Author Interview: Christine Byl of “Dirt Work”

Leslie Hsu Oh, a writer and former Army Corps of Engineers wife, joins us today with an interview with author Christine Byl, whose memoir Dirt Work has made several recent “must-read” lists. Dirt Work is, according to Byl’s web site, “a lively and lyrical account of one woman’s unlikely apprenticeship on a National Park trail crew and what she discovers about nature, gender, and the value of hard work.”

Byl embraces the backbreaking difficulty of the work, learning how to clear trees, move boulders, and build stairs in the backcountry. Her first mentors are the colorful characters with whom she works—the packers, sawyers, and traildogs from all walks of life—along with the tools in her hands: axe, shovel, chainsaw, rock bar.

Eventually, Byl would turn her trail experience into her career; she now lives off the grid with her husband and an “old sled dog” in Healy, Alaska.

Both Leslie Hsu Oh and Byl graduated from the same Master of Fine Arts program at the University of Alaska, Anchorage, and they share a love for nature and the outdoors (Leslie herself has explored nearly eighty national parks, monuments, and memorials — hiking, backpacking, and spelunking along the way). Many thanks to Leslie for sharing this piece, which originally ran just after its publication in April 2013 (in a slightly longer format) on the blog “49 Writers.”  -Andria


Author Interview:  Christine Byl, author of “Dirt Work” (by Leslie Hsu Oh, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

Dirt Work begins with Byl’s first season working as a “traildog” in Glacier National Park. Byl never expected this summer gig to turn into a decades-long career, eventually bringing her to Alaska where now she runs a trail-design and construction business with her husband.

Byl2; cover photo by Terry Boyd. Cover design by Gabi Anderson at Beacon Press.

In Dirt Work, Byl probes common assumptions about the division between mental and physical labor, “women’s work” and “men’s work,” white collars and blue collars. The supposedly simple work of digging holes, dropping trees, and blasting snowdrifts in fact offers an education of the hands and the head, as well as membership in an utterly unique subculture. Byl’s new release has been named a top non-fiction pick for spring by Amazon, The Christian Science Monitor, and O Magazine. It was also recently shortlisted for the Willa Award, which is for books by women set in the west (and named for author Willa Cather)!

Leslie Hsu Oh: In your introduction, you state that Dirt Work “is not meant to be a memoir.” Why was this an important distinction to make and how do you feel when reviewers label it as such?

Christine Byl: The distinction was important because it speaks to the origins of the book, my intent. I have always conceived of Dirt Work as a collective story more than a personal one; a story of my crewmates and me and the subculture we make together, and also, as the story of these places I’ve worked, places that are as real and individual to me as people.

But after the first draft, in which there was very little of myself as a character, several trusted readers said they wanted more of me. This was a surprise–I thought I was writing a book about tools and wilderness and work. But readers craved that narrative thread to anchor the other elements. I was very resistant to write more about myself at first (I’m a fiction writer! I’m an introvert!), but as I sat with it, I realized that my experience was integral to the idea of apprenticeship that the book wanted to plumb. I was the lens that a reader could look through to see the world I wanted to show. When I started trail work, I was a beginner, a novice, totally out of my element. The reader needed that entry, especially since the material and the subculture was unfamiliar to most. Once I thought of myself in the book as a character, a narrator, and not my entire self that I felt shy about revealing, it became much easier to offer the pieces that mattered to the story.

I can see why reviewers label it as a memoir. You have to put it somewhere, call it something, and the way I usually stumble to describe it (“this weird blend of non-fiction and memoir and technical manual and natural history with some dirty jokes and prose poems…”) is definitely not useful for a bookstore. But really, very refined genre labels are more commercial than literary. It’s a shelving distinction, not a craft one. To me the book feels, as I say in the Intro, like “the story of a few wild places, people who work in them, and how I came to be at home there.” With a little more of me than I first thought.


Byl; photo by Lucy Capeheart

Dirt Work covers 16 years of your life. In an interview, you shared that it took only five to seven months actual desk writing time. How did you make the tough decisions of what to leave out? Where to indulge, where to compress?

It took about seven months of desk time just to complete a first draft, spread out from 2002-2008. One early essay. Slim version of eventual first chapter written later that year. Then, no work on it for years. Another three month burst one summer. A last push the winter after that. Then began revisions, which took about three years. The whole process, from first graph to book in hands, was about 10 years.

The hardest decisions came around trying to pin to the page some seriously wily oral tradition–the lingo of traildogs, the stories we tell each other, the way we see ourselves, our canon of important stuff. It’s all so interwoven, which stories, which people, which tales to leave out? For every one trailside story in the book, one joke or prank or seminal moment, there are twenty-five I didn’t write. There’s just no room. It had to have a shape, not just be a mass of anecdote, no matter how appealing the pieces.

But as for the overall decisions, once I settled on the form–each chapter focused around a tool and a geographic region I’ve worked in–the pieces came together pretty organically. It was a specific story, the story of my apprenticeship as a traildog, and not the story of sixteen years of every facet of my life. Every choice was in service of that–does it support the larger story, about the people, the culture, this life?

What is your approach to writing about others? Did you share early drafts with Gabe or anybody else that appears in the book and revise if they objected to anything? Have you heard from any of the “traildogs” you apologize to in your acknowledgements for poaching a story or getting a detail wrong?

I am of two minds about this. On the one hand, I don’t think writers need permission to write anything. I think our task, particularly in creative nonfiction, is to write honestly and bravely, candid about our own biases and limitations, aware that the only perspective we can write from is our own. When we write about others, we are writing our version of them, not some essential thing, but we’re free to write whatever we want.

I also strongly believe that I owe it to those I write about, and to myself, to be as ethical as possible, and to err always on the side of compassion and largeness of heart, a Golden Rule version of memoir, I guess. Write about others as I would hope to be written about, with the same eye toward accuracy and empathy and consideration of nuance. I wouldn’t write myself in a flat or stereotypical fashion, and even when writing about my failings, I would show myself a degree of compassion. So, I have to do that for other subjects as well. Not sanctifying, or showing only the good stuff. But in my gaze at others, seeing their complexity, not just what first occurs to me. And considering how they would feel about certain details exposed.

For example, one person I wrote about is very, very private. I left out things I could have easily put in, about living together, about her personal quirks, that might have made her feel vulnerable. Since I didn’t need those details to serve the larger story (even though some of them were great character-building bits) I left them out in deference to her way in the world. I think the fact that I’m also a very private person helps me err on the conservative side of writing about others.

I haven’t heard from anyone yet, since the book has only been out a week. (Except for Gabe, who was fine with his appearances.) I’m sure I will eventually hear, especially from traildogs, about particular details I got wrong or remember differently: You weren’t on that hitch, or It was Park Creek, not Ole! That’s the oral tradition for you. But I hope that I got the heart of things right. I’m sure there are some missteps, but it was a risk I was willing to take. I think that world is worth honoring, knowing about, even if someone else might put things differently.

As a fellow recipient of the question “when are you going to get a real job,” I appreciated this thread throughout the book and how you handled the skeptics. Does the question “Am I wasting my life?” get more difficult to answer as you age? Do you think ten years from now, you will still remain true to that narrator who hollers from rooftops “do what you love, be proud of what you do”?

Well, ten years from now my job will probably have changed a bit. Nothing lasts, after all, least of all knees and elbows, and new opportunities always arise. But I hope that “be proud of what you do” would be a thing to carry with me no matter where I end up, an inner compass that guides exterior choices, and helps me settle in to change when it happens.

Really, my life, as a laborer and as a writer and as an everything else, moves between these two poles all the time: Confidence and niggling doubt. Contentment and worry. Rooftop hollering and internal mutters. I don’t think I’m alone here. Old or young, seasonals or not, almost everyone I know and love, or admire from afar– people who throw their whole selves at things but also think deeply about them–move between headlong and humble. I’m turning forty this summer, and I think if anything, aging has been helping me learn how to pivot more gracefully.

buy “Dirt Work” here

Christine Byl received her MFA in fiction from the University of Alaska-Anchorage in 2005, and her prose has appeared in literary magazines, journals, and anthologies including The Sun, Glimmer Train Stories, Crazyhorse, and others. Byl lives off the grid with an old sled dog in a yurt on a few acres of tundra just north of Denali National Park. When she isn’t working outside or writing, she loves reading, homestead projects, wilderness adventures, and anything that happens in the snow. Check her out at and on Facebook. You can read an excerpt from Dirt Work here.


About the interviewer:

Oh_fiveLeslie Hsu Oh lived in Alaska for seven years while her husband worked for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. She has hiked, white water rafted, spelunked, and rode on horseback through nearly eighty of the national parks, memorials, and monuments in the United States, Canada, and Great Britain.


Her writing and photography has appeared or is forthcoming in Cirque, First Alaskans Magazine, Fourth Genre, Kids These Days!, Novel Adventures, Rosebud Magazine, Stoneboat, Under the Sun, and elsewhere. “Between the Lines” (a chapter adapted from her memoir-in-progress, Fireweed) was named among the distinguished stories of the year by Best American Essays.

She earned an MFA (Master of Fine Arts) in creative nonfiction from the University of Alaska Anchorage, where she currently teaches, and a masters from Harvard University. She is the recipient of the Rasmuson Individual Artist Award, the first Julius B. Richmond Young Leader in Public Health Award, the first National Award for Excellence in Public Health Leadership, the Sun Memorial Award for exemplifying a commitment to improving the health and well-being of people in underserved populations, and the Schweitzer Award for reverence for life.

After losing both her mother and brother to liver cancer caused by hepatitis B (a disease preventable by vaccine), she founded an award-winning grassroots nonprofit called The Hepatitis B Initiative in 1997 that is still running today in several states.

Book Review: ‘Home Leave’ by Brittani Sonnenberg

IMG_7149Sometimes you just read a book at the right time, and that was the case two weeks ago when I took two back-to-back trips with my children — first to Monterey, CA, to visit my mom, and then to St. Paul, Minnesota, to visit my in-laws — and brought along (as my sole book, because I knew that, traveling with three kids, I would not be doing too much reading) a copy of Home Leave by Brittani Sonnenberg.


Home Leave is a slim, unusual novel exploring the lives of the Kriegsteins — Chris, an international businessman, his wife Elise, a quiet, thoughtful former evangelical and survivor of childhood abuse, and their daughters Leah and Sophie. Leah is older, a little more awkward, bookish; Sophie is athletic, sensitive, and feisty. As Chris’s work takes the family across continents, Leah and Sophie band together, challenging and defending one another. Sophie’s untimely death shakes the family to its core and forces them to reevaluate the notion of home: if it resides in a place, a person, a collection of memories. What is “home” for someone who has never lived in one place, who has had to shape-shift every few years?

This is something I’ve thought about almost obsessively over the past nine or so years. I grew up in the same small, comfy northern California hometown for eighteen years. My parents were married throughout my childhood, and my brother was born when I was six. I had a cocker spaniel named Puff who I trained to go up and down the slide at the playground across the street. Everything in my life seemed permanent: Puff lived for seventeen years; even a goldfish my brother won for me on a fluke toss at the school’s fall carnival lived eleven years in a tank in my bedroom. The things in my life lasted, almost absurdly so. My parents were both public school teachers and, in fact, one of them worked at every school I ever attended until I left for college, meaning that I was sometimes the recipient of embarrassing call slips that a teacher would read aloud: “Andria, your dad says that your lunch and your trombone are in his office.”

Just after my fourteenth birthday, I met the guy who’d become my husband. Of course, at the time I thought he was just the sweet, athletic, forgivably nerdy kid with a distinct Midwestern vibe and a hat that said “Duck Head” (totally unfathomable to our Californian ilk and the subject of some giggling between my girlfriends and me). My parents, being teachers, had always taught me to be kind to the new students, and so when I saw him — in band, no less — I instantly registered him as someone who’d just moved into town. There’s a meek look to new kids, and I sympathized with it instantly, because I knew how comfortable it was to be like me, always living in the same town where your parents knew every teacher and you were always greeted by name. Nothing seemed more horrible to me than having to move, to leave one circle of friends and flail about in some new place for another. So I always — dutifully, and with the reward of several very good friends — befriended the new kid, and this time was no different. I trotted up and asked him where he’d come from, introduced myself. He was as sweet as he looked, and, as it would turn out, one of those people who was good at everything. We were friends for two years, and it was all very normal with one notable exception: a time when he got up and walked across my tenth grade English class. I looked up and had the weirdest flash of conviction, like the cliched burst of lightning. As clear as day I thought to myself, I want to be important to that person. I heard it as if someone had said it inside my head. And then I sat there, stunned and embarrassed, and ducked back down to my book. But I couldn’t shake it off. I looked up and it happened again, with more certainty: I want to be important to that person and then, as if in response, You will be important to that person. This was absurd; I was not a big believer in fate; I hated chick-flicks; I was not particularly “girly.” Plus, I was dating someone else, with, you know, the usual teenage gusto. But I couldn’t get past my bizarre little internal pronouncement.

Not long after, Dave and I were dating; we were living together at Berkeley, where I worked at University Press Books and would walk home from closing the place up to grab a rotisserie chicken for dinner and then meet Dave at the Aaron Brothers store where he worked. We’d walk home together, chatting about our days, with that wonderful chilly bay air and the smell of a hot rotisserie chicken swinging at my side. We had no real responsibilities. We were so damn young!

Then we moved to Minnesota where I attended grad school; we were married at the St. Paul county courthouse.

IMG_3507I loved living in Minnesota. I loved teaching, and I adored my college students, who were only two or three years younger than me. I think I could probably have stayed there forever if another gong hadn’t gone off in my head, more like a bomb detonating: I wanted to start a family. I was twenty-five and I wanted to become a mother with the kind of crazed conviction that my teenage self had wanted to be important to the gangly, adorable kid across the English class.

There was one problem: Dave, with his UC-Berkeley history degree, was having trouble finding work. While I’d loved life as a grad student and teacher, he’d toiled at a lead battery-recycling plant where he’d had to have his hair tested monthly for lead exposure; he’d picked up trash at the hockey stadium. I was writing a novel all afternoon and he was spearing greasy wrappers at the XCel Energy Center. He’d always had an interest in joining the military; it went hand-in-hand with his history degree, his love of people, his quirky admiration for the more valiant moments in the American past. At Cal, I’d recycled the Navy pamphlets that would show up in our mailbox before he could get to them. I figured it was something he’d outgrow — but it was not.

It turned out that the very moment he was at the Navy recruiting office getting sworn in, I was at the university health clinic being told that, no, I did not have a UTI as I’d peevishly suspected: I was pregnant. Eight weeks along, in fact! And from then on, there was no looking back. For the past nine years we have been in the Navy, moving roughly every two years. The first three tours, we had a baby at the start of every tour: nomadic children born in Virginia, and Illinois, and Monterey, CA (kids who would never live in the same place for more than a year or two, who’d never know the joy of watching a back yard change across the years). We became a small tribe, marching back and forth across the country, watching Dave get better and better at his job, more invested, more sure of his role.

Dave had moved several times as a child, and I had not.  This had always intrigued me, made me feel tenderly toward the nervous kid he’d been, over and over again, while I’d charged happily through my sunny youth, anxiety-free. Now that we had children of our own, I’d ask him, “But did you MIND moving so much? How did you know where you belonged? How did you have a sense of place?”

He’d chuckle and be like, “A sense of what?”

“A sense of place!” I’d cry, feeling yet again the strain of my own intensity. “A sense of, you know, the place where you should be, and the things that place makes you love, and care about! Over time…gradually!” I had come to love Minnesota: the green summers and crystal-cold winters;  the close proximity of nature; the charming downtown bungalows with their vegetable gardens and back alleys. We’d canoed in the Boundary Waters and rented an apartment near the River Road, where I spied bald eagles heading north each spring as the ice on the Mississippi began to break up. I wanted to raise kids who appreciated these things, too.

“Kids belong where their parents are,” he’d say. “Don’t worry about it. They’ll adjust.”

But I always worried about it.


So, traveling this August — without Dave, who’s on deployment — I had Home Leave in my suitcase. In Monterey I was reminded of my northern California childhood, the things I loved and the things that have fallen away (my parents no longer married, the prohibitive cost of owning a California home). In Minnesota I felt a particular pang for the years Dave and I had spent there, their feel of being both cozy and adventurous.

Opening Home Leave during stolen moments, I felt like Brittani Sonnenberg was inside my mind. She grew up across multiple continents. She’s lived and worked in Germany, China, Minneapolis, southwest Asia.

brittani_sonnenbergBrittani Sonnenberg

She, like her character Leah, lost a sister, the person who might have embodied home to her when there was no one place to fill that role. And she, like me, is concerned with what a life on the move makes people into: resigned and somewhat distant, like Chris’s wife, Elise; savvy but unsure, like Leah? If you are like Chris, and the initiator of all these moves, do they have the same impact? (“‘I’ve stayed the same,’ he thinks, stubbornly, and suddenly feels betrayed.”)

“Home Leave,” according to a prefacing note, is a State Department term, a span of time when  “employees who live abroad for an extended period undergo reorientation and re-exposure in the United States.” In the case of Leah and her family, it is their ten-week trips back to the American south every summer — usually just the women of the family and not Chris, who has to stay behind to work: “Like Persephone’s annual permitted return to her mother aboveground, by the gods in Olympus, the powers that be at Chris’s company will grant the Kriegstein women ‘home leave’ once a year, each summer, when they will stay with family and friends.”

But going back only once a year mainly serves the purpose of showing people exactly what they have missed. It reminds them how on-the-outside they are, whereas from a distance, in their heads, they could pretend that nothing has changed. It’s just enough to reinforce their doubts about the major life changes they long ago, so breezily, made.

Was it a mistake to leave the comfort of Atlanta, to presume the struggle abroad would be better, more interesting, build character? How different was that celebration of hardship from the farming philosophy practiced by Chris’s father, waking up at four every morning to work the land?

The novel is told through a kaleidescope of chapters, told by several characters, some wholly unexpected: Elise, Leah, Chris, Chris’s mother (one chapter only, but a favorite of mine); one chapter is told from the point-of-view of a house; two are from the P.O.V. of a character who’s beyond the grave. One chapter is told entirely in the collective voice of ex-pat children (“We are happy our parents are on flights back…We’re happy our roommates aren’t total weirdos”). Given the nature of the book, and its characters who are forced to make large global moves every few years, the fragmentation feels appropriate. And it does not get in the way of caring for the characters.

“Home leave feels like trying to watch two movies with one VCR,” Sonnenberg writes:

Early on in the middle of the first film, you eject the tape and slide the second one in, watch that for a while, then go back to the first one, in the middle of the scene where you stopped the tape. The advantage of such a system is that you can watch two movies, nearly simultaneously. But the choppiness of the viewing experience speaks against it…

This reminds me of one of my favorite Maile Meloy collections, All I Want is to Have it Both Ways. Sonnenberg’s characters all want to have it both ways: Elise wants a sense of adventure and fun, but she wants to put down roots; Chris wants a secure and comfortable family, but this requires that he move them every two years; Leah wants to fit in overseas but can’t, and back in the US for college she is distracted and antsy.

Sonnenberg explores this dislocation with tenderness and expertise, and after reading her novel I felt soothed, even though no one solution had been found.


Our own “Home Leave” was enjoyable, and worth it: good for the children  to reconnect to important places, important people.






I guess time will tell how we all end up after this lifetime of wandering: if the kids miraculously just love what we have loved all this time and been unable to show them, or if their childhood associations will be so strong that they want to replicate them, someday, for their own children: the dry heat of a San Diego back yard, palm tree swaying above the fence; the late-summer locusts and heady nighttime flower-scent of St. Louis. What do children care about if they haven’t had eighteen years to hone it? How do adults settle down after two decades of wandering while their peers have bought homes, planted trees that still grow and live ten feet outside their back windows, watched their children wend as a group from elementary to middle to high school, said hello to the same sets of parents at back-to-school-night year after year?

 Home Leave was a relief to read, on the one hand, because sometimes I feel I’m the only one who frets over what to others may seem to be a non-issue; but it also showed me that, all these years later, Sonnenberg is still coming to terms with the nomadic youth over which she had no control, still figuring out who it’s made her into and who she’ll decide, in the end, to be.


Brittani Sonnenberg’s web site

Buy Home Leave


Some good, clean (or dirty!) fun: Emmy Curtis’s Alpha Ops Series

Now, here’s something fun and lighthearted for your end-of-the summer, and a little different for the ol’ Military Spouse Book review:

I’ve been introduced to a romance writer and Air Force wife, Emmy Curtis, who’s written three books as part of a series called Alpha Ops. I always love hearing about mil spouses who are writers, so I wanted to know more! She was kind enough to answer a few questions.

The first installment, a novella called Dangerous Territory, was released August 4th. The official blurb seems steamy indeed, and the cover speaks, well, a thousand words!


Flirting with danger is reporter Grace Grainger’s modus operandi. But she’s learned the hard way not to grow attached to the soldiers she’s embedded with in Afghanistan. To escape from her pain and loneliness, she fantasizes about the hot night she spent with a gorgeous stranger three years before in D.C. Grace never thought she’d see him again—let alone need him to rescue her . . .

Dangerous_bigWell, hello there, Josh Travers


Air Force Master Sergeant Josh Travers knows journalists are nothing but trouble. So when he has to risk his team’s lives to save some reporter who’s been separated from her patrol, he’s not happy—until he recognizes her stunning eyes and delicious curves. Josh has never wanted a woman like he wants Grace. He needs her—even in an Afghan cave with a sandstorm and enemy troops closing in. This might be the end for both of them—or one hell of a beginning.

Whew! Stunning eyes, delicious curves, a cave tryst in Afghanistan, pecs that could kill. What more could you want for some frothy beach-side fun? I confess that I have never actually read a romance novel (now I feel really boring), but Emmy Curtis had some interesting answers to my questions (below). Dangerous Territory has been getting excellent reviews on Goodreads (“I was on the edge of my seat”… “sizzling romance”…”heart-stopping action”). Maybe if any series can be my gateway drug into romance novels, it’s Alpha Ops.

I loved hearing what Curtis had to say about being a military spouse who writes, and how she chose the characters and situations for her novels. Enjoy, folks.

1. Mil Spouse Book Review: Emmy, you are both a military spouse and a romance writer who recently signed a three-book deal, so there’s a lot I want to know!

Can you start by telling a little bit about yourself — you are an ex-pat Brit who’s lived all over the world, I understand, so how did you come to be an American military wife?

Emmy Curtis: I hate saying so, but I met my husband in a bar in Savannah, Georgia while I was on vacation with my friend, Sarah. I was managing a busy London airport terminal, he was already making a career in the Air Force. We kissed, and then exchanged very infrequent emails for close to ten years. Then we got back together and…the rest is history.
The strange thing is, once I’d finished my three books, I realized that the beginning of all three romances I’d written had the hero and heroine meeting, and then not seeing each other for ages, and then finding each other unexpectedly. It was totally unconscious, but now I see that I wrote my own relationship path!

2. How has being a military spouse informed your reading and writing? Has it been difficult to combine the mil spouse life with a writing life?

The military life has totally informed my writing. I realized that a lot of romance authors write military heroes, but 99% of the time they write about Navy SEALs or Marines (especially snipers for some reason!)… and I know, as many of your blog’s readers do, that there are many more real-life heroes in the military than just SEALs and Marines. I wanted to write about those who rarely get page-time, but who put their lives on the line every day during a deployment.
As far as combining a military life with writing, I’d say that my husband’s job has enabled me to write. I don’t have children in the house, so aside from that underlying unease that you could get PCS orders any time, the life his job has given me has only enhanced my opportunity to write.

3. Can you tell us a little bit about your book series, and how you got the idea for them?

The books are about the lesser-known units in the military. The first book, Dangerous Territory, is about an Air Force Pararescuer (or PJ) who gets stuck behind enemy lines with a journalist. It’s a novella, and introduces the series that the publisher has called Alpha Ops.
The second book, which is a full-length novel, is about an Air Force TACP and a female special forces soldier, and the third is about a former EOD technician who is now a part of the JPAC team that recovers human remains from previous conflict zones.
As for the idea, I just asked my husband for some Air Force combat jobs other than his, because…well, as I said, SEALs and Marines!

4. May I ask if your husband has read your books, and what he thinks of them? Is he your fact-checker in any way?

*Laughs* Let’s face it, what I’ve written isn’t literary military fiction! The books are more like a fantasy version of real-life. Would a Pararescuer allow himself to be seduced on a mission? Probably not (I hope!) but by equal parts, do some women have a fantasy of being alone with a gorgeous, honorable military man in close proximity in a tense situation? Yes, yes they do! (Or, *looks around* is that just me?)

Mil Spouse Review: Um, no, that is not just you.

So my husband has fact-checked the logistics, the way different teams work, and the hardware they use. When I told him that the Pararescuer was rescuing someone he’d ‘known’ a few years previously and crazy romance would ensue, he just raised his eyebrow and said “Okaaaaay?”

He hasn’t read the books yet, mostly because I want him to see the dedication in real-time, not as a draft! I’m sappy like that!

That’s so sweet. You’ll have to keep us posted on what he thinks of them! And in the meantime, let’s just say I’m not averse to letting a little Josh Travers into my life.

Thanks so much for stopping by, Emmy!


Image009Emmy Curtis is an Air Force wife and writer currently living in North Carolina. You can follow her at and on Twitter: @EmmyCurtis19.

You can buy Dangerous Territory here, here, or here!

Those Fabulous Hallorans: Two Veteran-Writers on Military Service, the Writing Life, and the Importance of Reading Veterans’ Writing

I first encountered Lauren Halloran’s writing in a Glamour essay called “Home from War, But Not at Peace.”


Lauren had won the ninth annual essay contest, which is quite an accomplishment in itself, but the content of the essay got my attention even more: she described her time as an Air Force lieutenant in Afghanistan and the trouble she had reintegrating after she returned home. I thought her writing voice was honest and engaging, and I was very much pulled into reading her piece.

It turns out that Lauren is part of a little veteran’s writing dynasty (but, you know, a very democratic one!) with her husband, Colin Halloran, himself a veteran and a poet (I read his first collection, Shortly Thereafter, in one night, and enjoyed it very much).

halloran_2Colin Halloran in Uruzgan Province, Afghanistan, 2006

They are both now quite involved with the veteran’s writing community — Colin leads writing workshops for veterans — and are actively writing, themselves; Lauren is working on a memoir and Colin has another book of poetry in the works. They were kind enough to answer some questions for me here about their military experiences, their writing, and the way they have managed to combine the two. I can’t thank them enough for being here and for their generosity with both their time and thoughts.

1. Mil Spouse Book Review: Lauren, you come from what you good-naturedly describe as “a very military family.” Your mother is a retired Army colonel who served as a nurse in the Gulf War. She also deployed when you were seven years old. I know that deployment is a stressor for so many women in the military, so I wanted to ask if you remembered much of the deployment and how you felt about it. When you first considered entering the Air Force, did your mother encourage you, or caution you against it?

LAUREN: I remember snippets from her deployment—watching the military transport bus drive away, staying with school moms while my dad was at work, and eating new things they cooked. For some reason cheese quesadillas stick in my mind. We were the only local family who had a parent deployed, so it was a very different dynamic than I experienced in the era of my military service. It was isolating because no one else was going through the same thing, but we also had tremendous support from our community. Our neighbors all pitched in cooking meals and shuttling us around to afterschool activities. Everyone put up yellow ribbons in honor of my mom, and there was a huge ribbon tied around a tree at my sister and my elementary school. I cried a lot, usually at night because Mom wasn’t there to tuck us in. We listened to tape recordings of her reading bedtime stories. We had no idea when she would come home, so that unknown element weighed on everyone. I didn’t know it at the time, but her orders were for up to two years.

I remember my dad pointing out Saudi Arabia on our office globe and watching news clips of the war effort. I had never watched the news before. One of my most vivid memories is the French braid my mom put in my hair before she left. I told her I would keep it in until she got back, and I refused to wash my hair for a long time. Eventually my dad persuaded me to wash it and let a neighbor redo the braid. Of course I remember Mom coming home. There was a huge gathering at McChord Air Force base outside Seattle, with families, supporters and media. My Girl Scout troop was even there! We had homemade signs and American flags, and I remember cheering frantically when we saw the plane approaching. We were supposed to stay behind a cordon, but when the troops started disembarking everyone swarmed onto the flightline. Lots of hugging and crying.

I think a lot about my initial decision to join the military, because it seems such an unexpected course of action after my mom deployed. I accepted my Air Force ROTC scholarship right after 9/11, but 9/11 wasn’t the reason, or at least not the conscious reason. It was more an issue of being able to afford my dream school. My parents were both supportive, but probably more wary than I acknowledged at the time. My mom didn’t pressure me either way; she just wanted to make sure I thought about the longer-term implications of a military contract. I don’t think, as an eighteen-year-old, I was really focused on the could-be’s of a few years down the road. None of us could have anticipated how embroiled the military would become in two drawn-out conflicts. It all seemed very distant and vague at that point, in the very beginning of OEF and before the invasion of Iraq, from a pristine college campus in Los Angeles.

2. I’m intrigued by how both of you – bookish, scholarly types, both admittedly sort of odd ducks within your units – came to enter the military in the first place. Lauren, we’ve already talked about your family history with the military; Colin, did you have anything similar? (I know you mention a great-uncle in one of your poems who served in WWII.)

halloran_1Colin and Lauren (left and center) discussing military writing at the 2012 Boston Book Fair (with fellow veteran-writer Dario Di Battista)

In an interview with “Radio Boston,” Colin, you described “the strange, surprising call to duty” that spurred you to join the Army (and choose infantry as your MOS!). You’ve said that this decision even surprised yourself, having been a person who “wore Birkenstocks year-round, [had] hair down past my shoulders, carried an acoustic guitar everywhere, went to war protests.” (I could relate, somewhat – my own husband [then-boyfriend] was a UC-Berkeley history major who bewildered all our friends and family by joining the Navy in ’04. I’d been recycling his Navy recruitment pamphlets for a year whenever I’d get to the mail first.)

Looking back on it, does it make sense to you why those then-twenty-something kids that you were joined the military?

LAUREN: For me it makes sense, even though it’s not entirely clear how all those pieces came together at the time. Besides the education benefits, I was raised in a very patriotic family, and I know that service mindset was there—probably more of a sub-conscious motivator. I also didn’t have a lot of direction in terms of career goals when I graduated high school. I’d always loved writing and knew it would be a part of my life in some way, but that was about it. I signed on as an English major, and my ROTC advisors helped me find a career track (public affairs) that would allow me to utilize that skillset. I loved ROTC. It was where I felt most comfortable, around like-minded people who were passionate and hard-working. Plus, guys in uniform.  🙂  It also really gave me the structure and direction I needed at that point in my life.

COLIN: She’s just kidding about the guys in uniform thing. I think we all know she prefers purple bowties to head-to-toe camo.

LAUREN: My tastes have changed a bit.

COLIN: Anyway, I really didn’t have a strong military history on either side of my family. My grandfather served in the Navy during WWII, but was mostly stateside; I have the great-uncle I wrote about in “4th of July” who was a submariner in WWII; and I had an uncle who was drafted for Vietnam, but the war ended just a couple weeks before he was supposed to ship out.
So does it make sense? I think it does, maybe not for who I had been prior to enlisting, but for who I knew I wanted to be, and who I’ve since become (very different from who I “knew” I wanted to be back then). I wasn’t even a twenty-something yet, having just turned 19 when I signed the paperwork, and just turned 20 when I headed over to Afghanistan. I had direction, but not much of a means of getting anywhere. I was notoriously disorganized, undisciplined, and anti-authoritarian (ok, maybe that’s a little harsh, but I didn’t like taking directions from anyone but myself). I wanted to go to college, but couldn’t afford it; I wanted a career in politics, and in one of the bluest of blue states figured military service would bring in votes from the other side of the aisle; my friends and their families were stressed about a potential draft reinstatement, and I wasn’t doing much and didn’t mind going, especially if it kept someone who’d already been from going back or someone who didn’t want to go from having to; and yes, that strange and surprising “call to duty” if that’s what you want to call it. In the end, it was a way for me to challenge myself (hence going infantry—I figured I had the rest of my life to sit behind a desk), figure out a little more about who I was, serve my country, and advance closer to life goals I’d already established.

3. Both of you write very frankly, with skill and without self-pity, about your tours in Afghanistan. Lauren, you volunteered for a tour documenting rebuilding efforts in rural Afghanistan; Colin, you were part of an infantry unit on a small FOB. Both of you mention the isolation of your posts in your writing, and the grinding, ever-present awareness of potential harm. What were the hardest parts of your deployments, and how did you deal with them? Did you write during your deployments, or mainly after?

LAUREN: The hardest part for me was the disillusionment. I left for Afghanistan very idealistic—which is partly due to naivety and partly because my experiences in the military and the way the particular deployment was publicized established a certain set of expectations that ultimately came into conflict with reality. I volunteered for a Provincial Reconstruction Team because I wanted to be hands-on, not sitting behind a desk at a big base writing press releases.

halloran_3Lauren with (incredibly adorable) Afghan children, Gardez City, Paktia Province, Afghanistan, 2009

But I got very frustrated by the restrictions of operating at that boots-on-the-ground level. So much of what we wanted to do got tied up in bureaucratic red tape. There was tremendous disconnect between what we were seeing and what the higher-ups directed us to do. Afghanistan is an extremely complicated place, and instead of acknowledging those complications and their underlying reasons, we could really only dabble at surface level.

I also got uncomfortable in my role as the information filter. I was communicating with both the Afghan people and the American and international publics, and what I was authorized to communicate was rarely the whole story. There was a level of censorship and “spinning,” and it often went against my personal ethical standards. A lot of deployed soldiers had valid questions and concerns about our mission—I quickly started to feel that way, too—and I started to wonder if in some indirect way I was perpetuating that cycle. Was I “selling” a corrupt government to the Afghan people? Was I selling war and American lives and treasury?

I’ve always been an emotional and pretty open-book person, but a couple months into my deployment I felt like I couldn’t be that way anymore. I had started a blog, but I got tired of self-censoring (in addition to regulations governing military blogs, I didn’t want to worry my family). In hindsight, I’m sure journaling would have been beneficial in giving me an outlet for my frustrations, but my response was to stop writing in a non-official capacity. I couldn’t find the emotional energy to do it anymore. That shutting down stayed with me when I got home. It took quite a few months and working with a therapist to help me begin to open up again. Writing proved to be a good way of sorting things out; putting my thoughts and feelings down on paper made them tangible and less overwhelming.

COLIN: To continue with the frankness, the best and really only way to deal with what I was living through on a daily basis was to accept and embrace my mortality. I knew that I was damn good at my job, but I also knew that there were things that were going to be way out of my hands no matter how prepared I was. We got hit pretty hard within our first couple of weeks in-country and one of the guys I was closest to was seriously injured. A child was killed in the same attack. I put some of that blame on myself as the convoy leader and that helped me focus and remain vigilant no matter how run down I got physically, mentally, and emotionally. A few weeks later an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) malfunctioned. I was the target. That shook me pretty hard, but I had to keep reminding myself that I was not the target, but what I represented.

Coping came through music, playing in the rare downtime I got, and listening, either in my bed/cot or on missions through the incredibly ghetto sound system I rigged up in my Humvee. The music helped me focus, unwind, and maintain some sense of normalcy amidst all the chaos.

And I didn’t write while I was there. I don’t think I could have. While I was there I needed to focus on being there, and only form of reflection I could afford was in the form of after action reports and debriefs. I think I needed some distance before I could really face it, which is why I didn’t start writing about it until I’d been home and discharged for almost two years. And I think that’s why once I started, I wasn’t able to stop.

4. Both of you describe a certain sense of disappointment, and fuzziness of mission, that you felt to some extent after your wartime service. Lauren, you write, “I volunteered thinking I’d be part of an effort that made a noticeable difference. We did celebrate some small victories. But what I noticed most was corruption winding through every layer of Afghan society, crisscrossed by a growing barricade of U.S. red tape. If we couldn’t make progress, the danger and paranoia were for nothing. How silly I’d been to think we could change the world one schoolhouse, one medical clinic, at a time.”

Colin, in the aforementioned “Radio Boston” interview, you said, “I want to feel like what I did there had a purpose — but I couldn’t tell you what that purpose is.”

How do you feel now about what you did during your deployments? Do you ever feel competing loyalties to the military and to the writer’s imperative to honesty?

LAUREN: While in the midst of it, it was easy to get discouraged by the stress and frustrations. It felt like every little progress was countered by a digression: A village would hold a pro-government meeting, then the village leader would be brutally murdered. We would fund and oversee the construction of a much-needed medical clinic or school, but the building would fall apart because contractors cut corners to pay bribes, or would be abandoned because of threats or poor maintenance.

The 2009 Presidential Election was initially a success from our vantage point because there wasn’t widespread violence, but it was ultimately marred by corruption and low voter turnout.

Though all those negative memories are still there, the more distance I get from the experience, the more I’m able to look through the fuzziness and see the positives, too. The result is a more balanced, nuanced account. One of the most difficult things about writing about a challenging or traumatic experience is to not let bitterness color the writing. I think it’s important to honestly discuss what happened without telling readers how to think or feel about it—especially with a topic like war that has tremendous socio-political implications. I struggle to find that balance every day, and I’m sure my public affairs background makes it tougher. I was basically trained to communicate in a way that encourages a specific reaction. I’m sure people in the military community take issue with some of what I write. Actually, based on the feedback I got from the Glamour essay, I know they do. But I’m okay with that. As long as I’m honest with myself in my writing. War is such a spectrum of experiences; no two perspectives will ever be exactly the same. The more people who share their story, the greater understanding the public will have, and the greater the chance that a soldier will find something to relate to.

COLIN: For the most part, I still feel pretty good about what I did, personally and with my squad, while I was over there. There were a few missions I questioned and disagreed with while I was over there, and those are the ones I remain skeptical about today, but for the most part I know that I and we did our best to help the people we were able to. There were casualties, but I understand that that is a consequence of war, no matter how unnecessary and unfortunate it may be or seem.

Much like when I was on the ground, I try to focus on the micro, not the macro. I can only control what I can control; worrying about anything else is counterproductive. And that’s how I feel about the experience now. I feel good about what I was involved with, but when I step back and look at the still ongoing war in Afghanistan as a whole, it’s difficult for me to reconcile the casualties on all sides with the very little that seems to actually have been accomplished as a whole for the country.

I say what I said to ‘Radio Boston’ because I strongly want for there to be a valid reason for the injury to my friend, the death of that young boy, all of the death, all of the destruction, the pain I feel and that I’ve put others through. But for the life of me, I still couldn’t tell you what that reason is.

5. Lauren, do you feel there are ways that your military experience differed from Colin’s because you are a woman?

LAUREN: Yes, it’s much harder to pee as a female wearing body armor. Seriously. Also of course there’s the issue of being a vast minority. I was one of seven females on my PRT of 80 people, which is actually a pretty high percentage. The ratio on our FOB was more drastic. It was a blackout FOB, and I was always on edge walking alone at night. My team was amazing and the guys were very protective, and I think because of that, and maybe because I was an officer, I never personally dealt with serious harassment. But I know women who have. It’s a terrible added stress you shouldn’t have to worry about in a war zone.

Being a woman in a bureaucratic role was interesting, because my reception from Afghan men was highly variable. Some men warily shook my hand, some skipped right over me to the male soldier on either side, some were overly enthusiastic, like I was an exciting anomaly. When females were out on missions, the Afghan media would film and take photos of us, even if we had nothing to do with what was going on. More than once I ended up on the government news station. It was weird and uncomfortable and sometimes deflected the focus from the mission.

The best part about being a deployed female was that I could talk to Afghan women. We sat in on women’s affairs meetings and PRT-sponsored training programs for women, like midwifery training or civics training educating women about their constitutional rights. I found all the women unbelievably beautiful and inspiring. They spoke candidly about wanting to build a better future for their children and were so grateful for us leaving our families to come work with them. And I loved the little girls. They tended to be pushed around by the boys, and we all hoped that seeing females in uniform, doing the same things as the men, would be empowering to them. Colin and I have talked about adopting an Afghan girl someday.

COLIN: This is why it’s so important for Lauren and others to share their accounts. There wasn’t a single female on either of the FOBs where I was stationed. No deployment experience is the same; that’s why it’s so important we get as many narratives out as possible.

6. To open your poem “Spring Offensive,” Colin, you quote Mahmoud Darwish:
Sadness is a white bird that does not come near a battlefield.
Soldiers commit a sin when they feel sad.

Both of you have struggled with the reintegration process since your return home. Colin, you lead workshops for veterans and civilians to help them understand war through writing. Lauren, your essay in Glamour described the shame and fear you felt in seeking help for your own Chronic Adjustment Disorder, which you describe as “PTSD lite,” but ended on the more hopeful note of gradual recovery and having met Colin. How has this connection with other veterans developed over the last few years, and how important has talking with like-minded or sympathetic people been to your recovery?

LAUREN: We both get pretty fired up talking about veteran mental health because it’s such a poorly handled topic. For a long time no one talked about it. Now, PTSD is kind of a trendy issue, but it’s discussed in a very sensationalized way. The media focuses on extreme cases where a veteran has totally debilitating PTSD or where someone “snaps” and commits a violent crime. Dr. Phil had a segment literally titled “PTSD takes veterans from heroes to monsters.” Obviously those things happen, and we as a society need to do a better job of supporting people who are suffering to that degree. But there is a whole range of mental health that isn’t acknowledged. It’s not black and white, you’re totally fine or you’re a danger to yourself and everyone around you. The vast majority are somewhere in the middle: fully-functional adults contributing positively to society, but who have triggers and sometimes struggle with complicated emotions or reactions to stimuli.

The lack of discussion about that gray area was part of what was so hard for me when I redeployed. I knew I was having issues, but they weren’t in line with what I knew about PTSD. And there’s this idea that you have to earn the right to have mental health issues. I hadn’t been in direct combat, so I didn’t feel like I’d earned it. That made me feel guilty, which just amplified everything else. I know now that it’s a neuro-chemical issue. Science is finally at a point where we can see that. Everyone is programmed differently and responds differently to situations. You can’t choose whether or not you’ll suffer or to what degree.

That issue—being a non-combat veteran who struggled with readjustment—is a big part of what I write about because I think like it’s an important missing piece of the discussion. For me, the goal of veteran writing is twofold (besides personal reasons): to share your story with other veterans so they can find elements to relate to, and also to promote better understanding in the general public and hopefully build a better support system. Like I said earlier, the more narratives there are, the greater our understanding of war will be.

There’s a growing veteran writing community, and it’s amazing. Colin and I have both been so inspired reading or listening to work by other veterans. There aren’t a lot of creative outlets in the military, and it’s incredible what happens when vets find one. We all tend to relate on multiple levels, as veterans and as artists. That’s a pretty incredible instant bond. And even though our experiences are all so different, there are always similarities. My mom and I connected in a new way when I started talking to her about my deployment; she was able to open up for the first time about a lot of her own post-deployment struggles—twenty years later! That was also what initially drew me to Colin. I read a few of his poems and thought, “holy crap, this guy reached into my head and knows exactly how I feel!” The rest, as they say, is history.

COLIN: As is so often the case, Lauren has said it much better than I ever could. But I’ll try to add something.

Obviously, sharing my story with fellow vets and non-vets alike has literally changed my life. I often say, because it’s true, that writing saved my life. Without that creative outlet, I’m sure I would have succumbed to my self-destructive tendencies.

shortlythereafterAnd sharing followed from the writing. It was not only a way to get the negative energy out of myself, but to put it out in the world, not to hurt the world, but as an inquiry. And I got responses. I got responses from other writers, who helped me hone my craft, make me better at transposing my inner-turmoil. I got responses from fellow-vets, who related. I got responses from other vets who write, the beginning of what has turned into great friendships and collaborations. I got responses from people in my life, who after being pushed away were able to begin to understand why I had become the person I was.

And for me, the most important response was that I entered treatment. People sometimes hear the word “therapy” and get uncomfortable. But put the word “physical” in front of it and it’s not an issue. If someone injures their leg or arm, they receive medication, they go to physical therapy and have to work hard, often painfully, to rehab the injured part back to its pre-injury state. That’s exactly what I’m doing. PTSD is not a disorder so much as an injury (there’s a movement to get the “D” removed, but that’s a discussion for another day). The brain alters its physiology, its neurochemistry, in the extreme and prolonged stress of war. And there are other effects that come with that, just as a broken bone will often lead to atrophied muscles. The approach to healing and restoration is the same, but only one comes with the stigma. And that’s what we’re working against.

I think it’s important to note a couple of things here. First, Lauren’s essay in Glamour rang true with me as well, as I, even to this day, feel guilt over my PTSD. One thing that the backlash she received after the essay’s publication revealed was something I had known for some time: we can all point to someone who had it better than us; we can all point to someone who had it worse. Second, I think it’s important that I make clear that this is a process for me. I still have PTSD. I still have days where I simply can’t leave the house. I still have nights where I lose myself, looking for answers at the bottom of a bottle, feeling unworthy of both the pain I feel and the happiness I’ve found, lost in some hazy emotional purgatory. They are certainly fewer and further between than they were six years ago, but they’re still there, lurking, waiting to come out.

I may be the one leading workshops and giving lectures, but I always walk away from them having learned something as well. Healing, it’s a process, a journey, not a destination. For me, that’s the most important thing I’ve learned, the most important thing I can share with others who find themselves in similar situations. I shared my story. I didn’t realize at first, but my writing was me reaching out to the world for help, for some semblance of an answer. And I’m still writing. And I’m still reaching out, asking questions, reflecting, writing more. I’m still in treatment. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

7. What are you both working on now?

LAUREN: Other than preparing to spend the rest of our lives in holy matrimony?

halloran_4Wedding day, July 12, 2014, at the Seattle Public Library (photo by Victoria Porto, Victoria Porto Photography). Congratulations, guys!

I just graduated from the Emerson College creative writing MFA program, so I’m working on turning my thesis manuscript into a full-length memoir about my mother’s and my service.

COLIN: I have another poetry manuscript that is out under consideration at a whole bunch of publishers. It’s not quite a sequel to Shortly Thereafter, but it picks up thematically where that collection left off, using metaphor, persona, and reflective narrative to further explore the challenges and struggles of my adjustment/reintegration journey. I won’t lie, it gets pretty dark, but I was in a pretty dark place while I was writing most of it.  Like Shortly Thereafter, I wanted the book to have an overall narrative arc, and that structure is a mirror of my spiral into darkness. But I like to think it ends on a note of hope, reflecting where I am now.

Next up is a prose memoir that I’ve started, but will likely be working on for quite some time. Having already explored the material through poetry in order to reach its emotional core and essence, I find that prose allows me to explore it in a broader, more philosophical and academic manner.

Also, I’m incredibly honored to be judging the poetry contest for this year’s Proud to Be: Writing by Warriors (Vol. 3).

8. Finally –
Colin, I love your lines in the poem “4th of July”
I fire off some flares
and wonder what this will look like
when my mind’s had
sixty years to shape it.

Any closing thoughts? Anything else you want to say about your experiences as writers, veterans?

LAUREN: Everyone should read work by and about veterans. It’s important, but also just really stinking good. And there are many resources out there for veterans wanting to give writing—or other creative endeavors—a try. Veterans Writing Project, Warrior Writers, Combat Paper Project, Words after War . . . It’s a growing community full of wonderful, intelligent, supportive people.

COLIN: I think that the most important thing I’ve learned through all of this is that no matter how isolated and alone you feel or think you are, you’re not. But the only way to discover that is to share your story and give others the opportunity and safe space to share theirs. It can be incredibly difficult to open up and share, but in the end, it is so worth it. And who knows, you may even meet your spouse because of it.

Lauren and Colin, thank you so much for joining me here! I’m eager to keep up with whatever you write!


Lauren Halloran blogs at UNCamouflaged. She’s also featured in the collection There: Writings on Returnings.

Colin Halloran has a poetry collection, Shortly Thereafter, and maintains a blog here.

Both Lauren and Colin have writing in the anthology Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors.