eleven daysEleven Days is a stunning debut novel—unexpected, tautly written, suspenseful—that touches on some of the most profound questions we have about war as it tells us a haunting story of a single mother, and her Navy SEAL son. We are excited to share with you an Q&A with the author Lea Carpenter. She speaks passionately about the personal journey took to write this amazing novel.  

A bit more about the Eleven Days story …

It begins in May 2011: Sara’s son Jason has been missing for nine days in the aftermath of a SEAL mission. Out of devotion to him, Sara–smart, modest, tough-minded—has made herself knowledgeable about things military, and, as a freelance editor, she frequently works for Washington policy makers and wonks. But she knows nothing more about her son’s disappearance than the press corps camped out in her driveway. In a series of flashbacks we learn about Jason’s absentee father: a man who claimed to have been a writer but who died, according to “insiders,” helping to make the country safer. Through letters Jason wrote his mother while training, we see him becoming a strong, compassionate leader. But his fate will be determined by events that fall outside the sphere of his training, and far outside the strong embrace of his mother’s love.

Here’s the Eleven Days book trailer, as you watch, you’ll see amount of excitement among the author community about this novel.

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Q: Though you have a Harvard MBA and were an editor at Francis Ford Coppola’s literary magazine, Zoetrope, as well as a deputy publisher for The Paris Review for two years, you’ve written your first novel about a subject entirely different: the life and training of a Navy SEAL, as well as the love between a mother and son.  How did you first come to this topic?

A: A few days after my father died a close friend who had worked in national intelligence came to see my mother and me. He helped us declassify a citation for something my father had done during World War II. I had never seen the words “special operations” in the same sentence as my father’s name. He never talked about it. I was born when he was in his 50s; I’d never asked about the war. That friend brought the former Chief of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces with him. They sat my mother and me down and encouraged us to have a military funeral. We were presented the flag.  

That was in 2009. And in 2010, I was working on another book, with a co-author, and a friend who is an agent dared me to try fiction. He said, “give me ten thousand words.” He gave me a deadline: May 3, 2011. I sat down and wrote about what I had been reading about—special operations forces, military intelligence. And I saw him on May 3rd and said, “the subject is Naval Special Warfare.” It was the day after the bin Laden raid; he thought I was joking. But he read the pages and told me to keep going.

At least, that is the short version of the story.

Q: What kind of research did you have to do to learn about the Special Forces and “special” operations?  Which qualities, in particular, would make one suitable to become a Navy Seal?

A: I talked to a lot of people. And I read. I asked for reading recommendations from friends who knew more than I did. Spring 2011 was perhaps the best and worst time to start writing—and learning—about special operations forces, Naval Special Warfare in particular. On qualities, aside from the obvious ones, what I saw again and again was consistent: character, humility, intelligence. And wit. You have to have a sense of humor being in that line of work, I think.

Q: Where did this research take you physically and mentally and who were some of the real-life inspirations you met along the way?

A: I went to Coronado but then had to stop traveling due to my pregnancy. You can learn a lot from talking though. I spent a lot of time on the phone. Mentally, learning about people who place their lives on the line is a very rewarding process. Real life inspirations: pretty much everyone I met. The families, of course. These extraordinary wives and mothers. This is our greatest generation. It is perhaps a cliché but it happens to be true.

Q: This novel gathers intensity and emotion as it alternates between a mother’s extremely heart-wrenching view and concern for her only, missing son, and the son, Jason, and what he experiences all around him—his own courage and that of his fellow soldiers.  Was it a challenge to go back and forth with the two perspectives?  

A: It was a device. I wanted to try and write into a certain genre, then try and write against it—in the same story. Mark Bowden wrote a fantastic Afterword for the paperback edition of Black Hawk Down in which he talks about certain literary choices he made—choices for which in some cases he was criticized. I learned a lot from that essay. One challenge was writing about something many far more informed and sophisticated writers than me have covered. I am not a journalist. I am not a scholar. But my father was in the army and my father-in-law was a Marine and I have many friends who have served in these wars. I wanted to try and understand it.

Q: Were there surprises for you once you started writing the book—either about the relationship between a mother and her grown son, or the military world he enters?

A: I was surprised by how my interest in war and military history, formerly casual, deepened. In the book someone says to Sara, “You’ve traded Athens for Sparta.” That was something someone said to me. The shift surprised a lot of people perhaps. On sons, having two myself, that intensity was not tough to channel.

Q: There’s a line in the book which one of Jason’s godfathers says to Sara: “War is the ability to die for another person without hesitation. War is the belief in the value of another person’s life above belief in your own.”  Has your own viewpoint changed about war, and the military, since writing this book?

A: That is a difficult question. I met a Marine general recently, and I asked him how he felt about these wars. And he said, “We don’t start them; we fight them.” I think there is a tendency to be agnostic or, on the other hand, “too goo-ey,” about war. And about the military and about service. I think it is important to understand these elements of America. It is also important not to sentimentalize them. That balance is tricky for a civilian to navigate. If I wrote a book that’s sentimental I have failed. I stole the word “goo-ey” from a friend who worked in intelligence. He said to me, “Lea, just don’t make it too goo-ey.” And I know what he meant. 

Q: Of the many active, reserve, or retired Team guys who met with you, have you let them see the book and were you surprised by their reactions to it at all?

A: I have. Those reactions I’d prefer to keep private but I will say that my early readers were as thoughtful as any literary editors I’ve ever worked with. I had an early draft read by three people from three distinctly different generations, and what was most interesting was how different their perspectives were. Of course they would be different. Each had served in an era with a very different framework. A war is not a war is not a war.

Q: You wrote a blog, “English Lessons,” for the website, Big Think, celebrating “writing we love” which covers a multitude of subjects.  How did you come to do this?  And though perhaps apples and oranges, which do you enjoy more: writing fiction or nonfiction?

A: Big Think was founded by my roommate from grad school, Victoria Brown. I wanted to see what that medium was like and whether if I applied my skills I could add any value. While Big Think is brilliant, blogging is not something that came naturally to me. Ultimately, I didn’t feel comfortable with it. It is about consistency and to some extent, sensation. I thought I could couple it with my day job but it actually is a day job. The concept for “English Lessons” was that if a blog must be educative, perhaps I could train a blog on the question of what good writing looks like. There is an audience for that. And one day someone will do that blog, if it is not being done now. I was not the right person to do it.

Q: Why the Marines?

A: Although the United States Marine Corps technically includes the Navy, when we think about “Marines” we tend to think about something different from what we think about when we think about “naval special warfare.” I chose Naval special warfare, or the SEAL Teams, because I knew some guys in that line of work. I felt if I wrote about an area of the military where I had friends who could fact check my pages that was not a bad idea. Also, if you look at the history of special operations forces in this country you do see a line that extends from things my father did in the 40s down to some of what the Teams, and their colleagues in the SOF community, do today. Rescue missions, for example.

Q: What message do you want to teach your readers?

A: I am not sure there is a message. I tried to write something structured like a fable, that would read easily, but that might possess deeper resonance for a certain audience. I hope readers come away having felt something. If they learned something, that’s gravy.

Q: Are any of the characters modeled after someone in your life?  If so, who?

A: Fiction writers often say that they are “all their characters.” I will say that the character of Jason is quite like my father. Jason is someone who knows poetry but also knows how to handle a gun. You can’t say that of many men. People tend to forget that Achilles read at night, through the war. He returned to his camp at night and read.

Q: What inspired you to write this book?

A: Going through loss. I wanted to write about something that I knew very little about but I ended up writing about a community for whom loss has been a central element, especially through these wars.

A Very Special Q&A with Lea Carpenter about her Debut Novel Eleven Days!

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