INTERVIEW WITH GIRL MEETS VOICE
Deborah Siegel, PhD, principal of Girl Meets Voice, a consultancy that helps experts and writers find, hone and share a public voice, sits down with novelist Rita Dragonette.
DS: You’ve just finished your debut novel, The Fourteenth of September, after 12 years. Congratulations! Tell me about it.
RD: The story follows Private First Class Judy Talton, who is in college on a military scholarship during the Vietnam conflict, and has been having doubts about the war and her role in it. The novel begins on her birthday—The Fourteenth of September—when she decides to go underground into the campus counterculture to better understand the argument of the antiwar movement.
By doing this she puts in jeopardy her future and her relationship with her mother, a WWII nurse. She also puts herself in peril: If the army finds out, she’ll lose her scholarship and could also be prosecuted. If the counterculture finds out, they’ll think she’s a spy.
When September 14 is pulled as the #1 birth date in the new Draft Lottery that determined the order of young men going to war, Judy realizes that with a flip of a chromosome coin, she’d be off to Vietnam. This plunges her into a journey between head and heart as she’s forced to make a decision as fateful as that of any Lottery draftee.
I think of the story as posing a female dilemma in an era that was considered to belong to men.
I also think of it as if Tim O’Brien, in the “On the Rainy River” chapter of The Things They Carried, had been a woman.
DS: It’s fascinating to me, as someone interested in women’s narratives and experiences, that the story from a woman’s point of view about this time hasn’t really been told. Why hasn’t it, do you think?
RD: I think we generally think of and tell “war stories” through the soldiers that were actually fighting. I’m sure there are probably stories about mothers and girlfriends on the home front, and I know there was at least one memoir by a nurse who was in Vietnam. I was interested in the female point of view from another “front,” if you will, which was the campus where so many of the draftee age men were. It was rarefied—no real parental influence, no real primary source information. We weren’t even allowed televisions in our rooms then, so even though Vietnam was, as they say, the first war that was in our living room every night, it wasn’t in the dorm room. Our information was word of mouth from each other and we believed it. As women, there was a responsibility to do whatever you could, in a way, to compensate for the fact that you weren’t in actual danger of losing your life. We led a lot of the antiwar activities, helped our friends and boyfriends dodge—which often included risky behavior like not eating—or cope, which often included drugs. We held hands, dried tears, offered physical comfort, listened to them rage, mopped up vomit, talked them down from bad trips, experienced survivor guilt. It felt like we were in it—we were in it. That’s why the tag line for The Fourteenth of September is “Not All Battlefields are on the Front.” Judy’s dilemma is, of course, one of the most poignant in terms of guilt. She’s really in it—all but her life is on the line.
DS: We’ve just gone through, and will continue to go through, some major national tumult with the 2016 election. How might looking back at this moment in collective history help us understand our current times? Why this story? Why now?
RD: If you look at the world today, you see how we’re questioning our new top leadership, facing what looks to be an inevitable—and probably unwinnable—war (or wars) that will require far more soldiers than a volunteer military can provide. And, we continue to bend over backwards to avoid another military draft. These issues are the very subject of my novel. How we faced them in the time frame of 1969 and 1970—between the first Draft Lottery and Kent State—highly informs the caution and fear with which we’ll be approaching the current conflict as it escalates. The world situation makes it relevant to all audiences today.
Fiction gives us the context for understanding, though it changes over time. Boomers all read Shirley Jackson’s story "The Lottery" in school and know that it meant death. Generation Xers read The Things They Carried, and know what Vietnam did to their fathers. Millennials have watched The Hunger Games and also know that a lottery means death.
DS: Speaking of caution and fear on a more grassroots level, do you see any salient parallels between young people who are struggling to define activism today and the struggles you chronicle in the book?
RD: What keeps occurring to me when I see, for example, the responses to the protests after the recent election, is the similarity. In the time frame of my story the whole atmosphere—aside from genuine fear—was of being powerless. You had to be 21 to vote in those days, yet the majority of draftees where closer to 19. It felt like these old guys were using us as pawns as they were playing with politics over a war that, by the end of 1969, no longer had any patriotic or save-the-world point. It was about pride. We’d never lost a war and we weren’t going to lose this one. I don’t mean to oversimplify—we were kids—we were focused on the equation: I could be sacrificed for a bad war/lost cause, just so the US doesn’t look bad.
Today, the vote itself was a protest for certain segments of the population who felt powerless. The protesters are other segments who also feel powerless that this happened. Having no power always feels like something is not fair.
When you are powerless, when you can’t impact what you feel isn’t fair—you protest. Different tools are available at different times—voting, marching, property destruction, social media campaigns. The vehicles change, but the impulse is the same. The proper channels have let us down, so we turn to emotion—it’s rage.
DS: As a Gen Xer, I appreciate the historical bridge you’re making here. Eager to hear more about the novel’s origin. Why you? Why are you telling this story and what prompted it?
RD: The story is actually based on my own circumstances during the time. I was in school on an army scholarship similar to ROTC, which is the only way I could afford college. I remember agonizing if being in the army and taking their money made me complicit in the war. The combination of the Lottery (choosing who, as we felt, was going to die as if in a game show) and then Kent State (watching the government shoot students, just like us) challenged everyone. Even then, I felt it was a seminal time frame for my generation and an equal conflict for a woman as a man.
DS: The blurring between reality and fiction, when it comes to events as horrific as lotteries and unwinnable wars, makes me wonder about questions of form. Why did you decide to capture the conflict in the form of a novel? Why not a memoir?
RD: The story was never intended to be about me—only based on what went on during this very short time frame between mid-September of 1969 and May of 1970. It was actually a writing instructor who suggested I use my own story. I was telling him that my protagonist needed a conflict similar to what I had experienced, and he told me I’d never be able to come up with anything better—or more original—than what I actually went through. That gave me the “permission” I needed to use it without feeling self-indulgent.
It didn’t even occur to me not to write it as fiction—so many things that really happened were just on the cusp of a story arc—just short of making the dramatic point. Actually, a huge hurdle to telling the story was when I stuck too much to what really happened. I had to distance myself, and make it true to what could have happened, but not tied to specific reality. At this point, I can’t even remember all of what really happened versus what I fictionalized.
DS: It sounds a bit like the story came through you—something I always marvel at when talking to novelists. And, speaking of genre, you call this a Coming of Conscience novel? I haven’t heard that term before. What do you mean by that?
RD: I think we’re all familiar with the Coming of Age novel, where a character grows into adulthood. Judy is only 19, and you could make a case for that for The Fourteenth of September. She does evolve from a wide-eyed, naive new recruit, into a member of the counterculture who accepts everything and goes with the crowd, and finally into what we’d probably call today a critical thinker with a mind of her own.
Further, all her issues have to do with character. She works really hard to figure out who she is if she stays in the army and who she is if she leaves. She weighs the stakes, the impact, the consequences—and not only for her—for her family, for her country. Ultimately, she has to decide who she is and in many ways, who she will be ever after, before she can decide what she will do. That’s pretty heavy for a teenager. I think Coming of Conscience characterizes it much more specifically than Coming of Age.
DS: So, I’ve heard you say Judy’s decision is like the draftee’s version of deciding to go to Vietnam or to Canada. We’ve just heard people talking about moving to Canada if the 2016 election didn’t go as they’d hoped—and for many people, it didn’t. It’ll be a moment of truth for them to see how their decisions—to stay and protest, or to leave—affect the rest of their lives. I predict we’ll see a lot of writing—across genres—about this time down the road. Which leads me to the big question: Why DO you write?
RD: Such an easy question. I’ve actually been pondering that a lot as I’ve finished this novel and begun another about women and war, as well as a memoir in essays. I think all writers feel compelled or we’d never do this, but I’d characterize how I feel about my writing now as driven to interpret. Perhaps it’s just the stage I’m at in my life, but I see patterns everywhere and in everything that are begging to be understood.
That’s why, for example, I’ve been frustrated when I’m asked about who the audience is that I’m writing for. I truly think it’s for all of them, because young or old they are all impacted. I feel that everything we are—physical, mental, familial, historical—is entwined. We are the ancestry.com of our time and to continue to move forward there’s an imperative—at least for me—to identify the patterns, to factor in everything, to acknowledge that, as I like to say, “nothing is irrelevant.”
And, if that’s true, everything that’s ever happened to any of us is relevant to all of us. That’s a lot of subject matter to keep me busy.