Mark Fabiano: Your short story Roadside Flowers plays with images, scenes, and details of beauty in common settings. You begin with this lovely image of Hoa holding flowers, and you weave her into the story in other scenes involving photography. What led you to this title and how does it aptly capture the pulse of your story?
Karin C. Davidson: Images sometimes begin my stories. In writing “Roadside Flowers,” a story that stands alone and is also a chapter in my novel-in-progress, I originally described this image in another chapter – in which a young soldier on a Greyhound bus holds a worn photograph of a little girl standing on a dirt road. I wanted to know more about these characters and this photograph, and so I followed their lead. The title came from the first image, Hoa waving wildflowers that she’d gathered from the roadside. Afterwards, I thought about how close the phrase was to roadside bombs; at least, my mind went there. It seemed an unconscious acknowledgment of the beauty and horror that are side by side in war. Perhaps that’s how it captures the story’s pulse, in that a soldier carries a camera and an M-16, then is ordered to shoot photos, rather than the enemy, and through his lens, war is bathed in bravery, fright, handfuls of flowers, generosity and innocence, duty, anger, artillery, mud, exhaustion, and death. Life, a little girl, a fistful of flowers seemed a good way to begin.
MF: Faulkner says, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Roadside Flowers, like many of your stories, takes this to heart, whether consciously or not, in that the story’s timeline is not a linear one. That is, time—past and present—fluctuates according to the needs of the story, which is told in a natural innate narrative impulse of the character James Williams. Talk about the decisions you CONSCIOUSLY made about representing time in this story.
KCD: TIME. Joan Silber’s books—The Size of the World, Ideas of Heaven, Fools, and of course, The Art of Time in Fiction—have taught me so much about time. I do struggle with time in fiction, but my CONSCIOUS decisions about time in this story—yes, I can tell you about those. The time frame is, of course, during the war in Vietnam—namely, the Year of the Water Rat. 1972. Already, in terms of the politics, the military operations, the ongoing destruction, and the reaction to this war, a lot had happened: escalation, the Tet Offensive, Nixon doctrine and Vietnamization, the ongoing U.S. anti-war and counterculture movements, the bombing of Cambodia and Laos months away, and the draft one year from ending. This is off the page, but in my mind, as I wrote the story. So there is historical time.
For James, there is personal time, in terms of how young he is, what he knows before his tour of duty and what he learns during his tour. He was raised in Florida in the 1950’s and 60’s, and he is really still a boy when he is drafted. So there’s the sequence of time of boyhood into manhood.
And in the writing, there is what Joan Silber—in The Art of Time in Fiction—calls Switchback Time, in which the story zigzags among time frames, from the time in which the story is told, the time in which the story takes place, and a time further back. All of these moments in time work together to “clarify and expand what a story is about,” somewhat like associative thought. And this is where James’ way of telling the story comes in, reflective, but not removed from everything that happens to him in Vietnam.
MF: On research. Not to demystify the artful treatment that this story accomplishes regarding the Vietnam war, nor your mastery and love of language, but could you speak about the kinds of research you needed to do in order to make this story true. Specifically, the dialogue between James, Shields, the CO and other soldiers.
KCD: Years of research. I’ve read actual military reports, books on the history of the Vietnam War, fiction, poetry, memoir, letters from soldiers. I’ve watched films—documentaries and feature films. I’ve spoken with Vietnam veterans, via email and in person, especially CAP Marines, who had worked in villages with the South Vietnamese Popular Forces toward pacification, rather than with companies whose orders were to search and destroy. I’ve studied photographs, from the archives of Life Magazine and Stars and Stripes, and from personal and museum and art gallery collections.
The war in Vietnam was the backdrop to my childhood, and by the time I was a teenager, I knew a lot of boys who had returned home, no longer boys. We didn’t talk about where they’d been and what they’d seen. Conversations never went there. Later, I had to wonder. But these friends weren’t around anymore to ask, and maybe they still wouldn’t have wanted to talk.
And so I turned to art, literature, archives, films, and Vietnam veterans—some of them accomplished writers—for answers. The visual of a photograph, a line of poetry, a passage in a work of fiction, a conversation with a veteran, or a letter from a soldier to his parents—these are the media and moments that inspired me to keep writing the novel. The dialogue of the soldiers came from these moments, trying to understand how orders deployed led to duty. Even in the midst of the confusion and devastation, one followed orders.
MF: Tim O’Brien’s narrator in “How To Tell A True War Story,” says, “A true war story, if truly told, makes the stomach believe.” What is it in this story that you want the reader’s stomach to believe? Or better yet, do you think you accomplished a “stomach-truth” for a reader to take away? If so, what might that be?
KCD: When I write a story, I let the viewpoint character take the lead. In this instance, to understand James, I had to go where he was at this point in his life, someplace completely new, a land exotic and beautiful and terrifying, the farthest from anywhere he’d ever been. In creating a sense of place, in creating the character as deeply as possible, I hope I’ve created this kind of truth for the reader.
MF: From the very start and continuing all the way through “Roadside Flowers,” you deftly layer in brushstroke upon brushstroke of details, confirming Tim O’Brien’s dictum that “True war stories do not generalize.” In a sense, this is true of all great stories, not just ones about war. How do you choose which details to use in your stories and where to embellish them, in general, and in “Roadside Flowers” in particular?
KCD: Details! Sometimes I get too caught up in the details and have to pull back. That said, I think that one must imagine the particulars of setting, scene, and characters in order to create the believability, complication, tone, and momentum that story requires. Without details, there is no story. Choosing details is never random, but purposeful, careful, sometimes tipping the story into unexpected places. As the story progresses, the details increase, revealing all of those images caught in James’ photographic lens, magnified, cropped, blown into and out of perspective.
Recently, I’ve taken a break from reading war literature. I’ve been reading Lee Martin’s novels, story collection, and memoirs, incredibly thankful for his portraits of farmland and family, seasons and time passing. Wheat kernels, killing frosts, marigolds and zinnias, the worn arms of a rocking chair, the trace of a smile. These details— perfectly placed, lingered over, returned to—ground us, allow us entry into and passage throughout the story. Exactly what I hope my stories accomplish.
MF: What are your thoughts about women writing on war? War veteran and novelist Cara Hoffman wrote in a MARCH 31, 2014 NYT Op-Ed that “stories about female veterans are nearly absent from our culture. It’s not that their stories are poorly told. It’s that their stories are simply not told in our literature, film and popular culture.” Do you think that “Roadside Flowers” contributes a female voice about war despite the use of a male character? How does it and or how doesn’t it contribute to war literature in general, and women’s war literature specifically?
KCD: A complicated question and a good one to end on, Mark.
Regarding Cara Hoffman’s article, “The Things She Carried,” I will have to disagree with her premise that women veterans’ stories are “not told in our literature, film and popular culture.” There are many women veterans writing fiction, poetry, essays, scripts, and screenplays. Perhaps what Ms. Hoffman means is that female veteran writers are not granted the same consideration as male veteran writers. Another gender imbalance in the world of literature worth questioning, another VIDA moment.
Among writers of war literature, specifically those who experienced war firsthand as soldiers, men have certainly had more attention than women. Of these men and women, the list is long. The women writers who are war veterans, approach memoir, poetry, and fiction with the honest emotion and wherewithal that comes from having been there, from the drills of training camp to the dust and adrenalin of war zones. They see the picture in ways very different from their male counterparts, in ways that search and pause and consider, turning a moment over and over and realizing it still cannot be completely understood.
That said, sometimes I feel like an imposter. I’ve never been to war. The war in Vietnam came to my generation on the nightly news, in the body counts, from the protests, and in the midst of those who returned but seemed elsewhere. There was a fellow I knew who’d flown Hueys (the UH1E helicopters used then mostly by the Marines). He came home to New Orleans and couldn’t find work that matched his training. So he worked odd jobs, just making it. He had a lot of time on his hands, and he’d come around, always ready for a beer, and sometimes in the middle of a conversation, he’d stop and stare off into space. He had a great sense of humor, kind of down-home and dirty, with a huge heart. He’d grin and carry on, always looking for trouble, but never finding it in the way he had in Vietnam.
In writing about war, as a woman who has never been to war, I have company. And here I will call out names: Bobbie Ann Mason, Toni Morrison, Jayne Ann Phillips, Siobhan Fallon, Roxana Robinson, Mary Akers, and so many more. Write what you know doesn’t live here; write what you want to know, what you need to know does. So yes, “Roadside Flowers” contributes a female voice to war literature, and I imagine how it contributes, whether in the context of war literature, or specifically as women’s war literature, would lie in the readers’ reactions. If James’ experience lingers in their minds, makes them consider the bright and dark design of war, then perhaps that’s how.
Mark Fabiano’s fiction has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The Green Hills Literary Lantern, The Long Story, and elsewhere. He was awarded an Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award in Fiction for 2008. His scholarly work has appeared in Muses India: Essays on English-Language Writers from Mahomet to Rushdie, International Journal of Communications, FORUM: The University of Edinburgh Postgraduate Journal of Culture and Arts, The Facts on File Companion to the American Novel, The Facts on File Companion to the American Short Story, and others.He has an MFA in Creative Writing (Fiction) from George Mason University, an MA in English from Wright State University, an MA in International Affairs, Communications and Development Studies from Ohio University, and a BA in English from Ohio State University. He served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Sri Lanka., a setting for many of his stories and his novel, The Road to the Singing Lagoon. He has taught creative writing, literature, and more at various colleges for over 11 years.