by Mary L. Doyle (Army veteran, author)
Full disclosure, Susanne Aspley is not just a friend of mine, she’s a sister. I say that because we served in uniform together and aside from blood relationships, wearing the same uniform while enduring service in butt-crack parts of the world can bring a closeness that is unachievable any other way.
Most recently, the butt-crack part of life we’re sharing is that of finding the right words to put on the page. We commiserate together, encourage each other, and now that she has released her latest work, I get to celebrate it with her and share in her excitement. I’m so glad the rest of the world can now read this book.
The first time Susanne handed me her work to read I was nervous. I knew she could write. I’d read plenty of her work as a journalist. I just didn’t know what she would do when it came time to write a novel. As it turned out, Ladyboy and the Volunteer was easily one of the best books I’d read in a while. Susanne won a bunch of accolades for it, deservedly so, and I couldn’t have been happier for her.
Over the last several months, like any good author, Susanne struggled with her latest book, Granola, MN. I’d get email and text messages from her screaming that she didn’t know what she was doing, that everything was shit. Weeks later she’d be happy that her main characters, Allison and Toby, had worked things out, only to grow frustrated with them again. All the while I looked forward to reading the story because I knew that if Granola was anywhere near as interesting and funny and quirky and brilliant as Ladyboy was, I’d be looking forward to hours of reading enjoyment.
I’m happy to report that Granola, MN, is Aspley at her best. It’s a story of love and healing told with a kind of humor that sometimes sneaks up on you and at others times smacks you in the face. She shows us a world through the eyes of someone who is unapologetic about her naiveté which means she moves through life with an artless candor that is amusing and heartbreaking at the same time.
Just when you thought a topic might be something growing a little bit stayed, a little bit worn down, maybe something you thought you understood, Aspley gives us a completely unexpected viewpoint that makes it fresh and absorbing. I admit to reading this in small bits then going back to it like a treat I hoarded because I didn’t want it to be over. Lord knows, I needed a laugh at the time. If you feel like that at all, you’re going to want to read this.
Here is the blub:
Allison Couch has her hands full dealing with the assorted flakes, fruits and nuts in the small town of Granola. One summer morning, Toby Davenport moves back home. A young, black, Afghanistan War veteran, he has a heart of gold but a guilt-fueled addiction. Together, they take on parades, pit bull rescues, game show auditions, driving lessons, building inspectors, racism and falling in love. Heartbreaking, slapstick, and rambunctious, life never goes as planned. But there’s always hope, in Granola, Mn.
It’s a fantastic book. One I hope you’re going to enjoy as much as I did. And here’s what Susanne has to say about it.
The last time I saw you was when we were attending the Association of Writers and Writing Programs convention in Washington D.C. I know that wasn’t your first AWP but it was the first where you were on a panel and your first time meeting up with the strong military writing community that has sprung up around that convention. What did you think of the experience?
Susanne Aspley (with Eric Chandler) at AWP 2017
For the past year, my social life consisted of sitting behind a computer, banging my head on the desk as I dealt with Allison, Toby, Grandma and the rest of the character in Granola. I enjoyed their company and miss them, but I gave them a happy ending so I know they are okay without me. I then managed to crawl out into the real world and attend the AWP Conference in D.C. Writing is very solitary, so what a delight to interact with real people! Real writers! Real poets! Once there, I hardly felt worthy. I felt the ‘imposter syndrome’ that many writers say they feel when surrounded by such talent. Specifically, meeting authors and poets that I truly admire who write about war, and subjects related to war, had me nearly tongue tied. However, I was welcomed into the pack of veterans, active duty, military spouses and family members who write. Each and every one was supportive and encouraging, the way the military community usually is. I look forward to next year when I can spend more time learning and laughing with them.
Your novels, both Ladyboy and the Volunteer, and Granola, MN, take a rather irreverent look at the world. Even the most tragic and ugly aspects of humanity are looked at with a hint of humor and a unique perspective. Is that how you see life? Is it easier for you to explore some of the difficult themes you conquer by looking at things in this way?
Humor is an emotional release. When something is bad, it’s a way to process the pain so it becomes tolerable. It deflates what is bad to a manageable level. Soldiers in the field are a good example of this. In my books, the characters are constantly being tossed back and forth between tragedy and comedy. But that’s the duality of life. Ridiculous and serious, cruel and lovely. However, humor is also extremely subjective. When writing it, you run the risk of sounding offensive, juvenile or just stupid.
Aspley (lower left) and her children
Just about everyone in this story has a tragic past and Ally seems to take all of that history into consideration when she thinks about them. What are you telling us in terms of human interaction?
In the military, the term, ‘in the shit’, means being in combat. In the book, Toby was very much ‘in the shit’. Mr Whitehead, Morton and Sheldon were all ‘in the shit’, over in Vietnam, WWII and Korea, respectively. However, many characters have been ‘in the shit’, which doesn’t involve combat.
For example, the character Zach. When he’s on the porch talking to Allison, it’s funny and tragic at the same time. He’s never been in combat, but obviously he’s knee deep ‘in the shit’ with his baby and wife. And Allison has been as well. I think everyone has been ‘in the shit’ at some point in their lives, some deeper than others. We have no idea what’s going on with the people we encounter every day.
There are many themes of mental illness in this book, from depression to suicides. Some of that mental illness is portrayed as quirky, while other aspects are serious and life threatening. What was it about this topic that made you want to dig into it? What did you hope readers would learn?
I can write with great experience about depression and alcohol abuse. I hit rock bottom eight years ago. I have been hospitalized, in treatment and in jail because of service connected depression and alcohol abuse. I threw it all in the book for Toby and Allison to deal with. And they do. Toby gets the help he needs in the end, and it works for him, because he is willing to work at it. I want vets who are still struggling to know some days are better than others, but there is always hope if you accept the help out there and work at it daily.
From pit bulls to guinea pigs, animals play a large role in this story and they seem to have the same kind of attention to personality as the human characters in your books. The way your characters play off the animals seems to reflect on their character as well. Why is this?
In my opinion, how people treat animals is a direct reflection on their moral character. In Granola, Allison and Toby rescue a pit bull on their first ‘date’. In Ladyboy and the Volunteer, the old man rescues his dog, Scabby, from the horrific dog meat trade that still happens in Thailand.
I believe if someone sticks a firecracker up a dog’s nose or forces them to fight till death, the owners are twisted individuals who have no right to be in a civilized society. They probably victimize people as well. Minnesota passed a law to allow prosecutors to charge animal abuse/cruelty on a felony level. Prior, the most they could charge was a misdemeanor. We can thank Colonel/MN Senator Don Betzold for getting this legislation passed. Betzold was a JAG officer in the 88th Army Reserve.
Toby and his mother are the only black people in this small town. As a white author, do you feel you have the authority to write about such topics?
I have no authority whatsoever. But I live in a world with black people so have black people in my book. I can’t get in his head what it’s like to be black, but I can relate to him being a veteran, struggling with depression and drinking too much. That’s how Toby and I, as the writer, relate.
I can relate to Toby’s mom, Mrs. Davenport, as a single mom. In the book, when Allison goes over to talk to Mrs. Davenport after the accident, Mrs. Davenport expresses regret she didn’t make a bigger issue out of Toby’s depressive behavior at home. But as a mother, I get that. We want our kids to figure things out on their own. But there’s a fine line when you have to step in before it’s too late.
What made you want to explore these themes of racism? Do you worry about facing the same kind of backlash with this book and the black community?
In 1995-96, I was married to an Arab-American. He was Palestinian Muslim. His sisters and dear mother wear a hijab. With him, I experienced racial ignorance toward him and nastiness toward me. We often handled it with humor, which would defuse the situation. But, quite honestly, he was extremely anti-Semitic. He held contempt toward another group of people as well. And that wasn’t right, either.
Our country is very racially divided. The story is written first person, present, from a young, white woman’s point of view. I’m not young anymore but still white, so feel okay writing from this perspective. Keep in mind, I’m not relating to Toby as a young black male. I relate to him as a veteran, to his depression and drinking too much. Those things don’t care about color or age or nothing. Besides that, I think Toby is a just a really great guy.
Regarding backlash. I’ve already received a hate mail for having a pit bull on the cover of Granola. I was told to get my ‘facts straight’. The gentlemen directed me to a dog bites org website. Well, if you don’t like pit bulls, or the fact a white author wrote a book with a black character, then don’t read Granola, Mn. If you don’t like Thai ladyboy prostitutes, then don’t read Ladyboy and the Volunteer.
One of my favorite Kurt Vonnegut quotes is: “As for literary criticism in general: I have long felt that any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel or a play or a poem is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae or a banana split.”
Granola, MN takes place in a small town filled with characters many people might recognize. Did you have a particular Minnesota town in mind when you wrote the book?
Granola is based on the small town of Scottsbluff, Nebraska, where I grew up. Scottsbluff was filled with wonderful ‘characters’. It was mostly white, but (my guess) 25% Mexican. They were originally migrant workers for the sugar beet fields who eventually immigrated permanently. There was also a large population of Native Americans. Growing up there, us kids didn’t have a problem with race because we were too busy having fun.
Your first book, Ladyboy and the Volunteer, explores the world of transgender people and you faced a bit of backlash from the trans community about the book. What was that like?
I heard from several prominent American transgender women after the book came out. When I wrote back, we engaged in respectful conversation regarding my experience with my real life friend, Christine. Christine was a ladyboy. In Thailand, based on what I experienced with her, this is considered a third sex. Not a man transitioning into a woman, or man dressing up as a woman, or a man identifying as a woman. Christine was a complete and whole third sex. Using the word, transgender, is the best word to translate this in English. She, Velveeta and Samantha, were a third sex. The book better explains all of this.
I received a negative review from a book critic who is a former Peace Corps volunteer. Apparently, my Peace Corps ‘experience’ book didn’t match his expectations on what a Peace Corps ‘experience’ should be. Ladyboy and the Volunteer could have easily been a memoir. Five years ago, I pulled out a box of over 40 handwritten diaries I wrote during my service in Thailand. I made up the fat German and the mysterious briefcase thing, but most other scenes in the book are events that happened. Many parts of the book are transcribed word for word from my diaries. One of my favorite (and true) parts is the tuktuk driver in Bangkok, after I got robbed. He didn’t speak English, but his fatherly kindness was universal. It’s something my own dad would have done.
Ladyboy earned you a McKnight award. Did this recognition inspire or intimidate you when you started writing your second book?
I am grateful and humbled that some people like my style of writing. Not everyone does, and that’s okay. Writing a book is like raising a child. You pour your heart and soul into it and when it’s time, you push it out the door into the real world. You hope it succeeds and doesn’t get judged harshly.
What else would you like to add?
The bottom line/intention of me writing this book is I want people to smile. Life isn’t easy. It’s disappointing. It’s dispiriting. It’s like, why even bother getting off the floor because everything is so fucked. Then something amazingly beautiful happens, like the old lady bumbling up to the grocery store, and she gives you the sweetest little smile for no reason, and you realize, wow…It’s all going to be okay.
About the author:
Aspley retired as a Sergeant First Class after serving 20 years in the US Army Reserve as a photojournalist with tours in Bosnia, Cuba, Kuwait and Panama.
Aspley also served in the Peace Corps, Thailand, 1989-1991. She then worked in North Yorkshire, England as well as Ra’anana, Israel.
She holds a degree in English Lit with a minor in Film from the University of Minnesota and is a graduate of the Defense Information School, Ft Meade, MD. Retired, she enjoys her kids, rescued pit bull, and surly cat in Minnesota.
About the interviewer:
Mary L. Doyle has served in the U.S. Army at home and abroad for more than three decades as both a soldier and civilian and calls on those experiences in much of her writing. Mary is the award winning author of The Peacekeeper’s Photograph, The Sapper’s Plot, and The General’s Ambition, in the Master Sergeant Harper Mystery Series; The Bonding Spell, a new urban fantasy series and the co-author of I’m Still Standing; and A Promise Fulfilled, memoirs that tell the stories of strong women warriors. She has also penned Limited Partnerships, an adult romance series now released in omnibus format. All of her books are available on Amazon.com.