KMUW’s Beth Golay explains how an author’s new suspense novel was influenced by her years living abroad as a military spouse.
When it comes to writing fiction, author Siobhan Fallon tends to lean on personal experience. Her first book, You Know When the Men Are Gone, is a loosely connected collection of short stories about Army wives waiting for their men to return home. Her new novel, The Confusion of Languages, is the story of two wives living with their husbands stationed in Amman, Jordan.
“We were also stationed at the embassy of the United States Embassy in Amman, Jordan again around the same time 2011," says Fallon. "So when the Arab Spring was just starting to kick off in the Middle East.”
The two wives in the book are Margaret and Cassie. Margaret is new to Jordan, arriving at the Embassy with her husband and infant son. Cassie has been at the Embassy for 2 years, and she and her husband agree to sponsor Margaret and her husband. Cassie spends her days guiding Margaret around Jordan, while also cautioning Margaret to be mindful of her Western ways.
“And I think that was something that I struggled with the most more than something black and white like what to wear or say or you know don't cross your ankles or you know strange things that we had been warned of in advance especially my husband had deployed three times to the Middle East himself so he sort of knew the guidebook of the things you do not do,” she explains.
The opening chapter begins with the two new friends and the baby getting into a minor car accident, Margaret is driving. Flustered, because she was assigned guilt, they return to Margaret’s apartment so Cassie can watch the baby while Margaret pays the ‘guilt fee’ at t he police station. While Cassie waits at the apartment, she find’s Margaret’s journal.
“As she waits and waits and starts to get worried that Margaret is not returning her phone calls and hours pass and she hasn't come back," she says. "Cassie starts to read the journal and learned that her entire impression of Margaret's experience in Jordan has been very different than Cassie or any of the characters had thought.”
The story is then told through two perspectives: Cassie’s in real time, and Margaret’s through her journal. While Margaret comes across as young, sheltered, socially awkward and naive in real life, in her journal writing she is insightful, eloquent, and curious. Through the two perspectives, author Siobhan Fallon is not only able to provide two versions of one situation, but two versions of one person.
“I wanted Margaret to be as layered as possible and as somebody who hadn't you know been out there socially. So I wanted her to be a little weird. But I mean no matter how much she was stuck at home she is still reading books and she was still engaged and curious so I guess I wanted to show that she could be both," she explains. "I mean I feel like I'm a little like that you know. So I was kind of getting a little bit of that like writerly persona to come out in Margaret.”
And if Fallon relied a little on herself and her own experiences in life to form Margaret’s character, she didn’t have to look far to find inspiration for Cassie’s persona. She once again turned to her personal experience as a military wife living abroad.
“I always had Cassie's voice in my head and I always had this really negative sort of ex-pat. I mean I feel like I've met a lot of Cassie's when I've lived abroad," says Fallon. "It's very easy to land in a new place and it's not America and things are different and it takes a while to figure out how a new world works.”
Although Fallon has met women similar to her characters, Margaret and Cassie are completely fiction. This is probably a good thing, because neither one is all that likable, and Fallon’s okay with that. It actually makes them seem more real.
“There's always a Cassie and there's always sort of a Margaret you know there's somebody who swings in that other direction and will not want to do any of the ex-pat events because they just want to suck up the culture and just dive headlong in before they have to figure things out. So I saw the two of them as people I meet wherever I go," she says. "They're definitely flawed and I wanted them to be flawed because I like a flawed character when I'm reading; I love the unreliable narrator and I love them to be sort of nasty.”
Siobhan Fallon is on tour for her new book, The Confusion of Languages. She will be in Wichita on Wednesday, July 12, for an event at Watermark Books.