Monday, September 11, 2017

Q&A with Siobhan Fallon

Siobhan Fallon is the author of the new novel The Confusion of Languages. She also has written the story collection You Know When the Men Are Gone, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Washington Post Magazine and Woman's Day. She lives in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

Q: You’ve noted that “The Confusion of Languages is an evolution of short stories into a novel.” How did you decide on the right approach for this book?

A: Well, originally, I went about writing a collection of very connected stories in what I thought was a rational way. Chronological, each short story taking the plot further, each story narrated by a different character. I had outlines and index cards, notebooks filled with back story and maps and newspaper articles.

I hate to say this because there’s less of a "teaching moment" in the irrational method that resulted in the novel, but I had to remove all the rigid guidelines I had given myself.

All my attempts at being artistically innovative, edgy and hip (with the different voices chiming in with their version of events changing the reader’s perception as the plot moves onward, or how some chapters were email exchanges, some were newspaper articles, text messages, voice mails, you get the idea).

In the end I just had to start all over again and simplify. I had to tell the story rather than concentrate on all these nifty little set pieces. I cut down my cast to two characters and let them tell their side of things, one in real time, and one through the flashbacks revealed in her journal.

Honestly, it was a series of trial and error. It was writing the story over and over again, in every way I could think of, until I had given it everything I had. It was trusting my readers to be honest (writer friends Jenny Moore, Emily Jeanne Miller, and Olivia Boler, my husband, KC, my editor, Helen Richard, my agent, Lorin Rees). It was pure exhaustion that told me I was done.

Q: How much was the novel inspired by your own experiences living in Jordan in 2011?

A: This is something I struggle with, and I am sure many, many writers do too.

All of us human beings are walking around every day, observing, remembering, taking note, gleaning the most interesting parts of our days for Facebook or twitter posts. We all have tremendous vaults of material.

People try to give me ideas for stories all the time and often they are great ideas! Like crazy, life-shaking moments chock full of epiphany and wonder, people beating fatal diseases, soldiers single-handedly saving ambushed platoons.

And meanwhile, while living in Amman in February, on my way to picking up my daughter at pre-school, I buy flowers from a guy on a corner as I wait at a stop light.

And I can’t stop thinking about this man. I think about his missing teeth, about where he could possibly get those pale pink roses in this chilly city, about how he will feed his kids if he doesn’t manage to sell his fragile, already-withering wares. And that makes its way into a story, a book.
I bought flowers from this man for almost a year, and in that year I never even knew his name. I never exchanged anything other than mispronounced niceties with him. He never witnessed me have a car accident. He was not pivotal in my actual life at all the way his fictional alter ego becomes pivotal to the lives of my characters.

So much of The Confusion of Languages is created out of moments like that, tiny moments that I whip up into something larger and worthy of fiction.

Benjamin Percy, in his essays on fiction, Thrill Me, talks about this method writers have culling actual moments. He advises: “reap the images and then divorce them from life; find a construct that feels more truthful and compelling than the reality.” That’s what I try to do.

Q: How did you come up with your characters Cassie and Margaret, and how would you describe their relationship?

Certain qualities of their friendship are things I’ve noticed again and again in my own sort of gypsy embassy world/military life.

Siobhan Fallon in Amman, 2011
Military spouses and State Department folk become friends quickly because we have such limited time in a place, there’s no spacious “get to know” a person window, you are thrown together, like Margaret and Cassie, in an entirely new base or country, and you have no choice but to clasp on to someone who might not have much in common with you.

Suddenly just being a military spouse, or being an American, is the only similarity you share.

I’m not knocking it, I’ve met some really terrific, brilliant people I might not have reached out to if I had lived a more sedentary and complacent life in my small hometown of Highland Falls, N.Y.

And wonderful as it might be living near your childhood friends, there is something really vibrant and alive that happens in a fresh friendship. It’s exciting, that surprise of getting along with a new human being, with a stranger.

There’s a breathless quality, like a teenage crush, when you start to share bits of yourself, and they share bits of themselves with you. And you try so hard to be liked; who doesn’t want to be liked?

There’s also the way women sometimes have of being affectionate with one another, fixing each other’s hair, telling each other they have lipstick on their teeth, zippering up each other’s dresses, saying how gorgeous they look before a night out, hugging at hellos and goodbyes, physically being comfortable touching or leaning against each other, in a way that is entirely platonic but not the sort of thing you’d see men do to each other at, say, a Super Bowl Party.

The Confusion of Languages is, of course, a novel, so I could use the flashy immediacy of overseas friendships as a model, but being fiction, I also needed to hype this core friendship up a notch, and make it more complicated, darker, let it be filled with the surprising intimacy of a new friendship but also give it the sharper edges of jealousy and deception. 

One of the themes I like to tease out in my writing is how difficult it is to know another human being. This is something that we all understand on one level but we try very, very hard to forget it when it comes to our families, friendships, relationships. We assume we know, and we assume we ourselves want to be known.

In my novel, characters are constantly forced to see how little they know about the people they love, and to see how much they themselves hide. Margaret and Cassie are guilty of all of these things.

Q: You’re part of a military family, as are your characters. Who are some other authors writing about military families whose work you admire?

A: Andria Williams. Her work is a little subversive because, though it might be called "historical fiction" (her novel, The Longest Night, is set in the 1950s), the similarities between life as a military spouse then and now are eerie.

She also has her finger on the pulse of all things mil family related—she runs a blog called The Military Spouse Book Review but it really touches upon all sorts of military related art, and that intersection of, or maybe aspiration toward, art and military family life.

Other mil family related work I recommend would be that of poets Jehanne Dubrow and Lisa Stice, novelists Kathleen Rodgers and Laura Harrington, and essayist Terri Barnes.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Nothing. Doesn’t that sound awful? But it’s wonderful.  I spent about five years working on The Confusion of Languages and inhabiting that world. I do have a few ideas, but I don’t know if they will coalesce into a story collection, like my first book, You Know When the Men Are Gone, or if I will write another novel.

I know it will be heavily informed by life in the Middle East, probably Abu Dhabi, because I love to write about place, and we have being living in this intensely different world for four years now. 

I’ve been writing some nonfiction, short essays, and that feels refreshing after being immersed in The Confusion of Languages for so long. I also don’t have a deadline, which, at least right now, feels fabulous.

I’m catching up on my reading (Brian Van Reets’ Spoils, Emmanuel Carrere’s The Kingdom, and Shara Lessley’s forthcoming The Explosive Expert’s Wife, also set in Jordan, which is especially amazing).

I’m taking notes. I’m trying to be open and just appreciate having this free time, letting my mind sort of float around.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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