Oxford Writers' House presents an interview by Ramani Chandramohan with Siobhan Fallon, author of the exquisite short story collection You Know When the Men Are Gone (2011). Fallon's novel, The Confusion of Languages, debuts later this month. Find out about more about Fallon's converging experiences as a writer and ex-pat in the Middle East, her transition from the short story to the novel, as well as her advice to young writers.
How did you first become interested in writing?
To some extent, I feel like storytelling is part of my familial inheritance. My father is from Leitrim, Ireland (Yeats’ grave is near the town where he grew up) and, for as long as I can remember, my dad has been giving me things that relate to famous Irish authors: bookmarks with Oscar Wilde quotes, postcards of Brendan Beehan, James Joyce novels he picked up at an odd library sale.
As I got older, I started working at my father’s Irish pub, The South Gate Tavern, in my hometown of Highland Falls, New York. My parents, brother, sister and I have all worked there so there were always plenty of stories in our home, lots of sitting over hot cups of tea while talking about whatever had gone on in the bar the previous night, the confessions we may have heard, the dramas we tried to diffuse. Looking back I feel like bartending taught me to take note of the subtleties in words and gestures, just as much as all the writing courses I have taken.
Your collection of stories You Know When the Men Are Gone was published in 2011, whilst your debut novel The Confusion of Languages is coming out in June. What inspired your shift from the short story to the novel? How easy have you found this transition?
When I began writing The Confusion of Languages, I thought I was writing a short story. This was in May, 2011, while I was living in Jordan with my family. It just kept growing and growing, there was so much about ex-pat life I wanted to jam into a very small space. By the time I finished, it was sixty pages— which obviously isn’t a “short” story at all. Then I tried fleshing it out as a collection of interconnected stories, spanning about two years and countless characters. …
I soon realized that the short story–collection model I had envisioned wasn’t giving me enough space to explore the thoughts and relationship between my two protagonists, two Western women trying to navigate life in the Middle East during the Arab Spring, 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. And, trust me, I didn’t find this transition easy at all. I was often overwhelmed by three hundred pages of text rather than the more manageable thirty pages I usually had with a short story. I felt like I’d adopted a puppy, thinking it would grow up to be a lap dog, and suddenly found myself being dragged down the street by a 70 pound Rottweiler.
I was often overwhelmed by three hundred pages of text rather than the more manageable thirty pages I usually had with a short story. I felt like I’d adopted a puppy, thinking it would grow up to be a lap dog, and suddenly found myself being dragged down the street by a 70 pound Rottweiler.
But, outside of the enormity of the word count, if I could just concentrate on a scene at a time, then the actual work was similar, with the day to day slow going of editing and rewriting. You just keep slogging on, paring down and building up, praying you are actually making sense to someone other than yourself.
To what extent would you call your works autobiographical?
That’s a really tricky question for me, and it’s a question I get fairly often. I’m inspired by the places where I’ve lived, and as a military spouse, I’ve lived in a lot of places. I like to think that the settings of my work are as important as the characters themselves; place, as much as plot or character, determines the stories I tell.
And perhaps I take the adage “write what you know” a little too seriously? I enjoy examining the different ways people live. My story collection, You Know When the Men Are Gone, is set in Fort Hood, Texas, during a deployment and I worked very hard to get the real Fort Hood, from the vast, scrubby firing ranges to the street names (like Tank Destroyer or Hell-On-Wheels) into the stories…
But in terms of the characters, and the events, that occur in my stories or novel… Well, I feel like I can trace many moments of my life in my fiction, but by the time it’s on the page, the events they echo have been so obscured that no one else could recognize them. For example, the novel opens with a minor car accident. I was in a minor car accident when I lived in Jordan. Is the scene in my book at all similar to my own car accident? No. But I felt the same frustration and confusion and helplessness that my protagonists feel.
I think fiction writers stick their lives into their books whether they want to or not. Our job is to create something that seems true, that feels real, and how can you do that without delving into our own experience of truth and reality? So I plumb my own hopes and disappointments, heartbreaks and friendships, successes and rotten things I wish I never did. But please know that I write fiction, not memoir, not even creative non-fiction. Straight out fiction. And I rewrite and rewrite and rewrite again. For me, part of the beauty of fiction is taking all those jagged and blurry and unknowable shadows from life and transforming them into art that is cohesive and clear and known.
...part of the beauty of fiction is taking all those jagged and blurry and unknowable shadows from life and transforming them into art that is cohesive and clear and known.
You have recounted the story of how, after a Jordanian guard gave you a letter containing the words “You are beautiful. Your smile is the sun-”, another guard crumpled up the paper and told you “He does not understand”. In your experience, has the modern media alleviated or exacerbated miscommunication between people? Why do you think it is that we are often prone to miscommunication?
I think miscommunication is a basic tenet of being human. We don’t communicate properly because we are proud. We are afraid. We love too much. We make assumptions. We think the truth will hurt. The possibilities are endless.
It’s already hard enough for humans to express themselves, to allow themselves to really understand one another. Then you add cultures at odds, language differences, gender politics. When you’re dealing with these pre-existing challenges, then shuffle in the news or social media, removing the ability to make eye contact or read body language AND handicap your ability by limiting your sentiment to a sound-bite or 140 characters, well, it’s a wonder anyone can have any meaningful or civilized discourse at all.
How difficult do you find it to maintain your own identity yet simultaneously assimilate into the local culture when living in the Middle East?
I’m very aware of the image I want to present here in Abu Dhabi as both an American and a woman. I dress much more conservatively than I would at home in order to not draw undue attention to myself. However, to be completely honest, as a woman raising two young daughters, both of whom have spent a majority of their lives living in the Middle East, I can’t help but be bothered by some of the social and cultural expectations put on women and how they seem to be compelled to dress more modestly than men. According to what I’ve read of Islam, men and women are supposed to uphold similar modes of dress: it is recommended that men also wear loose clothing that covers much of their bodies. So, right or wrong, I bristle a bit when I see a man in a T-shirt and pair of shorts accompanying a woman who is covered head to toe in long robes and a veil.
But ultimately, I’m the foreigner here. As a guest, it’s my responsibility to abide by the local customs just as I would want visitors to the United States to respect our way of life. Jordan and Abu Dhabi have welcomed me and my family. Both are amazing places that I have been lucky enough to call home.
In terms of maintaining my own identity, my day to day life isn’t that much different than what it would be in America. I cook for my family. I read as much as I am able to read. I write as much as I am able to write. I find all the Irish pubs. And, believe it or not, there are quite a few of them in Abu Dhabi! My two young daughters are even taking Irish dancing classes. Seek and ye shall find. And of course I try to attend as many cultural events as possible, those that focus on Emirati life (I recently attended an art museum preview of the soon to be opened Abu Dhabi Guggenheim, which showcased Middle Eastern modern art to music to fashion), as well as those that I’d find at home (NYU Abu Dhabi has miraculously offered a one man show of the Iliad, a flamenco of Antigone, and a slew of readings/discussions by writers in just the last few months). And although I can be a little fussy about social media, I rely on the ease of it. The ability to peek into the lives of far flung friends and family, to feel tentatively connected when seven thousand miles from home. It also allows me to try to stay current in the writing world, communicate with other writers, and know about the new books that are being released.
This is the ex-pat life. You carve your niche. You find like-minded friends. You make the most of it. You live and enjoy yourself. What more can you hope to do, no matter where you end up, either home or far from it?
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Submit stories to literary magazines and but also buy literary magazines. If you don’t support and read them, who will? The same goes for books. Support authors by buying books and attending readings, because someday you will be hoping desperately that people buy your books and attend your readings.
If you want an author to pay attention to your writing, then pay attention to their writing. Send love letters or fan mail to writers you admire. Maybe you will strike up a meaningful correspondence with your hero, maybe you’ll never hear a whisper in reply. They’re writers! They can be weird, right? But writers are filled with self-doubt. Take the time to genuinely say you appreciate someone else’s work. Someday you will hate everything you write, and you’ll get an email out of the blue and it will make your day, your week, and let you know that your writing matters after all.
One of my biggest pet peeves is getting an email from someone asking me to read her story or memoir or novel, perhaps in order to supply a glowing quote for publication, and she doesn’t seem familiar with my writing at all. Don’t be that person. Take the time to do your research, to read a writer before hitting them up for a favor. I’m continuously amazed at how generous authors are with their time, and with how many went out of their way to help me. And now, when I’m busy, when I have limited time to do my own work, and I get a random request from a writer who seems to have understood my work versus someone who doesn’t know a thing about me, I’m more likely to reach out to the person who connected with my writing rather than the one who remains a stranger.
Siobhan Fallon is the author of You Know When the Men Are Gone, which won the 2012 Pen Center USA Literary Award in Fiction. Theatrical productions of her work have been staged in California, Colorado, Texas, and France. More of Siobhan’s essays and fiction have appeared in Prairie Schooner, Guernica, Huffington Post, Washington Post Magazine, and Military Spouse Magazine. Her first novel, The Confusion of Languages, about two American women navigating the Middle East during the Arab Spring, debuts in the summer of 2017. Siobhan and her family moved to Jordan in 2011 and they currently live in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.