|Rachel Starnes, photo by Jennifer Reynolds|
Rachel Starnes is the author of the new memoir The War at Home: A Wife's Search for Peace (and Other Missions Impossible). It focuses on her life as the wife of a Navy pilot. Her work has appeared in The Colorado Review, Front Porch Journal, and O Magazine.
Q: Why did you decide to write this memoir, and how long did it take to write it?
A: This book began as a series of essays I wrote during the process of earning my MFA in Creative Nonfiction at Fresno State.
At first, I was just writing about the things that stuck out in my daily life—how I felt unmoored after the relocations we did as Ross went through flight school, how I was nervous and unsure of the path ahead and what I’d gotten myself into, and how I was still trying to sort out what it meant to be married to someone whose career as a Navy pilot asked so much of both of us while I was still trying to decide on my own direction.
The draw of the essay format, for me, was the promise that by walking through my thoughts and laying out the logic, I could figure these questions out, or at least gain more clarity around them. I truly thought I could figure it out in 20 pages or so.
But what happened was that the more I dug, the deeper my questions went, leading me all the way back to events in my childhood and patterns in my family that went back before I was born.
Over the course of seven years, what started out as a few essays became a book, and during that time, Ross and I became parents, continued to move with the Navy, and faced some really tough questions about what we wanted for our careers and for our family.
Finding an ending to the book was quite difficult because in many ways we were—and are—still caught up in the living of these questions.
I don’t think I’m done wrestling with them, but I feel a lot clearer than when I started out, and I’m extremely grateful for the ways that the book has helped broaden my perspective by putting me in contact with other people who are grappling with the same things.
Q: In the book, you describe your experiences as the wife of a Navy pilot and also as the daughter of a father whose job took him away from home frequently. Did you plan out the structure of the book and the juxtapositions before you started writing, or did it develop as you went along?
A: That was a natural progression, but also a deliberate choice. So many of my memories from missing my dad are relevant to the way I experience missing Ross, even though intellectually I know the particulars of the situation are different.
For instance, I have a much larger community of families to look to now than I did when I was a kid and we knew no other families of rig workers.
I also chose to lay out my past on the page because I believe it provides the reader with context, which means a safe way to either engage our similarities or understand the roots of our differences.
I knew that some of the feelings or observations I described about military life—or about marriage or motherhood in general—might hit a nerve, and so I wanted to explain how I’d come by them.
There was also a lot of learning in this process for me. Often, I would find that I’d made cognitive leaps based on childhood experience that didn’t hold up when I looked at them more closely.
I think a lot of us do that, and it was helpful, especially when life got even more stressful towards the end of writing the book, to go back and walk more slowly through my impressions.
Q: What do you think are some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about military spouses?
A: I’m so glad you asked that question because it’s been on my mind a lot lately. Less than one half of one percent of the population of the United States currently serves in the military. That means that many people don’t come into regular and sustained contact with someone currently serving.
Instead, much of our exposure to the military is through what we see on the news or in movies or on social media, and many of those outlets perpetuate certain stereotypes about who serves in the military, why they serve, how they vote, and what struggles they face.
And it’s been my experience that however narrow those assumptions are about service members, they get even narrower when the conversation turns to their spouses.
I think many of us are assumed to be entirely unconflicted about our roles, or patriotic and subservient to our husbands and the unique demands of their careers in a way that makes us seem like we’re from another era.
The fact of the matter is that military spouses are among the most dynamic, resourceful, resilient, and multifaceted groups of people I’ve ever encountered.
They bring a ton of experience, wisdom, creativity, and strength to the table and I think it’s often taken for granted by employers and sometimes by the communities they live in, simply because they move around so much.
I think we’re also perceived as being an insular group that sticks together, which is accurate in the best ways—we take care of each other—but also in ways that aren’t so helpful—we’re sometimes reluctant to speak up or speak out. In my experience, that’s come from a fear that we’ll be misunderstood or perceived as disloyal.
It’s my hope that by writing about my own imperfect life and marriage in the military, others will share their unique experiences, and the country at large will start hearing more from this extremely versatile and dynamic community who has such a large stake in the big issues facing our country.
Q: How was the book's title chosen and what does it signify for you?
A: I struggle with choosing titles, and I’ll admit that I’m not the best at it. In this case, I was fortunate to have both a very wise editor, Sarah Stein at Penguin, and an excellent agent who I’d worked with over a period of four years, and who knew me and my project quite well. Between the three of us, we must have considered 50 titles or more, but it was Sarah who finally nailed it.
It’s a great title because it works on so many levels—there’s the obvious tie to the modern military, which is in its 16th year of war on multiple fronts, and the echoes of that conflict that play out in our community at home; there’s the conflict between Ross and I as we struggle to find what’s right for our family when that right thing often isn’t clear; and there’s the struggle within myself as I try to understand how I came to this life, and in what ways my past experience clouds or clarifies my judgments on what I see around me.
As for the subtitle, that was a whole separate round of considerations and negotiations, but ultimately, I think it does a great job of clarifying that this is a spouse’s journey, and one still in progress.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Right now I’m working on putting down roots in yet another new duty station.
I’m deeply embedded in the business of motherhood for my 5- and 4-year-old boys who daily come up with new challenges for me—a heinously busted lip, a clone trooper costume, reading lessons, self-inflicted haircuts—and in the quiet moments in the evening (there are so few of them), I try and take a few notes.
I’m anxious to stretch my legs with some fiction, and I’m enjoying exploring our new town with Ross.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Just that I’m profoundly grateful to everyone who has given my book their time and attention.
I feel privileged to have gotten a chance to weigh in with my personal experiences of military life, marriage, motherhood, and mental illness, and I’m so humbled by those who have reached out to me about their own experiences. I hope the discussion continues.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb