If you’re angling to pick up a book during this last official summer weekend, I couldn’t more highly recommend Siobhan Fallon’s You Know When the Men Are Gone. Or Fire and Forget, a collection of veteran-penned short stories to which Fallon was a unique contribution: writing from her perspective as a military spouse. In each book, Fallon is an incredible force—her stories are vivid, intense and full of emotion. (In You Know When the Men Are Gone, “Remission,” “The Last Stand,” and “You Survived the War, Now Survive the Homecoming” are particularly poignant.) I asked Fallon, via email, about writing, her stories, and the sense of community among military spouses.
RF: What motivates you to write?
SF: Wow, I wish I could pare it down to one thing. I write because I love it, which I know is the standard answer, and therefore a tediously boring reply. But it’s hard to otherwise describe those moments of pure creativity, when the words spin out of you and you feel like you could do it forever, just write and write and be in a zone of otherworldly concentration. Yet there is more to the writing than the creative outpour, those great moments are rare, and in between them is all the “real” work: the rewriting, rereading, rewriting, cutting, and rewriting some more. You end up throwing away most of the work that seemed so beautiful and extraordinary when it came out of your brain unchecked. But the finished product, the inspiration polished and honed by the hard work, can become something worthy in the end.
SF: I did feel some responsibility—that’s a good way to put it. I met one of the editors and contributors, Matt Gallagher, at a War Literature and the Arts conference at the Air Force Academy a few years ago, and we stayed in touch. He told me about the anthology and invited me to send a story. I knew I was a bit of an outsider in the collection—everyone else is a Veteran who was deployed to either Iraq or Afghanistan—and that I was brought in to help complete the picture of the military community in a time of war. As the only representative voice for military spouses in this particular project, it was important for me to paint a balanced picture.
RF: In your author’s note of your collection You Know When the Men Are Gone, you write about the sense of community among military spouses. The pieces in your book are distinct, with most set in or revolving around Texas’ Fort Hood, yet the idea of community is almost implicit. How did you create a narrative arc via distinct short stories?
SF: I started writing the stories as just that—stories. It wasn’t until I had written two or three of them that I realized I could have a collection on my hands. But it wasn’t until I had written the entire collection, and had a few individual stories appear in literary magazines, that I decided to set the stories at Fort Hood. So all of those allusions to Texas heat or specific streets (Battalion Avenue, Hell-On-Wheels, Warrior Way Commissary), or characters crossing story lines and appearing in multiple stories, were carefully layered in during later rewrites.…That sense of community was very important to me as I was writing, and it’s one of the finest parts of military life. I’ve found that there is a feeling of being connected, that we are all in this fight (be it a deployment or a month-long training exercise or a company barbeque), spouse and soldier, together.
RF: In “Tips for a Smooth Transition” (Fallon’s story in Fire and Forget), Evie and Colin vacation in Hawaii after Colin’s return from Afghanistan. At one resonant point it reads, “There are so few ways she can keep him safe and yet she couldn’t even protect him for one day against the Hawaiian sun.” Does the sense of community felt among military spouses help them in coping with that loss of control?
SF: I think so. Spouses have very little control over huge aspects of our lives—where we will live and for how long, when our soldiers will deploy and when they will return to us. We depend on each other during a deployment, but spouses are just as invaluable during more prosaic moments, like an ordinary PCS or Permanent Change of Station (Army talk for moving). I just recently moved (my eighth since I married my husband in 2004) and, now with two children in tow, I was struck by the complete and utter disruption of life that occurs. There are a myriad of details involved—taking children out of school and enrolling them in the next one, picking up all of your medical/dental records and finding a new clinic, packing up the house, living in a hotel, then arriving at the new place and waiting in another hotel until your housing is ready, then waiting for the movers to bring the boxes, ugh, the list just goes on and on.
We are all aware of the hardships of deployments, of families being separated from one another for long periods of time, the stress and anxieties, but we forget about all these families picking up and moving to new bases during the natural cycle of a soldier’s career. These moves impact lives as well, especially the lives of the spouse who may be trying to find employment amid all the upheaval. In the Army world, we know what the new family is going through and I think we try to reach out and show them around. To use the word responsible again, I think it is implicit in the military community that if a new family joins your soldier’s company/unit, spouses try to help them feel at home. During my moves, there’s always been at least one kind and dependable spouse who has helped this new girl figure out the best schools and dentists, the restaurants and most trusted mechanics, and the million other ins and outs of a new post.
RF: I’ve always been curious about the ordering of short stories in collections. Yours ends with “Gold Star,” a beautiful story about a recent widow meeting the young soldier her husband died saving in battle in Iraq. Was that intentional?
SF: Yes. That was one of the last stories I wrote, and it felt like it should finish the collection. It does tackle some difficult themes, like marital guilt and regret and, of course, the loss of a loved one, but I thought there was a sense of hope in that story, in Josie’s tentative friendship with the wounded soldier, and I wanted to leave the collection with a sense of possibility and future.
RF: What’s the most common thing you hear from other military spouses? From readers?
SF: The most common thing I hear from military spouse readers is that they are glad to see stories that tell the ups and downs of military life and that I “got it right.” Civilian readers usually say that they were happy to see a world they’d never had any personal insight into before, and now they feel like they have more of an understanding of military life. I’m thrilled when I hear either. As an author, I ultimately want to tell a good story. These stories are fictional, I have to imbue each with a certain amount of tension and plotting; there’s got to be a hook and gut-tugging climax. But I’m also especially glad to show a new side of military life to civilian readers, and I hope that fellow spouses feel like I have kept things as true to our lives as possible.
This Q&A has been edited and condensed.