Siobhan Fallon is the author of the collection of interconnected stories, You Know When the Men Are Gone, Amy Einhorn Books/Penguin. Her stories and essays have appeared in Publishers’ Weekly, Women’s Day, Good Housekeeping, New Letters, Salamander, among others, and she is currently writing a monthly fiction series for Military Spouse Magazine. She earned her MFA from the New School in New York City. 

Short Story Collections

You Know When The Men Are Gone
(Amy Einhorn Books, 2011)

reviewed by Maura O'Neill

Interview with Siobhan Fallon

The Short Review: How long did it take you to write all the stories in your collection?

Siobhan Fallon: Start to finish, the collection took me about three years. I started writing it in 2007, when I was living in Fort Hood and my husband had just gotten home from an Iraq deployment and was starting to train up for another. It took me about two years to get the stories down. I’d begin a story and before finishing another idea would seize my mind, and I’d start writing it, so I’d usually be balancing two or three stories in different stages of completion (fortunately I generally get at least a sketch of an entire story down before I get flooded with a new one). Then I spent another year of constant editing and rewriting, even continuing to rewrite some of the stories after they were published in literary magazines. At that point my literary agent told me to stop. He said, "It is what it is," which was not at all comforting, but I knew I would continue to be critical and change things forever if he didn’t rein me in.

TSR: Did you have a collection in mind when you were writing them?

SF: Once I had written a few stories and started to see the similarities among them, I thought to myself, “Oh boy, I might have a collection here.” I started to go back into the stories and view them as a non-military reader might, fleshing out the details about life on a base that had surprised me when I first became an Army spouse, like how most soldiers run their physical training at the same time each day, which inevitably closes down the main streets or reduces cars to inching behind all the slow pokes in the back of the running herd. I tried to view military life the way an outsider would and see it fresh all over again.

TSR: How did you choose which stories to include and in what order?

SF: These particular stories are all loosely connected. Some take place at Fort Hood, Texas and some in Iraq, but all of them deal with a battalion of soldiers and their families during a year-long deployment. And frankly, they are all the stories I wrote while I was living at Fort Hood. I was sort of living, breathing, writing Army life at that point.
   The order of the stories did change a bit because there is some time overlap in a few of them, so getting them in order chronologically isn’t really possible, but the title story that opens it, You Know When the Men Are Gone, and the one that ends it, Gold Star, have always been the "bookends" of the collection. Those are the two I am the most emotionally attached to and I feel like they anchor the other stories.

TSR: What does the word "story" mean to you?

SF: Anything that keeps a reader or listener rooted in place, eagerly wanting to know what will happen next, from a crackpot tale told over drinks at a bar to a stream of consciousness novel. There is an allusive magic involved—people talk and talk and talk, but there are moments when everyone stops and really listen. And people write and write, but there are certain elements that really grab a reader and keep them turning the pages. It takes a lot of bad deliveries and reams of paper to get that alchemy right, but when you hear or read the one that absolutely holds your attention, well, that’s a story at its best. Those are the ones that linger in the mind and are retold, reread.

TSR: Do you have a reader in mind when you write stories?

SF:  I wasn’t actually aware of aiming my stories at anyone when I started writing them. I had been writing short stories for awhile, sending them off to literary magazines, occasionally having a story win a contest, but mostly I was collecting rejection letters. I certainly wasn’t publishing enough, or generating enough interest in my work, to have an "audience" in mind in the beginning. Even now, after having a book published and sort of having an idea of who reads me, I don’t really think of an audience as I write, I just try to craft the best story I can—with an emphasis on a strong voice, a slightly off-kilter method for telling the tale, and something that will grab the reader from its opening and hold them there until the final paragraph.

TSR: Is there anything you'd like to ask someone who has read your collection, anything at all?

SF: Yikes. In the beginning, when the collection first came out, I was curious about how readers viewed some of my more ambiguous endings. I always like to hear what readers think happened to particular characters, what became of Natalya and her twins, say, or Nick and Trish. And I always hope that a reader’s continuation of the story line is similar to mine, and if it’s not, well, that’s kind of exciting for me to see a different path. But by now I’ve gotten a lot of feedback via reviews and random reader emails, and most of them have been good, but trust me, I’ve gotten some angry emails from people who think I haven’t portrayed the Army in the best light. So I’m a little timid now when I get an unknown email in my inbox from a reader telling me what they think of my stories!

TSR: How does it feel knowing that people are buying your book?

SF: Is this a trick question? It feels AWESOME!!! Like almost every writer, you just struggle on and on in total and demoralizing obscurity for so long that you start to think that these years of your life have been a waste of time, brain power, printer paper, and ink. But when you finally see that book, well, all your words and dreams suddenly have a physical embodiment, have their own flesh, are out in the world affecting readers. I will never tire of looking at the cover of my book, seeing its spine on a shelf. It is a beautiful thing.

TSR: What are you working on now?

SF:  I am currently living in Amman, Jordan, near the American Embassy. And while it is a very different world than the spouse community of Fort Hood, Texas, most of the embassy folk do have a particular way of living in a foreign country, sort of one foot in Jordan, one in the United States, that I find fascinating. So I’ve been writing about American embassy life in Jordan, but this story and the characters are more tightly connected than they are in You Know When the Men Are Gone, so I’m not sure yet if this will be another story collection or a novel.

TSR: What are the three most recent short story collections you've read?

SF:  Only three? Well, I was just at the Cork International Short Story Festival in September, so I have been reading the collections of many of the fine writers I met there, including Edna O’Brien’s Saints and Sinners and Valerie Trueblood’s Marry or Burn, which are both incredible. Right now I am in the middle of Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find. I was given a first edition copy by the wonderful librarians at the Winnetka Public Library in Winnetka, Illinois. I’ve always been a Flan O’Connor fan but it’s been awhile since I read A Good Man from start to finish, thinking about the order of the stories and her craft as a writer. It is a magnificent collection, and no wonder O’Connor is one of America’s literary treasures.
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