Monday, August 29, 2022

Q&A with Frances O'Roark Dowell




Frances O'Roark Dowell is the author of the new middle grade novel Hazard. Her many other books include The Class. She lives in Durham, North Carolina.


Q: What inspired you to write Hazard, and how did you create your protagonist?


A: I’m an Army brat and feel a kinship with any Army brat I meet, young or old. Growing up, my family and I went through lots of moves, which involved lots of new friends, new schools and new cultures.


As an adult, I’d assumed that Army brat life was pretty much the same now as it was back then. It wasn’t until I had the opportunity to talk to some middle school students who had parents serving in Afghanistan that I began to understand how much things had changed since I was a kid.


These kids’ parents had been deployed multiple times, to both Iraq and Afghanistan, and when your mom or dad goes to war, you don’t follow along. Some of the students I talked to lived with their grandparents or other relatives and had never moved, and some had only moved once or twice. All of them had gone for long stretches of time only seeing their military parent via a computer screen.


That conversation occurred eight or nine years ago. The U.S. was no longer in Iraq but was still sending troops to Afghanistan. To be honest, like a lot of Americans, I hadn’t been paying much attention after the first few years of what would come to be known as the Forever War. At some point I lost track of where we had troops.


What I knew about the war mostly came from news stories about the difficulties soldiers faced when they returned to the States. While the number of U.S. soldiers killed in these wars was low, the number of soldiers who returned with physical and psychological disabilities was high (totaling close to a million, by recent estimates).


After talking to those students, I began paying closer attention. I started wondering what it was like to have a parent go to war--not just once, like when my dad did a tour in Vietnam, but again and again.


How would it affect you psychologically? What kind of defenses would you build up? How would you react if your mom or dad came home from one of those deployments a changed person? A person with only one leg instead of two, or someone who couldn’t stop thinking or dreaming about the war? 


And that’s where the idea for Hazard was born. The character Hazard took a while to develop. At first, he was in sixth grade, but the more I wrote, the older he got. It took a while to figure out that he played football, but once I did, I had a very clear picture of who he was and what he wanted. I understood better the shape his story would take.


Q: You tell the story in a variety of formats, including verse, emails, and texts--how did you come up with that structure?


A: I started with the intention of writing the novel entirely in verse. But then I decided that I wanted Haz’s dad, Brandon, to have a voice in the novel. I didn’t want him to be just a body in a bed; I wanted him to be a real person.


I also wanted to convey what his experience in the military in general and Afghanistan in particular had been like, so I decided to include some emails from him. I knew that Brandon’s emails to Haz and his brother probably wouldn’t reveal the harder facts of his deployment experience, but his emails to his wife might.


That’s when the idea for a research project was born, where Haz would gather documents as part of his anger management therapy. 


The texts between Hazard and his best friend Jackson came about because my editor, Caitlyn Dlouhy, felt like we weren’t seeing enough of Haz’s life at school and with friends, etc. Those texts were so much fun to write! I have two sons, so I’m well versed in the language of adolescent male texting. It was also interesting to try to create the sense of a real friendship via texts. 


Q: How would you describe the dynamic between Hazard and his dad?


A: That’s an interesting question. Brandon’s been a good dad, and Haz loves and admires him. When his dad loses a leg in an IED, it’s  difficult for Haz on a number of levels.


First of all, his dad’s body has been irrevocably changed. One thing I don’t see talked about much is how aware children are of their parents’ bodies. When we’re little, our parents loom so large and we notice every detail–the freckles and scars, the shape of their hands, the funny little cowlick, etc. If I close my eyes, I can see the light brown spot on my mother’s cheekbone, a spot that she’s had ever since I can remember. 


It can be very hard when a parent’s body changes, whether it’s from injury or old age. For Haz, the loss of his dad’s leg is traumatic in part because his father has always been this big, athletic guy. Haz doesn’t know how the loss will change his dad, or how it will change his feelings about his dad. He gets freaked out wondering where the leg went. How is he going to react to his dad when he sees him for the first time after Brandon’s return to the States?


Another thing about parents: We reach an age, usually in adolescence, where we start seeing our parents as complex and complicated–which is to say, human. Our understandings of who our parents are get reconfigured.


This happens to Haz after he learns that his dad ordered a young man to be shot–a young man who may or may not have been about to set off an IED. It’s an action that really messes with Brandon’s head, causing what therapists call moral injury. I think by the end of the story, Hazard sees his father as much more vulnerable than he’d realized, both physically and psychologically. 


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the story?


A: There are one or two things I can think of right off the bat.


First, if you don’t feel your feelings and try to understand why you’re feeling them, you can end up doing stuff that’s destructive to yourself and others. This is what happens with Haz when he doesn’t deal with his feelings about his dad losing a leg in an IED blast. He makes a bad hit on the football field. He hurts someone.


Figuring out your feelings isn't always easy. You've got to talk them out. You've got to write them out. Fortunately, there are people around who can help you. I hope in particular that boys will see that it’s important to talk through the really tough stuff. Boys feel things as deeply as girls; they’re just not encouraged to deal with those feelings in direct ways. 


I also hope Hazard encourages readers to think about what it’s like to be in a military family. We tend to either deify or vilify soldiers in our society: they’re either Marvel Comic superheroes or else infested with toxic masculinity.


But soldiers and their families are real people, with all the good and bad stuff that’s a part of being human. Most Americans–including myself–didn’t pay a lot of attention to the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, in part because we feel so little connection to our military families. It’s easier to glorify them to think about what their lives are actually like and the price these families pay for their service.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m working on another Army brat story, though so far this one is a conventional novel, not a novel in verse. I’m on the second draft, in which the story has evolved from a road trip story into a wilderness adventure story. The working title is Tell. Wish me luck on my revision!


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: The most interesting feedback I’ve gotten about Hazard so far is that it’s a great book for reluctant readers. I’m excited by the prospect that some kids out there who don’t like to read will pick up Hazard and enjoy it. Maybe they’ll be inspired to read more books–and maybe even write one someday!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Frances O'Roark Dowell.

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