The Rumpus Interview with Jennifer Vanderbes

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Appropriately enough, given that Jennifer Vanderbes’s latest novel is about a World War II-era nurse, I interviewed her in the VA Hospital on 23rd Street and 1st Avenue, where I was recuperating from a minor illness. We’d been planning on meeting for breakfast but she was kind enough to switch plans and do a bedside interview, one only occasionally interrupted by the medical staff who were patching me up. I can testify to her excellent bedside manner, one that reminded me of her novel’s psychiatrist, Dr. Willard, who takes a professional and intellectual yet emotionally engaged approach to his patients.

Her latest book, The Secret of Raven Point, starts off with a young girl, Juliet Dufresne, whose brother goes to fight in World War II, only to disappear in Italy. She becomes a nurse and ships off with the hope of getting close to where he went missing, and possibly finding some answers. The book explores the experiences of figures not commonly foregrounded in war literature, such as support staff, civilians, and psychiatric casualties. And The Secret of Raven Point is in many way an exploration of alternate histories—a war novel written with confidence, knowledge, and insight, but also with a focus decidedly at odds with the standard images of World War II.

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The Rumpus: When people talk about the tradition of war literature, it’s often a very masculine tradition—the trench poets, then Hemingway, Mailer, Heller, James Jones, O’Brien—and it’s one that tends to privilege the experience of front line soldiers. In 1939, Hemingway puts out an anthology of what he considers the best war writing of all time and it’s called Men at War. Civilians, women—they’re somewhere off in the periphery, if they exist at all. Were you consciously arguing with that tradition?

Secret of Raven PointJennifer Vanderbes: I might have been arguing with Hemingway, which maybe sounds grandiose. I doubt he’d care. Hemingway always fascinated me—I think he’s misunderstood. His breakout novel is about a man who is impotent from the war. And if you look at the reviews of the time, nobody mentions the impotence. A Farewell to Arms is about a deserter. The masculine mythology he created for himself as a writer is very different from what he was actually writing about. And it allowed people to perceive him as this very tough guy writing about very tough things, when in fact, if you look at the texts, they are much more thoughtful and sensitive in dealing with more nuanced aspects of war and masculinity. Not to mention, he was a serious romantic!

A Farewell to Arms is a book with a nurse who is very much an object of love and womanly devotion and who doesn’t do that much nursing. It’s a book I love for its writing, it’s one of my favorite books of all time, but there are parts of it and characters that I felt didn’t get looked at. And those characters were interesting to me. So A Farewell to Arms might have been the only book I felt like I was actively in conversation with.

Rumpus: The other echo I see is with Pat Barker’s work. One of your main characters is a psychiatrist working with soldiers with battle fatigue, though unlike in her book, the psychiatric work is being done very close to the front.

Vanderbes: Pat Barker, obviously, she wrote three incredible novels about World War I, and she beautifully brought to light the work that was done on shell shock. What I found interesting, though, was learning that World War II had triple the rate of battle fatigue, or combat exhaustion, as World War I did. We’ve absorbed World War I as the war in which psychiatric trauma was tantamount, and yet it was much more pronounced in World War II.

Rumpus: Is that what led you to nursing?

Vanderbes: It was probably one-part research, one-part personal experience. I worked as a hospice volunteer. I’ve worked in hospitals. I was never trained as a nurse, but being with people in that capacity was something that was familiar to me, and something that was both terrifying and a privilege.

I’ve always put women at the center of my novels and I often put them in male domains. Practically speaking, the closest you could get to the front lines as a woman in WWII was as a field hospital nurse.

Rumpus: There’s a great moment in the book where there’s a confrontation between a nurse and a front line soldier. A familiar trope of war writing is the complaint about the comfortable and lazy support staff versus the front line soldier who understands the truth of war through his experience. But when an infantry captain confronts the head nurse, Mother Hen, she doesn’t cede an ounce of authority.

Vanderbes: Yes. He’s coming in very clearly to defy her authority and to harass a patient. Her experience has taught her that whatever happens on the battlefield, whatever hierarchy is at work, it all ends in the hospital. A patient is a patient. A patient could be a prisoner of war, too. There were a lot of morally complicating moments with German prisoners in American hospitals. What was the medical support staff supposed to do? You treat them as human beings, and maybe feel awful about it.

Rumpus: I remember talking to a nurse in Iraq who had tried and failed to save the life of an injured Marine, only to later have to care for the injured insurgent responsible for that Marine’s death. It’s a difficult, complicated experience that takes its toll.

Vanderbes: The experiences of the support staff are extremely complicated. In my second novel, Strangers at the Feast, I wrote about a Vietnam vet who had a desk job during the war and came back to a country that assumed he was going to go Rambo. The prejudice ruined his career. But in Vietnam there were something like nine million military personnel—I think less than one million served in combat. We imagine that most of what gets done by the Army and Navy involves guys with guns in direct combat.

Rumpus: Right, trigger-pullers.

Vanderbes: And actually there are millions of people taking part in the conflict. And having written a WWII novel, I now meet the children of veterans who’ll say, “Oh, my father was in Italy,” or, “My mother was in a homefront hospital”—most of the time they weren’t involved in direct combat.

Rumpus: And one of the things I love about this is that you’re concerned not just with the combatants but with civilians as well.

Vanderbes: I wish I could write another novel that was just the Italian civilian novel. It’s hard, because it’s ugly and there’s no happy ending. There’s a reference in Raven Point to what happened right after Monte Cassino, which was not American troops but Allied troops…

Rumpus: You’re referring to the mass rape and killings committed by the Moroccan Goumiers…

Nurses Hiking in Burma copyVanderbes: And there was a book that came out recently, What Soldiers Do, about the rapes Allied soldiers committed in France.

I really think the conversation we’ve allowed ourselves to have culturally about Iraq and Afghanistan has allowed people to talk about World War II in a way it wasn’t discussed for decades. For a while it was simply, “We beat the bad guys! Let’s move on.” The soldiers coming home—many of whom had done things they weren’t proud of in order to beat the bad guys—had no outlet to discuss their experiences. But simultaneous with the conversations we’re having about Abu Ghraib, we’re opening up other conversations about the nature of war itself and the kind of moral compromises it generates.

The fundamental question is, who gets to tell war stories? Whose voice is worth hearing? And what truths will we permit them to tell?

Rumpus: And you’re telling a very different World War II story. It’s not the story where you’re supposed to get a little misty-eyed and proud and a little sad in just the right way.

Vanderbes: I think I was frustrated. I enjoy war movies. But I do not enjoy the aspects of them where I feel that I’m being emotionally manipulated into patriotism. And I do feel proud of my country. But there was something missing in what I’d absorbed cinematically and some of what I’d read—there was a story I hadn’t yet experienced. And it was about a good war in which people do bad things. And I certainly didn’t want to write a war story in which war is a vague backdrop for characters to find love and passion. In real life, romance may be a necessary fiction to make wartime bearable, but when war is used in fiction to make a romance bearable, I cringe.

Rumpus: I think you respect somebody by treating their experience honestly, including the uglier aspects. Anything less is patronizing.

Vanderbes: And I strategically avoided large conflicts. The Battle of the Bulge. Normandy. People have written extensively about those events, people already have preconceived notions. So I took Italy, after the capture of Rome—a portion of World War II that nobody even at the time paid much attention to because we were kicking ass in France. But there were a lot of soldiers in the Apennines and it was a long winter. And that was a representation of what I wanted to do overall in the novel.

Rumpus: In what sense?

Vanderbes: I wanted to give name to the anonymous. It’s like in All Quiet on the Western Front, which is just a stunning, stunning book. I don’t think any novel has ever used a title so well, and has ever made you feel the insignificance of someone you got attached to through the book and made you understand that your relationship to them is not history’s relationship to them.

Rumpus: Another one of the tropes in the military is the “band of brothers,” which is a very real, very powerful thing. But you look at it from the perspective of Pvt. Barnaby, a character who, because of who he is, doesn’t fit into the band.

Vanderbes: This goes back to the question of men and war and the role of masculinity—war is often sold as a masculinizing experience. Barnaby was interesting as a character because he doesn’t at all fit the front line masculine stereotype. So his combat stress—also not considered part of the masculine experience—is exacerbated by feeling like he doesn’t experience the camaraderie that is obviously so integral to the military experience.

Rumpus: And then there’s the issue of shame. The aftermath of being involved in something that is horrific. Your battlefield psychiatrist, Dr. Willard, quotes Freud on how “savages” have purification rituals after combat, whereas we expect someone to go through military service and have nothing but unadulterated pride. And it seems like even today, we either want the veteran to be a symbol of pure heroism, or a traumatized shell.

Vanderbes: Right…those are the only two options. Willard was a character I loved writing. Willard has his own moments of struggling with masculinity, one where Juliet has gone off and frolicked with some front line soldier and he’s left behind, just a doctor, ashamed he’s not one of the guys toughing it out. But he also knows the frailty of the men at the front and has a very parental and caring relationship with his patients. And I think he firmly believes that trauma, combat exhaustion, that these are not indications of personal weakness. That these are normal responses to abnormal circumstances. And even in World War II, that idea was ahead of its time.

First Army Nurses to Cross the RhineComing out of World War I, the military establishment thought the guys who suffered shell shock must have been weak to begin with. So they thought they could integrate into the draft interview a psychological assessment that would weed out men prone to falling apart. And now, of course, we realize how horribly misguided and insulting that is. Because it discredits the normal responses of very normal, healthy, strong men. Any man that could go through the incessant front line killing and stride away with a big old happy smile, that’s the guy I’d call psychologically damaged.

Willard has a deep commitment to getting these men back into shape—and he’s morally compromised because he also understands he’s doing it as part of the assembly line. How does he convince someone to not be scared of something that’s genuinely scary, only to help him recover and send him right back into that terrifying situation? He has a terrible job. But everybody has a terrible job, in some ways. A terrible job in the service of a good cause.

Rumpus: I wanted to talk a little about sex and profanity.

Vanderbes: My favorite subjects.

Rumpus: One of Juliet’s friends is very comfortable with her sexuality, whereas Juliet is a bit different. And of course, her introduction to the male anatomy is treating all the soldiers in Naples with STDs.

Vanderbes: I felt so sorry for her! But that’s what they had a lot of nurses doing—obviously not the patriotic work they enlisted for. The propaganda posters of the time made becoming a nurse seem the noblest of acts. My favorite one reads, “Save His Life and Find Your Own.”

Rumpus: There’s also a really wonderful introduction to battlefield cursing in the book.

Vanderbes: “Heavens to fucking Betsy,” right? It was more interesting to me to get the profanity in the voice of someone like Mother Hen, the head nurse, rather than the front line soldiers. There’s already an assumption that the guys are out swearing every other word, so it’s uninteresting to depict.

Rumpus: I know you’re friends with the writer Elliott Holt, whose novel You Are One of Them reminded me of yours in some ways because both of your books are cleverly constructed anti-mystery novels.

Vanderbes: Well, it starts with Juliet wanting to find out what happened to her brother. How did he go missing? Is he still alive? I know there are a certain set of readers who will be frustrated with the novel because they like a tidy ending. The anti-mystery aspect of it really had a lot to do with the real history behind it, the nature of the war itself. It didn’t feel right to go, Oh, here’s the experience of someone who shipped off and served as a nurse and she got all the answers she ever needed and everything worked out perfectly. That seemed dishonest to the overall experience. Juliet enlists with a certain intent, and a certain illusion, as many did. Doctors, nurses, soldiers, quartermasters—they were all was disillusioned by the actual experience. Juliet’s actual experience in the field hospital had to be interesting enough and important enough to become the focus of the story.

Rumpus: And of course she matures. It’s a fairly simple question she starts out with, but as the story grows and grows in complexity, the narrow mystery plot can no longer contain what’s happening in the novel.

Vanderbes: That’s exactly it. It’s too constricting.

Rumpus: I was wondering if you found it helpful in any ways, writing this book, that you weren’t a veteran. Though there is clearly skepticism any time a non-veteran steps in and tries to claim authority to speak about war, did it also free you to deal with precisely those subjects that are missing from the conversation?

Vanderbes: I think as a non-veteran and as a woman it’s challenging to write about war.  There’s always a sense that your authority will be doubted, or at the very least, not respected. Do you have to have five bullet holes in your body to write X, Y, and Z story?

Rumpus: Or like Hemingway, the right amount of shrapnel.

Nurse in TentVanderbes: Exactly. The author’s persona casts a certain light on the story. Sometimes women get a pass to write about certain subjects and be taken seriously. The Civil War novel March, by Geraldine Brooks, is about a Civil War doctor. It’s a terrific book that takes the father from Little Women, the one missing male from a novel all about females, and places him in the war. So a woman has written about war but placed a man at the center of it—we accept that story as important and legitimate.

Pat Barker has done the same, placing men at the center of her war novels, though brilliantly challenging the idea of traditional masculinity along the way. I really love Pat Barker. And there’s one thing in my novel that’s an attempt to connect my World War II psychiatrist to her World War I psychiatrist…there’s a blue eye, that one of her characters and one of my characters see. I liked the idea of a continuity between the wars, one horrific image, a haunting that would seem to never end.

Rumpus: And she’s also writing about the aftermath of combat.

Vanderbes: In the way that Hemingway did. A Farewell to Arms is a hospital novel. Barker’s part of that tradition. You can have a war novel about people after they’re on the battlefield, and that’s as much a war novel as anything set on the battlefield.

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Featured image of Jennifer Vanderbes © by Eamon Hickey.


Phil Klay is a Marine Corps veteran and a graduate of the MFA program at Hunter College. He is the author of the short story collection Redeployment. More from this author →