This book took me a year to write, and another year to rewrite and polish for publication. I think part of the reason that the writing of this book went more quickly is because I learned so much in the process of crafting Miracle Beach. But another, equally important, reason is that I learned to be a much more dedicated writer. I used to wait for my muse to announce her presence before I would sit down to write. Now, I’m better at stealing scraps of time to write whenever and wherever I can. I had a full-time job while writing Learning to Stay, and learned to be disciplined about writing on my lunch hours and for another hour or two either before or after work – sometimes both. That kind of schedule can mean a diminished social life at times, but it’s so worth it to see the finished book hit the shelves.
It is definitely a departure, but a journey I was excited to take. Years ago, I read Cathy Crimmon’s brilliant memoir, Where is the Mango Princess?, about her struggle to come to terms with her husband’s traumatic brain injury. The story stuck with me, as did the central question it posed: what do you do when the person you married is no longer the person you’re married to? I knew I’d eventually play with that same question in the realm of fiction, but I didn’t know how – partially because Crimmon’s story was so powerful. But during the years that followed, I started to see and hear stories about TBIs everywhere. I had an opportunity to edit a PhD thesis on students with TBI intersecting with community colleges, which gave me a deeper understanding of that injury. Then, when TBI along with Post Traumatic Stress started to be termed the “signature” injuries of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), I realized I had a backdrop as powerful as Crimmon’s in which to explore the central question she raised as well as these ancillary issues.
I don’t come from a military family, nor have I served in the military, so I had a steep learning curve. I started by reading anything and everything I could find about OIF and OEF, as well as books about traumatic brain injury (a comprehensive reading list follows this guide). I also watched endless hours of documentaries and films about the wars in an attempt to take in the details that I hoped would make this story compelling and real. I also relied heavily on blogs. One huge benefit of writing Learning to Stay when I did, as opposed to five or ten years earlier, is the access I had to veterans and their families who have chosen to publicly record their thoughts and feelings through blogging. Even if I were to have interviewed as many veterans or spouses as I could find, my knowledge would not have been as thorough and informative as it became by reading these online journals.
Finally, I gave drafts of the book to a few veterans I knew for feedback, to ensure that each and every detail was as accurate as possible. Their input was invaluable. Any remaining errors are mine and mine alone.
Honestly, I’m not sure, though I suspect the reasons are many.
Part of the reason might be that it’s just still too new. The U.S. has been at war for more than a decade, but OIF ended only about a year ago and OEF is ongoing. I think it often takes society a long time to gain the perspective necessary to put events like these in context so that they can begin to be analyzed and explained. I also suspect that maybe people who haven’t been on the front lines of the war, so to speak – whether veterans or their families – are hesitant to tackle some of these issues before veterans themselves have had a chance to. Often, throughout the writing of this book, I feared that it was an audacious endeavor –one that I had no business undertaking because I hadn’t personally experienced any of the issues facing Brad and Elise, and because I didn’t have much more than a passing familiarity with the military. But many veterans who read drafts of the book, and others to whom I gave my elevator pitch, expressed gratitude for my effort to do their struggles justice. I don’t know if I succeeded or not, but dang, did I ever try.
I hope I’m wrong about the final possible reason for the dearth of stories about veterans of recent wars: that the American public has been slow to come to terms with the fact that we’ve actually been at war for the past ten years. It’s been easy to dismiss OIF and OEF as something happening clear across the globe from us, as something that only takes place on cable news, because only one-half of one percent of the U.S. population has fought these two wars on behalf of the rest of the 99.5 percent of us. It’s important to remember the very real sacrifices made by each and every one of our service members. Many have made the ultimate sacrifice, and many have come home with a range of physical and psychological injuries. The sacrifice is great even for those whose service does not take them into war zones. Enduring constant relocations due to deployments, suffering disconnects between civilian and military life, and juggling the demands of military service with family commitments—these are all daunting challenges that the men and women of the armed forces face every day.
I hope that this book gives readers a glimpse into the very real difficulties faced by so many veterans and their families. Many situations are not as extreme as Brad and Elise’s, but some are even more overwhelming. There is no average or typical experience for a returning veteran and his or her family. Our efforts as a country to support our troops need to go far beyond tying yellow ribbons on trees or sticking a picture on your car bumper.
If you live near a military base, you can reach out to the base’s Family Resource Center, or contact your state National Guard’s Family Readiness Group for ways that you can help. First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden’s initiative, Joining Forces (www.whitehouse.gov/joiningforces), is also a wonderful clearing house for volunteer opportunities. Employment and mental health services for returning veterans are in great demand and homelessness amongst veterans remains a serious problem. There are a wide variety of programs aimed at helping veterans secure the services they need and these organizations welcome volunteers. Efforts can be as simple as donating magazines or board games to VA hospitals, to as complex as volunteering for veterans’ suicide prevention hotlines. (According to a 2012 New York Times article, more than 6,500 veterans commit suicide every year — that’s more than the total number of soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq combined since the beginning of those wars). Chances are, whatever unique talents or interests you might have, there’s a way to parlay that into providing help for our nation’s veterans.
However, there are two very simple and direct steps that each and every one of us can take. Making ourselves more aware of the circumstances facing returning veterans is one of the most basic tools we have at our disposal. A 2011 PEW Research Center study found that 84% of returning veterans feel that their fellow Americans do not understand the myriad problems they have had to face, including long separations, physical and psychological injuries, and stress. The better understanding we all have, the better position we will be in to help.
The second thing each of us can do is to express gratitude when you see a service member in uniform, or one who has identified him or herself as a veteran. It might seem awkward to approach a stranger in an airport or restaurant, but a simple, “Thank you for your service,” can mean a great deal. It lets the service member or veteran know that their service is not forgotten, that their efforts are appreciated, and that the difficulties that so often accompany those efforts are understood and acknowledged.
While writing Miracle Beach, I had similar reservations as I had during the writing of Learning to Stay – mainly, the question: how in the world do I think I have any business writing about this? With the first novel, I was a single twenty-something fresh out of graduate school tackling in fiction the inner workings of two complicated marriages and the death of a spouse and child. Since then, I’ve married and had my first child, and those life changes did help in gleaning some of the subject matter for Learning to Stay, but the book was still a stretch for me. However, that’s less problematic, I think, than it sounds. I’ve never ascribed much to the old adage of “write what you know.” Instead, I’m a proponent of starting with what you know and then pushing your limits as a person and as a writer. That kind of writing is more interesting for me, and I hope by proxy, for the reader.
I also firmly believe that no two stories are alike, which is a remarkably freeing belief. I was often asked how I could have written Miracle Beach without ever having personally experienced the loss of a spouse or child, but by the time you immerse yourself in the lives of your characters enough to get their story on the page, it’s not about you anymore. It’s not about what you’ve experienced or the choices you’ve made. It’s about what they choose to do, who they are as people, and the hopes and dreams they have. I often reminded myself of that in the course of writing Learning to Stay when doubt started to creep in: even if I had been a veteran or had lived a similar experience to the characters in the book, their unique story would still have evolved, and even among real-life veterans and their families, there is no typical or average story. Each is unique. So, too, is Elise and Brad’s story.
Yes and yes. I originally got the idea for the PAWs program after watching a 60 Minutes program about dogs trained by inmates to help those suffering from PTSD. I was surprised, and heartened, to find a whole host of programs that match therapy dogs with returning veterans.
As it turns out, Senator Bernie Thorne of Learning to Stay was a little ahead of his time. In 2009, real life Senators Al Franken (D-MN) and Johnny Isakson (R-GA) co-sponsored a bill – the Service Dogs for Veterans Act, which was part of the Defense Authorization of 2010 – that helped provide disabled veterans with service dogs to “help keep America’s promise to returning soldiers and improve their quality of life after service.” As a result of Senator Franken and Isakson’s efforts, programs helping to train dogs and match them with physically and mentally wounded veterans have recently cropped up around the country. Psychiatric service dogs help veterans overcome their social isolation simply by needing to be walked outside, forcing many veterans to venture out into public. The benefits they provide in reducing the fear and anxiety of many veterans suffering form issues such as PTSD has been well chronicled and programs pairing dogs with veterans continue to crop up across the country.
That’s a great question! Veterans’ issues remain very top-of-mind for me. I’m hard at work designing a veterans-specific English composition course at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, where I am an assistant professor. I am also in the very early stages of working on a nonfiction project about a Marine who returned home from Iraq with a severe TBI and the horribly difficult decision his wife had to make in order to honor his end-of-life wishes. And in all of the spare time remaining after those endeavors, and after chasing around my now-mobile (and incredibly active) son, I’ve been tinkering with the beginning of a third novel as well.
Libba Bray wrote a fantastic blog post a couple years ago called, “Novel, a Love Story,” in which she parallels the arc of a romantic relationship with writing a novel. One of the last phases, Final Draft, is described this way: “Thanks for meeting me here. Look, I’m just gonna come out with it. This—you, me—it’s not working. I’m sorry. It’s not you, it’s…actually it’s you. You’re stupid. And I sort of hate you.” I was stuck in that phase for a good long time, and after working on this novel on and off for nearly ten years, I thought I’d be overjoyed to have it “completed.” I didn’t understand authors who talked about grieving a bit through the publishing process. Suddenly, though, I do. It’s all so final, and I’m going to miss the world of Miracle Beach. But, as Glory says at the end of the novel, “It’s time.”
I’m now hard at work on my second novel, which I’ve promised my editor won’t take nearly as long to write as Miracle Beach. Which is good, because it’s due out
I’ve always been a voracious reader. On vacation when we were young, my sister took to calling me “The Mute” because she liked to talk almost as much as I liked to read and as you might imagine, we didn’t make very good travel companions. I used to read almost anything I could get my hands on, though in later years, I’ve gotten more selective. My husband recently pointed out that there is a finite amount of time that one has to read a seemingly infinite number of books, so I’ve started to make tough choices. A book has to really engage me or add something to my knowledge of craft or the world. If it doesn’t do one of those things, I put it down.
With respect to fiction, I tend to gravitate toward quieter books that explore the relationships between people and their choices, books that pose interesting “what if” questions and then go about answering them, books that deepen the understanding of what it means to be alive – to be human. I’m going to refrain from listing any specific books that I’ve loved or ones that have influenced me, because once I start, I’m honestly afraid that I wouldn’t be able to stop.
When I’m writing (which is, if I’m being honest, a great majority of the time), I choose books that I wish I could have written, either for the language or the voice or the plotting, because there’s always something to learn; there’s always something that someone else does better. During the writing process, I also read a lot of contemporary poetry – poets such as Pablo Neruda, Thomas Lux, Billy Collins, and a new, recent discovery: Martin Espada (another Wisconsin connection!) – in order to jump start my creative juices. Poetry never fails to dig me out of a writing rut and prod me into varying my language and trying new things. I also read a lot of Raymond Carver, because few, if any, authors are able to elicit such powerful emotion with such economy of words as Carver. And also because I tend in exactly the opposite direction if left to my own devices.
I used to think of myself as a fraud, that I wasn’t a “real writer” because I didn’t write every day. I would think obsessively about what I needed to write and then do anything but – cook, run, read, run and cook some more – until, after days or weeks or sometimes months had passed, I couldn’t help but sit down at my computer and start typing. It was like a dam bursting.
Then at a conference one year, an author who used the same avoidance technique I did said she had gone to a therapist to figure out why she couldn’t nail down a writing process. The therapist told her, “But that is your process.” A light bulb went off for me. I instantly felt better about myself as a writer. I started writing more, and more regularly.
These days I no longer wait for my muse to tap me on the shoulder like I once did. Instead, I’ve learned to sit down and work anyway, whether she shows up or not. And I’ve learned how much I can accomplish by stealing snippets of time – an hour here, a half-hour there.
As for rituals, that word sounds so definite. So set in stone. And I’m not prone to any sort of rigidity or big decisions. This is probably why I write on a laptop that I can, and do, take anywhere when the mood strikes. I avoid writing at a desk, and opt instead for big, comfy, overstuffed places full of pillows and warmth. Preferably, especially in the cold months, there’s a fireplace. And usually there will be a cup of coffee or tea nearby if it’s early, or a glass of red wine if the day is marching toward evening, when I tend to do my best thinking and writing. And a dog. There’s almost always at least one dog curled up next to me, fast asleep.
Lorrie Moore starts her short story, “How to Become a Writer,” by saying, “First, try to be something, anything else.” I want Ms. Moore and her narrator to know that I attempted to heed that advice. I really did. I switched majors several times in college before settling on English, and even then I applied to law school, thinking that was the most rational route for an English major to take. But on a lark I checked out Northern Michigan University’s MFA program and applied, and on an even bigger lark, they let me in.
When I look back, though, I’ve always been writing. I journaled growing up, wrote for the student newspaper in college, freelanced for a newspaper and small magazines throughout college and graduate school and beyond, and afterwards, was lucky enough to land a job writing speeches for a sitting governor.
Although I feel fortunate that my debut novel is also my first novel, it was preceded by a lot of fantastically bad poetry and took nearly a decade to finish. I’m happy to have both behind me.
I was fortunate enough to spend several summers living in Campbell River, which is a real, incredible, and hauntingly beautiful place. In fact, a good chunk of Miracle Beach was written there, from a porch that overlooked the Strait of Georgia and the mountains beyond.
While the book is fiction and while I took certain liberties with locations and events, I’ve tried to capture the spirit of Vancouver Island and convey its uniqueness, though I doubt I’ve even scratched the surface. I always looked forward to traveling there, and was always sad to leave. I haven’t been back in years, but a piece of my heart will always remain there. It is a truly spectacular corner of the world.
The old adage “write what you know” definitely applies in this case. Like Macy, I have always been a girl in love with horses and have competed at the state and national level since I was very young. I ride hunters, not jumpers, and I’m not even close to being as accomplished an equestrienne as Macy, but I’ve been immersed in horses for more years of my life than not, and I had a great deal of fun immersing myself in horses on the page as well.
Picking a favorite character is, I imagine, a lot like asking parents to pick a favorite child. I don’t love each of them equally, but I am attached to each character in a different way. That said, I would have to single out Glory. The story takes on a new light, a new energy, when she appears. Without Glory, these characters would be muddling through this terrible loss, together yet alone. Glory is the glue that binds them together and gives them perspective. Plus I, for one, think she’s an absolute hoot.
Because of Glory’s childlike innocence and directness, she was probably also the easiest character to write. Her voice came through loud and clear every time. The two hardest characters were Macy and Magda because it seemed that even though I understood – and very much liked – them both, on the page their behavior could be off-putting. I had to really work at showing their full range of emotions and personality so that hopefully readers would come to see them as I do – as good, kind women who are struggling through a rough spot in their respective lives. I think all of us would likely not want the world to see our inner thoughts and private actions at the lowest points of our lives, yet this is how we see Magda and Macy. They’re sad, angry, and raw, and dealing with a profound loss in very different, but very human, ways. Yet they both push through to the other side of that loss and emerge with new perspectives, better understandings, and a peace that neither had before. In that way, Magda and Macy were difficult to write, but the most rewarding characters to watch develop.
I suppose I carry little parts of each of them in me. Like Macy, I love nothing more than spending time with my horse, because when I’m at the barn all the worries or stress I might have simply melts away. I’m laid back like Jack. And I share Sophie’s love of the outdoors and Magda’s loathing of socks and shoes.
Some members of my family are convinced that the characters are modeled after specific people (namely, them), but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. In my mind, they are all very much their own people who have their own distinct features, likes, dislikes, and mannerisms. None of the characters are even composites of any real people I know. I got to know these characters slowly with each passing page and with each new draft, much like the development of a real-life friendship or relationship. They each told me who they were.
I’ve heard other authors say something similar in the past, so I’ll admit to this, too, even though it sounds crazy: over the years, these characters have become so real to me that I often think of them existing outside of my imagination or this book. I picture them going about their lives in Green Bay or Campbell River, and would half expect to run into them on the street in either of those places.
Pick one? If I had my way, every character who appeared would have had their own chapter. Okay, not really (although Glory and Sophie did each have their own points of view for a brief time), but I do think that the story is richer for having multiple points of view because no one experiences loss in exactly the same way. In this novel, the only way we see Nash is through the eyes of the three people who loved him most, but they each deal with his death in very different ways because each had very different relationships with Nash. Only through examining each of those relationships are we able to get a more complete picture of who he was, and who he was to those who loved him.
This novel started as a writing exercise, as a non-fiction short-short, that I wrote while working toward my MFA. Around that time, both of my grandfathers had passed away, and I thought of the moments before each of my grandmothers had to put the key in the lock of houses that they now lived in alone. What a heartbreaking, surreal stretch of time that must have been for them. When I, and probably most people, think about loss, those aren’t the moments that come to mind. I wanted to delve into them in an attempt to understand, even a little, the experience of loss more fully.
I hadn’t written fiction before – unless you count a story about a horse and a girl that I wrote and illustrated when I was nine and one other truly awful short story attempt in high school that, fortunately, I don’t think anyone ever saw (and if anyone did I hope they just plead ignorance). Anyway, I found that I couldn’t make the exercise work as non-fiction, and so I fictionalized it. And then I simply kept asking, “What next?” Incredibly, an entire novel evolved.
To this day, when I read the scene where Macy is going home for the first time after Nash’s funeral, in my mind the house I picture her entering is not hers, but my grandmother’s.