Friday, June 25, 2010

This Is Why I Write

The feedback I've had from Band of Sisters has been very much what I hoped it would be rather than what I feared it might be. Actually, the response has exceeded my expectations. I went in pretty scared.

After all, I was writing about deployment: a huge topic, one that's timely, sensitive, and one that so many people not only know about but have been through firsthand. And I'm brazen enough to attempt to capture that experience when I've never been through it?

Yet that's what I set out to do.

On one hand, that's kind of what fiction writers do every time they sit down. Beginning writers' work often tends to be largely autobiographical, but eventually, if you've written long enough, you move past that and invest in stories and characters several steps removed from yourself.

My first book was a mixture of the two: I included bits and pieces of things I knew personally (I went on lots of Uintah hikes as a teen. I was hit in the head with a rock at recess and needed stitches. I performed in Into the Woods. All of those show up in the book in various ways.)

But I also addressed things totally foreign to me, such as what it would be like to marry a man already sealed to another woman. That element is a huge part of the book, and I had to emotionally go there to figure out how Brooke would handle it and how Greg would approach the idea of marrying again.

After Lost Without You came out, my aunt, who is a second wife herself, went to my mother and asked, "How did she know what it feels like?"

Yes! I got it right! The only response I had for that was, "I guess I imagined well?" That's the kind of reader feedback that makes you want to do a dance in the end zone.

As I wrote Band of Sisters, I talked with many military wives who had been through or were currently dealing with deployment. Two of them I've known for many, many years. I'd also watched firsthand as one of them went through a deployment (and thoroughly picked her brain).

In spite of my work, I feared it wouldn't land well. Maybe I'd offend because I didn't do justice to the pain or the reality or fully express my respect for the military.

One concern I had is the fact that there is no "typical" deployment, so any woman who'd been through it could say, "That's not how it was." More, what my characters experience as National Guard wives who live in regular neighborhoods is totally different from what a woman would experience if she lived on a military base during a deployment.

What would a military base wife think reading it? Would she think I got all the details wrong? I could see someone rolling their eyes and going, "There IS no Army base in Utah. Duh." But there are hundreds of Army families here. Utah soldiers have died fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. A street near us was recently renamed after one of those fallen soldiers. He did fight with the U.S. Army, even if there's no Army base here. (But Camp Williams is here!) I couldn't very well put that kind of disclaimer on the book, so I held my breath and hoped those deeper into the military would give me the benefit of the doubt.

I chose to write about Guard wives for a couple of reasons: first, because those were the kinds of women I had the most contact with, and my research would be more accurate using their information. But also because, frankly, it's tougher to not be on a base during a deployment. The Guard tries hard to support families in a variety of ways, but when push comes to shove, they simply can't scratch the surface of the support and benefits other families get by default from living on base.

When you're in a regular old neighborhood, likely with no other military anyone nearby, no one gets it. Even a simple conversation about what's going on with your soldier turns into a pain the neck rather than a comfort because you have explain acronyms or this particular element of the military. You can't just get a worry off your chest with a simple sentence or two.

I worried and worried and worried. I went into the project without much knowledge, so I relied heavily on several military wives for information and then, armed with that information, I tried to imagine how each of my five (very different) characters would react given their ages, circumstances, personalities, etc.

With all military details, I relied on my primary resources, down to what ranks the husbands would realistically have and why. Even though I didn't randomly make stuff up, I still mentally bit my nails to the quick waiting for people's reactions. To my huge relief, the response has been overwhelmingly positive.

I recently got an e-mail from a two-time Vietnam vet who read the book and sent all his veteran friends the same message he forwarded to me, a long letter about how during the times of his deployments, he "knew" what his wife and children were going through while he was away, but he didn't "understand" until he read my book. He proceeded to tell these vets that they should all, Mormon or not, read the book so that they, too, could understand.

Another military wife, whose husband had recently returned from Iraq, downloaded the first three chapters from my website and then e-mailed me. She first admitted she never reads LDS fiction but decided to read those chapters then went on to say that even though she's a tough cookie, I wrenched a few tears out of her (something she hated to admit) because, in her words, I "nailed it."

A couple of times a week I get similar e-mails, many from women about to enter a deployment, others from women who have already been through it, and even from non-military readers who are grateful they've learned a bit what it's like and can better support a military family they know.

And then there are the other letters. The ones that have absolutely nothing at all to do with the military aspect of the book. Letters that say things like, "Wow. I realized that I'm a Nora. I saw so much of myself in her, and I learned I need to change."

Below is a snippet of an e-mail from a military wife:
I just wanted to let you know how well you portrayed what it's like. I really did relate to each woman in one way or another. The emotions in your book were very accurate and very real. The loneliness, anger, fright, feeling like you are going crazy over and over again. All of it. In fact, by the time I was done reading, I was sure that the only way you were able to portray it so well was because you had been through it yourself. I was quite shocked when I read your bio at the end and it talked about your research for the book. You did a VERY good job in your research. This is a book that I think every person in America needs to read. People just don't understand what it like. And a sign that says "you just don't get it" is so accurate. People try to relate to you and of course they try to to empathize with you, but when put in that situation, it really just makes you feel worse. . . . I have had so many feelings regarding our mobilization and it really was hard. I truly believe that I wouldn't have been able to get through it with out the gospel in our lives.
She went on to describe having a conversation with her son about whether Daddy would die (something NO mother should ever have to do) and other struggles she experienced. She wants her husband to read the book so he has a better idea of what she went through. She closed her note with the hope that I'd write a sequel or two.

When I finished reading her words, I had tears streaming down my cheeks. This went way beyond dancing in the end zone.

And I thought, THIS is why I write.


Lara Neves said...

Awesome, Annette. I think it would be amazing to touch lives the way you have.

Sadie said...

It really is an amazing book. I'm so glad that I stumbled upon it randomly at Walmart and did an impulse buy... which I rarely do. Now that I think about it, it probably wasn't random at all, but inspired.
And I'm so excited for a sequel. I would be happy to let you pick my brain if you need. I feel I owe you. ;)

Annette Lyon said...

Sadie, I'm totally taking you up on that!

Helena said...


Heather Moore said...

Those reader emails are priceless!

Stephanie Black said...

Absolutely fantastic!

Amanda said...

Congratulations on your success and getting the chance to do your own end zone dance :)

My copy of band of Sisters arrives tomorrow and I can't wait to dive right in!

I have some close friends who are dealing with deployment but it's opposite of the norm...she is deployed and he's at home with the children.

Melanie Jacobson said...

This is such a good book and SO deserving of the response you're getting.

Carolyn V. said...

Love it!

Kimberly Vanderhorst said...

As you summed this post up I got a bit choked up. What a gift, not just what you share, but what you get back. Beauteous.

wendy said...

What a nice tribute to you from a military wife.
I think sometimes the thing we try to do, to express.....even though we DON'T KNOW THEM portrayed to us through listening to others and letting the spirit guide you.
I will be gettin this book

TisforTonya said...

Wow is right... and now I think I know what book I need to send to my aunt while she is overseas with her family of 7...

Karlene said...

Glad you're getting such wonderful responses! I'm halfway through BoS.

Karlene said...

Guess I should also say I'm enjoying the read.

Happy Mom said...

Just don't ever stop writing. (We'd all miss you too much!)

Okey dokey?

Heather of the EO said...

Congratulations, Annette!

What a great honor it must be to hit the nail on the head. :)

I learn from you. Thank you.

Cynthia said...

I love the way you pour your whole soul into your writing. I have no doubt that this book is amazing. I am excited to read it!

Anonymous said...

I think it's not that you need to live on a base but you need to live near a base. The closer you live to a military installation the more you will be surrounded by military families. No matter who you are deployment is hard but I especially feel for the reservists. I feel like they are isolated and don't get all the support they deserve.

My husband is deploying to Afghanistan in August. I am lucky enough to live on base and be near a lot of family for this particular deployment.

Carrie said...

I have a friend who has just entered the military world and has a husband who left for Iraq. I'll have to get this book ASAP for her.

Looking forward to reading it myself...

Julie Belnap said...

I'm enjoying the book, but the problem was is that I'm a youth. I can't really relate to the grown ups that well, and I've never met someone like Mckayla(I don't remember how to spell it), the only teen in the book, so it felt a little older than I am. Maybe if I read it later in a few years I'll be able to understand stuff better. I just don't really feel like I can relate to the characters as well. I'm glad you got a lot of fanmail.

That and you left before you could sign my book at the Teen Writer's Conference! When are you going to go out of your shell, so that I can get it signed?


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