Thur Jan 27 11, Santa Cruz
“Soldiers like to tell stories, and I’m a good listener.” — Siobhan Fallon
I have spent a couple of years talking with writers about their first books, and it’s always interesting to do so. Siobhan Fallon is something a bit different, however. Yes, You Know When the Men Are Gone is indeed her first book. But it was selected by Amy Einhorn for her imprint, Amy Einhorn Books, and the rollout is more what you might expect for an author with a long track record of success. Moreover, the book itself reads like the work of an experienced author. The stories are polished, intelligent, and show an extraordinary level of variety and sophistication. What would the author of such a work be like?
That quickly became apparent when she walked in the door of KUSP with her driver: Siobhan reminded me of an English teacher; she was as smart and charming as her stories, and just a bit reserved. I was having the interview video taped; Charles was already set up, and we were ready to roll when she came into the meeting room at KUSP.
I had her read from my favorite story and hers, two short sections, which will really give listeners a flavor of her work. Happily, concise short story writing translates well into readings. Then we settled into a conversation about her work, and she talked about the life that led to her writing. It wasn’t teaching that made her familiar with being the object of attention—it was bartending.
I had her describe her life at Fort Hood, and asked a few potentially dodgy questions about adultery, one of the recurring themes of the stories. As I talked to her, I began to notice that she spoke differently; there was something in her wording that was not quite what I would expect. Then I twigged that it was the way she was referring to her husband; not as her “husband,” but as her “soldier.” She seemed a bit worried about her “umms,” but to tell the truth, there were precious few of them for me to remove. You can hear our conversation by following this link to the MP3 audio file.
As you know, Mr. Kleffel also reviews the books of his interviewees. Below are his thoughts on Fallon’s book You Know When the Men Are Gone.
Fantasy fiction is often defined by “world-building,” the technique by which the writer creates a secondary world that may or may not resemble the world in which we live. Great attention is paid to details of character, location, language, history, and all of these are subtly or grossly different than those of the reality we find ourselves confronted with on a daily basis. From ‘Lord of the Rings’ to ‘Dune’ to ‘The Stand,’ world-building has been associated primarily with visions of pasts that never were or futures that might never come to pass.
But world-building is a writerly skill of use in this world, to create realities with which most of us are unfamiliar. Siobhan Fallon’s ‘You Know When the Men Are Gone’ (Amy Einhorn Books / G. P. Putnam’s Sons / Penguin Putnam ; January 20, 2011 ; $23.95) creates a world within our world, and tells us stories that show us who we might yet become.
Fallon is married to a commander in the United States Army, and her stories unfold in Fort Hood. The title story, “You Know When the Men Are Gone,” is the first story she wrote while living on the base. It sets the scene with remarkable effectiveness. Meg is awaiting the return of her soldier, housed in an apartment complex with other Army wives, where she is almost forced to eavesdrop on her neighbors. Meg has the unfortunate luck to share a wall with Natalya. Natalya is foreign, abrupt, striking and clearly out-of-place. It’s only a matter of time before she’ll fall out of the world that Meg manages to secure a place in, just barely. It’s complicated, with written rules about mowing the lawn and unwritten rules covering just about every moment of the day. Meg fits in; Natalya falls out.
In the story “Remission,” Ellen Roddy ignores those rules at her peril, even if she is married to a commander and recovering from cancer. “Inside the Break,” Kailani breaks into her absent husband’s email to find some very suspicious messages, and the chatter among wives is not comforting. Fallon puts readers into the uneasy lives of the women left behind with alarming ease.
Fallon steps out of her own shoes and writes from the perspective of soldiers as well; “Camp Liberty” is the story of two men in one body; David Mogeson, a investment banker who signs up in the post-9/11 patriotic fever, and “Moge,” a sergeant who becomes a squad leader, and a very different man than David Mogeson. In the sinister “Leave,” Nick Cash returns home full of suspicion, intent on finding out if his wife is cheating on him. He does not realize that he’s not the same man who left.
Fallon’s stories are precise. They’re extremely well-plotted and paced, each story offering another facet of life in the military, generally in Fort Hood. She creates memorable characters with economy and ease, working effortlessly within the short-story format. You’ll remember these people after you read this book; they’ll be friends you left behind.
Where you left them is part of the point and part of the power of ‘You Know When the Men are Gone.’ Fallon’s stories interlock, giving us characters who appear in different roles, and seen from subtly different perspectives. The world she builds, the insular life of those in the US military, is complicated and peculiar and fraught with rules that, while they make a certain amount of sense, are still both logical and odd. As people from our world, from civilian life, come up against the often-necessary bureaucracy of the Army, Fallon uses her world-building skill to show us who we are, inside the walls, inside of our hearts.
No matter where you are, no matter what sort of life you are leading, the decisions you make will be human, and will play out in human terms. ‘You Know When the Men are Gone’ creates a world peopled by characters who once were like us, and may, once again, be like us. And though they may just as easily return to our world as aliens, as outliers, as outcasts, readers might be one step closer to seeing themselves in those distant eyes.