A Scream Wrapped in a Story: Women Veteran Novelists Talk Military Life, Real & Fiction
An In Conversation with Elizabeth Lewes & Alicia Dill
Elizabeth Lewes is the author of Little Falls, a military thriller to debut in August 2020 from Crooked Lane Books, Penguin Random House. She is a U.S. Navy Veteran who served six years during Operation Enduring Freedom in the Navy as a linguist. A practicing attorney, she resides in Seattle with her family.
Alicia Dill, author of military thriller Squared Away (White Bird Publications, 2019) is an Army veteran with 6 years of experience. She joined at the age of 17 before September 11 as a 46Q, or in civilian terms, a Public Affairs Specialist.
Elizabeth: Alicia, you were a Public Affairs Specialist, is that what they call a journalist in the Army?
Alicia: It is! We tell the Army’s story with “command messages”. It’s essentially like PR for the Army. I trained with all the branches at Fort Meade, MD including the Navy.
Elizabeth: I was in training when September 11th happened and was hugely relieved that I wasn’t an Arabic or Persian Farsi linguist! Our training was joint forces also.
Alicia: Yes, that’s military intelligence in the Army. What language?
Elizabeth: Mandarin Chinese.
Alicia: Wow! That’s one of the hardest languages, with the calligraphy.
Elizabeth: I hardly remember any of it now — if you don’t use it, you lose it! I trained in California at the Defense Language Institute, which is run by the DoD on an Army base. A lot of our folks end up at Fort Meade, but I was primarily stationed in Hawaii.
Based on conversations with other vets, it seems like the joint forces experience changes the military experience. Did you have joint forces duty stations after training?
Alicia: I was actually in the Iowa Army National Guard so I ended up in different missions. The longest one, which gave me veteran status, was in Kosovo. I deployed for a year in 2005 during Operation Enduring Freedom. Most of it was weekends and training. A citizen/soldier (or college student with multiple jobs in my case.)
Elizabeth: Oh! You’re the first author I’ve met who was Guard. You must have a very unique perspective on the tension between being in the military and being a civilian.
Alicia: When I joined with braces on my teeth, I was still a junior in high school and did my training during my senior year. I wanted to finish college and that pushed me. My experience was totally different from my fellow students because I couldn’t relate to them at all after my deployment. I was lost for a long time. I didn’t care who had the latest cell phone or going to a party, and kept getting asked the same questions like “Is Kosovo a city in Iraq?”
Elizabeth: Same. I dropped out of college to enlist and finished my BS and did an MA while I was stationed in Hawaii. I remember being so bewildered about the things civilians worried about and thinking: “Do you even watch the news?!”
Alicia: Right! And when they watch the news, their lense is still very selfish. I was a downer. I couldn’t see myself in the veteran population and I couldn’t see myself as a young college student. I had the experience but was constantly doubted. Everyone was surprised I served and would ask “qualifying questions” about whether my service was worthy.
Elizabeth: That’s interesting. Do you feel like you were questioned more or less because you’re a woman?
Alicia: Absolutely. What about you?
Elizabeth: I think I had it easy because of my job in the military. The first question I always got was: “What do you do?” The second was: “Does that mean you’re a spy?” I had to get pretty good at redirecting the conversation!
Alicia: That’s great! It could mean that. Smart questions.
Elizabeth: Honestly, though, I was not good at making friends with civilians. We were very far apart back then and I didn’t have any patience for them. I had a Navy colleague who was also going to college in Hawaii. He had tons of civilian friends — I think he just didn’t tell them he was in the Navy.
Alicia: I have heard about people hiding their military experience. It’s a real thing. Sometimes it is not worth all the questions. Did you find friendships with other Navy women that helped?
Elizabeth: Yes, definitely. I learned a lot from some of the women I met while I was in, about sticking up for yourself vis-a-vis other members and the command, and how to be a woman in a man’s world. It’s funny how long it took me to figure out how much I had learned, though. Sorting through all the impediments and bullshit baggage of transitioning to being a civilian slowed me down!
Most of the women vets I know have had the same experience as you, constantly being questioned about whether their service was “qualifying.” Has that influenced your writing at all? Do you have any desire to prove yourself?
Alicia: It has influenced my writing only to the point where I know we have to tell our stories, even if it’s hard to find female veteran writers. No one can write female vets like we can. I’ve mostly lost the need to prove myself to the community because the process of writing and getting a book published gave me more confidence to say, “Hey, we are enough. We deserve to be here. This is what happens when persistence meets passion.” And then I just rinse and repeat those mantras.
Elizabeth: I like that. “This is what happens when persistence meets passion.” Very apt.
Alicia: The military taught us to “try, try again” when the world was not ready to hear us. And maybe I wasn’t ready to hear myself. Now, I find energy in being with other female veterans and my writing has brought me back into the veteran community, but with like-minded people. Instead of, “Meet me at the bar” it’s “Meet me at the bookstore.”
How did you decide to write Little Falls? And why did you choose fiction?
Elizabeth: Part of the reason why I wrote Little Falls is because I was so irritated that the fiction I found that had female veteran characters was written by men, typically civilians. I’ll never forget the agent who told me, “There are lots of books with female veteran characters. My client [fancy, big name mystery writer who is a civilian male] just released one.”
Fiction is accessible to a lot of people because so many of us love to get lost in the story. So, if fiction isn’t inclusive of diverse voices, it’s a lot harder for readers to hear diverse voices.
Ultimately, Little Falls is a scream wrapped in a story. The scream is the frustration that I, and I think a lot of other female vets, feel about not finding a place in the world. Being in the military — which is a total institution — really changes you and makes you think about the world and other people very differently. That happens whether you are male or female. And the experience is so much more extreme for combat vets. Men have been much better studied in that area, for obvious reasons. Women’s voices need to be heard. Obviously, I’m not a combat vet, so I did a lot of research and interviewed women who are combat vets and former soldiers who led women in combat situations.
Alicia: Agreed! Fiction is my medium because before I’m a writer, I’m a reader. This is what I like to read. I kept trying to find books that resonated with the detail of military experience ringing true. I didn’t find what I was looking for. I read Anthony Swofford’s Jarhead in 2003. I remember thinking that he finally said what needed to be said about some of these experiences, but I felt most comfortable with fictional characters. Living out a different story, but having the grit and the anxiety of service as part of the journey.
The beauty of what you’ve said about Little Falls is that fiction writers can tell multiple female veteran stories in one character. I want the world to dive into these characters, and non-fiction can feel like being a journalist. I’m not a combat veteran and I think it’s important for people to hear from a spectrum of voices in our community with all the labels. I would enjoy your book a thousand times more before a “fancy, so and so”. I can’t wait to read Camille’s voice. I need the characters to pull me forward.
Elizabeth: Yes! Was your main character’s battle buddy, Concepcion, based on anyone you knew in the military? (Or maybe based on several people you knew?)
Alicia: Several people I knew, but some of the stories from basic training are largely true. They are excerpts from my time at Fort Jackson. I had a few battle buddies in my career and the friendships carried me through. They still do today. That bond is never broken. It’s one of the most beautiful things I wanted to highlight for the audience. That we would hold each other accountable on the job but we would also be there no matter what. Typically, female veterans isolate and stay silent because there are just so few of us in comparison to men. I wanted us to have a moment to shine on that part. My second book coming out in 2021 is from Concepcion’s perspective, and I can’t wait for people to hear her voice.
Elizabeth: That’s definitely true! I’m not great about keeping in touch with people, but I was lucky enough to get together with a Navy buddy a couple of years ago while I was in Denver for a conference. It was like we hadn’t seen each other for 15 minutes, rather than 15 years. Congratulations on the second book!
Alicia: Thank you! Congrats on Little Falls! I will be cheering in the review section. Your book baby was just born — August 11, right?
Elizabeth: Thank you, and yes!
(and my 2 year old just woke up and is insisting on typing on my computer…)
Alicia: Oh, perfect! Say hi to the 2 year old! Great talking to you! Thanks, Elizabeth!
Elizabeth: It was great talking with you! Always terrific to connect with another female veteran (especially the wonderful ones)! Thank you!