Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Iraq War. Disability. Women on and off the battlefield. AND WOLVES! Helen Benedict talks about her extraordinary new novel, WOLF SEASON

"[Helen Benedict] has emerged as one of our most thoughtful and provocative writers of war literature." ―David Abrams, author of Fobbit and Brave Deeds, at the Quivering Pen

"No one writes with more authority or cool-eyed compassion about the experience of women in war both on and off the battlefield than Helen Benedict. . . . Wolf Season is more than a novel for our times; it should be required reading." ―Elissa Schappell, author of Use Me and Blueprints for Building Better Girls

 I first wrote about Wolf Season for Parnassus Books and I was so jazzed about the book that I wanted to get a chance to interview the author, the great Helen Benedict. She's the the prize-winning author of twelve books, the last three of which are about the Iraq War. Thank you so, so much for being here, Helen!

I loved Wolf Season and I always want to know what the "why now" moment was, the springboard that made you feel you just had to sit down and write this book.

My short answer to what inspired me to write Wolf Season would be an interview and a hurricane.

The interview happened while I was researching my nonfiction book, The Lonely Soldier, and talked to a veteran of the Iraq War who lived in the woods with several wolves and her child. I never met her, only spoke to her on the phone, but her life sparked my imagination. Out of that grew the opening line and the voice that was to become Rin.

The hurricane happened while I was in my house in upstate New York, forcing me and my husband to hide in one room for a day and a night while nature went haywire. That was Irene, the one that destroyed upstate towns while leaving New York City virtually untouched.

But I also knew I wanted to bring the war home after my previous novel, Sand Queen, which was set in Iraq – that is, I hoped to explore how war affects not only those in the midst of it, but those who love them. Somehow, the hurricane, the wolves, the woman and the war all converged into the first chapter, launching the book.

How was writing this novel different from any of your others? Did anything surprise you (and did you wish it had not?)

I have never written about disabilities or wolves before, so both those subjects yielded surprises to me; a voyage of discovery. But this book also has a slightly magical quality to it, which was a total surprise, as I have never written in that style before. As for unwelcome discoveries, I found that even though this is my seventh novel, it was no easier to write than the first. I keep thinking this art form will become easier with experience, and keep finding out that it doesn’t! If anything, it is harder because I am more aware of all the traps and tropes into which I could fall. I wonder how many other writers find this.

So much of this sublime novel was about women and war--on the battlefield and off.  What was your research like? What I especially was moved by was your insistence on the very human cost of war, before, during and after. Can you talk about this, too, please?

I spent many years interviewing American military women who fought in the Iraq War, as well as Iraqi refugees. I began this work to write journalism, but soon realized that what I was learning about how war affects the human heart could not be adequately plumbed without turning to fiction. War forces us to come face to face with how courageous, altruistic, and resilient we really are – or aren’t. It reveals the best and the worst in us as almost nothing else does, and thus opens a fascinating door to the human soul.

I also wrote Wolf Season because I don’t think we civilians spend enough time actually thinking about, let alone imagining, what war does to a human being. The U.S. is constantly waging war somewhere in the world, but we rarely consider the suffering this causes to those on the receiving end. At the same time, I have been extremely moved by the courage, generosity, resilience, and even tenderness, I have found in people who have been through the horrible trauma of war. I wanted to capture this, too, because it should give us all hope. As awful as we humans can be, we can also be astonishingly noble.

Of course, I want to ask about the wolves. Did you spend time with wolves yourself? (I remember taking my son, when he was 6 to a wolf game preserve. They were amazing.) 

Yes, aren’t they splendid? I did indeed spend time with wolves. I found a wolf rescue center and sanctuary tucked away on a small mountain in northwestern New York State, where I spent a day alone, watching several wolves close up. There was a fence between us, but because no one else was around for hours at a time, they were comfortable coming right up to me. I was also able to watch how their keepers interacted with them, fed and petted them, and saw how very cautious those keepers remained at all times, even though they had raised some of the wolves from pups. A pure wolf remains somewhat wild no matter what training it might get; they are too smart to be otherwise.

I also, of course, read about wolves, who have been studied extensively, people having been fascinated by them for centuries. I love the way wolves play so many roles in human stories – noble, savage, mystical, deadly, spiritual... They are also extraordinarily intelligent, and the social structure of their packs in complicated and eerily human.

What's obsessing you now and why?

Ever since the last presidential election, I have been obsessed with the administration’s persecution of refugees and immigrants, and of women. As a sort of migrant, myself (I grew up in the UK and various islands in the Indian Ocean, and came here for good in my mid-twenties), and as a writer who has been extremely moved by the refugees I have interviewed, and as a half Jew and a New Yorker, I cannot bear to see the suffering being inflicted on those who have fled here for safety and for the sake of their children’s futures. This, plus my lifelong work as a journalist on violence against women, might just possibly be the subject matter of a future novel.

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

Perhaps you might be interested in why I felt compelled to write about Muslims and Iraqis, being neither myself. After Bush invaded Iraq for no good reason in 2003, I was struck by how little attention the U.S. was paying to Iraqi civilians, who have suffered beyond measure under our actions. So, I set out to read and meet any Iraqis I could find who could speak English and would be willing to talk to me. With their help, I was able to learn their side of the story, their views of the war, and some of their stories. No one person ever represents an entire nation or people, of course, but their generosity of spirit and deep wisdom in the aftermath of tragedy and violence – every Iraqi I met has had at least one family member killed – moved me deeply, and helped me inhabit Naema, Khalil, and Tariq.

I also wrote Wolf Season because I believe this is a time in history when it is essential to write across the very borders that supposedly separate us: religion, race, culture, ethnicity. It’s a time to look for our common humanity, not for our differences. War tends to reveal much of what all humans have in common, for when we lose a person we love, our health or our minds, the suffering is the same, no matter who we are. 

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