In Suite Harmonic you take on some of the “big” themes – warfare, religious tensions, social organization – which are often assumed to be men’s territory, in both life and writing. You once referred approvingly to another woman writer who regularly trespassed on this kind of territory. Did any such intention play a part in your project?
—Mary Michaels, London
Mary, I have a whole page of random notes about things I’d like to say in response to this question. But before I try to organize those ideas into a more focused answer, I want to square up the gender question with the fact that I’m a woman who, in Suite Harmonic, has written a novel about a man at war. A friend told me she thought I was gutsy to begin with a battle scene and I think I know what she meant. You can read War and Peace in an abridged version that leaves out all the battle scenes and maybe there’s an assumption that such scenes will be confusing and repetitious and, ultimately dull. Beyond that, there’s the question of whether women are going to have any interest in reading battle scenes or whether a man is going to trust reading a battle scene written by Emily Meier rather than, say, E. M. Meier. These are certainly things I thought about before I ever tackled putting men on the field.
To the matter of what women read. I think women have individual tastes as readers that cover the gamut of what’s out there (and maybe beyond). And when it comes to reading about war, it’s probably worthwhile for everyone to try to understand what the real experience of war is since we keep sending people to fight them. Practically speaking, though, reading is about what we want to read, not what we should read. Our leisure reading isn’t for credit. It has to speak to us as curious readers.
All of that was very much on my mind when I realized my research told me I would be writing at least five battle scenes for Suite Harmonic. It was a daunting prospect from every possible vantage point. I mulled it over a lot, and then got an unexpected assist from thinking about Frank McCourt’s Angela Ashes. In the early chapters of that book, McCourt has to tell the stories of all the children who died in his family. That could have made for a a book that’s impossible to read because of the terrible repetition of events. Instead McCourt varies the ways he tells each of the stories so that each death feels fresh and individual. It’s utterly compelling, though still heartbreaking.
I gave myself the analogous task of trying to tell the stories of the battles in Suite Harmonic in different ways. In the Ft. Donelson battle that opens the book, I tried slipping in parts of the back story of the Given family in New Harmony and in Ireland. More than that, I focused on the fact the battle took place around Valentine’s Day. That gave me a unique way of broadening its context when John and his friend Levi, in a surreal juxtaposition, read valentines from home in a house full of wounded and dying soldiers. I made other choices for the battles that followed. I tried to convey the immense scope of Shiloh. I had John relate the events of one smaller, but memorable, battle to his cousin. I put him on the field of battle as the clerk he eventually was. Often the battles themselves offered variety due to their locales and the stage of the war and the difference in fighting when siege warfare arrived. And in each case, I told the story from the viewpoint of one soldier who was living it. While the troop movements, down to the company level, and the casualties and events of the battles are absolutely as accurate as it was possible for me to make them, I always tried to convey the texture of the individual experience of the battle for John Given, including the desperate, and even mundane, nature of many of his thoughts and feelings.
As for whether a man would be reluctant to pick up a book about the Civil War written by a woman, it may depend on the man, although I think readers are readers first. Certainly, if male writers can imagine Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina and Effie Briest with such uncanny understanding of their emotional experience, a woman is able to imagine a man’s battlefield experience. And the good luck for me was that I didn’t have to rely solely on my imagination. I not only had John Given’s letters to draw on but the immense historical record of the war that’s available to researchers, particularly the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion. Their volumes and volumes contain records of everything that happened and the most wonderful collection of battlefield reports down to the unit level. It wasn’t just Grant in his memoirs who knew how to tell a vivid story of war. There were some amazing writers who led brigades and regiments and companies. The remarkable detail in their reports puts a reader right in the action. Really, they set a very high bar for me in trying to live up to their storytelling ability when it came to battle scenes. Those reports also made it possible for me to make the depiction of the battles historically accurate, which was always my goal.
But to address the actual question of whether in writing something like battle scenes it was my intention to claim territory as a woman writer that is more often held by men, the simplest answer is no. I did not make the decision to write Suite Harmonic with a feminist purpose. I made it because I had John Given’s letters and thought the story in them was amazing—that as a common man, he was at the nexus of so many historical currents and events. It was a story I was obsessed with telling even before I had any idea of how to do it.
But even if it wasn’t my intention to throw down a marker about what women can write, I do feel that women are too often absent from discussion in the public sphere. Some of that may be due to the fact we’re just catching up from the time when most women had fewer choices because their domestic challenges and frequent pregnancies were all demanding. Some of it is due to habit of mind. We’re not surprised to see the cultural influence of a group of male friends such as Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, Martin Amis, and Christopher Hitchens. But have we ever seen a group of women in a similarly influential position? Sometimes women are missing from the public stage because of unvoiced preconceptions. We hear stories about women who only advance in orchestras when auditions are blind. We read tallies of how comparatively few women appear in magazines of all kinds—the New Yorker to research journals. I’m sure bias plays into this to some degree. However, I also feel that women are sometimes too timid, that we put up our own barriers. Perfectionists as we often are, we’re sometimes afraid to put our voices out there. We worry we’ll get something wrong. As a result, we miss the opportunities to learn from our mistakes and to find out what might happen if we stretch a little—if we go on out there and try ourselves on the highwire.
But there’s also this, which seems exactly right to me: I’ve heard from women readers of Suite Harmonic who’ve really been drawn to the battle and camp scenes. They’re discovering things that are new to them. There are also men who’ve been taken with John’s sister Kate’s part of the story on the home front. It’s just not true that gender shuts people off from an interest in the broader areas of human experience. We all have this curiosity.