Author Siobhan Fallon has written a rich and authentic debut novel, THE CONFUSION OF LANGUAGES, telling a heartbreaking story of the unpredictable path of friendship and the secrets kept in marriage, all set within the U.S. military community in Jordan during the rise of the Arab Spring in May 2011. Preceded by her award-winning short story collection, YOU KNOW WHEN THE MEN ARE GONE, which won the 2012 PEN Center USA Literary Award in Fiction, Ms. Fallon’s THE CONFUSION OF LANGUAGES vividly illuminates a world little known to most Americans—the personal lives of U.S. military families. In her new book, she writes from the perspective of American wives and their husbands stationed abroad rather than back home.
Here, Ms. Fallon shares insights into the writing of THE CONFUSION OF LANGUAGES, her creative process, and what draws her to stories about military family life.
THE CONFUSION OF LANGAUGES is your debut novel. How was writing this story different than writing your story collection YOU KNOW WHEN THE MEN ARE GONE?
THE CONFUSION OF LANGUAGES’ genesis was a short story I began writing in May 2011. By the time I finished, it was sixty pages—that’s not really a “short” story at all. Then it grew into a collection of interconnected stories that spanned about two years, from before Margaret and Crick even met. This collection moved from California to Oman to Jordan. I have early drafts where each story/chapter is told from the point of view of a different character; for example, Crick would have his say, then it would go to Margaret, then it would go to Dan, then Cassie, onward to other characters who aren’t even in the novel anymore.
But I soon realized that the short story–collection model of jumping from character to character wasn’t giving me enough space to delve deeply enough into the intimate thoughts of Margaret and Cassie, and it was their intertwined story that fascinated me the most. So I’d say THE CONFUSION OF LANGUAGES is an evolution of short stories into a novel. Ironically, the actual novel you have in your hands right now is quite close to the first sixty-page short story version. I wish I had figured that out in 2012 and saved myself a couple of years’ work.
How would you describe your creative process?
It’s impossible to narrow it down to one thing. I think of writing as a huge, messy path that you slowly and blindly navigate. Something—some hunger or a streak of irrational stubbornness—drives you to the end of that road no matter what. You trip, you kick rocks out of your way, you climb a tree or two in hopes of seeing how much longer you have to go, you get lost, you turn back, then turn around again, you just doggedly keep going until you reach a destination you can live with and that you hope readers will enjoy.
There were a few ideas I wanted to explore while I was flailing all over the place. Expats abroad are always recounting the crazy things that happen in the country they are currently residing in. I wanted to write about a well-intentioned American woman caught in a misunderstanding that spirals out of control, to show how these events, however accidental and amusing they might seem, can involve severe repercussions.
I’m also always aware of my characters being human and flawed, and I like to tease out ways good and decent people manage to do rotten things that hurt the people they care about. And the character who tries to be the most decent, Margaret, in trying to do what she thinks is right, nearly destroys a man. Sometimes a small, unthinking action has the power to haunt more than any deliberate cruelty.
You’re known for writing about military families. What draws you to these stories? What influence, if any, does your own connection to the military have on your writing?
I’m part of a military family. My husband has been an officer in the U.S. Army since I met him in 2000. When we got married, I realized how little the rest of us understood military life. Which was part of my motivation for writing my collection of stories, YOU KNOW WHEN THE MEN ARE GONE. I naturally draw from my own experiences, and I like exploring themes that seem to touch all of us (how families work, as well as how families fall apart) but I also like to examine communities that mainstream America is less familiar with, such as our military communities at home, or our embassy communities abroad.
What’s next for you?
It’s exciting not to know. But I’m mulling over some ideas. Ever since I first moved to Amman, I have been curious about the lives of the domestic helpers who play such a large role in every household here. In both Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, and seemingly across the entire Middle East, it’s expected that each house has at least one domestic helper (housekeeper or nanny). In America, this is rather rare, but here, it’s rare if you don’t. There’s a vibrant Filipina community in Abu Dhabi, but so much of their work lives are invisible, and even more so invisible is our understanding of the children and families they are supporting with their salaries back in the Philippines. Unfortunately, when you hear or read news about a domestic helper, it is often of neglect and abuse. And expats are not blameless. I’m not sure how this will filter into my writing, but it’s something that has been simmering in the back of my mind for a long time.