Saturday, January 30, 2016

Elizabeth Marro talks about her stunning novel Casualties, struggling to empathize with her protagonist, war, writing, love, and so much more

Betsy Marro is the kind of author you want to be your friend. (um, that's an invitation from me...). Selected as a finalist in the 2014 San Diego Book Association Unpublished Novel Contest, CASUALTIES, is the gripping story of a defense executive who loses her son just when she thought he was safely home from war. The book is hauntingly great and I’m delighted to host Betsy here. Thank you, Betsy!

And people in San Diego! Come hear her read in San Diego, Feb. 4 at Warwick's in La Jolla at 7:30. I would if I wasn’t on the East Coast!

So much of this astonishing novel is about the battles that go on during the war and after, for both the soldiers and those left behind. What haunted you so much that you wrote this novel?

This story sprang from my worst nightmare -- losing a child. Writing the story became, in part, a way of understanding how a mother might find her way through such a loss.

I was caught up, too, in the age-old problem of how we make decisions and how those decisions shape everything that follows. Whether they are based on the best intentions in the world, unshakable beliefs, or are rationalized later to fit what we want -- every decision has the potential for outcomes we can’t anticipate or control. They can result in casualties we never saw coming -- plans, hopes, dreams, relationships, people, ourselves. They can also result in losses we can anticipate but consider acceptable. This plays out in families, at work, in economies, on the battlefield. Everywhere.

Soon, the photographs of those who died began to appear on television and the local paper. The  Naval Hospital got busier. As the years rolled by, the veteran community began to swell with those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. The consequences of the decision to go to war were all around us: the photographs of the dead, the swelling veteran community, the growing numbers of those learning to use new prostheses in Balboa Park, the booming local defense industry, the military families organizing to help each other and sometimes seeking help from the community. There was a lot to think about and not much of it was comfortable or easy from my vantage point in the 99% club -- the vast group of Americans who do not serve in the military. All of these factors helped to lead me to this story and once I started writing I couldn’t stop until I’d finished.

Your novel is like a punch to the heart (that’s a compliment, by the way), and I was wondering how you felt writing it. What surprised you? How did you change when you finished it?

Thank you for the compliment but now I’m worried I should be providing a defibrillator with every copy!

Writing this book took me through every emotion I ever felt. In many cases, I bumped up against my analytical brain -- the one that protects me and helps me keep my distance -- only to realize that I was dodging the discomfort that comes with truly empathizing and understanding other human beings and, to some degree, myself.

My earliest drafts suffered because I couldn’t empathize with my own protagonist. It should have come as no surprise that this was so but it did. I was mad at Ruth and didn’t realize it. I judged her harshly. All around her, characters came to life but she remained flat and unyielding on the page because I didn’t want to open her up, give her the humanity she deserved, that we all deserve whether we are deemed “likeable” or not. I saw the problem but for a long time I was afraid to look too deeply at her because then I might have to forgive her. As I write this, I realize how crazy this sounds. After all I was the one who gave her the faults she had and caused her to make the decisions she made. As I opened up to Ruth, I found myself opening up more completely to the world I was writing about and the world around me.

I loved the way you explore the mother and son relationship--the things we think we know about our child, and the ways we have to confront the truth. Can you talk about that please?

It wasn’t long after I held my son for the first time that I realized that he was and always would be something of a stranger to me. There he was, complete, self-contained, and separate, even if he was totally dependent on me at the time. I did what I think many mothers do: I buried this knowledge. It frightened the hell out of me and I was young and frightened enough as it was.  I loved him. I loved loving him.  I didn’t want to think I didn’t know him better than anyone else could.

We think we know our children because we’ve been so intimately involved with keeping them alive. We do know so much about them. We have a front row seat to their development. If we are lucky, we are the first ones they turn to to see if everything is going the way it should. But as you’ve probably noticed yourself, their separateness asserts itself early on and keeps on asserting itself, often in uncomfortable ways. We can either work with that or fight it. It took me a while but I finally figured out that there was a difference between wanting my son to have a good life and wanting him to have a certain kind of life. The first desire had to do with him; the second had everything to do with me.  In the story, Ruth wants certain kinds of things for Robbie. She wants them because she loves him but she also confuses her desires for him with her own desires and, let’s face it, ego. She’s not the only one and often, given enough time, parents and children get a chance to sort all that out. But what if there isn’t enough time? Talk about things that haunt.

What kind of writer are you? Do you plan things out? Do you have rituals? Do you worry or are you a calm writer (what’s THAT?)

I’m still discovering what kind of writer I am, actually. I am a big planner, yes, but then the entire plan goes out the window. I don’t think I have any rituals but I do notice I thrive best when I write consistently. I love mornings and am at my best then. I knew my writing was being taken seriously when members of my large and far-flung family deferred all non-essential phone calls from the hours of 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. during the week. And a mug of cocoa made of the darkest unsweetened chocolate with cinnamon, no sugar, frothed in precisely the correct way has become vital to the creative process. If there was a way to inject high quality chocolate directly into my veins, I think I’d be a goner. But a happy, highly energized one.

I write best in my office but I try to make it happen wherever I am. I love to learn about the rituals and approaches of other writers and often try to integrate something that makes sense. Basically, though, it boils down to getting some words on the page, or the screen as the case may be.

I worry all the time except when I am actually putting words on the page. That calms me. I like seeing them there even if I know that most of them, if not all of them, may end up in the trash. Each month, I print out a calendar and figure out the hours I have available for writing each month. Just seeing that, especially during months when holidays or other commitments pull time away, reassures me. I use it to plan my work schedule and even when the schedule falls apart, some work always gets done.

I’ve learned that I can make tough decisions. I honestly didn’t really know the story I was trying to write until after the fourth or fifth draft of Casualties when I jettisoned over six hundred pages of writing and sat staring at the remaining hundred or so. This was both the most frightening and most liberating moment of writing my novel. I discovered a kind of fortitude for pressing on, and a faith in my process that could withstand suggestions like the ones my mother politely but regularly made: “Perhaps you are overthinking it. Maybe it’s time to just get it out there.”

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Short stories. How to write short stories that don’t want to turn into a novel. I’m reading and re-reading so many wonderful collections and examples and trying to get it right. I marvel at writers who can do the very short piece, who can make a single paragraph as complete as a novel. Recent discoveries include Lucy Corin’s collection “The Entire Predicament.”

I am also obsessed with walking, a passion that has emerged over the past year. If I don’t clock a few miles at least every other day if not every day, my body cramps up and I swear every idea in my head goes on strike. I harbor a dream of walking the coast of California from the Mexican border to the Oregon state line using the California Coastal Trail. One section curves along the cliffs a few blocks down from where we live; no matter how many times I’ve walked that same stretch, it always offers me something new.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

All your questions have been amazing.  Thank you for including me in this series. It is a thrill.

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