Whitney Terrell’s latest novel, his third, is “The Good Lieutenant,” which tells the story of Emma Fowler, an Army lieutenant in Iraq. Terrell, an assistant professor of English at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, will be in Spokane next week for two talks. The first, on Tuesday, is at Spark Central in Kendall Yards as part of the new Gonzaga University Center for the Public Humanities. In addition to a reading, Terrell will join in a panel discussion with three student veterans on how the book reflects the experiences of veterans. The next night, he’ll be at Auntie’s Bookstore for a reading and signing.
In an email interview, Terrell talks about the proliferation of Iraq War fiction, his own time spent embedded in Iraq and the challenges of writing journalism vs. fiction.
When the war in Iraq began, I was writing my second novel, “The King of Kings County.” That book was set in Kansas City during the 1950s and 1960s and focused on the way real estate companies had used racial covenants to segregate the city. While I was writing it, I’d watch the news over my lunch break. This was during the runup to our invasion of Iraq, when the Bush administration was pushing hard to connect Iraq to the 9/11 attacks – or, if that didn’t work, to assert that Iraq had very dangerous weapons of mass destruction, to use their favored term, and thus needed to be invaded.
People forget the enormous power and seduction of the PR effort that went into getting that war started. There was a sense, in certain quarters, that this war would be good for the country. It would stiffen our resolve. It would get rid of a bad actor in Saddam Hussein. Sitting there watching the news, I had these intense feelings – and worries – about what was happening, but I felt woefully uninformed. So I decided to start writing about the war and, eventually, decided to arrange to be embedded. In the end, all of my writing starts from that feeling. There’s something important and socially relevant happening here, and I don’t understand it. Writing is my way of understanding. I’m an admirer of the writers whom you list above, and many others who’ve written about our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – like Matt Gallagher or Cara Hoffman. My guess is that they would say the same thing. All of us have a sense that what happened in those wars is important and will have long-standing implications for America. And we are all trying, to the best of our abilities, to understand and name these things.
I’m a writer who relies heavily on setting and on direct personal experience. I’m not a good archival researcher. But I started my writing career as a reporter. I can take notes. I can take pictures. I like to get to know people personally. The war in Iraq was such a remarkable undertaking that I think it’s hard to appreciate its scale and its overall strangeness unless you were there physically. My office is filled with artifacts from that place. Piles of notebooks, all of them filled with conversations I had with soldiers. Stacks of photographs. Hand-drawn maps. A library of cassette recordings. (Yes, I know this is old-fashioned, but I started writing about the war so long ago, cassettes weren’t yet completely out of style. The iPhone hadn’t even been invented yet!)
And then, of course, there’s one’s own memory and senses. Smell, taste, feel. It’s helpful to know what it feels like to be inside, say, an RG-31 when the crew thinks they’ve found an IED buried beside the road. How do people act? What do they say? What’s the radio traffic sound like? What do soldiers talk about when they are not immediately in danger? I remember a long conversation, during one patrol, when everybody was imagining what it would be like to return to this exact same spot, after the war was over, and rent a car and drive around, talking to people. I can remember going for a long drive across Camp Liberty, in the dead of summer, to meet with a bunch of Army engineers in an extremely plush auditorium, where they gave me a long Power Point presentation on something they called the “Baghdad is Beautiful” program. Well, just the day before, I’d been in the countryside west of Baghdad – along with the lieutenant, Nate Rawlings, who was accompanying me. It was a mess out there. Trash, the skeletal remains of bombed buildings, junkyards, deep poverty. The deep absurdity of that presentation, the velvety seats of the auditorium, the bone-chilling air conditioning, the look on Lt. Rawlings’ face as he listened to this … I mean, he was worried about keeping his platoon alive on a day-to-day basis and here are these guys who outrank him, and yet rarely, if ever, go outside the wire, giving this lecture on how we’re going to clean up Baghdad, as if that’s the real problem here.
Multiply those experiences by a thousand and you begin to feel like you can write honestly about a place. There are so many specific things that make their way into the feeling of a book, even if they don’t appear directly in the text.
The funny part of this question involves the phrase “when it came time to write ‘The Good Lieutenant.’ ” I often say it took me eight years to write that book. But that’s a very generous assessment, designed to make me feel better about myself. The fact is, I wrote my first magazine piece about the war in Iraq in the summer of 2005, right when “The King of Kings County” came out. So there really wasn’t ever a time when I wasn’t at least trying to write “The Good Lieutenant.” And for nearly all of that time, it was a struggle.
I think there are several reasons for this. The first is that it took a long time, lots of reporting, and two trips to Iraq, for me to feel confident that I could write about the military – and about Iraqi characters as well. The second is that it took me a long time to get the structure of this book right. I originally wrote the book in chronological order, from beginning to end. I finished a draft this way in 2011, but it never really quite worked and, at the time, I wasn’t sure why. I panicked. I took a year off. I tried to write something else. It wasn’t until I figured out that the novel needed to go backward in time that I really found my groove. Once I made that discovery, I finished it in about 18 months.
I made a ton of bad choices while writing this novel, as should be clear by my answer to the previous question. But having a female soldier – and specifically Emma Fowler – as the protagonist was one thing that never changed. She was an important part of the book from the very beginning, before I ever went to Iraq. I had a sense of her background, of her relationship with her brother, and of why she might have joined the Army. I don’t honestly remember why that character, that person, was the person I imagined from the start. I think for most fiction writers, and certainly for me, characters present themselves this way, out of intuition, or the unconscious – whatever you want to call it. You trust it or you don’t.
But I do know that once I got to Iraq and starting interviewing and talking to female soldiers, I realized that they were doing remarkable things. In 2006, I met and talked at length with a captain named Jen McDonough at Camp Liberty. She was running a recovery unit that retrieved damaged Army vehicles from the field. That’s the same job that Emma Fowler has in the novel – though Emma’s a lieutenant, not a captain. So you could say that Capt. McDonough was a model for Emma Fowler, but only in terms of what they did in Iraq. Their personalities and backgrounds are very different.
Emma Fowler is a white Midwesterner and I’m a white Midwesterner, so I feel pretty familiar with her from the cultural angle. She grew up in Junction City, which is two hours from where I live, in country where I’ve spent a lot of time. I would also say that this is one of the most collaborative books I’ve ever worked on. A number of female soldiers – now Lt. Col. Jen McDonough, Maj. Stacy Moore, former Sgt. Angela Fitle – were crucial consultants on the book. They all rightly feel like the female point of view is vastly underrepresented in war fiction. I agree. My novel isn’t going to change that. I hope there will be many more.
I also think it would be unfortunate if we decided that nobody should write outside of their gender. So many female writers write extremely well about male characters – Virginia Woolf, Toni Morrison, Francine Prose, Marilynne Robinson, Annie Proulx, and Donna Tartt, just to name a few. I wouldn’t want there to be no Peter Walsh, no John Ames, no Quoyle, no Milkman Dead. And I think it’s fair to criticize male writers who leave the female point of view completely unrepresented.
I just finished Margot Livesey’s new novel, “Mercury” – which is amazing. And which would be a wonderful example of a woman writing compelling fiction from a male protagonist’s point of view. I’m about to teach Joyce Carol Oates’ “The Man Without a Shadow.” And since I’m on my way to Spokane, I’m pulling down my Jess Walter and Tod Marshall books from the shelf and happily revisiting them. I have no idea how I’m going to fit them all into my suitcase, though.