense comradery, and if I closed my eyes, they could have been any newly returned soldier recounting tales from Iraq and Afghanistan. Betty Rodgers, who co-directed with her husband, announced before the screening that this was “everyone’s story, not just Bravo’s.” It was Betty (hurray for spouses!) who convinced Ken, a member of Bravo Company, to make the movie after he had been trying to “figure out how to tell this story for forty-four years.”
Bravo! recounts the siege of Khe Sahn, when the 26th Marine Regiment held out against a superior force of 20,000 North Vietnamese Army (NVA) for 77 days, from January 19 to March 31st. The film, with moving interviews and actual footage, traces the arrival, the siege, the ambush and massacre of members of Bravo Company, and the retaliation that the massacre prompted, spurring the Marines into an early morning offensive against the NVA that finally broke the siege, as well as the Marines’ return to America. The wartime photos and video of the day to day life of the young Marines, showing them washing their clothes, cooking in their hooch, reading books, clowning around, digging trenches, interspersed with interviews of their older selves, pieces together a startling close and personal view of the siege and its aftermath.
Like the best war reporting or storytelling, the words that open the film try to express the filmmakers quest for truth: “This is not a pro-war film. This is not an anti-war film. This is what happened.” One man, when asked why he joined the Marines, said, “I felt like we were doing what Kennedy asked of us, something for our country.” And another, still moved to tears by the harsh way he was welcomed home by war-protestors, “I want this country to love me as much as I love it.”
Betty Rodgers said, “We want the whole world to see this film” and I wholeheartedly agree. If you are interested in learning more about future screenings, would like to make a donation, become a sponsor or just help spread the world (the film still needs a distributor, etc), please contact Ken and Betty at 208-340-8889 or email@example.com.
The next screening is Saturday, September 8, 2012, at the West Roxbury Division Veterans Affairs, 1400 VFW Parkway, West Roxbury, MA, Time: 3:00 PM
For more about the men and women trying to bring Bravo! to the big screen: Bravo!The Project or http://bravotheproject.com/about/
To read Ken Rodgers’ blog about the Arlington screening: “Why I Fight” or http://bravotheproject.com/2012/09/04/why-i-fight/
During interviews or book club discussions, I’m often asked how civilians can help our military. So I thought I’d take up a little cyberspace to recognize some of the exceptional ways people have gone above and beyond in support of our troops.
A few months ago, I wrote a blog about a trip to Walter Reed. Many readers responded and asked for more information about the clothing and book drives that have been taking place there, outfitting our young Vets with everything from ties and suits for upcoming interviews, as well as providing children’s clothes and books for the families that live on the hospital grounds while their wounded Soldiers and Marines attend difficult rehabilitation.
Soon after, I was asked to join a You Know When the Men Are Gone book discussion via speaker phone with the Philadelphia law firm Woodcock Washburn LLP, led by Barbara Felicetti, the firm’s librarian. While preparing for our discussion, Barbara happened to read the original blog about my Hooks Books event at Walter Reed, and was taken with the plight of our military there, many of whom are missing limbs or suffering from brain injuries. She mentioned that her firm often sponsored local charities and that they might like to send “some things.”
Well, the kind folk at Woodcock Washburn outdid themselves and “some things” became a deluge of generosity. Janis Calvo (who first recommended You Know When the Men are Gone to the Woodcock Washburn book club, and also knitted 20 pairs of booties to send to Walter Reed!!! I love you Janis!) spent countless lunch hours alongside fellow employee Betty Rackus, organizing donated goods and packing everything up. The facilities manager, Bill Jordan (himself ex-military), helped with staging space and getting the materials shipped to Walter Reed.
Here is an abbreviated list of the things they shipped:
16 boxes of books (including 3 boxes of children’s books)
More than 120 neckties (sent early for a job fair being held on Walter Reed, see flyer below)
22 boxes of clothing (supposedly enough to clothe Rhode Island )
And extras: handmade hair bows; fancy fabric back packs; shoes; women’s clothing and coats; men’s pants and shirts; a Bill Blass trench coat; new-bought socks and ties, 4 bags of neatly folded and labeled children’s clothing – with little shoes!
The ties were sent out first in anticipation of the upcoming job fair. Here is an excerpt from an email from Cindy Dwyer, the wonderful woman who organizes these drives:
“We had our “interview clothing” distribution yesterday at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. The guys came out of the woodwork! We advertized an hour-long visit but were there for over 2 hours as guys kept coming! I did have one lady with the great responsibility of matching ties (with suits). She had them all rolled up just like Nordstrom’s.
When the guys left they were looking good thanks in part to your efforts! Please pass on my sincere thanks! Our young veterans have nearly double the unemployment rate of others. We wish them well at the job fair!”
Woodcock Washburn managed all of this, as well as sending 10 boxes of books and a very generous monetary donation to Operation Homefront in PA, NJ, and Delaware.
I will never crack a lawyer joke again.
This isn’t the first time I’ve been moved to tears by book groups who decided to make packages for our troops. Please know that our soldiers and their families are equally amazed and grateful for these acts of generosity.
Some of my husband’s favorite deployment stories are those that center around the random boxes of gifts that rolled in on a Humvee—enough books from Hilton Head South Carolina (thank you Beth Evans!) to help start a University Library in the Maysan Province of Iraq, 50 care packages that included feather pillows from a country club in North Carolina (thank you Lynne Sneed and Ann Goldman!) for soldiers who had been resting their weary heads on rolled up t-shirts night after night, and countless other exemplary acts during his three deployments. Like our wounded in Walter Reed, your generosity, from boxed-up hand-wipes and Twizzlers to Crayola-ed cards from First Graders, lets our soldiers know that they are not forgotten.
Please remember all of our troops currently fighting in Afghanistan– I bet quite a few of them would love to hear from folks at home.
THANK YOU SO MUCH!!!
More info about the Walter Reed job fair and how your company can help our Vets:
Walter reed job fair
There are few trips more glamorous than a writers’ conference in Las Vegas (OK, maybe one in Monaco, but I am a mere writer, folks, I do not chose these gigs, these gigs choose me. Vegas therefore is pretty fetching). The truth is, when I go to an event out-of-state, be it Las Vegas or Los Angeles, the place where I spend the most time is the desk of my hotel room, doing work.
It’s a sin, and certainly not sinful in the general Vegas way. This is where I typed away the majority of my free time, listening to the shouts of the brave inebriated riding the New York, New York roller coaster just outside my window (when I was in Las Vegas last, I did ride that roller coaster; I kept my eyes closed, screamed my head off the whole time, and lost my favorite earrings). Every once and awhile I would interrupt my writing to go to the window and watch the party goers wandering from casino to casino, wondering who was drunk or sober, who had lost or won.
My one crazy night out, and a Saturday to boot, found me walking the strip alone, staying away from all the weirdos handing out baseball-card-sized flyers of naked women. I saw a bride in a white dress with a dirty hem, too many girls in too high heels, and I stopped long enough at the Bellagio to call my daughter and husband while watching two different fountain displays, one synchronized with Tchaikovsky, the other to the Beatles.
Not quite the sort of Saturday night Vegas is known for.
Both the pro and con of being a writer is that you can write anywhere. The pro of being a writer and a mother is that, while doing events or attending conferences, I suddenly have a hotel room all to myself and there’s no child begging me to take her to the hotel pool or let her watch the Disney Channel.
I did not even touch a slot machine.
But let’s not think I didn’t have a good time. I was attending the Nevada Veterans’ Writing Conference held at New York, New York on June 2-3. And I found myself in the company of some of the best authors around: Matt Gallagher, David Abrams, Caleb Cage, Pinckney Benedict, Lee Barnes.
What made this particular writers’ conference unique was that the attendees represented the entire spectrum of the United States military experience, all branches, male and female, spouses and Gold Star mothers. The writers had experienced our country at conflict from Vietnam to our most recent endeavors in Iraq and Afghanistan, and they had great stories to tell. I was also amazed at how many female service members were in attendance and urged them to write their lives, their experiences being one we do not read about enough.
I was heading out to lunch with Matt Gallagher and a few other authors after a panel when Matt and I were stopped by a couple. The man was missing his left arm, his face was badly scarred, and it was clear that he had been blinded. He held on to the leash of a sweet faced German Shepherd-mix guide dog. His wife, blond, in an elegant and airy wrap dress perfect for the Vegas heat, told us her husband had been injured in Afghanistan when he was with the EOD (Explosive Ordinance Disposal, or bomb disposal). We were lined up in a narrow hallway: I was facing and speaking to the spouse, Matt Gallagher the soldier.
The woman continued, telling me the conference had been inspiring to her husband, who had been wrestling with ways to tell his story. She said her soldier was also urging her to write about her own experiences as a military spouse during the deployment, injury, and rehabilitation. Her voice took on an edge of excitement I recognized, that spark of a new idea, that enthrallment with a new storyline. I felt it too– I have never heard of a husband/soldier and spouse/army wife collaboration like this, and I begged her to write this book NOW. It is something I want to read. As we headed our separate ways, she thanked me, and I shook her hand, patted her sweet and patient dog’s head. I blinked and tried to keep my eyes dry; I couldn’t even imagine the long road this amazing couple had taken, the long road they had managed to survive together.
“Thank you,” I said. “You make all of us spouses proud.” She smiled, embarrassed, ran one hand through her short blond hair and put the other around her husband’s arm. “Please, please keep in touch.” I gave her my business card. “I want to hear your story, and America does too.”
Matt and I walked away, both of us silent for a moment before we caught up to the rest of our party.
That’s what this conference is all about, I thought, quickly slipping on my sunglasses before anyone could see my eyes.
And indeed it was. Lee Barnes, in his keynote speech, rallied his listeners, telling them that they were Vets who had survived so much, certainly they could handle the ups and downs of writing a book. They are our brave, our disciplined, our most fearless, they have stood up for our country when she needed them most—when they write their stories, surely we should read them.
Fire and Forget, a new anthology on shelves 2/5/13, featuring a Foreword by National Book Award winner Colum McCann, and new fiction by Brian Turner, Colby Buzzell, Siobhan Fallon, Matt Gallagher, David Abrams, among others.
Jeff Hess’ Home of the Brave– with works by Tobias Wolff, Kurt Vonnegut, Tim O’Brien, James Salter, Benjamin Percy, among others.
MilSpeak Foundation: Military Words in Literature and Art, a great military publisher with Sally Drum, editor and Veteran, at the helm.
David Abrams’ soon to be released novel FOBBIT
Caleb Cage’s memoir The Gods of Diyala
Matt Gallagher’s memoir Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War
Taking a look at Nevada Office of Veteran Services http://www.veterans.nv.gov/index.html
Tonight is my final book store event. There are a few conferences in my future, but this evening, at Porter Square Books, will be the last time I’ll be flanked by smiling indie booksellers and their shelves of stock, standing up and reading from You Know When the Men Are Gone. (Everyone please cross your fingers that I am lucky enough to read at bookstores when my work-in-progress is finally finished and out in the world). It has been an wild ride, getting to visit bookstores, and just the fact that I am still doing any events a year and a half after hardcover was released in January 2011, goes to show what a phenomenal publicity team I have.
I know I have been lucky in every way.
Every single event has spread the word about my book. Even if there were only five people in a room that could have seated fifty, I’ve always known that an important part of the ‘tour’ is meeting the indie booksellers themselves, letting them see and hear you, hoping they will continue to talk about your book long after those empty chairs are folded away. And for every audience member, perhaps there were ten people who noticed the flyer in the window, five people who were busy that night but interested, three who will come back another day and pick up that brand new paperback.
And yet, as miraculous as it is to have your very engaged and indulgent publisher send you to wonderful cities, touring can be as difficult as it is wonderful. Wonderful, because, c’mon, the ‘book tour’ is every author’s dream. Just to have your book taken seriously enough that your publisher is actually sending you out in the world to talk about your written words. But it is also difficult to disrupt your work schedule (when you so desperately want to get back to your desk and write book number two), to leave your husband and daughter, to sleep on airplanes and unpack rumpled clothes in countless hotels (note to reader: front desk employees do not appreciate it when you tell them you lost your key again and have no clue what room you are in). Also difficult because writers are usually a shy bunch of people who generally chose to write because we are not very good at saying things out loud. It is scary as all hell to get up in front of strangers and try to charm them for a half hour.
Which is why I was floored to learn that Benjamin Busch, author of the memoir, Dust to Dust, was doing a multi-month book tour, from April through September. Yes, you read that correctly, APRIL THROUGH SEPTEMBER—that’s a five month book tour, folks. Now, I know Ben is an ambitious and very talented man. When I first met him a year and a half ago at the War, Literature, and the Arts Conference at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, he had a photography exhibit of images he had taken while deployed and was also talking about a new film he was directing. And now here he is with a memoir, by a respected and large publisher, with a tour schedule no mere mortal could survive.
Impossible, I thought. I had never heard of such a thing.
I saw Ben read at Politics and Prose in DC a few weeks ago and asked him about this fabled tour.
I started the conversation something like this, “Ben, you are a crazy man! Are you really book-touring forty-eight states? Did your publisher give you a private jet?”
He replied, “Private jet? I’m driving myself and sleeping on the couches of generous acquaintances. My publisher was going to give me a twelve day national tour, you know, the big cities, but I asked them to give me those funds, make calls to all bookstores they thought might be interested in a reading, and let me do it on my own.”
His publisher was giving him a book tour to twelve cities, wow, and this guy had already been on many major news outlets, and he said no? He said, Let me drive myself and sleep on couches????
He could tell that I now thought he was indeed crazy, as in certifiably and unhinged crazy. He laughed.
“I wasn’t going to let my book die after twelve days,” he said. “I’m doing everything in my power to put it everywhere, into every single hand I can. It took too much work writing it to just let it go. I want people to read it. Really read it.”
Ben is a husband, a father, but he is also a Marine who has been deployed to Iraq twice, so being away from home is probably not a hardship in the same way it would be to most. And yet every day he has to steal himself for the long drive ahead, figure out the passages he will read aloud, get a sense of his intro and audience, work up the right enthusiasm each and every night. The stamina, the determination, the absolute commitment he has to his book is staggering.
Though writers might tend to be recluse types, we do hope to publish our books for a mass (or mini) audience. Even if we are not the most confident, well-adjusted bunch of people (we are neurotic enough to write lots and lots of weird things down, for one), we have to go out there smiling, telling people our book is worth their time and money, believing ourselves that our book is worth their time and money.
Daunting stuff. And maybe that’s why I keep coming back to Ben Busch, why I found him so inspiring. He believes in his book. He believes in the power of his words to touch and connect with readers. His memoir is about childhood, family, war, memory, immortality. It is full of themes people have been discussing since the Epic of Gilgamesh got the whole epic poem/literature ball rolling. And yet isn’t the act of all writing a grasp at immortality? A grandiose hope that total strangers will find your story and it will speak to them. That somewhere, someday, when the author has rotted away in the ground, maybe someone will pick that book up off a shelf and the writer’s words will come alive again.
When I think of it that way, every dose of jetlag and plane-induced-neck cramp has been worth it a million times over.
And I wish Ben Busch all forms of caffeine and soft couch imaginable in the long months ahead.
Thanks to every bookstore and library that carries my book. Thanks to every conference, bookstore, and library that has invited me to read and speak. Thanks to every book club who has invited me to join their discussion in the flesh, by Skype, by phone, or just gone and read my stories on your own with good wine and chocolate cake. Thanks to every person who has bought my book, come out to hear me read, sends me an email, mentions me on their blog or writes a nice review on B&N or Amazon, or clicks ‘like’ on my inane Facebook posts.
Thanks to every single person who has believed in my writing, and made me believe in it too.
Driving onto the Walter Reed National Medical Center at Bethesda has the feel of driving on to many military bases—the huge front gates with uniformed men and women checking IDs, the fenced-off the perimeter, the no-nonsense buildings facing off in the distance. But inside Building 62, you know you are in a very different place. This is the outpatient treatment center. This is where young men with wide shoulders, clean shaven faces, buzz haircuts, sometimes in their PT clothes, sometimes in the black-skull-and-cross-bone type platoon or unit t-shirts, zip around expertly in wheelchairs.
I was doing a Meet and Greet at a long table, copies of You Know When the Men Are Gone arranged prettily next to me, signing books and handing them out to anyone who lingered and made eye contact. There was another table next to mine, unmanned and stacked high with boxes of Girl Scout Cookies. I slid a signed paperback across to a waiting young man, twenty years old or so, with a ruddy, Irish complexion, a rosy thumbprint on each cheek, and the darkest of lashes ringing his big green eyes. He’d asked me to make the inscription out to his mother.
“Don’t forget to grab a box of cookies,” I said.
He hesitated. “My neighbor sent those,” he said. “She sent a whole load to me in Afghanistan, but the mail truck got hit with an IED. You should have seen it, cookies were everywhere.” He grinned and the guys behind him chuckled. “So she sent me those to make up for it.”
“Seriously?” I asked, imagining Tagalongs and Samoas, melted chocolate, caramel, coconut, raining down from the sky. “Girl Scout cookies hit by an IED? That’s incredible— can I steal that for a story?”
“Sure, you do that,” he grinned again, the red splotches on his cheeks a little brighter. Then he and his Marine buddy, his buddy’s wife and their one-year old son in a stroller, wheeled away, heading to the bowling alley.
I watched them, both Marines missing most of their legs, my smile starting to hurt. Here they were, joking about improvised explosive devices, and I was too much of a coward to ask about the one that hit them and changed their young lives forever.
My Author Meet and Greet was just one of the many free events that Perry Pidgeon Hooks and Loretta Yenson, both of Hook Book Events (http://www.hooksbookevents.com/), organize for the wounded heroes of Walter Reed/Bethesda Medical. They have brought other authors to Building 62, such as Max Cleland of Heart of a Patriot, Sebastian Junger of War, and Nathaniel Fick of One Bullet Away. Perry’s company, Hooks Book Events, with the help of generous donors, as well as the author’s publisher (in my case, an indulgent Penguin/NAL) donate boxes and boxes of books for these soldiers to browse and take home at no cost.
I learned from this experience that some of these soldiers and Marines stay at Walter Reed upwards of six months. When they are able to move around on their own, they and their families are given housing on the grounds of the medical complex. So there are plenty of young wives with small children who arrive with a suitcase while their soldiers are fitted with prosthetics and attend physical training. There is a bowling alley, baseball diamond, and fitness center at Reed, but there isn’t a library (there is talk of one being built in the future) and things can get slow for soldiers and families day to day, so Hooks Book Events sponsors these events in order to offer a diversion.
When the first Marine in a wheelchair approached my table, I had to try very hard not to cry. And he certainly did not want my tears, he wanted me to inscribe a book to his fiancé. They lined up, these incredible young men, waited patiently, asked me to write sweet things to their wives, girlfriends, mothers. They laughed, told me stories, played with the front wheels of their wheelchairs, energy to burn. I smiled in return, made small chat, hoped I was pronouncing Semper Fi correctly to the Marines, asked if the Army soldiers had been through Fort Hood. The spouses, also devastatingly young, willowy and pretty, thanked me for being there, shook my hand, said they were excited to a read a book about them. And there were mothers. Unlike the military members and their spouses, who somehow all seemed in great and hopeful spirits, the mothers looked stunned. They seemed to be trying to grip their emotions tightly, but their faces hid nothing. Their faces said: “Why did this happen to my beautiful boy?”
Perry and Loretta expertly moved among the people who stopped at the table, asked about home, how long they had been at Walter Reed, or how they had been wounded. Now, from the hindsight of my keyboard, of course I wished I had talked to them too, really talked to them, the soldiers and spouses, the moms and dads, but while I was there I was afraid, afraid to sound like an idiot, afraid to pry, afraid that I would crack and start to cry. Only later did I realize I had failed my vocation. I was there to give books to the soldiers and their families, but I am also the writer, I was there to take their stories home with me, write them down, and get them to the reader, let the reader feel as if they shook those brave boys’ hands, let the reader see their scars.
WAYS WE CAN HELP:
Perry Pidgeon Hooks can always use donations for her ‘Meet the Author’/book giveaways in order to purchase more books (her company, Hooks Book Events, donates around 50 books, then relies on donors and the author’s publisher to donate 50-100 more to hand out for free to soldiers at Reed). Thank you to my publisher, Penguin/NAL, for donating fifty plus books for this event, as well as one of Perry’s kind supporters for donating a box of You Know When the Men Are Gone.
In addition to the author Meet and Greets, Perry works with wonderful women who organize a clothing drive, which is also an essential way to help. These soldiers, spouses, and children who live at Walter Reed indefinitely are in need of clothing— everything from baby clothes to military ball gowns. Even men’s business clothes for those soldiers who will be getting out of the service and transitioning into civilian life, facing job interviews and office jobs. So any lightly used, good quality clothing is especially needed. If you can help out in any way, please contact Perry directly at her email address of firstname.lastname@example.org.
It was humbling to have all these young men and their wives thank me for giving them a mere book, when I know how much more they have given to our country. They were so appreciative. Perry said that she has never seen so much gratitude as she does at the clothing drive, it being difficult for these kids to go shopping for themselves (because the ones I met really were kids, they seemed like high school athletes more than seasoned soldiers who have recently faced life-threatening injuries that will stay with them). There are also two tailors who go to the clothing drives and donate their time to fit and hem the clothes.
Two extraordinary non-profits that also help our wounded troops and their families are:
Wounded Warrior Family Support (one of the things they do is send families and their wounded warriors on an all-expense paid, handicap-accessible vacation to help facilitate the family’s readjustment to the soldier’s return): www.wwfs.org/
The Wounded Warrior Project (their motto is “The greatest casualty is being forgotten”): http://www.woundedwarriorproject.org/
To find out more about the facilities at Bethesda, please got to Walter Reed’s official website at http://www.bethesda.med.navy.mil/
Thank you to all for reading this blog, and please spread the word about our wounded warriors at Walter Reed/Bethesda Medical. Please don’t let them be forgotten.