The Rumpus Interview with Whitney Terrell
Whitney Terrell’s vivid new novel The Good Lieutenant is shaped like the explosion that rips its characters apart during the opening pages. Afterward, that compressed moment of violence radiates backward through time, a rare, seldom-used narrative strategy made famous by Christopher Nolan’s post-noir film Memento. But The Good Lieutenant’s mystery isn’t about a crime; it’s more about how people’s complex interactions can presage a tragedy many years before it occurs.
Whitney teaches fiction in the MFA program at the University of Missouri–Kansas City (UMKC), and took ten years to write his latest novel, which features a female lieutenant in the US Army, Emma Fowler, as its main character. His previous books—The King of King’s County and The Huntsman—were both set in Kansas City, a two-million-person metro area that somehow manages to be provincial and worldly at the same time; however, although parts of The Good Lieutenant take place at Fort Riley in Western Kansas, most of the story unfolds overseas, where Whitney embedded twice as a journalist during the Second Iraq War.
I met Whitney six months ago, when he asked me, in my (now former) role as Interviews Editor at The Rumpus, to speak to his MFA students. In those early days, I knew him first as a teacher and friend, dedicated to his students and to writing. I didn’t know he held degrees from Princeton and from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, because he never mentioned them. Instead, he wanted to talk about Kansas City’s history of race and class problems, and about how to write good books.
After several conversations, I began to suspect that Whitney wasn’t just an excellent teacher—he was an excellent writer, too. And The Good Lieutenant didn’t disappoint. We sat down recently to discuss his work at Nick and Jake’s, a tavern a few blocks from UMKC’s campus in Downtown Kansas City.
The Rumpus: Because we’re starting fresh for people reading the interview, can you tell me a story you told me a while ago over beers—you told this story about how the novel came together over the last ten years. Can you tell that story again?
Whitney Terrell: Yeah, sure! You want the full arc? [Laughs] I started writing the book after I came back from my first embed in Iraq in 2006. I had known that I wanted to write about a female soldier. I had done some interviews in Iraq that were helpful for that. I was trying to write this book forward. The entire time it felt like—the image I had in my head was of a guy with a pickax trying to blast or chip through solid rock. It was incredibly difficult to write at the time. I never felt momentum. [Laughs] There were never openings. In a book, you’ll have hard parts you have to chip through, and then you get a crease and you can run for a while.
This was solid tunneling. No help at all. It was nerve-wracking. I bullshit myself into thinking everything was fine for two or three years. And then, probably around 2010, I’m going to have to recognize there are some problems here.
I made myself finish a draft. Just forcing it done. I turned it in—I wasn’t under contract, but my former publisher Penguin had right of first refusal. I turned it into them. My editor, Ray Roberts, who had edited my first two books, had died. So we were showing it to someone else. They said, “We don’t think Iraq books are going to sell.” Which meant, “This book isn’t working very well.” [Laughs] So I went into a total tailspin. For two years, man. Freaking out. Trying to rewrite this thing. Panicking. Sure I’d ruined my career because I’d taken on a project I couldn’t complete. I thought maybe I should’ve written about something else. Anything else.
So we finally sent the book out again after I couldn’t make it any better. Sean McDonald at FSG was interested. We talked about it. He said, “You have to get to the last 100 pages of this book quicker. Please.” [Laughs] I said, “Okay! I’m perfectly happy to get rid of the first 200 pages of this book. But I have to replace them with something.” But I couldn’t—it was the exact same feeling, tunneling through solid rock. So I gave up!
I was sitting there with the last forty pages of the book. I thought, I’ll turn it into a short story. The ultimate act of desperation! But I realized it couldn’t be a short story. It was too depressing. It said, “War is bad for people and this character’s life has been grievously injured by her participation in it.” Everybody knows that.
While I was there, realizing I was about to throw away what was by then seven years of work, I accidentally put one scene behind another scene. A scene from earlier in the book behind a later scene. And paging through, I had this inspiration. That if I reversed the flow of the novel, the narrowness of the ending was no longer a problem. The novel could build backward in time. The characters would become more interesting, fuller, more developed. The ending would be more complicated.
That was the moment of insight that made it possible to write the book. It took six or seven years to arrive at that point. Depending on when you’re counting from. There’s the friendly time you can say I started that makes it look like it didn’t take quite so long, and then there’s the horrible time—the unpardonable amount of time it took me in reality. [Laughs]
Rumpus: Rather than the book narrowing, the explosion opens the book and the story widens in scope. It’s shaped like an explosion.
Terrell: I’d never thought of that. That’s very interesting. An explosion is this condensed moment, and its reverberations go out. There are other images you can think of, too. A rock going into a pond and the ripples going out from that. The explosion image is great. I’d never thought of that until you said it. That awesome and works just fine. You’re thinking about the reverberations instead of how an event happened. But it’s also about how people’s personalities and arguments and decisions all led to this moment.
That was a much more interesting way to look at the book. That’s when I found my crease in the wall of solid rock. I wrote the book in a very short period of time after that. It involved an almost-total rewrite. I had those scenes. I laid them out on my office floor in the opposite direction. And I knew it would work theoretically. But I also knew that didn’t mean those scenes could really just be placed in a reverse order. You have to rethink the way the reader is seeing the book. You have to learn how to write a book backwards. That’s very difficult. It’s counterintuitive.
You have to show it to a lot of people. You have to say, “Where are you lost?” You have to build in mechanisms to help the reader understand the narrative as it unfolds backward through time. By the time I got to where I had to write new material for that last draft—about the time you get to Fort Riley—everything was from massively reworked scenes—that stuff was extremely easy to write. By then, I knew how to do it. It took three months.
Rumpus: It’s like reverse foreshadowing, or “Epimethean shadowing.” You’re seeding past events into the present moment as a way of showing the reader what they’re going to see in the next chapter. “Remember how I mentioned the interpreter, and some of the things that were happening with him? Here’s how he got to that point.”
Terrell: Yes. “You’ll eventually understand why this is happening.” The book that I did find—one of the most difficult things about writing the book the first time was that there wasn’t a model. It’s helpful to have a model. I didn’t have one. But halfway through the first draft of the backward version, a friend, poet Michelle Boisseau, recommended to me Charles Baxter’s first novel, First Light. That book does the exact same thing my book does. It’s an amazing novel.
It’s about a brother and sister and their relationship together. The middle part is about the sister’s affair with a great physics professor. It unfolds backwards. Its ending takes them all the way back to their childhood together. You’re understanding how their relationship works. How they changed over their lives. Why one was more successful in life than the other. At the beginning of the book, which is the end of their story, the brother seems like a homebound, frightened, trapped, unhappy man. The sister seems free. As you go backward, you realize that the brother was the successful one, at one point. His love and efforts to help his sister helped her be free, but some of it had a price for him. That’s a great book. I recommend anyone read it. As I was writing the end of my book, it was very helpful.
Rumpus: You mentioned you knew you wanted to write about a female solider. Why was that important when this idea first came to you?
Terrell: That was an instinctive choice. I made it before I even went to Iraq. I don’t know that I can rationally, fully explain that choice. It was always the premise for the book. Once I got to Iraq, and started interviewing women in the military, I realized that their stories were remarkable. That this would be a terrific way to write about the Iraq War. If I had to guess, though, I’d say that in the past I’ve often written about characters who were part of a system but set off from it in some way. They have entered into a society or system or group that is, despite their presence there, is somehow inimical to their being there. Just fundamentally opposed to their presence. It was an intuition at first.
I was very interested that there were going to be so many women fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Despite them not being in combat roles officially, that was really just a technicality.
Rumpus: Because this was before the Pentagon opened combat roles to women. They were doing recovery work, like Emma Fowler in the novel.
Terrell: They were in support roles, distinct from the infantry. But anyone who is going outside the wire, whether they’re running convoys, which a lot of women did, or running recovery, like Emma does, of even just resupplying a base with food. Any time you’re going outside the wire in a vehicle you’re at risk of being hit with an IED. If not a full-on coordinated attack.
Rumpus: Like in the novel—there’s an RPG attack.
Terrell: Right! A lot of times, those convoys didn’t have an infantry escort. They could be out there on their own. I realized that this was thing that not a lot of people were talking about at the time. For me that seemed like a story. Now, since then, since it took me so damn long to write the book, a lot of people have come out with really good nonfiction about women in the military! [Laughs] I think it’s important to give them a shout out.
The books I think are good, and that the soldiers I knew were reading—Helen Benedict has written a book called The Lonely Soldier. Kirsten Holmstedt has a book called Band of Sisters: American Women at War in Iraq. Helen Thorpe has written a book about this. Kayla Williams has written a memoir called Love My Rifle More Than You. There’s a lot of nonfiction writing about this that I’m very supportive of. It’s very important. My story is just one story that’s a part of this narrative. There’s a larger canvas that begins to include women in combat roles as a part of these conflicts.
Rumpus: How many times did you go to Iraq? How did that happen, becoming a war correspondent?
Terrell: I went to Iraq in 2006. I embedded with the First Infantry, 22nd Division—the One-Two-Two—with a group of combat engineers. So that’s the setting for the book. I don’t specify a date, but I’m thinking of that year. After the bombing of the al-Askari mosque with the golden dome in Samarra. That was the kick-off of the Civil War in Iraq. The soldiers I was with had an area of operations in an area west of Baghdad, in a countryside that looked a lot like Western Kansas. They were dealing with the ramifications of this Civil War.
They didn’t know at the time. We all know now, that’s what was happening. They were saying, “This village I’m patrolling, suddenly everyone left. We don’t know why.” And, “We’re starting to find bodies of people in this field.”
Rumpus: This is pre-Islamic State.
Terrell: Oh, yeah! Way before that. This was the beginning. But before the Surge. There was a great feeling in the countryside and at Camp Liberty, where I was based, that something bad was happening. People were not sure what it was. They were beginning to piece it together. In that moment of change, there was a tremendous feeling of urgency. People were frightened of what was happening, as anyone would be. A lot of chaos. A lot of scenes in the book are based on things that soldiers told me about. Bombings that occurred. There was a bombing very much like the one that happened at the intersection and checkpoint in the novel. Something like that happened to the men and women in the One-Two-Two. That was the embed that mattered the most in shaping the novel.
Rumpus: We should add that it’s not just the Americans. There are very humanizing portraits of the Iraqi citizens, like Faisal, an interpreter, and Ayad, an innocent deaf man who lives alone—he’s not a terrorist—and who gets caught up in an insurgent plot that also involves Emma Fowler’s team. I don’t want to spoil it for people. There’s a lot here about the Iraqis as people.
Terrell: That was very important to me from the beginning. If you’re going to write about US troops in Iraq, then you have to write about Iraqis who are being affected by these events. There was an interpreter who worked with the One-Two-Two, and I got to watch him work. I remember one particular scene that didn’t make it into the book. I spent an afternoon out at a small schoolhouse with the lieutenant colonel who was in charge of this battalion, and their interpreter. We were talking with a lot of sheiks, trying to broker a peace. “Can you stop insurgents from moving through your territory? Are you in charge of this area? You say you are, but why can’t you stop these people from moving through this area?” There was this huge negotiation. The interpreter was a central part of that. I had also made friends with a man who lives in Kansas City, Khaldoun Ahmad, an Iraqi who I met here in the States. I thought a lot about what an ordinary Iraqi citizen would do, caught in these situations. One thing is, Ayad in the novel, for example, is from a very wealthy family. They’re Ba’athists. Nobody’s perfect! I never like making a character who is one-dimensional. That is to say, they don’t have any kind of dissonance inside them. So Ayad has this dark legacy trailing behind him, even though he has these compassionate moments in the novel.
As for Iraq, one of the things I thought was so difficult, tactically, was that we were not there for that stuff—fighting, per se. People say that was our intention all along. But this is not what the soldiers wanted to do. We were not there to occupy and defeat and destroy the country. Not like we did with Germany during World War II. That was not the goal. We were supposed to be helping the civilian populace, rebuilding the infrastructure. We wanted to do those things. However cynical you might think the people who set up the war were—and I think they were very cynical—the soldiers, on a ground level, they would have much preferred to build schools, get everyone clean water, get them electricity.
Instead, they had to fight people. You have a dual mission. You have to convince the populace you’re on their side, and that you want to make things better. At the same time, you have to kill a certain amount of the populace, because they’re trying to kill you. You don’t want to. That dual mission is extremely difficult to balance. That kind of thing ends up in disaster, often. So when you’re doing these projects, you want to hire local people, just like if you were doing an infrastructure project in the States. The problem is, you could get someone in there, in that construction company, who’s an insurgent, someone who’s opposed to you—that happened all the time. It was extremely complicated.
Author photograph © Leslie Many.