Novelists Sybil Baker and Katie Rogin in Conversation: On Trauma, America’s Endless Wars, and Coming Home
Sybil Baker’s novel While You Were Gone is a novel of three sisters growing up in and adapting to a changing South, “spinning away from and back to the city that both buoys them and sucks them down into its vortex of social and racial tensions.” She is the author of three other works of fiction, The Life Plan, Talismans, and Into This World. Her work of nonfiction, Immigration Essays, is the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga’s required first year read for 2018–2019. She was the Fiction Editor for Anomaly from 2012–2017. In addition to being a professor at UTC, she is on faculty for the Yale Writer’s Workshop and Vermont College of Fine Arts international low residency MFA.
Katie Rogin is the author of the novel Life During Wartime (Mastodon Publishing) where post-9/11 America is an uneasy place where soldiers and civilians try to find their way through a fallen world of personal trauma and social disconnection. Her short fiction, essays and criticism have appeared in VICE, PANK, Intellectual Refuge, The Chattahoochee Review, Terrain, Streetlight, Quartz, The Rumpus, The Brooklyn Rail, The Millions, and Sports Illustrated. She wrote for ABC’s One Life to Live for which she won a Writers Guild of America award. She also wrote and directed the short film In A Blue Mood.
Sybil Baker: Life During Wartime opens with two epigraphs, one from Homer’s The Odyssey, and the other from The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.” Both set up the theme of returning home and seeking safety and refuge, which are key themes in the novel. Can you elaborate on why you chose those quotes and what you hope they prepare the reader for as they begin the novel?
Katie Rogin: I chose the opening lines from The Odyssey as my own “invocation of the muse” as well as to announce to the reader that the story she’s about to read is, like Odysseus’s, another after-war story and another journey home. These opening lines speak equally to the experience of war and the post-war experience of trying to heal, to seek refuge, to get home. This is the experience, to varying degrees, of all the main characters in Life During Wartime, but obviously speaks most directly to the post-traumatic stress that characterizes Lise Sheridan’s experience after serving in an army combat hospital in the Green Zone in Baghdad and Jim Wicklow’s surviving the attack on the World Trade Center on 9/11.
The “Gimme Shelter” quote is a reminder that psychologically and physically traumatic experiences are only “just a shot away” whether we are soldiers or civilians. And that idea weaves through the book as well.
You use quotes from Chekov’s Three Sisters and Shakespeare’s King Lear, both plays with a trio of sisters, as epigraphs for some of your chapters. Can you talk about the elements in these works that inspired While You Were Gone?
SLB: I have two brothers and no sisters, and perhaps for that reason I’m interested in sister relationships — they seem more intense to me than my very pleasant but low key relationships with my brothers. In about 2009–2010 I wrote a failed novel about two sisters set in Williamsburg, Virginia, loosely based on Jane Austen’s Persuasion — one of the sisters spurns her lover and he later becomes a successful screenwriter/aspiring director — she later has to rent out the the family home to him to pay the debts their father left when he died. While there were parts of my novel that I liked, I really didn’t know enough about the movie industry to carry it off (I wish I’d known you then!), so I shelved it. Instead — this time inspired by a painting — I wrote Into This World (2012), which also explores a complicated relationship between two sisters.
In 2012, as I was thinking about what my next novel would be about, I was reading Three Sisters and I got the idea of writing about three sisters whose mother had died while they were young. I took some very basic tensions from the failed novel and using that play as a loose structure, added a third sister, moved them to Chattanooga, added/changed the friendships/love interests. It was only a few years later in the final drafts that I looked at ways to incorporate some of King Lear — probably my favorite Shakespeare play. I worried that putting the epigraphs at the beginning of the sections might be too indulgent, but I thought they helped guide the novel, so I kept them in.
In contrast to my failed rom-com movie novel, I loved reading about the aspiring Hollywood screenwriter in Life During Wartime. Your bio shows your professional connections to TV and film. Can you discuss your portrayal of Danny, and how much of that was inspired by your own experience in “the industry?”
KR: I’m so glad you asked about Danny! There’s probably an entire other novel to be written about Danny Gold, LA screenwriter and escapee from New York’s ad agency world. As writers we’re supposed to love all our characters, but my relationship with Danny is not so much love-hate as it is love-squirm. Danny is trying his best to make his Iraq war screenplay authentic by researching it with real veterans like Lise (which is great), but he’s hamstrung by Hollywood’s storytelling and casting conventions (which is not so great). He’s also struggling with his own privileged existence and his failings to-date when he’s been confronted with grittier situations. He can’t even deal with a bloody nose in an actors’ pick-up basketball game, yet he’s being emotionally brave by being romantically involved with a really traumatized woman and trying to make it work despite his limited skills in this area. He’s trying to tell war stories, stories of people not like him who have had experiences he’ll never have, and he should get some credit for this, but the needs of the movie industry (both in screenwriters getting work and in how stories are sold to and enjoyed by audiences) force him to blunt the edges of real lived experience and shape it to fit into a successful entertainment narrative.
Despite doing a ton of research for Life During Wartime, I knew there were certain things that I would never be able to write well. Danny trying to write Lise’s story is in some ways a reflection of my own confrontation with the material, trying to get a handle on it and trying not to fall into the traps laid by my own preconceived notions or the conventions of storytelling. I think all writers (novelists and screenwriters) want their characters to feel “real” while also seeming “true” to every reader or viewer, whether we’re creating characters more or less like ourselves. This is my challenge, and it’s Danny’s as well.
SLB: I love your connection to your own attempt to write Lise’s story with Danny’s. I can relate.
KR: I find that settling on a title for a novel is so difficult. Even when I’m absolutely sure I’ve got the right one, I sometimes find the next absolutely right one months or years later. Sometimes I even suffer from “title regret” after the book is out the door. How did you arrive at the title for While You’re Were Gone?
SLB: This title just popped out of the ether as I was writing the first draft. I don’t know where it came from but I never really had any other ideas for a title for the novel, and no one else in the editing/feedback process suggested one. A quick Amazon check shows that at least three other novels have the same title.
Katie, I thought Life During Wartime was a great title, and encompasses a lot about the novel. One of the reasons I was drawn to it was for its title. I think many Americans forget we are at war and I wish there were more novels like yours addressing the ramifications of these wars on Americans. Were there any other titles you were considering?
KR: This almost never happens for me, but Life During Wartime was the title almost from the beginning, from that first flicker of story in my mind. It felt right and sounded right, and kept being right, as I wrote more pages. I did a Google search and knew a few other people had used the title for their books, but I didn’t really care about differentiating in that way. As I recounted in my Life During Wartime playlist-essay for Largehearted Boy, the Talking Heads song of the same title just so perfectly captured the mood for me. When I was selecting the epigraphs, I did then have a few spasms of doubt about the title and thought maybe something from The Odyssey or Lucinda Williams’s song “World Without Tears” would be better, but, as you say, we can’t forget we’re still and always at war, and so the title stuck.
SLB: As a Talking Heads fan from the 80s, I loved that sly nod to one of their earlier songs.
KR: In While You Were Gone, time, place, culture, class, gender, race, work, war — all the machinations of a specific society at a given moment in history — are all really important as the informing context for characters’ decisions. How did you manage this interplay of and balance between private character psychology and public social issues?
SLB: This was a hard novel for me to write for that reason. I was not interested in writing a novel based in the South that focused almost exclusively on the white upper-middle class. Chattanooga and its history provided a lot of opportunities to explore those issues — and provided obstacles and opportunities for the characters in what I hope feel organic to the novel.
One of the reasons I loved your novel was how you brilliantly chose to have it occur during the financial crisis and wildfires — economic and natural disasters intensify the personal conflicts that arise from 9/11 and the war in Iraq. Did you always plan to set the novel during this short yet intense time?
KR: I can’t exactly remember how the timeline came together. In many ways it grew out of the accident of the Lehman Brothers collapse occurring just after the seventh anniversary of 9/11, so that helped bring Jim’s storyline into focus. I knew I wanted to place the bulk of the story in Sierra Madre, CA — a fictionalized version of this real-life place — and Fire Season in Southern California is late summer-early fall so I brought that in, although the big fires in this specific town are fictional but, based on what has happened elsewhere. Since the story is a search for a missing person, I knew it couldn’t last more than a few days or a week so all the elements aligned to create this short intense period where the public and the personal, the macro and the micro, all converged.
Sybil, I love how close your third-person narrator is to each of the sisters in their chapters, and the way these voices capture the past and the present. You also occasionally sneak in a surprising authorial presence right in the middle of these very intimate points of view, where the reader gets a peak into the future for a character. Did you plan these extraordinary moments or were they happy accidents of your exceptionally strong writing?
SLB: I wrote so many drafts of this novel, especially the last part with so many endings that I had problems deciding what to reveal of what I “knew” in my head about the characters’ futures. I think those authorial “interventions” were borne out of desperation — a solution to my problem about what and how much to reveal.
We both use multiple points of view in our novels. Can you tell me why you also chose to use multiple points of view in close third? I thought it was very effective.
KR: Thank you, I’m pleased you find the multiple points of view and use of the close third effective. I haven’t written very much in the first person. I find a very close third person gets readers inside characters equally well, especially if I can summon the skill to throw in a dash of free indirect speech. I very much wanted a kaleidoscope of views and voices in Life During Wartime, not just to create a multidimensional world but to show how these diverse lives have, in their response to traumatic experiences, so much in common.
Sybil, I’ve addressed women in the modern white collar workplace in some of my short stories and this world will be central to my next novel, so I was particularly intrigued by Claire working at Chattasys. You describe her first internship as when she “learn[ed] to infiltrate the enemy,” and how she became an “infiltrator.” At Chattasys, “[e]ach step up the ladder had to be carefully planned, and to succeed she felt she’d whittled herself down to a caricature of who she wanted to be. She’d wrung all personality out of her, and now she was dry dishrag. By the time Joseph arrived, she wasn’t even sure who she was outside her roles as manager, mother, wife, and daughter, roles she inhabited except when she was sleeping. One more promotion and she’d be a vice president, and then she promised herself she would become more of herself again.” I don’t think there’s a woman in the American workplace who wouldn’t nod her head at these ideas of being someone else behind enemy lines. Can you talk a bit about creating Claire in this context?
SLB: I’ve spent the last 20 plus years of my adult life teaching, but for about ten years during and after college, I worked in white-collar offices outside of academia. In addition to my own experience as a working woman, I have observed this phenomenon among my female friends in and outside of academia. I think this is intensified in the South or more conservative areas where traditional gender roles and expectations still percolate beneath the surface, no matter what institutions espouse.
Claire is also the most traditional of the sisters, and so is most likely to “buy in” to the “women can have it all” myth and to try to maintain it at an enormous cost. It takes a lot of energy to be responsive to those in power — in this case to white, white-collar traditional Southern men. I wanted to take a character who in a way accepts that women do have to sacrifice themselves to “do it all” but doesn’t understand the psychic toll it takes on her until it is almost too late.
While there are moments of human connection in your novel and flawed characters who try to do better, the novel is a bleak yet accurate story about the effects of PTSD. What was it like to sit with the novel and regularly return to this dark subject matter and story?
KR: I was violently assaulted as a teenager and have suffered from PTSD ever since. I tried to self-medicate with alcohol for decades (which doesn’t really work), but have in recent years gotten control of my symptoms through talk therapy and meds. I was in an early and dark phase of my journey of recovery while I was planning and writing Life During Wartime and so my characters are also still steeped in their troubles as well. I am loathe to see writing as therapy, but the work is a reflection of what I can imagine, and I couldn’t see very far ahead at the time. So I was fine spending time in this dark place. But I could also see the connections forming and the steps toward the light that my characters were taking.
But even if I wrote it today, I don’t think the book would be any less bleak. Except for learning what happens to the missing Nina, I didn’t want to tell a story where everything gets resolved. I think we still need to confront as a society the collateral damage of so many walking wounded among us, so I knew Lise, Jim, Jen and Danny weren’t going to get to happy places of refuge. But I also knew they would at least be poised for the next steps toward healing and ready to do better, or in the case of Jim, believe they are ready to do better, even if they are wrong.
SLB: I’m respect that you chose to write an emotionally honest and realistic novel, and I’m sorry that one of the reasons it resonated emotionally was because you had to access your own trauma. I’m also glad your novel focused on the problems of PTSD as a societal rather than just an individual issue. I think it’s an underexplored topic, and I thought you did it very well.
KR: Your portrait of Joseph, who is Black, is sketched from Claire’s point of view, in keeping with your story being told almost totally through the eyes of each of the three sisters in turn. It isn’t until her involvement with him is exposed, that we get a glimpse of what it must have been like for Joseph, if in fact these comments from his aunt actually capture his experience — this seems to be unclear. Did you have any concerns about cultural appropriation or stereotyping when creating Joseph?
SLB: I had huge trepidation and still do! I based Joseph somewhat on my own relationships. I had several male POC beta readers. I also asked an African American male friend who lives in Chattanooga to read the Claire/Joseph scenes, and he mistakenly thought I had written about his life and that they were too realistic and not fictional enough!
Still, I worry that I didn’t do Joseph justice in the novel through my own limitations — which is why I admire Danny in your novel as a stand in for that limitation. I did choose to keep the POV from Claire who, like a lot people in the throes of obsession/love, doesn’t see the other person clearly.
I also felt that in writing about a Southern town, I had to write about race and white supremacy, and not just in theoretical ways. This recent essay in Lit Hub articulates my own feelings about my obligations as a writer, while keeping in mind this essay by Claudia Rankine and Beth Loffreda on the racial imaginary. I also wanted to avoid writing a “deracinated” novel as Jess Row discusses in his essay “White Flights,” which erases race from its content. In a defacto segregated city like Chattanooga, there is often actually little interaction among whites from Claire’s background and Black people, except possibly at work. That said, I’m happy to receive feedback from people who think I wasn’t successful in my attempts to portray this relationship and to discuss that with them.
In my last three works of fiction, I have chosen to include wars as a plot point: Vietnam in Talismans, the Korean War in Into This World, and Iraq in While You Were Gone. I believe much of our domestic fiction “forgets” that we are a nation at war, and so I choose bring our wars in my own work. This was another area I felt uneasy in this novel because of my own lack of direct experience. I had conversations with several people who had fought there or in Afghanistan (and read interviews), asking them some “what if” questions to determine that character’s fate as well.
Your own novel also deals with a veteran who disappears and rewards me with its rich and assured detail about those returning from Iraq with PTSD. I loved that the two veterans are female, a subject even rarer. You mention in your Acknowledgements some sources for your material — what led you to this subject matter and what was the research process to so accurately portray these soldiers?
KR: I read everything. Accounts of military service; coming home; surviving traumas like war, rape, natural disasters, car accidents; and PTSD have been headline stories for years. It’s all there to read on the front page of newspapers so I read it all. In addition to my direct experience with PTSD, I’ve read books and memoirs and online content including The National Institute of Mental Health website, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs website, and Dr. Judith Herman’s classic text Trauma and Recovery. The HBO documentary Baghdad ER about the 86th CSH was essential to understanding the people and procedures of a combat support hospital in the Green Zone. I went to panel discussions, read magazine and newspaper articles, read and watched other writers’ and filmmakers’ fictional accounts of war and veterans coming home. After taking in all these research inputs, the creative cooking begins where all the pieces ping around my imagination and settle into their places both within the story I want to tell and shaping the story that I will end up telling.
SLB: I think all that research paid off. You definitely did your homework.
KR: I wanted to know more of the sisters’ cousin, Jeremy. You use him sparingly although he’s an essential piece of the puzzle’s solution at the end of the novel. Can you tell me more about Jeremy and his role in the novel, especially his relationship with Shannon?
SLB: For a long time, I have resisted writing the “gay male best friend” trope into my fiction because I feel it has become a cliché, leaving little agency for that character. Yet, as someone who has since college had a lot of gay friends, and seen students and friends suffer for being gay in conservative times and places, I wanted to write about that dynamic for this novel. Because of that, Jeremy was an easy character for me to write. One of my problems was that I didn’t want to “punish” him for being gay by leaving him sad, dead, or alone, but I also wanted to be realistic about what being a gay man in the South even today might entail. I rewrote his story arc — some versions happier and some sadder than the one I ended up with — many times.
I would have loved to have more pages to devote to his and Shannon’s relationship — especially growing up and his own journey, which as you note, we only glimpse from some distance. As cousins the same age, I imagine they were thrown together almost from birth. Growing up Jeremy and Shannon bond over their parents’ deaths, and because of that and Jeremy’s secret, Shannon knows and understands him in a way no one else does. For Shannon, Jeremy is that spark and glamour missing in her own life.
Unfortunately, I felt the novel was already getting too long even after cutting 15,000 words from it and couldn’t explore that dynamic more.
Similarly, Nina Wicklow is central to the novel, yet we learn of her mostly through other people who try to understand her decisions and motivations. Why did you decide to keep Nina and much of her larger story a mystery to the reader?
KR: Nina was designed to be a cypher in some ways so that each character could use her as a vessel in which to place their own specific search for meaning. In some ways she’s a McGuffin, simply a device to trigger the plot. Now, post-publication, I kind of regret not fleshing her out more. I think I could have had it both ways, where she was a three-dimensional character and she served the other characters.
But Nina is getting a second life! I’ve been adapting the book into a limited series for television that I hope to sell, and not only am I confronting the usual challenge of bringing the interiority of a novel to the visual medium of the screen, but Nina not being fleshed out is an enormous problem — so she’s getting a second chance on screen. I’m creating scenes for the teleplay — some past events referred to in the novel, others created wholly new — that will bring Nina more completely to life as her own person.
SLB: That is so exciting — both that we’ll learn more of Nina and that you are developing this for the screen.
KR: What other books (novels or non-fiction or poetry) do you see sitting next to While You Were Gone on readers’ bookshelves?
SLB: What a great question! I would love to have all the books by my friends, colleagues, and mentors on the shelf with me for solidarity and support.
Regarding people I don’t know, I’d love to have Baldwin on a shelf higher than mine, as I admire his writing so much and he deserves his own shelf, as does Toni Morrison’s work. I’ve been reading the Stoics more lately, so Letters from Seneca would be there. The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories — Hassan Blasim’s haunting and innovative story collection from Iraq. And Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series was one of my favorite reads from the past few years, and is in my mind a contemporary classic.
What other books (novels or non-fiction or poetry) do you see sitting next to Life During Wartime on readers’ bookshelves?
KR: When I look through my bookshelves (the books that remain and the books that have been carted away in fits of de-cluttering), I often try to figure out what connects so many diverse writers and books. What’s the thread that weaves its way through the stories and resonates with me, the reader they all have in common? Sometimes it’s simply the writing, or the mood, or the location, the subject matter, the time period, the characters, or the weather. (Sometimes it’s the cover design!) In some ways this question is like an Amazon recommendation engine feature: if you like that, then you’ll like this… The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler, Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion, Look at Me by Jennifer Egan, In Country by Bobbie Ann Mason, Burning Down the House by Jane Mendelsohn, We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates, Eat the Document by Dana Spiotta, Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone, The Good Lieutenant by Whitney Terrell, While You Were Gone by Sybil Baker.
Sybil Baker’s latest novel is While You Were Gone. Her book of nonfiction Immigration Essays is the 2018–2019 Read2Achieve selection for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. She is also the author of The Life Plan, Talismans, and Into This World (Foreword Book of the Year finalist, and Eric Hoffer Award Honorable Mention). She was awarded two MakeWork Artist Grants and a 2017 Individual Artist’s Fellowship from the Tennessee Arts Commission. She lives and teaches in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and is on faculty at the Yale Writers’ Workshop and VCFA’s low residency International MFA.
Katie Rogin grew up in New York amid a family of art dealers, fiction writers and journalists. Her writing spans old and new media. She wrote for ABC’s One Life to Live for which she won a Writers Guild of America award. One Life to Live was created by Agnes Nixon and aired on ABC from July 15, 1968 to January 12, 2012. Katie wrote, directed and produced the short film In A Blue Mood which screened at Urbanworld, the IFP Market and the Austin Film Festival. In A Blue Mood stars Nathan Purdee as Carlton, Marva Hicks as Iris, Tony Award Winner Roger Robinson as Carlton’s unwelcome companion, Kristina Lear as Iris’s best friend, and introduces Ashlee Gillum as Iris in her pre-teen days. The soundtrack features Ella Fitzgerald, Thelonius Monk, John Coltrane, Harry “Sweets” Edison, Ben Webster, and Anita O’Day.