February 2, 2017
“His war is over. Hers has just begun.” ~ from the book jacket of Casualties, published by Berkley Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC
What others are saying:
“… this powerful first novel will leave the reader reflecting for days. – Library Journal
“Marro’s perception of the hurt and guilt her characters carry is deftly portrayed… Marro provides a clear sense that, while the past can’t be undone, the future always offers a chance to make amends, and the human spirit can triumph over pain and find hope in family and forgiveness. Marro casts a ray of hope that a good life can be lived after terrible tragedy.” Kirkus Reviews
“Elizabeth Marro made me care about these two people so much that by the end of the novel I’d forgotten they were fictional characters and I was ready to call them up to see how they were doing and if they’d finally found their way toward peace and forgiveness.”—David Abrams, author of Fobbit.
To find out how to win either an E-book or signed hard copy, read on.
Q&A with the author:
Kathleen M. Rodgers: Welcome, Elizabeth. I must admit, as a military mother whose youngest son served in combat, I approached your novel with some trepidation. From the book’s description, I knew going in that Robbie, a Marine fresh home from the war, was going to break his mother’s heart. In breaking Ruth Nolan’s heart, he broke mine as well. And yet, I couldn’t stop reading. Without giving too much of the plot away, can you describe how the story first came to you?
I knew this story would be about a mother, her son and one of the scariest “what if” questions that keeps parents awake at night. I didn’t know until we moved to San Diego in 2002 that it would be about a mother whose son goes to war. My husband and I had been living and working in central New Jersey, an area dominated by the pharmaceutical industry and other corporations. We knew few people whose immediate family were in the military. My own family’s involvement in the military ended with my father’s generation. Now we were in a city that many think of as a sunny escape to paradise but is one of the largest military communities in the country. Here we saw the recruits come in, the families waving goodbye, the pews in church occupied by one less family member as troops were deployed. Then we began to read the names of the fallen in our local newspapers and see the photographs that went with them. Each of those names led to a family whose lives would never be the same. It became important to me to try to understand their journey.
KMR: The story alternates between three point-of-view characters. First we meet military mother Ruth Nolan, an affluent executive who works for a major defense contractor. Next comes Robbie, back on American soil after fighting in Iraq. After tragedy strikes, we meet Casey MacInerney, a wounded warrior and con artist with a heart of gold. All three characters are equally convincing in their roles. How did you get inside the heads and hearts of your main characters to create story people readers care about, enough to still worry over them days after finishing the book?
EM: It’s wonderful when characters stay with you, isn’t it? I think part of it is that I lived with these people for a very long time. I had conversations with them, asked them questions, and sent them down blind alleys a few times. After all that you find you have them or, more accurately, they have you. You hear them in your dreams. They start telling you what happens. Some opened up much more easily than the others. Casey, for example, came quickly and easily. Robbie was also accessible in a way that his mother, Ruth, was not for a long time. I think that to crack to code for each of them — particularly Ruth. Initially, I was a harsh judge of Ruth but writing isn’t about judging. It’s about understanding. When I wrote a number of scenes about Ruth’s childhood that never appear in the story, I recognized her vulnerabilities in a way I couldn’t before.
KMR: Casey’s character is so authentic, not only with his war injury but his need to find a loved one he’d abandoned years ago. By the end of the story, I felt complete empathy for him due to the physical and mental anguish he’d suffered. I wanted him to be happy. Did you interview wounded warriors who’d lost limbs?
EM: Casey emerged not from interviews but from piecing together elements of men I’d observed and imagined. His conflicts stem only partly from losing part of his leg in the first Gulf War. He is shaped as much by his upbringing, the losses he’d had over the course of his life, and his need for family which is complicated by his conviction that he doesn’t really deserve that kind of love. Having a feel for who he was before the injury helped me to understand how his injury and the events that followed could land him in the situation he was in when he met Ruth.
KMR: Casey’s love of reading and his respect for books turns what could be a cliché down-on-his-luck-character into a well-rounded person. Why is reading so important to the development of a person regardless of his or her background?
EM: As a lifelong book addict, I’m very aware of how stories have opened the world to me. They challenge me, they help me to go places and meet people I’d never otherwise meet, they help see life a little more fully. Books are also a refuge, a place to go and live for a while and to come back with a fresh perspective. Knowing Casey the way I did, I knew he’d not want to sever every connection he had with who he’d been as a promising younger person.
KMR: Is your book an indictment against war?
EM: I’ve never thought of it that way for the simple reason that I’m focusing on people, not an agenda. There are very human universal issues at stake for the characters in this story and war is one of them. Human history seems to be inextricably bound with war and I venture to guess that most of us all over the world would like to see less of it. The consequences of going to war are tremendous and far-reaching. It is important for as many of us as possible to recognize and feel those consequences on our youth, families, and communities. It is important for those of us who do not serve to recognize what we are asking those who serve to do on our behalf. We need to do what we can to be sure we are going to war for the right reasons and make sure the needs of our veterans and military families are met. And we must consider the consequences suffered by the civilians living in war zones whose lives are affected for generations.
KMR: Ruth drives an expensive jaguar. It’s sleek and represents the trappings of her well-heeled life. But later, after days on the road, the jaguar begins to show signs of a long journey. Then near the end of the story, you gift the reader with an image of the hood ornament and the symbol becomes a metaphor for the possibilities awaiting both Casey and Ruth. During the writing of the novel, did you ever find yourself wanting to take a road trip and travel the exact route of your characters?
EM: Yes! In fact, I’ve driven portions of this trip but not the whole of it. I’d love to do the whole thing some day.
KMR: I finished the last pages of your novel with a tissue pressed to my nose. When Ruth turned onto Lost Nation Road, I found myself wanting to be alone as she pulled up in front of the house she grew up in. The ending was quite satisfying and I can imagine life continuing on in this fictional world you created. Will there be a sequel?
EM: There are no plans now for a sequel. We may catch glimpses of Ruth or Robbie or Casey and his daughter in future stories about other people.
KMR: What are you working on now?
EM: I’m working on my next novel, a few short stories and some essays. The novel, as it is currently evolving, is a complete departure from Casualties.
KMR: Can you talk about your process? Did you plot out the novel chapter-by-chapter, scene-by-scene, or did you scribble a few notes and let the characters lead you on their journey?
EM: I tried everything with Casualties. I wrote thousands of pages and threw out hundreds. One thing that seems to be true for me: nothing happens unless I understand my people first. I have the basic story for my next novel but before I plot it out extensively, I want to make sure of them. That way, they can help me fill in the parts I don’t know.
KMR: Do you revise as you go or do you complete a first draft straight through and then go back and revise?
EM: I start with messy scenes and fragments, see what I’ve got, then write a draft. Then another draft, Then another one. Lots of drafts, lots of revisions. About half way through my work on Casualties, I threw out about 600 pages and was left with the last scene and a few disconnected chapters. That was the moment that got me closest to the book that was finally published.
KMR: What advice can you give writers who are struggling to write a book, be it fiction or nonfiction? Most writers deal with self-doubt about their work. How do you push through it and get your work done, especially if you’re working on a story without a deadline?
EM: There is always a deadline in my mind. I have only so many years on this planet and I want to use them as well as I can. Writing is an important part of that. These days, I feel worse when I’m not writing than when I’m struggling. Self-doubt comes with the territory. There is no getting away from it. I try to treat it as I would an itch or a cold, something temporary to be endured. The best medicine for self-doubt are writing friends who can listen and urge you on. Give yourself permission to write really awful stuff on days when it isn’t coming. Chances are you’ll stumble on a line that gets you to where you want to go the next day. Writing is like anything we’ve done in life and there is a way to draw confidence from that. We weren’t born experts in anything we’ve had to learn to do. We’ve had to figure it out, do it, practice some more. I say try anything – meditation, walking, screaming but sit down and write what you can each day even with the self-doubt riding on your shoulder.
KMR: At what age did you proclaim, “I am a writer?” Are there other writers in your family?
EM: I was pretty young when I had dreams of writing but I was sixty when my book was published. I credit two teachers with spurring me in the direction of actually putting pen to page. The first was my third grade teacher Sister Maureen James and the second was my English teacher in high school. I wrote a story that made Sister laugh and then, later, an essay that my English teacher praised. There is at least one other member of my extended family in the business. My cousin Megan Mulry has written a series of women’s fiction novels and erotica. There may be others. I’ll start asking around! I do come from a family of die-hard readers and nothing fosters the desire to write more than reading.
KMR: You mention your ten siblings in your acknowledgements. I come from a family of six kids; I’m the third one down. I jokingly tell people I became a writer to have a voice. What role, if any, did growing up in a large family play in your becoming a writer?
EM: I’m the oldest of five and, later, my mom married a man with six kids. While still at home was always escaping into my own world. I read, I made up stories that I told to myself. I was the kid who would nod at everything my mother said while hearing nothing over the sound of my own thoughts and imaginings. I was the one who would disappear into the bathroom with a book when it was my night to do the dishes because the dishes could wait but the story I was reading could not.
KMR: When did you take up walking and how does it affect your writing? Do you go for long strolls or do you power walk to get your heart rate up? Do you have a walking partner?
EM: I began to walk in a serious way a couple of years ago. Until then, it had been something I did with my dogs (a lovely way to walk), but not a way of actually getting anywhere or of seeing anything. I gave myself a goal in 2015 to walk 800 miles for the year. I never came close but I did develop a habit that has led to so many wonderful things for me and my writing. I stroll and walk fast. I look for hills but my favorite thing is to walk the cliffs near my home and see what is new that day. I enjoy walking with others but I walk most often alone and I enjoy that too. I don’t walk with earphones in my ears and I try to notice something new each time.
To celebrate the first anniversary of Casualties, Betsy is offering a free copy of her novel to my readers. Winners can choose between a signed hard copy or a free e-book on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or iBooks. To enter, comment below before midnight on Monday, February 6. The drawing will be held on Tuesday, February 7.
Elizabeth (Betsy) Marro is the author of Casualties, a novel about a single mother and defense executive who loses her son just when she thought he was home safe from his final deployment. Now she must face some difficult truths about her past, her choices, the war, and her son. A former journalist and recovering pharmaceutical executive, Betsy Marro’s work has appeared in such online and print publications as LiteraryMama.com, The San Diego Reader, and on her blog at elizabethmarro.com. Originally from the “North Country” region of New Hampshire, she now lives in San Diego where she is working on her next novel, short fiction, and essays. Casualties, published in February 2016 by the Berkley imprint of Penguin Random House, is her first novel.