Writing Through the Forever War
A one-of-the-guys Army officer pens romance fiction on the side (17 published novels!) to work out her life-and-death fears
So there I was, an Army officer candidate in military training, sweating in 98-degree heat with no shower for the last four days, sitting in the Fort Benning, Georgia, woods with the banana spiders and feral hogs, and I get the great idea that these spiders and land navigation (walking through the woods with a map and compass) would be a fun addition to the novel I’d started writing to stay awake during military history class.
It was the summer of 2007 and I was a 32-year-old mother of two daughters — one seven months old and one, two years — who were both parked in Maine with my mother. My husband was deployed to Iraq on his second tour and the two family dogs had been placed in a long-term kennel.
And I desperately needed something to take my mind off the ache in my chest that descended every time I called home to talk to my babies, the youngest of which couldn’t even remember who I was.
Why I Decided to Be All That I Could Be
I’d enlisted in the Army straight out of high school (in 1995) because I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up. I thought I’d earn some money for college while I figured it out. Twelve years later, I was taking a three-month course designed to transform me from a sergeant first class senior noncommissioned officer into a second lieutenant. The school was a crash course in officer education — tactics, military history — and a lot of time spent in the woods with those damn spiders.
I was told this would build my character. (I’m still not convinced.)
At the end of 2004, when my husband returned from his first deployment, we had a tough conversation about whether we should both stay in the Army. That would mean going back to war — possibly multiple times — in order to keep our health insurance. We wanted to try and make it to the 20-year mark, when we both could earn retirement benefits. I’d finished my bachelor’s degree through the State University of New York, and part of that plan meant that I would transition from enlisted to officer, which meant more responsibility but also better pay.
So of course, writing a romance novel was the obvious best use of my time.
Why I Write What I Write
I found solace in writing romance novels because it allowed me to explore the kinds of emotional connections I didn’t see represented in fiction about military life. For example, most of my novels (I have published 17 novels) involve women’s friendships with other women. At work when I was younger, I was always one of the “guys.” But as I’ve aged, I’ve come to cherish my female friendships in a way that I couldn’t appreciate back then. My female characters reflect these friendships.
I also write about strong male and female friendships. By contrast, I almost never write a friends-to-lovers story because I believe deeply that men and women can actually be just friends, even the kind who will bleed and fight for each other. Sometimes, I even write about female soldiers being friends with Army wives — a relationship stereotypically portrayed as fraught with rivalry and jealousy.
I also write because I want to see people like me on the page. Women in the military — officers or enlisted — who choose to stay in the greedy institution of the Army, despite the struggles with balancing family and combat deployments. I want to see everyday soldiers — not Special Forces or Navy SEALs — but regular soldiers who deploy again and again rather than walk away.
When I began writing fiction, there were few regular soldiers in the novels I read. Yes, there are some nonfiction works about women who serve: I highly recommend Rule Number Two by Dr. Heidi Kraft. But for the most part, books about Iraq — both fiction and nonfiction — focus on the men who deploy. There is very little about what happens when they come home and even less about when the women who go to war come home.
Writing to Renegotiate My Identity
When I began writing, the Forever War was still the young and fresh Global War on Terror. We were not yet jaded and cynical about why we were fighting or why we’d gone to war in the first place. We’d only been in Iraq for a little over four years, and I’d only recently become a mother. To say that I was renegotiating every aspect of my identity is an understatement.
Why didn’t I write nonfiction instead? Funny story. It involved Army lawyers telling me that nonfiction would be too close to my official duties. If I wanted to tell these stories, fiction would keep me out of legal trouble. I write under a pen name because as much as I want to tell authentic stories, I want space between my first life as an Army officer and my second life as a writer.
I also write as a way of processing the things I am experiencing in my life — the fears, the uncertainty, the frustrations of being an Army officer, an Army wife, an Army mom. I use my writing as a way of exploring some of my deepest anxieties. What will I do if something happens to my husband when he is deployed? Can I stay in the Army and still deploy if the war takes him from our family?
The book that explored that question eventually became After the War, a second chance romance about Captain Sarah Anders, a widowed Army captain who comes face to face with Captain Sean Nichols, a man she’d dated when they’d both been enlisted. Sean wanted Sarah to get out of the Army and become his wife. But Sarah loved the Army too much to give it up. She moved on and married a man who supported her as a wife and an Army officer. But then she lost him to the war. After her loss, she continued to serve, eventually running into Sean, who, thankfully, has grown into a man confident enough to love her and support her as she is.
That book remains one of my favorites. For Sarah to sacrifice made her a worthy hero in her own right. In many ways, Sarah’s story helped me justify the sacrifices my own family had made for my service.
Writing My Way Out of the Army
I wrote nine novels, most of them after my kids went to bed. That’s when I’d snag an hour or so here or there to jot down a chapter or two or chat on Twitter with members of the Romance Writers of America, an organization dedicated to advocating for professional romance writers. Thankfully, I was a fast writer and I had great mentors who helped me polish those first very rough drafts into something readable.
Writing became a sanctuary for me, a place to wrestle with the things I didn’t want to face in my real life such as the impact of my husband’s PTSD; he — and our family — are still learning to cope.
In one of the mysteries of the universe, in 2013 the Duke University department of sociology accepted me into their program and so I took off the military uniform and, after a traumatic experience of figuring out just what one wears to grad school, I started the program.
While I’m told grad school is a traumatic experience for most students, I had no clue just how life-altering it would be for me. I was 38 years old, nearly a decade beyond most of my classmates, and one of the only soldiers any of them had ever met. And it was my first time on a college campus.
I Needed to Learn: Who Am I as a Woman?
The almost twenty years of the Forever War dramatically changed my perspective on what it means to be a mother and a soldier. But graduate school and writing helped me answer another identity question: who was I as a woman? For the first time in my life, I was surrounded by women. Listening to their stories dramatically altered my taken-for-granted assumptions about daily life and what it means to be female — both inside the military and out.
As I’ve gotten older, I look back on things I used to believe and do with a deep sense of disquiet. I never believed sexual assault in the military was as serious a problem as I now know it to be. Watching Jackson Katz’s Ted Talk about how language obscures men’s roles in domestic violence was an epiphany for me. Instead of wondering (as I used to) “why she stayed,” I now ask, “why does he hit?” I’m not proud of these admissions but I know that the relationships I’ve forged in the writing and grad school communities have challenged the things I used to take for granted.
Until We Fall, the last book in my “Falling” series, is the story of Nalini King, a young woman wrestling with the legacy of actions she failed to take to protect a fellow female service member. When I was young, I saw myself as a soldier who happened to be female; I proudly wore the “Not Like the Other Girls” moniker, which I thought made me special. It sounds strange, but I never really thought about what it meant to be a woman in the military, even though, ironically, my stories centered on this very question. Perhaps my writing was an attempt to explore this side of me, a side I’d kept hidden, even from myself.
I Needed to Learn: What do You Wear to a Conference?
At my first Romance Writers of America Conference, I panicked again about what to wear and how to talk to civilian women.
I didn’t actually know any of my fellow writers in real life because all of our conversations had taken place virtually, over Twitter. But the community embraced me and guided me through that first event. These women helped me learn to be comfortable in my own skin, let my hair down (literally!), wear a dress; they taught me that yes, comfortable high heels do indeed exist (Cole Haan with Nike Air soles). Most importantly, the friends I’ve met in the romance writing community taught me the value of being a woman.
As I’ve transitioned yet again from graduate student to professor and from aspiring author to multi-published author, my novels once again help me sort through who I was and where I fit.
The central story I’ve always written about, of course, is family — not a biological family but a military family. The family bonds you forge in the woods, in the desert, in the tactical operations center debating the meaning of life in the middle of the night (spoiler alert: it’s 42, a reference to the venerated Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy).
My fiction has changed as I’ve changed, even if the core story I’m telling hasn’t. It’s one of finding your place, of finding the family you choose, of finding the people who push you to be better. And it all started in the woods at Fort Benning, swinging a stick to please-God-don’t-let-a-spider-hit-me-in-the-face, and deciding that this would be a great chapter in a romance novel.
Because who better to tell a love story in the middle of the Forever War than someone who’s lived it and shared it with friends along the way?