My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Rachel Kambury, author of Gravel, a novel about World War II. Rachel graduated from Eugene Lang College. Born and raised in Oregon, her interest in World War II history has taken her to Normandy, Bastogne, Eindhoven, Landshut, and Dachau. She originally self-published Gravel in 2009, two months before she graduated high school. She lives in New York City and can often be found in the War/Military History section of the nearest bookstore.
My First War Novel
Before I could vote in an election, get a tattoo, buy cigarettes, sign for a loan, or walk out of a liquor store with a bottle of bourbon, I wrote a war novel.
Go big or go home.
My interest in World War II history had all the makings of a phase. Upon being given the opportunity to do an investigative research project in the sixth grade, 11-year-old Rachel decided to tackle the Holocaust. Susceptible to imprinting on things like so many a duckling, I latched on to the subject assuming the interest would fade in time, doomed to join previous obsessions like the Titanic, ancient Egypt, and dinosaurs in the figurative jar of childhood curiosities.
No such luck.
Four years later, sitting in bed one cold February evening, I opened a notebook and started writing a World War II novel.
In hindsight, beginning the work felt as natural as anything. But after nine months of writing, I had a first draft of a story that was more a messy amalgam of varied interests and half-known facts about the war than a real novel. Were they fighting in Albania? Italy? North Africa? How did they end up in Germany?
It was an unmitigated clusterfuck, and as such, Gravel became my first exercise in cover-to-cover rewriting. I had spent the previous nine months telling people about my novel—had relished the expressions of shock and interest and bewilderment, to the extent that Gravel was no longer my little writing project, but an actual expectation in the minds of other people. And the more their expectations grew, the more compelled I felt to meet them.
Knowing a second draft had to happen made discarding all but a few lines from the 350-page, handwritten manuscript easy. The question on my mind at that point wasn’t how do I rewrite my first war novel?, but how do I get this right?
That point came during my junior year of high school. By then, I’d watched HBO’s Band of Brothers approximately eight billion times. (My connection to and feelings about that miniseries/company is its own essay.) Like the subject of the war, itself, I imprinted on Easy Company hard, breathed the series day in and day out. When I took up the second draft of what had ostensibly become my single extra-curricular activity, the thing that was costing me sleep, friendships, and, unbeknownst to me, my mental health, I decided to follow the old adage “Write What You Know” to the letter.
Felix joined the 101st Airborne. So it goes.
• • •
Here’s the thing about writing a war novel when you’re fifteen, sixteen, seventeen years old: you know you have no idea what you’re doing, but you do it anyway. There is a delightful, unbridled chaos to being that age—an unselfconsciousness that lends itself to creativity and constant output and self-destruction at a fever pitch. Even awkward, retiring types with poor fashion sense, bad acne, and an idiosyncratic taste in music lose all inhibition when it comes to doing the thing we love.
There was also the fact that, growing up in a small town, I had yet to be confronted with the mythic culture of the wider literary world. I had no concept of markets or comp titles or target audiences. I started writing a war novel because I had an idea I couldn’t shake. But even after it became clear Gravel was becoming a bigger project than I originally intended, there was never any intention of finding an agent for it or getting it published by a big house in far-off New York City.
Gravel was going to be the imperfect, incredible achievement it was always meant to be. That I knew.
I became a new person going through the process of writing Gravel. Here was the culmination not only of a decade of practicing writing, but proof that my 11-year-old vow to do what Kurt Vonnegut did and write novels wasn’t just wishful thinking—I’d actually followed through. The proof was taking shape as I moved through the last year of high school on a billowing wind of productivity and determination, much to the bafflement of the people closest to me.
But under the surface of all this creation, other things were happening. Severe mental health issues, which had lain dormant for years, had begun to raise their Hydra heads. This was also the period when I first encountered the particular kind of sexism that dogs me to this day, when I first became the target of seemingly innocuous comments like: “You write about war? But you’re a girl,” and “That’s strange, I always thought women weren’t interested in war,” and “Maybe you should write under a male pseudonym, that way people will take you seriously” and “But it’s such an ugly subject, why would you want to write about that?”
Friendships fizzled out over the course of the two and a half years it took to write (and re-write, edit, and self-publish) Gravel. I wish I could lay the blame at their feet, but it would be misplaced. I made writing the priority, the thing that outweighed everything except homework; it kept me at home on the weekends and at coffee shops four hours after school every day, writing myself to the point of exhaustion, the kind that sleep can’t undo, day after day after day. I wrote myself sick, to tears, to nightmares.
Then there was a pustule of a man who called himself a “publisher” and almost got me to give up writing when I was sixteen. Jimmie and I met at one of my go-to coffee shops and got to talking about what I was working on. He asked to read my manuscript, which by that point was a year and a half out from completion. In a state of naïve, starry-eyed excitement, I emailed him the first few chapters. Two days later, on a dusky evening in September, I received a phone call while staying at my stepmother’s house.
“There’s nothing here that’s gonna grab people,” said Jimmie. “I know I said we’d be interested in helping you with this, but I just don’t see it going anywhere. I know this book matters a lot to you, but it’s just not good enough.”
Now when I re-read portions of Gravel (especially as I edit it in preparation for a second edition), I realize there was a lot about his “critique” that held water. Gravel was and is a soft book. Many of the characters are painfully one-dimensional. It is not particularly well written or paced, and it’s historically inaccurate in ways that strain credulity to the breaking point. Bending facts is one thing in realistic historical fiction, but breaking them is another. Were I to re-write Gravel, I’d do it from scratch. Again.
I can be rational about his words now. But at sixteen? Writing my first real novel? I wallowed hard for weeks after that phone call. Questioned my ability to write, my commitment to this story, whether or not there was any point in seeing this project through to the end. Was Gravel worth anything to anyone besides me, or was I kidding myself and them?
Then, in the full flush of youthful stubbornness, I went back to work. Detractors and a burgeoning mental health crisis and my social life and sexism could wait.
(For what it’s worth, I had to click back through nine years of emails, 22,000 of them, just to find the name of the guy who almost made me stop writing nine years ago. Damnation, thy name is Gmail.)
• • •
Earlier this year I had dinner with my high school health teacher in New York City.
“What was the reaction at the faculty meeting the day Gravel came out?” I asked her.
Ms. French laughed, the bright sound drowning out the roars of the hard-drinking Staten Islanders at the next table over. “Some of us didn’t even know you’d been working on it, so all of a sudden we have this student who drops a war novel on us and we were just shocked. Shocked!”
At the Senior Most Likely “awards” ceremony in May 2009, I was [female] voted “Most Likely To Be a NYT Bestseller.” There was triumph in that, but more so in learning that the only other writing category—Senior Most Likely to Write a Novel—had been nixed because of me. I felt indomitable. Gravel was the greatest accomplishment of my life up to that point. It made even the most dry-eyed members of my immediate family cry, a monumental achievement in and of itself.
In the seven years since, the book has sold about one hundred copies, which is about ninety-six copies more than I ever anticipated and a thousand less than what I envisioned. But I’d done it—I’d written a novel. Between April and June 2009, not a day went by someone didn’t refer to me as “The girl who wrote a war novel.” Looking ahead toward college, toward the next book, toward a career—I saw nothing but potential.
Naturally, that’s when it all fell apart.
It is its own essay, but the aforementioned mental health crisis bubble finally burst not long after I moved to New York City in August 2009. I am glad it waited until after I made my solemn pilgrimage to Normandy, Eindhoven, Dachau, and Bastogne. But the writer I became through the wild and spectacular process of writing Gravel was gone within a year of its publication—lost to severe depression and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. All that fire of momentum, snuffed out.
In the years since, it has become clear that the writing of Gravel effectively did away with my resistance to a battery of mental health issues. If my mind was a tin can, writing Gravel—more specifically, writing about war—was the rusty, jagged-edged can-opener, slowly serrating through the psychological defenses I’d spent years building up and fortifying through sheer force of will.
The fallout was nearly catastrophic. But as counterintuitive as it sounds, writing about war, despite being the thing that did me in, had also become the lens through which I could best make sense of my own traumatic experience. What happened to me as a child transpired far from any battlefield but found meaning in the study of them, regardless.
In writing war stories, I learned that for almost every person who finds healing and understanding in the peaceful and the quiet, there is someone like me, who doesn’t.
In many ways it feels like Gravel never happened. Reading it now is like reading a book written by somebody else. But there are moments of remembrance, when I can recall where I was and how I felt writing this or that chapter, like the D-Day landings scene that made a veteran and survivor of the Bataan Death March tell my best friend’s dad, “She gets it.” A scene I wrote a few months after Jimmie told me to give up on the whole thing.
There are moments like last December, when I found myself spiraling in doubt, questioning whether it was worth it for me to continue trying to write when I had, besides Gravel, nothing to show for my efforts. It was then I turned to the Daily Tidings article from 2009 in which a starry-eyed seventeen-year-old Rachel is quoted saying:
“About halfway through writing Gravel I started thinking of myself as a writer,” Rachel said during the lunch period at Ashland High School last week. “I’m definitely going to pursue being a novelist.”
• • •
In September 2010, following an unprecedented seventeen months of total creative inertia, I began writing my second World War II novel. Earlier this year, I started the fourth draft, effectively shelving the 500,000 words I wrote over the past six years. Once again, I’m starting over from scratch, asking myself not if I can do this all over again, but how do I get it right this time?
While my writing resume is currently all but blank, I am nonetheless satisfied that the first thing on it will always be my first war novel. Whatever shame or embarrassment I might feel toward that blank page is always supplanted by the pride I have in the work I did when I was an undaunted teenager caught in the grip of something bigger than anything I could fathom.
So yes. For now, and for a little while longer still, Gravel stands alone. I can live with that.