TOKYO (Reuters Life!) - A Serbian war bride waits for her husband to return from Iraq. A widow tries to find out what happened to her husband in his final hours from the soldier whose life he saved. A wife watches from afar as her husband appears to have an affair.
Siobhan Fallon’s “You Know When the Men are Gone,” a selection of eight linked short stories, portrays a world rarely, if ever, heard from: the home front on a military base, in this case Fort Hood, Texas, when the soldiers are deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
From the opening scenes of boots thumping down the stairs to early muster, to depictions of how thin the walls in military housing can be and the special language of acronyms used by the women waiting at home for “their soldiers” to return, all is based on details lived by Fallon herself.
She spoke to Reuters about her book and writing about what you know.
Q: How much of this book is based on personal experience?
A: “We were there and my husband deployed twice, so for two of those years I was alone, and I was really involved with the other spouses in a different way than I had been before, at the other bases. It was the first time I had even written anything about the military, that first story in there, and it just opened the floodgates. Once I started writing that particular story I just started seeing stories everywhere, writing what I knew.”
Q: Why did that open the floodgates?
A: “Maybe part of it was because of being at Fort Hood — it’s such an all-encompassing place, a world that was that military. I was noticing things I hadn’t noticed before, and as I noticed them I was wanting to write them down. I hadn’t spent as much time on a military base. We’d lived farther from the bases in the past. Of course, my husband was gone so much of that time. I guess once it occurred to me to start writing about that experience, I couldn’t stop. I don’t know why.”
Q: Maybe writing was a survival mechanism.
A: “Yes, absolutely. I think it definitely helped me get through that last deployment. Instead of worrying about my fears or my stresses about my husband, I could concentrate on the writing and it gave me a little bit of distance and a way of imagining other peoples’ much more difficult situations.”
Q: Were you writing every day during this period?
A: “Fort Hood has a great program of free day care if your soldier is deployed, 16 hours a month free daycare for each child, so I used that. That really got me organized and on a schedule of writing. I would take my daughter to day care, and within walking distance was a Burger King food court. I would lug my laptop and sit there so I could use every minute of those free hours. That got me into a regular writing pattern. And watching the soldiers and their families at that food court was really great details that I could pick up on ...
“The ideas of each story seemed to tumble on top of each other, and it was almost hard to get them down and capture them. Then, of course, it took years to actually flesh them out and get them right. And as soon as I finished I was dry. It was the strangest thing. I wrote those eight stories and it seemed as if they weren’t going to stop, but once I got that last one down they were done.”
Q: Were they inspired by real incidents or did they come out of your imagination?
A: “I thought of them, or would have an image and create a story around them. But the characters were a compilation of people I might have met or certain details about one soldier that I might match with a few others, and create a creature on paper as well as I could. Almost each story had one moment that I had very clearly in my head, and then I built a story around it.”
Q: Do you think the short story still has a future?
A: “I do. I love short stories and I love short story collections, so I think we just have to be stubborn and keep writing the short stories. Obviously some people are reading them. I think they’re wonderful for capturing very specific moments that might be lost otherwise.”
Reporting by Elaine Lies; editing by Patricia Reaney