I’m so pleased to have author Andria Williams here today. Andria is an old friend from the University of Minnesota’s MFA program. She’s such a talented writer, and I’m thrilled that her novel, currently titled The Falls, will be published by Random House. I had the chance to read an earlier draft of the book, and I couldn’t put it down. (I’m convinced she will sell the movie rights…) I’ll have Andria back once her novel is out in the world, but I wanted to talk to her now because she has recently launched a wonderful new project, The Military Spouse Book Review.
KH: Welcome, Andria!
AW: Thank you so much for having me here, Kate! You know I’ve been a longtime fan of your writing and of Motherhood & Words.
KH: Aw shucks. Thanks, friend.
Can you talk about why you started the Military Spouse Book Review?
AW: We’re a little over a decade out from the start of the most recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and there’s been a surge of interest in books by and about the men who have served in those wars (The Yellow Birds, Redeployment, FOBbit, and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, to name a few). I think that’s wonderful and deserved, but I also noticed that there was not much by and about the women who serve in the military or who hold down the homefront (the most notable exception being the incredible short-story collection You Know When the Men Are Gone, by Siobhan Fallon, as well as some great YA lit, like Alice Bliss by Laura Harrington).
I started digging around for books by and about military spouses. There were quite a few, but most tended to be of the self-help variety, chicken soup for the military wife’s soul, that sort of thing. These can be valuable books but they didn’t fill what I was craving, which was good artistic literary writing by and/or about military women and families.
I found myself wondering what women connected to the military were reading and writing, and as with any subject, the more I explored, the more I realized was out there. Military spouses read like crazy, it turns out, and they are also writing some really terrific stuff. Wouldn’t it be cool, I thought, to have a blog for the “thinking military spouse” (and female service members, too) where we could review books, post our own writing, and just swap ideas and have a voice that was a little more scholarly, a little deeper, than some of the other stuff out there?
KH: How has being in a military family impacted you as a writer and reader?
AW: In logistical terms, it can be a challenge. You can’t live near a core group of writing friends, obviously. I had to leave my little Twin Cities writing community behind. Sometimes I feel a little sad about that, especially when I see the occasional picture of a reunion lunch on Facebook (and I start trying to convince myself that everybody’s actually getting together, like, every week, which I KNOW isn’t true!).
I think I’m more empathetic now, and more humble. You can’t feel like much of a big shot when you have to move and be the new person every two years. I crave hearing other peoples’ stories more than ever, and I am braver about getting them. Like a lot of writers, I tend toward social anxiety and am much more articulate on paper than I am in person (have you seen that T-shirt, “ask me about my crippling shyness?”). Sometimes I used to look for excuses not to approach people, to duck into my little nerd-shell. Being forced to meet new people every two years has pretty well driven that out of me. Now, if I think someone’s even remotely interesting, I go after ‘em like a crazed pit bull.
KH: I’d love to hear a little more about you as a writer. When did you realize you wanted to be a writer?
AW: I knew when I was about five years old. I have never wanted to be anything else. I am almost pathologically loyal and make big life decisions quickly and stick to them forever, and when I was five I thought, I’m gonna be a writer. So that’s what I did.
KH: You have three young children. I’d love to hear a little about your writing and how you fit writing into your busy life.
AW: I’ve written every day of my life since I was five years old, with one huge exception: After the birth of my first child, I couldn’t write for five years. I would certainly not want her to think it was her fault (or the fault of the other two sweethearts who came after her!); it was something inside me that jammed up and wouldn’t let myself write. I was in the trenches, to put it a little melodramatically, of raising these small children who depended upon me for everything (I’m sure this sounds familiar to your readers, Kate!!), with the strain of being in a military family – where, as the spouse, you have GOT to be the rock, you have got to be ever-present and calm, because sometimes the world is changing for your little kids pretty fast (new state, Dad’s away) and you are the only thing that decides whether they take it in stride or freak out. It can be a tremendous pressure. Somehow I couldn’t open myself up to the dreaminess and possibility of writing – because fiction writing, it’s like a five-year love affair with imaginary people. You think about them during the day when you’re grocery shopping, or driving. Songs come on the radio and you think about your characters. (I realize I sound like a total creepo.) But I had to hit a minor rock-bottom of antsiness and crabbiness before I felt like it was okay to give myself that kind of brain-space, that weird internal freedom.
Like a lot of moms, I just set my alarm clock for early in the morning and write while it is still dark. At first, when my son went on his two-year campaign of getting up at 5:15 every day, I only had about 45 minutes in the morning to write. But then he started to sleep in like a decent human being, and that grew to an hour, even two. I never missed a morning because it would make me so irritable if I did; it got to the point where it was like You owe it to your kids to write today so you will not be an uptight bitch come two p.m. I was much happier if I slept only four hours and got my writing in, than if I were well-rested and didn’t write. Once I realized that I never looked back, and I’ve been as sweet as pie ever since. You can ask my husband.
KH: You look sweet as pie!
Your novel, The Falls, just sold to Random House. Tell us a little bit about the book.
AW: Thanks for asking! The Falls (title may change! no one likes it) is set in 1959. A young woman named Nat Collier moves to Idaho with her husband, Paul, an Army nuclear operator, and their two young daughters. It’s his first tour of duty as an operator and it’s supposed to be pretty straightforward, but when they reach Idaho they realize that Paul’s new boss, Mitch, is womanizing, irresponsible, and usually drunk, and that the reactor itself is slowly failing. Tensions rise between Paul and his boss until Paul eventually lashes out and is punished by being sent on a six-month tour to Greenland, where the Army was actually operating a nuclear-powered base under the ice. While Paul’s gone, Nat finds herself falling for another man, a sweet local guy, and tensions build until you actually think that you may die, and it all culminates with a little-known episode from American history – the first and only fatal nuclear reactor accident in the U.S., on January 3rd, 1961.
(I know people hear the word “nuclear” and focus on that, and it is part of the book, but to get a real feel for what The Falls is like, focus more on the marriage between Nat and Paul, and what it means to be left behind, and how jealousy can really screw things up, and you’ll get a better picture of the book.)
KH: This book is fantastic, people.
What do you hope the Military Spouse Book Review will do, both for civilian families and military families?
AW: I hope it creates a space where people who live within a culture that’s not always the most intellectual – the military – can come together and get excited about books, about ideas.
I hope it makes some women in the military feel like they’re not so alone.
I hope it creates a place where military folks can put aside those false barriers we create – enlisted vs. officer, military spouse vs. female service member – and just get to know each other a little better.
I hope it’s a place where non-military folks who love books feel comfortable dropping by, too, because the military and civilian worlds have never been at more of a gap than they are now, in some ways, and I’d really like to see that ease up a little.
Most of all, I hope I can learn a lot and have fun putting this all together. I’ve already heard from Navy wives stationed overseas, Army Rangers’s wives, infantrymens’ wives, officers’ wives, active-duty female service members. And they all want to talk about books! I feel like I’ve died and gone to heaven.
Come on over and spend a little time with us! We would absolutely love to hear from you.
KH: Thanks so much for taking the time to “chat” with me, Andria. Friends, go check out her great review.