Interview with Helen Benedict

When I was writing Flashes of War, I didn’t read any fiction about Iraq and Afghanistan. But I immersed myself fully in many skillfully researched nonfiction books about war, the military, and the Middle East. It was during this time that I came across the work of author Helen Benedict and first read her essays, The Lonely Soldier. Later, I learned that she had also written Sand Queen, another “war” book–only this one was fiction. Intrigued, I reached out to her online and was honored and pleased to get a response. Today, I’m happy to share this brief interview with Helen Benedict on The Writing Life blog. Enjoy–and thanks, Helen, for the incredible writing you’ve shared and the positive changes that have happened as a result of your work.

From Helen’s website: Helen Benedict is the author of six novels and five books of nonfiction. Her latest novel, SAND QUEEN,
set in the Iraq War, is now out in paperback from Soho Press. Culled
from real life stories of female soldiers and Iraqis, SAND QUEEN offers a
story of love, courage and struggle from the rare perspective of two
young women on opposite sides of a war.
Helen Benedict’s books, SAND QUEEN, and THE LONELY
SOLDIER, along with her articles about the sexual assault of women in
the military, inspired the award-winning documentary, The Invisible War,
shown to acclaim at Sundance, 2012. Benedict’s work also inspired a
landmark law suit against the Pentagon on behalf of victims of military
sexual assault, and won the 2010 EMMA award from the National Political
Caucus, the Ken Book Award, and the James Aronson Award for Social
Justice Journalism.

Katey Schultz: You’ve explored the topic of women in the military through fiction and nonfiction. As you were writing the novel Sand Queen, in what ways did you feel limited or freed up by the genre? Likewise in nonfiction, as you wrote The Lonely Soldier, where did the genre itself limit and free what you ultimately chose to publish?

Helen Benedict: I can best answer this by
discussing both books at once because my decision to write the novel, Sand Queen, really came out of certain limits I found while researching and writing my nonfiction book, The Lonely Soldier. While doing research, I listened to the women in my book for many, many hours over many, many months, and did my best to render their stories as true to the way they told them as I could. But often, as they talked, they would hit a wall and fall silent, either unable or unwilling to enter certain traumatic memories of war, remorse, betrayal or loss. I came to feel that it was in those very silences that the true story of war lay–the inner experience of it as felt by these women soldiers. And that inner experience –that field of silence–is exactly where fiction belongs. So I wrote Sand Queen as a way of penetrating the experiences of war more deeply than I could in nonfiction.

KS: I imagine that fictionalizing real events is not as easy as it sounds, because there must be a constant push/pull between the true, lived experience and the fictional, created experience. What advice do you have for authors trying to fictionalize real events? In particular, how can writers achieve that feeling of organically imagining new, surprising details (where our best writing often takes place) when they already know what actually happened?

HB: I think that if an author tries to stay too close to real events when writing fiction, the facts might indeed weigh down and limit the imagination. Sand Queen is not based on any real person or series of events. Sometimes an anecdote or event I had heard from a soldier would flow into the story naturally, but I purposely avoided trying to model the novel on any actual person’s story. For that reason, I find it’s better to fact check after the first draft. Leave your imagination unfettered. Then check for accuracy and plausibility later, and change accordingly.

KS: Were there any cultural, legislative, or personal positive changes made as a result of writing and publishing The Lonely Soldier or Sand Queen?

HB: Yes, I am pleased to say. My books and articles on women soldiers, and especially on the sexual assault of military women by their so-called comrades, inspired a landmark class action suit against the Pentagon on behalf of service members who have been sexually attacked while serving. My work also inspired the documentary, The Invisible War. That film was nominated for an Oscar and has been watched on Capitol Hill and by the military’s top brass, leading to ongoing changes in the law. The film is now watched by incoming Marines and others in the military too, as part of basic training. I get letters from veterans almost every week saying how alone they felt until they read my book or saw that film, which is one of the most rewarding things that’s ever happened to me. It’s important to say, though, that the people with true courage here are the women and men speaking out about assault in the military…that takes guts, and my books could not have existed without them. They’re the ones truly making the military change.

KS: What are you writing and reading these days and what do you enjoy most about each?

HB: I am writing a novel about the relationship between Iraqi refugees and American soldiers, and reading all sorts of things, from Joan Silber’s new story collection, Fools, to the new novel by Khaled Hosseini, the author of The Kite Runner and the wonderful book about women in Afghanistan, A Thousand Splendid Suns. His new one is And The Mountains Echoed. One day, I will move on from reading and writing about war. I think. But the subject is addictive not so much because war brings out the worst of what we humans do, but because it has brought me face to face with some of the most generous and noble people I have ever met. What do I enjoy most about each? All I can say to that is I cannot imagine being able to live without reading or writing. They are as essential as oxygen.

Learn more about Helen Benedict and her work here.

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