When the Men are Gone
Tom Deignan talks with author Siobhan Fallon about her writing, her Irish-American upbringing, and being an Army wife.
Siobhan Fallon attended school in England, traveled widely in Ireland (where her father, Eamon, was born) and even worked as a teacher in Japan. But when it came time for this globetrotter to meet her future husband, it was at a place decidedly closer to home. “I met him… in my father’s bar,” Fallon says with a laugh. Thus began Fallon’s introduction to the world of the United States Army. The Fallon family pub, The South Gate Tavern, is located right near the West Point Military Academy in upstate New York. “We saw cadets all the time,” adds Fallon, who worked regularly behind the South Gate’s bar. “We didn’t date military guys.”
Of course, that all changed when she met K.C. Evans, an Army major who would go on to serve in Iraq. Fallon ended up spending long periods of time stationed in Fort Hood (Texas) and Fort Benning (Georgia), as well as bases in California and Hawaii.
Fallon has now taken these experiences and published her first book of fiction, to rave reviews. You Know When the Men Are Gone (Amy Einhorn Books) has drawn comparisons to short story writer and poet Raymond Carver as well as the Vietnam-War-era fiction of Tim O’Brien (The Things They Carried).
“The crucial role of military wives becomes clear in Fallon’s powerful, resonant debut collection, where the women are linked by absence and a pervading fear that they’ll become war widows,” Publisher’s Weekly gushed in a much-sought-after Starred Review. The New York Times added that Fallon “tells gripping, straight-up, no-nonsense stories about American soldiers and their families,” and that “there’s not a loser” among the eight stories that make up You Know When the Men Are Gone.
Fallon credits her father – born in Dromahair, County Leitrim – with encouraging her literary talents from an early age, exposing her to writers such as Yeats, Behan and Joyce. “He recognized something early on, since he kept giving me all of these Irish writers to read,” says Fallon, who later added: “We’re a family of bartenders, so there was always a lot of story-telling going on.” (Fallon’s mother, Bobbie, has roots in Ballinrobe, Mayo, as well as Connemara.)
The interconnected stories in You Know When the Men Are Gone are alternately sad and funny, touching and unsettling. First and foremost, they reveal an unseen world to readers. Much, of course, is made of what the military does abroad as well as what happens to the soldiers when they return home. Precious little, however, is known about the world of military families. There was an MTV True Life episode about the wife of a soldier serving in Iraq, and there is also the Lifetime TV show Army Wives (starring, among others, Irish American actress Brigid Brannagh). But Fallon’s stories bring fresh humanity as well as a new depth to this topic.
“I had three deployments worth of material to look back on,” notes Fallon, most of whose stories are set in Fort Hood, though others dash around the globe, from suburban New York to war-ravaged Iraq.
Glimmers of Reality
While these stories are steeped in realism, Fallon adds that there was more to creating them than simply recording people she saw and heard at Fort Hood. “Certain moments might have been lifted from people I knew,” she says, before adding: “But it’s more of a compilation. No one is going to look at these stories and say ‘That’s me.’ It’s more like there are glimmers of reality.”
Of course, there is always a concern that a book such as this might reveal too much. Fallon, though, is not worried that other military families will accuse her of airing dirty laundry. “We had some friends in the military look over early [copies of the book]. I was nervous and crossing my fingers. I was hoping people didn’t say ‘My God, Siobhan, what are you doing?’ But they said it was honest.” Indeed, the men and women in Fallon’s stories endure the things men and women everywhere endure: love, lust, loneliness, regret, euphoria, betrayal. Some of the wives have children to deal with; others (sort of) wish they did. All of these emotions and tension are heightened, exacerbated, by the fact that the husbands are not only gone, but are off in a strange place where they might get killed.
In “Gold Star,” for example, the simple search for a parking spot becomes an existential dilemma: Josie, the story’s protagonist, tries to avoid “the Gold Star spot:” “Gold Star,” she muses, “with its imagery of schoolchildren receiving A’s and stickers for a job well done, was the military euphemism for losing a soldier in combat. Family members received a few special privileges like this lousy parking space, but that meant the pity rising from the asphalt singed hotter than any Texas sun.” Josie, as well as several other Fallon characters, are adrift, unhinged. And yet, the last thing they seem to want is anyone to feel sorry for them. One reason for this is that everyone is in the same boat, dealing with the same pressures and anxieties.
Furthermore, as in any tight-knit community, everyone pretty much knows everyone else’s business. This is made clear in the title story, when childless Meg learns “too much” about her mysterious new neighbor, a noisy mother of two named Natalya. “In Fort Hood housing,” Fallon writes, “as in all Army housing, you get used to hearing through the walls. You learn your neighbors’ routines: when and if they gargle and brush their teeth; how often they go to the bathroom or shower; whether they snore or cry themselves to sleep. You learn too much. And, you learn to move quietly through your own domain.”
Visiting Leitrim and Dublin
Despite the popularity of Irish memoirs and coming-of-age stories, it never occurred to Fallon to use her own Irish upbringing as the inspiration for a book. “I’ve set a few short stories in a bar atmosphere. But I don’t really like to write about myself. I like the distance that fiction gives me. Writing about my own life…it never really occurred to me.”
Fallon has fond memories of visiting Ireland when she was younger. The family paid visits to relatives in Leitrim as well as Dublin. “We went over almost every year when we were little,” she says. “I was raised listening to all the rebel songs, doing Irish dance.” She particularly remembers hearing stories of her grandparents’ horse farm, where her grandfather could supposedly tame the wildest stallion with a shot to the jaw. “We would go and stay at my Dad’s childhood home, play with my cousins, go skipping through the fields, climb stone walls and inevitably brush up against those horrible stinging nettles and go screaming home.”
Fallon says she always wanted a career in the arts. She attended Providence College in Rhode Island, and spent the summer of 1993 in Ireland, after a year studying literature at Homerton College, Cambridge.
Back in the States, she worked at her father’s bar, as a hotel receptionist, and at literary magazines. “I’d been sending stories out to literary magazines for over ten years,” she adds, noting that she also attempted to contact literary agents and book publishers, to no avail. Finally, a literary magazine in Boston, called Salamander, published an earlier version of the story “Camp Liberty.” A phone call followed. It was a literary agent. “He said ‘I want to see what else you have. I think there might be a book here.’” To Fallon, this was “like winning the lottery.” Fallon ultimately visited almost a dozen cities during a book tour in January, which included a reading at Fort Hood. And Fallon’s traveling days will not end there. Her husband’s new Army posting, as a Foreign Area Officer, is in Amman, Jordan. Siobhan and her three-year-old daughter, Maeve, will be joining K.C. there for at least a year. “I’m excited to see the Middle East,” says Fallon.
She’s also working on a novel that deals with similar themes and characters as the ones we encounter in You Know When the Men Are Gone – a soldier and his wife – but also has more of the elements of a thriller. Fallon acknowledges that her path to literary success was not an easy one. But given the rave reviews and bright future she has, what she writes about her husband K.C. in the touching dedication of You Know When the Men Are Gone could also apply to her literary career: “You are always worth the wait.”