Literary Life, Military Wife

5 Questions for author Andria Williams

To mark National Book Month, we’ve asked Andria Williams to discuss how and why she created the Military Spouse Book Review, the first online literary community for military spouses. Andria is the author of the acclaimed novel The Longest Night, and she is currently finishing her second novel.

Q: It seems like it’s always been important for you to offer the military spouse community a way to participate in literary culture. Why did you decide that military spouses needed their own place to discuss books and ideas? 

A: I started up the Military Spouse Book Review in 2014 because, basically, I wanted to hear what people were reading. That’s why the MSBR has always included reviews of every genre, not just books that have to do with the military.

I had a couple of motivations: One was to connect military spouses who love to read and talk about books. The second was that I wanted to find other milspouse writers out there, and I thought it would be handy to have a database of all of us somewhere, and there wasn’t one, so I should make it. That way we could find each other wherever we were in the world! Thirdly, I wanted to learn more about women veterans who were writing, because I was interested in their stories, too.

It’s important to me to try and promote a literary culture within the military spouse community, because I think that sometimes falls by the wayside. Many women are so busy with responsibilities that they very seldom read, but I want to encourage them to keep it up. Reading literature—not just BuzzFeed posts or Twitter arguments—is, for me, one of the best ways to keep my quality of life high, to get outside myself and my world, to put new ideas in my head.   

Q: Several books by military spouses (including yours!) have been successful nationally and internationally, far outside the military community, and won prestigious literary awards. What can these close-up glimpses of military life offer non-military readers?

A: I can’t speak for the other milspouse novelists out there, but I know that for me, writing about military life is more about personal expression than trying to educate a civilian public. Setting my novels in the past (my first was set in the 1950s and the second is set between 1918-1930) allows me to engage with themes of military service and war, as well as the effects of these on marriages, families, communities, and so on, in a way that’s really freeing. I can give all kinds of thoughts to my characters, and some may be like my own and some may be completely different, so I can almost have a discussion or debate with myself over the course of several years, but I’m not beholden to the pressure of having to “represent” a military spouse voice or the modern military.

That said, there are very long-running themes and situations that military families find themselves in: deployment, frequent moves, sometimes being confined to strict gender roles, and if my novels remind the reader that this is part of what we regularly grapple with, then I’m happy. I’m a big proponent of the soft sell! Mary Doyle’s Sergeant Harper Mystery series, for example, feature a detective who also happens to be a Public Affairs Officer in the army. While she’s off solving murders, the reader gets an inside glimpse into some of the daily work of the army on far-flung, fascinating deployment locations and if they’re also seeing a pretty badass lady soldier get things done, well, we simply can’t help whatever message they’re absorbing, right?

Q: In the past decade, there have been a number of memoirs, novels, short story collections, and books of poetry published by military spouses. Can you recommend a few that you’ve enjoyed?

A: This is my favorite question! I try to keep a comprehensive list on the Military Spouse Book Review, and I am always adding names. The two fellow editors of the MSBR have published books: Alison Buckholtz is the author of the very moving, funny Standing By: The Making of an American Military Family in a Time of War. Lisa Houlihan Stice, our poetry editor, has two books of poetry: Uniform and Permanent Change of Station.

Elyse Fenton, Abby E. Murray, Jehanne Dubrow, and Amalie Flynn are phenomenal milspouse poets.

As for fellow fiction writers, there’s the brilliant Siobhan Fallon whose recent novel, The Confusion of Languages, had me completely riveted; it’s one of the best book-club picks I can think of at the moment. It’s about two American military wives in Jordan during the Arab Spring, and it’s sensitive and funny and terrific. Other great fiction writer milspouses I can think of off the top of my head are Kathleen Rodgers, Tiffany Hawk, Jodie Cain Smith, and R.H. Ramsey, as well as Emmy Curtis who writes steamy romances between, say, soldiers and lady reporters in caves in Afghanistan.

Some nonfiction I have absolutely loved reading is from the authors Angela M. Ricketts (she’s hilarious and smart and she can get to the heart of what makes someone tick with a speed that’s almost uncanny), Lily Burana, Abigail Calkin, Artis Henderson, Kristine Schellhaas, Terri Barnes, and so many more.  I also maintain a list on the blog’s homepage of female veterans who write.

For anyone who’s interested in the literature to have come out of the recent wars, Peter Molin’s long-running blog, Time Now, is not to be missed. He’s brilliant and one of the most prolific readers I’ve ever met, and his posts are always thought-provoking, insightful, and quite often funny too. There’s also a great WWI Centennial blog hosted by Jennifer Orth-Veillon, and its posts are wide-ranging, covering everything from, say, the influence of J.R.R. Tolkien’s WWI service on The Lord of the Rings to battlefield cemeteries in Germany.

Q: You launched Military Spouse Book Review in 2014. How has MSBR evolved over the years—and what are you most proud of?

A: The biggest change is that I was running MSBR by myself until this year, when two new editors were added: Alison Buckholtz, who reads just about everything out there and writes great, smart reviews, mostly of fiction and nonfiction; and Lisa Houlihan Stice, who brings her incredible poetry expertise to the table. I felt like I got secret weapons when I added those two. I should mention that we are always open to new contributors, who do not necessarily need to be military spouses. “Women connected to the military” is our criteria– so female veterans, military moms and sisters, and so on have, and are encouraged, to contribute. I’m really proud of the supportive community of women writers we have created.

Q: In addition to your work on MSBR and the online magazine for combat veterans, Wrath-Bearing Tree, you speak at writing conferences, actively help other writers, work on your own novel, and make it a priority to participate in literary events. How does being a part of a literary community enrich your own life and help your writing?

A: One thing I’m most in awe of when it comes to fellow writers in the military community is how involved so many of them are. You make me sound rather impressive here, dear interviewer, but I am no different from the other writers in the military community who are constantly busy mentoring, writing about each other’s work, starting workshops and conferences for veterans and civilians alike, editing literary journals, teaching – the list goes on and on. We try to spread the word about each other’s work, read manuscripts for each other, tell each other about opportunities, and so forth. It’s the most outwardly-focused and generous literary community I have ever been a part of, and I am so grateful for it.

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