Novel probes Afghanistan aftermath

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November 14, 2013

Katrin Horowitz is a Victoria writer whose second novel, The Best Soldier’s Wife (Quadra Books, 184 pages, $21.95,) was a finalist in Mother Tongue Publishing’s second Great B.C. Novel Contest.   Horowitz’s protagonist Amy Malcolm, whose husband volunteered to serve in Afghanistan, writes a series of letters to the wife of the Chief of Defence Staff, as she struggles to understand what happened to her husband in the conflict.  Horowitz’s first novel, Power Failures, was a murder mystery published in 2007 after she had been a volunteer in Sri Lanka.  Horowitz will be launching her new book in conjunction with Remembrance Day events at Vancouver Island libraries:  in Duncan and Ladysmith on Nov. 14; Nanaimo on Nov. 15 and on Gabriola Island on Nov. 16.  Horowitz recently answered Lynne Van Luven’s e-mail questions about her new novel.

 Katrin, I really enjoyed the conversation – or is it a monologue? – that you created via Amy Malcolm’s “letters” to Mrs. Harker, the wife of Ian Malcolm’s chief commander in the Canadian Forces.   Can you explain how you came up with this technique for your novel, and what you hoped to achieve?

I knew as soon as Amy arrived in my imagination that she was obsessed with how Mrs. Harker had managed to become the ideal military wife.  If the story is a conversation, then Mrs. Harker is the antagonist to Amy’s protagonist.  And if it’s a monologue, Mrs. Harker is Amy’s alter ego.  But it took me a while to find the most compelling way to tell their story.  Then I happened to read White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga, and recognized that I what I needed was a twist on the epistolary novel.  The letters allow Amy to say what she needs to say to one particular person, a person with whom she invents a relationship – but also someone who is on one level “you,” the reader, thereby strengthening the connection between writer and reader.

I find it interesting that Ian Malcolm is a reservist helicopter pilot who volunteers to serve in Afghanistan without first consulting his wife or teenage son.  Why this detail, why not just a novel about a regular enlisted man’s family?

Amy and Ian have a long history together.  And like many middle-aged couples, they know how the other is going to respond to certain issues.  Ian doesn’t tell Amy about his decision ahead of time because he knows that she will try to talk him out of it, and he doesn’t want to be talked out of it.  His strategy works, because he effectively shuts Amy up, and the rest of the story happens because he shuts Amy up. Ian retired from the full-time military because Amy insisted, she’s good with words and can talk him into anything, and although he’s still flying, which he loves, it’s not the kind of flying he did in the military.  Commercial flying is all about keeping it safe, about staying firmly in the centre of the envelope.  As their son Ethan points out to Amy with devastating accuracy later in the story, Ian was bored with his life and was looking for a new adventure.

Ian volunteers in 2009, and serves for nine months, but three years pass before Amy actually writes her letters to Mrs. Harker.  Why the lapse in time?

Amy first thinks of writing to Mrs. Harker the same day that Ian tells her he has volunteered.  But she is held back by her own reticence, so she limits herself to what she calls ‘head letters,’ letters she imagines writing but never commits to paper, because a good soldier’s wife doesn’t complain.  Even three years later she is worried that her letters are presumptuous, although by this point her obsession with Mrs. Harker has grown until it is impossible for her not to write. She feels she must tell her story to the wife of the general who she holds responsible for what happened to Ian.  How we communicate – the who, what, when, where and why of sharing our thoughts – is a thread running through the book.  Is the best soldier’s wife the one who keeps her thoughts to herself?  Or as Amy asks near the end of the book, “If I tell the truth and nobody hears, is it still the truth?”

As I read the novel, I kept thinking that you must have family in the military, because the details felt so accurate.  But in your Acknowledgements you thank Mary and Steve Lawson because they “made this book possible.”  Can you talk a little about your position on or your connection to Canadian Forces?

Thank you!  My father fought in the Second World War before I was born, but my only real connection to the military is through my very good friend, Mary.  She not only shared stories of life as military wife with me and introduced me to other military wives, but also enlisted her husband’s help with the details of his life at KAF.  The scene in the book where Ian puts together a slide show of all his pictures of ramp ceremonies for dead soldiers was inspired by some of Steve’s photos.

The daily newspapers provided incidents from the real war in Afghanistan, from horrific IED attacks to the ridiculous ‘Love in a LAV’ scandal.  Reading military memoirs, including former Chief of Defense Staff Rick Hillier’s A Soldier First, provided additional background.  The names of the dead soldiers that end each of Amy’s letters came from the Department of National Defense website. And finally, as I was writing about Ian’s PTSD, I realized I was also writing about how my father had been damaged by his war experiences.

Quadra Books may not be a known publisher to many readers.  Can you tell me why you chose the house to showcase your second novel?

Quadra is a Victoria literary publisher committed to publishing “good books for thoughtful readers,” which for me is an excellent starting point.  That it was willing and able to include The Best Soldier’s Wife in their Fall list and bring it out in time for Remembrance Day was a big plus.

 

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