Elliot Ackerman, WAITING FOR EDEN

Elliot Ackerman, WAITING FOR EDEN

Zibby Owens: I’m really excited to be interviewing Elliot Ackerman who’s the author of novels Waiting for Eden, Dark at the Crossing, which was a finalist for the National Book Award, and Green on Blue. He also wrote Places and Names: On War, Revolution, and Returning. He’s a former Marine and served five tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan where he received the Silver Star, the Bronze Star for Valor, and the Purple Heart. His work has been published in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, and many other publications. His stores have been included in The Best American Short Stories and The Best American Travel Writing. He splits his time between New York and DC. I have to say Elliot is also dating a dear friend of mine who was the first guest on my podcast, Lea Carpenter who’s of the author of Eleven Daysand Red, White, Blue. Elliot comes to me through Lea but also because of his amazing work as a National Book Award finalist.

Welcome, Elliot. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Elliot Ackerman: Thanks for having me.

Zibby: So much to talk about. You have the most decorated past, a Marine who did five tours and an author. Tell me about this intersection of now writing and the military and how you got into becoming a novelist.

Elliot: My mom was a writer. I always grew up around books. I grew up knowing authors. It didn’t seem like the weirdest thing to me. Then when I went to college, I studied history and literature at school, and then went right into the Marines. I always suspected that I might write, but didn’t really commit myself to it until I decided I was going to leave the Marine Corp and transition into something else. We all have different facets of our personality. When I’m promoting a book, people will ask me, “Is it odd that you left the Marines and became a writer? It doesn’t seem like something that a Marine would do.” Usually I say, “The people who’ve known me longest actually say, ‘Isn’t it odd that you wound up in the Marines? You were always this creative, artist kid. Then you wound up in the Marine Corp.’”

Zibby: How did you end up in the Marines? Maybe I should’ve started with it.

Elliot: I had this idea that I wanted a job when I came out of school. Whether I was good at my job or bad at job mattered. I wanted responsibility at a young age. I was also like that kid who never stopped playing with his GI Joes. You combined all of that, it led me into the Marine Corp. Then I happened to serve during some very interesting and busy years.

Zibby: Wow. You’ve done a combination of writing about your experiences and then coming up with fictious people living through some of the elements that you experienced yourself. Do you find it therapeutic to write about what happened? Do you find it necessary to go back? I read your article about going back to the place in — I’m forgetting where it was, but the doorway where your friend was murdered. You went back and had to revisit. What is that like for you?

Elliot: I don’t feel like it’s necessarily therapeutic because there’s a real struggle that goes into writing books as you’re trying to figure them out. I think that all of us are writing about the human condition. My understanding of what it means to be a person is informed by, obviously, many of my own experiences. When you go to war, one of the things war does is it gives you a real wide-angle view of what we’re capable of doing as humans. At the one extreme, it might be extreme acts of courage, acts of love, things that you would never see on a normal day in New York City. Then on the other hand, these extreme acts of depravity and savagery. You get that at a young age. That informs your understanding of your characters, your understanding of the story. Often when I’m working on a book, even if the war is going on or there’s conflict going on on the sidelines, it’s not like I’m drawing from specific military experiences. I’m drawing from my understanding of what it means to be a person and trying to make my characters come alive.

Zibby: How did you come up with the idea of Waiting for Eden, which was beautiful and haunting in a way and so raw, but also so much love?

Elliot: With a lot of my books, it’ll often start with two things. I’ll have an idea of what I think a book is about thematically. I’m thinking about thematic questions. I think I want to try to tell a story about those thematic questions. For Waiting for Eden, it’s these themes of what does it mean to be faithful to someone? What does it mean to stay true to someone who has been diminished in some way? In Eden’s case, he’s severely physically diminished. Diminished emotionally, whatever it is, how do you stay faithful to that person? The other thing that comes to mind often, there’ll be a first line frequently that will pop into my head. When it’s sticky, when that line can’t get out of my head and I carry it around for months, I’m like, this is maybe the beginning of a book. That’s when I get serious and I really try to start telling the story. In Waiting for Eden, the first line of the book was, “I want you to understand Mary and what she did. But I don’t know whether or not you will.” There was this idea of Mary, the wife, Eden’s wife. Eden has been — the concept of the book is he’s basically been incapacitated. He is in a hospital bed. He has not been able to communicate effectively for years. Mary’s been keeping this vigil over him.

The book started with that line, what Mary did. I didn’t know what she had done. I didn’t know who was offering up that opening line. I knew a couple things. I knew that I wanted the book to feel very intimate. That’s why I had that first-person voice. Then that posed a problem because who’s saying this? There’s only two characters in my book at this point. It’s Eden. Eden’s in a bed, and he can’t talk to anyone. It’s probably not Eden. He’s not going to be my narrator. Maybe it’s Mary, Eden’s wife. That probably wouldn’t work because she would be talking about herself and she can’t do this objectively. Then there’s limitations on what you know about Eden. I was like, maybe you need to have a level of omniscience. I don’t want to tell the story in the third person. A third person, it would give you that omniscience to say what’s going on with everyone and move around in the story, but it gives you too much distance. How do I solve this problem that I have between needing a certain level of omniscience but needing the intimacy of a first-person narrator? I was like, it’s a ghost. It’s a person saying this is a ghost. The question of the book became, who’s this ghost? The identity of who this ghost is and who this voice is and how he factors into the relationship between Mary and Eden actually becomes what much of the book is about.

Zibby: That’s so crazy. The whole time I was reading it, I was thinking about that line. Often, you read first lines and I can’t even think of what they were. You had the reader hooked in. What is it? What happens? What’s she going to do? I was on the edge of my seat.

Elliot: Thank you. The book could be called Mary’s Choice as easily as it could be called Waiting for Eden because she’s totally central to that story. It’s really the story of her, Eden, and this ghost. It’s a love triangle in many respects.

Zibby: It’s also about Mary being a mother at the same time. I know I often see things through that lens just being a mother. Having to care for a child at the same time as caring for a husband put her in such a precarious emotional position. Talk to me about that a little more. There was a quote in the hospital. She said, “After a year, the guilt for her daughter overcame the guilt for her husband.” Mary didn’t know where to spend all that time. Who should she take care of? Tell me about that conflict.

Elliot: You have kids. I have kids too. You know that guilt. There’s never enough of you to go around. In the opening of the book, she’s been keeping this vigil at her husband’s bedside for several years. On the one hand you might think, isn’t that so noble of her? She’s been doing that at the expense of her daughter because her daughter has gone to live with her mother. The event that precipitates the action in the book is she’s been keeping this vigil. Eden’s in the bed. It’s Christmastime. She decides that she’s going to go spend Christmas with her daughter. She feels a lot of guilt about this. Now she’s going to leave Eden.

The doctors say, “Don’t worry. He’s not going to know that you’re gone,” which leads her to ask, “If he’s not going to know that I am gone, does he even know that I’m here? She’s wrestling with all of this. In the opening pages of the book while she’s gone, Eden suffers a stroke. When he suffers that stroke, it’s like a deck of cards is reshuffled. He suffers this stroke. There’s an event that terrifies him. He gets so afraid he suffers a stroke. When he comes out of it, his brain has been reorganized. Although parts of him are now even more diminished, certain parts of him have been awakened. For the first time, he’s conscious of the circumstances that he is in. He tries to communicate what he wants to have happen next. The whole book is told over — it’s told much in flashbacks. The present-tense action is told over the few days of him trying to communicate what he wants to have happen.

Zibby: You have the nurse come in on that Christmas because when the family’s gone, you still fill in the room. I can see it as a play. You have the bed on one side of the stage. Then you have the nurses come in. One scene with the nurse I found particularly powerful, when she touches Eden who had suffered a lot of burns. She was a little squeamish to do so. You write, “She ran her finger up to the edge of the bandage and looked at his eyes again. And seeing that they saw nothing, her finger leapt from the bandage’s edge onto the bare skin of his chest. It was burnt and smoked, bloodless but not lifeless. This surprised her. The little piece of flesh she touched had more struggle in it than her whole body. Beneath her finger was survival. It was what a body could and would be when battered just to the edge.” Whoa, that is so good. That’s so good. Tell me more about that. How are you sitting there coming up with these sentences? Tell me about that passage. Do you even remember where you were when you wrote that?

Elliot: I think I was at a cupcake shop.

Zibby: No, come on.

Elliot: Yeah, I think I was.

Zibby: See, that’s my problem. I should be eating more cupcakes. Then I will write better.

Elliot: I was at a place where I like to get coffee and a ham and cheese biscuit in the morning. I made a quiet corner where I could do a lot of work. I don’t know if that was the answer you wanted.

Zibby: The idea of the human body fighting for itself, and even when no one is really advocating for it. It’s more than just the spirit, right?

Elliot: Yes. With the nurse, she’s a young nurse. She’s basically taking care of him for this one twenty-hour period where he has that psychosomatic event that reorganizes his brain. I don’t want to ruin it for the reader, how it all goes down.

Zibby: I won’t say anything. I’m not going to say anything.

Elliot: You have a sense of what you want the scene to feel like. I wanted there to be a sense of juxtaposition in that scene: Eden, who’s really been through the worst a person can be through, and this pure spirit who’s a nurse. She’s a very young nurse. She’s drawn the unlucky shift which is watching the burn ward on Christmas Eve. Because she’s young, she gets that shift. It’s not a popular shift. She’s watching him. She’s curious about him. She’s curious as to what he represents and probably the vocation that she herself has chosen, which is caring for people who have been hurt in this way. She wants to touch it. She literally wants to see what it feels like. When she puts her finger on it, it’s like she sees everything, everything that a person is capable of and the whole range of pain that she in her life will probably be responsible for trying to ameliorate in some way as a nurse. She’s not a named character in the book. She’s just in that scene. You know what you want it to feel like. You try to create the scene around the feeling you’re attempting to convey.

Zibby: It’s like then looking at an injury. It’s the same thing when you’re like, “Just want to peek,” but you don’t really. I’m sure you’ve actually seen so much of this carnage having been — most people writing — I shouldn’t say that. I was going to say most people writing, maybe they imagine it, but you’ve been in it. Then writing about the relationships and what happens on them later, you have all this data from friends, I’m sure, people who’ve been through this. Have you seen that happen in real life, anything like this, or even just on a more minor scale, people struggling with their relationships at home and being injured or the aftereffects? This is a long and rambling question. What have you seen that maybe is most similar to this?

Elliot: I have unfortunately seen a pretty wide spectrum of individuals who have been hurt, and nasty things. However, I don’t feel in some way that helps me when I sit down and try to actually tell a story because I know what I’m drawing on. I know the well I’m going to, that I’m pulling this up from. It’s not necessarily that. Maybe it helps with certain technical things where I’m writing about medical stuff. I know this because I had to study it at one point. The book is about trying to love someone and stay faithful to someone who has been diminished. I think that’s something we all experience, whether the diminishment is as radical as what has happened to Eden, but in other cases, in some ways no less painfully, when the diminishment is something less radical. When it’s as radical as what happened to Eden, everybody can see it and understand it. When it’s less radical, it’s tough because you might be the only one who sees it and understands the depth of that diminishment, and how you have to learn to love someone again, and how you have to understand the ways you can give yourself to them again.

Zibby: Does it make you question how you would respond in a similar situation?

Elliot: I feel like novels, novels I read that I like, aren’t answers. Books are all questions. I feel the most elegant works of fiction, the ones that I like, the ones I aspire to try to write are the ones where the story has carefully set up a series of questions never answering them for you but leaving you as the reader walking away trying to answer them for yourself. The book doesn’t necessarily answer questions for me. What it does is, in writing it, it frames my questions clearly for me.

Zibby: I know you’re dating a good friend of mine. I don’t want to make anything sound bad, but do you think that if anything were to happen to her you would stay by her side? I would like this on the record.

Elliot: Yes, I would.

Zibby: There. Thank you. Good.

Elliot: I think she should’ve asked the reverse.

Zibby: Would you stay by me? Oh, my goodness. How do you write? Sometimes you write in cupcake shops and have biscuits and whatever. Where else do you like to write? Do you usually write out and about in the world? Do you like to write in an office somewhere? Tell me a little more about your process, how long books take.

Elliot: I often write out and about in the world just because I like the general energy of being in the world. If I sit at home at a desk all day, no matter how much I’ve done I feel like I haven’t done anything. Whereas if I just go out to the cupcake shop at the café or the diner or whatever quiet corner I get into, I don’t know if psychologically that works better for me. I would say it’s not very sexy, but I’m kind of a grinder. I grind it out every day. If I’m working on new material, I write a thousand words Monday to Friday. I sit at my desk and I do that. If I’m revising a book, I’m going to be like, today’s work is fifteen pages of revisions. I get through that work, and then I’m done. I don’t think about it. I have a discipline of trying not to think about it and just let it sit in my subconscious. I’d say I always finish a day writing knowing what’s going to happen the next day. I write at the bottom of the page, “Tomorrow this happens. This happens. They do this,” just so I can get started again. I’ll frequently finish in the middle of a sentence so I can end the sentence and have something to pick up with. That has been my process and seems to work for me. You mentioned Lea. I live with Lea and I see how she writes. She writes very differently than I do with equal or greater effect.

Zibby: Lea helped edit something I wrote right after business school. She handed it back. She’s like, “I think you have way too many exclamation marks.” I think about Lea basically every email I write because I’m always using exclamations. She never is. It turns out this is just how I write. Everybody does it differently.

Elliot: It’s nice because when you do get an exclamation mark from her —

Zibby: — From her? It’s like one of those emojis that’s exploding on the screen.

Elliot: You have to print and frame it.

Zibby: That’s so funny. Are you working on anything now?

Elliot: I am. I have another novel that comes out in May called Red Dress in Black and White that’s also in Istanbul during the Gezi Park riots of 2013 which were a very big political moment there. It’s about an American woman who was married to a Turkish real estate developer. The present action in the novel takes place over the course of a single day in which she is running off with her lover who is an American photographer and trying to take the son with them. The twist of the novel as you read it is you realize the hero of the book —

Zibby: — Wait, don’t tell me. Don’t ruin it.

Elliot: I’m not going to ruin it. The hero of the book quickly becomes the Turkish real estate developer husband. It’s a window into that world.

Zibby: You must have finished that.

Elliot: That’s finished, right. As you know, that’s been finished for a while.

Zibby: That’s not a good enough answer. Another amazing book coming down the pike, that’s not enough for me. What else? What else are you doing?

Elliot: The thing I’m most actively working on is —

Zibby: — I’m just kidding.

Elliot: I know. A guy named Admiral Jim Stavridis, he was the commander of NATO as a retired four-star admiral. We know each other from the Fletcher School, which is where I went to graduate school. He was the dean there, although not when I was there. We have the same editor at Penguin. The idea came to cowrite a book which would be a work of speculation about what it would look like if the US and China went to war in the year 2034. He and I have written that together and just finished up a first draft, which has been fun. It’s been a departure for me. Also, I write a lot about foreign policy and do lots of journalism. That has allowed me to merge the two a little bit. We’ve had great fun doing it together.

Zibby: Are you ever going to maybe run for president or get into politics in a big way? You have this amazing background. You’re obviously brilliant. What about leading the nation? What do you think?

Elliot: No, I like telling the truth. You can do that in books. No, it’s not for me.

Zibby: No aspirations?

Elliot: No aspirations.

Zibby: That’s a shame for the rest of us. I tried. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors out there?

Elliot: You’ve got to work, do the work. It sounds really obvious. Sometimes it’s not obvious that you have to do the work. You have to read. People sometimes don’t recognize that — my process, too, is I read. I read as much as I write. I try to read really widely without a very specific agenda because that’s how you get the good stuff. Don’t let rejection beat you down too much. It’s horrible to say. I want to use a sports metaphor. I call it up-at-bats. You have to get up to bat. You have to keep getting up to bat because that’s the thing you can control, is how much you’re putting yourself out there. If you only connect on something, get something published or whatever it is, one out of twenty times, if you’re getting up to bat a hundred times, that’s pretty good. You’re in the door. If you only get up and try once or twice or three times, you might be great, but you’re not trying enough. You’re going to think you’re failing. One of the great things about writing is in so many respects you have the control. One of the horrible things about writing is that you have the control.

Zibby: Love it. Awesome. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Elliot: My total pleasure.

Zibby: Thanks.

Elliot Ackerman, WAITING FOR EDEN