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Interview: February 19, 2015

In her latest book, BLUE STARS, Emily Gray Tedrowe explores, in profoundly moving detail, the lives of military families --- in particular, two very different women whose lives become intertwined in Walter Reed Army Hospital, where each must live while caring for her wounded soldier. In this interview with’s Alexis Burling, Tedrowe talks about how her own experience as a member of a military family informed her writing, and the critical task of capturing all the complicated and ever-shifting attitudes of the people left behind at the home front. She also discusses why the unexpected friendship between her two female protagonists is crucial to the narrative, and how she found room in a war story for Edith Wharton. In the Acknowledgments, you mention that the idea for BLUE STARS came to you after reading Dana Priest and Anne Hull’s series of Pulitzer Prize-winning articles on the Walter Reed housing scandal that ran in the Washington Post in 2007. Might you share a bit more about that connection and how that spark of an idea turned into a novel?

Emily Gray Tedrowe: The Washington Post series was vital to my interest in writing about Walter Reed. I remember being captivated --- as so many of us were --- when the story played out in 2007, and led to the Congressional hearings. But it wasn’t until a few years later, when I conceived of BLUE STARS, that I went back and read all of Priest and Hull’s articles, as well as a lot of their other work. I think they did such an amazing job not just of reporting on the housing problems, but in telling the story of the soldiers living there: in limbo, in pain, and too often in substandard housing. I wanted to extend that focus to tell my own story and to focus on the women and families living there, too. In that sense I was able to picture my character Lacey, who has to cope not just with her husband’s brain damage, but with the soul-sucking feeling of having to live with mice and mold as well.

BRC: You hail from a long line of extended relatives who have served, or are currently serving, in the Armed Forces. In a way, BLUE STARS is told not from the soldier’s perspective, but more provides a nuanced and multi-layered depiction of what life is like for the family members back home. Did this present any conflicts of interest as far as your relationships with your family are concerned? Did you face any opposition, or were they in full support?

EGT: I do indeed come from a long proud history of family military service. When I was a kid, “Beat Army!” and “Beat Navy!” regularly followed the saying of grace at the dinner table. (We have a healthy cross-branch rivalry in the Gray family.) I think that while certainly some of our political beliefs differ, one thing my family is wonderful about is supporting each other in our own lives and careers. I depended on their love and enthusiasm for me as a writer while I was working on BLUE STARS, and I’ve been very grateful about how excited they are for me that the book is now out in the world. 

BRC: Now let’s get to the text itself! At the beginning of BLUE STARS, Ellen is a different character than she is at the end. After Mike enlists in the Marines, she nearly convinces herself that he won’t be sent to Iraq. Even when he’s injured and brought to Walter Reed, she seems incapable of making decisions, almost in a naïve sort of way. Yet she’s a professor by trade and therefore quite smart. What made you create this dichotomy in her character? Is it that logic doesn’t always apply when it comes to emotions? Or that, perhaps, her privilege had always prevented her from seeing reality as it actually is?

EGT: I think you’ve captured a lot of the ways that I thought about Ellen. Her ability to contemplate and analyze literature doesn’t always serve her in this new world of coping with military rank, hospital protocol and the painful vagaries of bodily injury. But I think that, yes, class privilege is a big part of this. She never expected to be in a place like Walter Reed, and at the beginning of the experience seems woefully unprepared --- as opposed to Lacey, for example --- to handle it. However, I think part of Ellen’s growth is how she comes to terms with taking care of Michael as well as becoming part of this new community of women from all different backgrounds forced to stay at Walter Reed.

BRC: After Mike is shipped off to Iraq, Ellen drowns herself in books. She also writes him letters containing quotes from literature or photocopies of poignant short stories. Reading and studying words are crutches for her --- ways to make sense of her feelings and what’s going on around her. But it’s also something she shies away from while at Walter Reed. What is it about literature that makes us use it as a lifeline in times of need, while in others as a source of discomfort?

EGT: Instead of a “crutch,” I would say that reading is a way of life for Ellen --- the primary way she understands the world. And literature does have so much to tell us about times of great struggle in life, so naturally that’s where she turns first. But yes, in the hospital at first, for Ellen reading “was like a country she’d left, oceans away.” Nothing in that place of hard-edged physical reality seems conducive to the quiet inner mind state of getting lost in a book. Maybe it’s part of how dislocating the experience of being at Walter Reed is for Ellen. Maybe she’s punishing herself for not being the “right kind” of mother for Michael. In any case, I wanted this to be felt as a true loss for Ellen, a diminishing of her own best self.

BRC: BLUE STARS is a novel, yet its subject matter is all too real. Describe the process of fictionalizing the hardest parts of war (i.e. dealing with boredom, fear and loss). Is there anything that surprisingly came easy to you? Sections that were more challenging than you anticipated they would be?

EGT: For me, writing about war was started with an intriguing process of revisiting some of my own emotions from the time when my brother was in Iraq. I began there, trying to give dramatic shape to some of the states you note: the way daily life seems, somehow, to continue here (complete with job stress, family drama and bad TV), even though all the while someone you care a huge amount about is engaged in dangerous, difficult military operations half a world away. Soon, though, I moved away from my own personal experience and into imagining the way different people went through deployment. Strangely, both parts of writing --- the working with my own experience, and the making stuff up --- were equally hard, and equally easy.

BRC: Ellen and Lacey are two very different women. Ellen seems much more reserved and buttoned up than outspoken Lacey, yet Lacey has her deeply introspective moments as well. Ellen deals with her fear and anger by curling inward or walking away from the problem; Lacey, by acting out. When creating these characters, did you consciously set about making them as different as possible from the start, or was it more of an organic, gradually unfolding process?

EGT: I love the way you describe Ellen and Lacey! Yes, I would say that one of my goals at the outset was to tell the stories of two very different women. I wanted to create characters who had totally opposite backgrounds, and even temperaments, and then put them together in close quarters to see what would happen. One thing that helped is that I felt equally close to Ellen and Lacey, and I think they demonstrate parts of me. I’m bookish like Ellen and outspoken like Lacey. It was fun to see how I could play with their differences and yet allow them room in their personalities to become friends with each other.

BRC: In a letter to Mike, Ellen writes: “It can give you incredible strength, to be flooded with fright. But at what cost?” Fear is so prevalent throughout your book. Ellen’s fear of losing her adopted son and her sanity. Jane’s fear of losing control and being vulnerable. Lacey’s fear of getting out of her marriage and finding happiness. Everyone’s fear of the war. Yet the one character’s fear we don’t hear much about is Mike’s. It’s a powerful choice. Why did you make it?

EGT: That’s interesting. I hadn’t thought about it in that way, that I specifically excluded Mike’s fear. But it makes a lot of sense, because what I wanted was to focus on the fear that occurs on the home front. And in Ellen’s case, what she’s particularly afraid of is how Michael would experience fear. That, to her, seems the nadir of war. But she doesn’t know about how he feels, and in a sense doesn’t believe she has the right to ask. So she imagines what he might be going through in writing a letter to him about her own bout with mortal fear. I’m interested in the idea that it’s somehow bad form to raise the subject of fear around war; lots of people find it superstitious, or not helpful to talk about. I wondered while writing this book how much we can admit to each other about our fear of what might happen during war, both at home and over there.

BRC: Ellen and Jane have a hilariously typical mother-teenage daughter relationship, with Ellen just a smidge overbearing and Jane fueling the fire with aloofness and petulance. As an adult reader, it’s tempting to side with Ellen most of the time, especially when remembering my own behavior toward my mother as a cranky, insecure teenager. Then again, there are scenes where it’s clear why Ellen drives Jane nuts! When writing these scenes, did you tap into your teenage relationship with your mother at all? Or did you channel your feelings as a mother of daughters yourself?

EGT: I’m glad you found it hilariously typical! (Better than depressingly typical.) I’m braced for the teenage years in our household, and it’s coming faster than my husband and I care for. Luckily for me and my mom, I didn’t have nearly the same amount of strife that Ellen and Jane go through. In fact, I’m sure my siblings would be happy to tell you stories of my nerdy goody-two-shoes teenage years, though I prefer to think of myself as a secret and bookish rebel at heart. What I liked in writing those scenes with Jane and Ellen was how they gave the narrative a jolt of energy --- and how they threw Ellen off her usual game. I wanted to introduce the idea that Ellen doesn’t always have the best parenting experience and see how that played out in terms of her taking care of Michael.

BRC: There are a lot of scenes in the book dedicated to describing two types of women --- the wives who support their husbands while they’re gone and those who hate what the military stands for. Did you do any research in writing about these women? Did you find any surprising commonalities between the two groups?

EGT: Actually the way I think about it is that the experience is more on a continuum, and a shifting one at that. I believe most women who have loved ones serving are in flux about their emotions, especially during deployment, full of pride and respect for the military but also frustration and utter despair at other times. My experience of being in a military family is that we run the gamut of attitudes you describe. And I would guess that despite needing to “keep up a brave face,” which is what so many family members feel pressure to do, in private the wives and mothers of soldiers can go through a multitude of less socially acceptable emotions. Ones they can only share with each other, which is what I tried to depict in the novel.

BRC: As you touch upon throughout the book, there’s a maddening irony when it comes to communications during wartime. On one hand, news from the front is broadcast all over the news and social media --- graphic images, reports of death, etc. But when Ellen gets the call about Mike’s injury and slogs through months of treatment with him, the impersonal nature of that communication --- the piles of nonsensical forms and useless brochures on how to cope, the adherence to military protocol --- is purely felt. Why was that so important to highlight in the book?

EGT: This is a great point. On the one hand, yes, we feel inundated with “news” about the war while at home --- I found, at times, that it was impossible to get away from the images, sound bites, headlines. But the difficulty, which I tried to evoke for my characters, is that the news is never specific enough to what YOU want to know: How is he? What did he do today? How is he handling this? And, of course, when deaths are reported in the news, they come without names, so you clench with fear until you know it’s not yours. For now. In terms of the bureaucracy of forms and brochures, I wanted to emphasize how stranded Ellen and Lacey feel at the hospital amid all this official protocol. They hunger for real words, real connection --- and find that in their friendship.

BRC: When Ellen gets the call about Mike, her best friend Serena is there to be strong when Ellen can’t. In the second half of the book, Lacey and Ellen do this for each other when all of their other friends seem to have moved on. What does it say about friendships during hard times? And where does Martine fit along that spectrum?

EGT: I’m so glad you brought this up, because to me this novel is partly an homage to female friendship, which has been such a big part of my own life. Sometimes in novels the main characters seem to act or exist in a vacuum, as if they have no one to rely on for comfort, advice, venting. I’m sure that’s because there’s only so much room in a novel and you have to get to the point of the main character’s story. But it seemed important to me to develop a world previous to the hospital where both Ellen and Lacey are sustained by rich and complex relationships with their friends. I think that helps them reach out to each other when they meet, and be open to joining the community of women at Walter Reed. When Lacey falls out with Martine, who has been her comrade through mil-world, it’s a devastating loss for her, a version of a casualty of war, as it always feels when you lose a friend.

BRC: Ellen has to make a big choice about Mike, which is an incredibly emotional moment in the book. What was it like writing this scene as a mother? How did you strike the right balance?

EGT: I was about to type “I can’t imagine having to make this kind of decision for someone else” and then realized I can imagine it all too well. When it comes to the medical decisions about Michael’s loss of his leg, I wanted Ellen’s agony to be compounded by the fact that she is not his biological mom. She feels incredibly guilty that what originally seemed like a formality arranged to sign paperwork for him to finish high school has now led to the point where she is solely responsible for major life and death decisions for this young man she loves. Surprisingly, what helps her feel better is when Lacey says, essentially: You’re right, this sucks. It sucks that you have to be the one, and it’s never going to feel right.  

BRC: In one of my favorite lines in the book, Lacey goes off on a bunch of shoppers in Whole Foods because Eddie is having a fit in the aisle and blocking their way. This diatribe is priceless: “You want to know about our problem? Okay, let’s see. The problem of the bomb-filled road in Iraq where my husband’s Humvee flipped? Or the one where his head got bashed in and he lost an eye and has dents in his skull because he was over there fighting to protect your right to buy organic shampoo!” What inspired this rant?

EGT: Thank you! I loved writing that rant. I really let myself go and channel what you might say if the filters were torn off in a moment like that. I didn’t have to “research” what someone like Lacey might say, standing there in all her pain and fury. Most of us can probably get how wrong it sometimes feels here, to be surrounded by so much consumer luxury, when there is a world of deprivation and struggle going on in other places.

BRC: Ellen is a professor and scholar of Edith Wharton and her work. Are you a fan of Wharton’s writing? And because I have to ask, what are you reading or looking forward to reading? Any books to recommend to your readers, either related to BLUE STARS or completely separate?

EGT: I am a total Wharton fan. I’ve loved THE AGE OF INNOCENCE since I read it as a teenager. And a few years ago, I read THE CUSTOM OF THE COUNTRY and was delighted by the hard-edged takedown of the monied class, and the take-no-prisoners portrayal of Undine Spragg. But my favorite Wharton novel is THE HOUSE OF MIRTH, which is of course brilliant, and never fails to be utterly compelling in telling Lily Bart’s downward spiral. I loved writing about Ellen’s lifelong study of Edith Wharton, and the way that her own experience of war brings her to a new understanding of a writer she thought she’d known inside and out.

BRC: Tell me about the fiction excerpt in the March 9, 2014 edition of The Rumpus. Am I missing something, or did that not make it into the book?

EGT: I’m glad you brought that up! Yes, I published a short story called “Chips” that tells another version of an encounter between Michael and Ellen. I wrote this before BLUE STARS, as a kind of preparation for writing the novel. I knew I wanted to write about the home front, and that Ellen and Michael’s unusual relationship (as guardian and ward) would be a central force in the book. I wanted to understand more about the way they loved each other, so I played out an encounter I imagined Michael having at war and how he might see it through Ellen’s eyes. It was never intended to be in the book…I guess you could think of it as a prequel, a little stand-alone scene with the same characters.

BRC: BLUE STARS is your second novel (after COMMUTERS). Talk about novels covering completely different subjects! Did you do anything different the second time around? Change up your writing habits a bit?

EGT: It’s true that the two novels are different in setting and focus. But I also tend to think they have the same concerns in terms of family relationships, unlikely alliances and contemporary daily life. I didn’t consciously set out to do anything different with BLUE STARS, although I did want to up my game in terms of writing and storytelling skills --- as you always hope to do. 

BRC: What’s next for you?

EGT: I’m excited to be out on book tour now, and I can’t wait to interact with readers and talk to people about the book. So glad to be spending this time with booksellers and librarians and readers, because they are my tribe. After that, a good rest I hope. And then back to the quiet subterranean world of dreaming up a new novel: my favorite place to be.