This week, I'm celebrating short stories with giveaways and thoughts about short fiction by participating authors. Join me each day as I pay tribute to National Short Story Month, a movement which has snowballed since the first efforts by Larry Dark and Dan Wickett to give overdue national attention to short stories. For details on how to enter today's contest, scroll to the bottom of this post. For more bloggers participating in Short Story Month giveaways, be sure to visit this page at Fiction Writers Review.
You Know When the Men Are Gone by Siobhan Fallon. Of all the books in my To-Be-Read pile, Fallon's collection is at the summit. Of course, I'm eager to read the stories because of my background as a 20-year veteran of the Army and my very intimate association with Army wives (hi, Jean!), but You Know When the Men Are Gone is more than just a book about families who keep the home fires stoked for their soldiers. It's also, by all accounts, packed with damned fine writing. The New York Times said of the collection: "there's not a loser in the bunch." At The Barnes & Noble Review, Jane Ciabattari wrote: "In the eight wrenching, compassionate tales that make up Siobhan Fallon's You Know When the Men Are Gone, we get the stories that it seems we've been waiting for through America's decade at war." Jacket Copy: Reminiscent of Raymond Carver and Tim O'Brien, an unforgettable collection of interconnected short stories. In Fort Hood housing, like all army housing, you get used to hearing through the walls...You learn too much. And you learn to move quietly through your own small domain. You also know when the men are gone. No more boots stomping above, no more football games turned up too high, and, best of all, no more front doors slamming before dawn as they trudge out for their early formation, sneakers on metal stairs, cars starting, shouts to the windows above to throw them down their gloves on cold desert mornings. Babies still cry, telephones ring, Saturday morning cartoons screech, but without the men, there is a sense of muted silence, a sense of muted life. There is an army of women waiting for their men to return in Fort Hood, Texas. Through a series of loosely interconnected stories, Siobhan Fallon takes readers onto the base, inside the homes, into the marriages and families-intimate places not seen in newspaper articles or politicians' speeches. When you leave Fort Hood, the sign above the gate warns, You've Survived the War, Now Survive the Homecoming. It is eerily prescient.
Overcoming My Inferiority Complex, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Short Story
"Why did you choose to write a short story collection rather than a novel?"
Inevitably, I get asked this question every time I get asked any question about my story collection, You Know When The Men Are Gone. At first I thought it was an understated criticism, an implication that if I had written a novel, I would have written something more rooted and substantial and, well, big. In terms of readership and sales, a novel is obviously the better choice, the more proven draw. A novel is a tome, has the weight of literary maturity, whereas a collection of stories in comparison is somewhat evanescent, often the work of youth or, God forbid, MFA programs. Here's another question I assumed was a gentle attack: "But I want to know more about the characters! What happens to them?" Which made me feel like I handed my readers lousy endings, endings which could have been braided together and wrapped up into a much more satisfying way if I had gone ahead and written a respectable novel instead. But I am starting to realize my reaction is an admission of my own writer's insecurities rather than any drawback of the short story form.
My book is set at the military base of Fort Hood, Texas; the characters are the wives, children, and soldiers of an infantry brigade deployed to Iraq. There are eight stories total, eight tales about perceived adultery, eavesdropping neighbors, runaway children, kidnapped Iraqi interpreters, wounded soldiers, and wives readjusting to the return of a changed husband. Characters occasionally appear in another story, sometimes passing through briefly, sometimes finishing their own tale in someone else's. The stories are, as can be expected, "short"—each is twenty pages or so. They have markedly different beginnings, and sometimes they have abrupt endings. A few stories span an entire year, others a couple of hours. They all deal with an aspect of military deployments, but the characters handle their own departures, or the departures of their spouses, in vastly different ways.
Which is why I finally realized that not only was a short story collection the best way for me to tell You Know When The Men Are Gone, it was the only way. All those qualities I once perceived as weaknesses might actually be strengths. There is the obvious appeal of a story collection, how it allows me the freedom to write about distinct worlds, from Fort Hood to Iraq and back again, without necessarily stitching them together in the way you'd expect from a traditional novel. But there is even more to it than the ease of getting up-close and personal with a new character in each story. Just as I was trying to simulate the details of life at Fort Hood with words, the physical structure of a short story collection helped me evoke the emotional landscape, the upheaval and occasional isolation, of military families during deployments.
A writer has to work very hard to immediately grab a reader's attention in the limited space of a short story, to draw them in and keep them hooked. Then, after twenty pages of immersion, the writer sets the reader loose and starts all over again with a new story, never giving the reader time to get truly comfortable. I appreciate the surge of electricity of a beginning, the disorientation dealt to readers as they suddenly find themselves with a new cast of characters, a new setting, and a new dilemma. And even more startling than the beginning of a story is its ending: after all the effort a writer has spent trying to suck the reader in, the reader meets with the farewell, the final paragraph, the empty page. These details of beginnings and endings also mirror the military life. There is the picking up and starting all over again at a new base, the moving around, the readjustments of expectations, the feeling that just when you are comfortable with a place it is time to move to a new one, as well as the reminder of how swiftly life can change, how the constant separations, the departures and absences—no matter how much a soldier's family tries to prepare—can still feel unexpected and almost violent when they occur.
The physical nature of short story page breaks, those multiple starts and stops, also gave me an advantage for cutting through the sheer amount of time that occurs during a deployment, the seemingly endless waiting that both soldier in Iraq and family in Fort Hood have to slog through during the twelve months they are apart. Starting a new story allowed me to leap over time and distance in a way I don't think I could have handled with pages of descriptions in a novel. Each new story shifted focus entirely from one family to another, and, in this episodic way, I felt like I was able to emphasize how every corner of the Army community—friends in the same housing building or total strangers from one side of the base to the other—was affected. Lives cross paths occasionally, but Fort Hood is a big place, sometimes there is a shared apartment wall or a shared Humvee, but, like life, I didn't want too much overlap. I wanted to recreate the sense of distance and separateness, the way people are always coming and going on an Army base. Individual short stories could do this, each title lined up tenuously next to each other in the Table of Contents but not merged together, the stories touching but never completely entwined.
And back to that word "short," which sounds dismissive even in its most generous definitions. The brevity of the short story is part of its glory. William Trevor calls a short story ''an art of the glimpse,'' whose ''strength lies in what it leaves out.'' There are so many permutations in a mere glimpse--how the writer takes a single moment and fleshes it out just enough so that the reader can see an entire past and future stretching out from those few written pages. As America's short story goddess Flannery O'Connor said, short story writers are attempting to capture the "extraordinary magic that lies in the everyday." This is what I was trying to conjure up: the eavesdropped words that fill a listener with curiosity or paranoia, the baby drinking a bottle that offers a connection between a husband and wife, a soldier with a memory of a death that gives a widow a reason to keep living--all these moments spooling outward, demonstrating that the possibilities of a short story are endless. It's that instant which the short story writer seizes upon and relishes, the moment when anything can happen, when the ordinary does indeed become extraordinary.
So go ahead, ask me why I wrote a collection rather than a novel, why the cracked-open and disjointed lives of my characters each deserved a story of their own rather than my fitting them together into a novel, trying to find one title, one beginning, or one ending to suit them all.
This time I'm ready with some answers.
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If you'd like a chance at winning a copy of You Know When the Men Are Gone, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with "Siobhan Fallon" in the subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the email. This contest is only open to residents of the U.S. and Canada (sorry, we can't ship to addresses with P.O. boxes). One entry per person per book (yes, you can enter the drawings for each book during Short Story Week, but each entry must be sent separately). The contest remains open until May 31, at which time I'll draw the winners of each day's giveaway.
Author photo by Larry Nordwick