Late last year, we serialized Lauren Almeida’s amazing story "Abandonment of the Flint" on our front page. Today, Lauren took some time to answer a few questions about creating the story, her writing process, and her future plans; you can read it after the cut.
The interview, and the story, also now have a permanent mini-site which you can view here.
Q&A with Lauren Almeida, author of "Abandonment of the Flint"
Conte: You’ve served abroad as a combat medic. Can you talk about the relationship between this storyand your own personal experiences with war?
Lauren: I’ll have to admit: my personal experiences with war are, at this time, mercifully limited. During my last deployment to Iraq, I did go on about two dozen missions outside the wire, but as a unit we were all very lucky. Iraq had calmed quite a bit by then, and we suffered few battle injuries. What I can say influenced me was the country itself. During those five to seven hour convoys, I was able to see a lot of the region, the people, the culture. Small details still stick with me, like the call to prayer playing late at night and the sandstorms. I felt a bit haunted by the place, and that was what I really wanted to convey: how displacement can get so deeply under the skin.
Conte: Caden and Franco form a sort of duality between themselves – the wild and incautious Caden leading the stolid and morose Franco down a path they both believe themselves condemned to walk. Franco, haunted by the literal ghosts of his past, says he’s sure he’ll be fine, “as long as he never arrives,” and everyone else thinks his only hope is to give up the journey. How did you come to create these characters? What ultimately traps them in this directionless death-march?
Lauren: The characters of Franco and Caden are based on two people with whom I’m very close. What intrigued me about their friendship was the sort of violent brinkmanship that loyalty can lead to, how detrimental loyalty can be if it’s shared among self-destructive people. But also, I find that there’s a certain old-world nobility to that kind of loyalty. Also, I saw in my friends (one of whom is a veteran) some “lost generation” quality, something I feel is facing a resurgence of sorts these days. At the end of it, their paths are inevitable, because just as violence brought them together and forged their bond, so will it be their undoing.
Conte: In the same vein, much of “Abandonment of the Flint” seems to come from that “watching- yourself-do-things” perspective that people often report from dreams or near-death experiences. It’s eerie, and lulls us into sort of an entranced, helpless state. Why is it so hard, once an obsession has been fixed, to let go of or turn away from it? What does Seth’s path offer him that leaves everything else, including his preoccupation with Savannah, wanting by contrast?
Lauren: As contradictory as it may sound, I saw Seth Franco as a man with a very specific code of ethics, a somewhat gray sense of right and wrong. He initially accepts the idea of collateral damage, so long as the greater good is achieved—in this case, the greater good being avenging Caden’s assumed death, finding him and giving him a proper burial. Maybe the best encapsulation of Franco’s overall motives comes from another story within the collection, where a friend observes that Franco is “Always fabricating new missions to keep alive for, new lost causes to run toward… Always running away from something else in the process.”
Conte: The juxtaposition of Fallujah and New Orleans is a striking one. Why did you choose New Orleans as your second setting? What did it give the story that another American location wouldn’t have offered?
Lauren: Ever since I visited New Orleans as a teenager, I felt it was the perfect place to set a book where I could really let loose and create some blur between the natural and the unnatural. To me, there’s no place like it, it’s wonderful for all its clichés (voodoo, cemeteries, the general lightening of morbid symbols) and its secrets. It’s a place where it seems like anything could happen, good or bad. There’s certainly a southern gothic/ noir appeal to it. What makes it so aesthetically pleasing and so full of heart is the hardship there, and the art that comes from hardship. And after certain parts of the city were ruined by Katrina, I felt that it made sense in a way for someone haunted by war to find a kinship there.
Conte: Were you conscious of writing a war story when you wrote “Abandonment of the Flint?” I’m thinking about Tim O’Brien’s idea that what is true and what actually happened are distinct and often opposed concepts – in this story, much of the war goes on for the characters long after they’ve left Iraq, and it’s in that space that a similar ambiguity of recollection has full reign. What needed to be done carefully to succeed in that sense?
Lauren: Originally, it was not my intention to have any of the story set in Iraq. I felt that the burden of trying to ever live up to the greatness of The Things They Carried would be far too much to bear, and honestly I wondered what new life I could breathe into a subject that all the best writers have tackled. Especially since I am not a male Marine Corps Infantryman, going out on dismounted patrols day after day. What could I really claim to know about the subject, how could I write from Franco’s point of view at all without coming across as a fraud? What it came down to was, as Tim O’Brien brilliantly pointed out, making it true without being factual. And the truth to me was in expressing the heaviness of camaraderie, of being in a strange land our culture may never understand, of staring death down to see who makes the first move. I can only hope that those portions of the story do some justice to what someone feels in that exact situation.
Conte: Seth Franco is a damaged and unreliable narrator, yet from the get-go we’re inclined to trust his perspective. Framing the story as a one-one-one conversation is a great tactic to start with, but otherwise, how do you write from the voice of someone we need to believe and accept more intimately the further he spirals down into instability and chaos?
Lauren: Of all the narrators in the book, Franco’s perspective is actually the most reliable. I think that’s because of his sincerity; even when he’s losing his head, he has a genuineness, a willingness to brazenly expound upon his own sins not with pride, but with the clarity of irredeemable guilt. That becomes his totem, his grasp on reality even as reality begins to slip from under his feet. His self-awareness becomes a sigh of relief in that, even when he does unforgivable things, we are encouraged to know that he is at least morally conscious enough to see the wrongness of his actions, and that he won’t be able to forgive himself for it either.
Conte: You have a pretty demanding day job. What are some of the ways that it aids and/or frustrates your writing process?
Lauren: The military has given me some pretty great gifts, some of which apply to my writing. For one, I find inspiration every day, either through the people I meet or situations I experience. I probably never would have gotten to know and understand such a diverse and incredible group of people if not for my job. Also, I developed more of a backbone, more strength and determination than I had before, not to mention some much needed social skills. I learned to laugh off the negative and take every setback in stride. I feel that all of these things have made me a braver and more confident writer. Though the hours are unpredictable, which obviously cuts into any chance at having the set writing schedule that so many writers’ manuals preach about, I’m lucky to have a husband who supports my passion for writing and understands if our interaction for that night will consist solely of sitting beside each other while I type and he watches television. It doesn’t hurt that he’s a wonderful unofficial editor, as well.
Conte: “Abandonment of the Flint” is going to be published as part of a short-story collection – your first, if I’m not mistaken. (Congratulations!) How does this story connect to the others in that volume?
Lauren: The collection is still in the pitching phase, but I have an amazing agent, so my hopes are definitely up. If I was going to describe the collection, I would probably compare it to buckshot: how all of these connected things go off in their own tangents. Characters have cameos in one anothers stories, all of which circle around a character called Moloch and the threat he poses to all involved. For example, the story of what led to Luke Caden’s disappearance is a novella of its own, told by Caden. All of the events affect each character and knock them off their courses, and force them to deal with questions of morality and faith.
Conte: Can you tell us a little bit about the process of getting your first book together?
Lauren: The process of this book was a very scattered one. I started with one simple, innocent short story about a man who finds his long-lost mother preaching on a street corner. One minor character in that story led to the next story, about a former pianist who finds artistic inspiration when she discovers a dead girl in an alleyway. Of course then the story of how the dead girl in the alleyway met her end spawned its own novella, and so on. It took several years, actually; that first story was written for a creative writing workshop in college. I didn’t find my own inspiration again until after I joined the military in 2009.
Conte: As we’re bridging a new year here, it seems appropriate to ask something either about the year past, or the year to come. But I can’t make up my mind, so I’ll leave it up to you. What have you read, or written, in the past year that astonished you, made you excited to pick up the figurative pen again? – Or, what are you looking towards on the writing horizon for 2013?
Lauren: I’d say 2013 is off to a good start, so I’ll talk about that: it seems I’m getting a little nudge closer to my first published book, which I’m incredibly excited for. I haven’t tried to publish a full manuscript since I was sixteen, a very deflating experience. I’ve been very inspired by the books in my syllabus for my second MFA class, especially the “how to write” books that mostly just go over what other authors got right. I’m in my first month of my second deployment, this time in Afghanistan, so I feel like I’m in the perfect place and frame of mind to start my next book. Plus, there’s this: my first interview, icing on the cake.
About the Author:
Lauren Almeida was born in Ocala, Florida in 1985. By the age of ten she had developed an infatuation with writing, and wrote several novels and short stories from then on. She graduated in 2008 from the University of Florida with a bachelor’s degree in English, with a focus on creative writing. She then went on to join the United States Army as a Combat Medic in 2009, eventually attaining the rank of Sergeant. Stationed in Fort Bliss, Texas, she recently began her second deployment to Kandahar, Afghanistan. . Represented by literary agent Natanya Wheeler, Lauren is working on her first manuscript: a collection of stories entitled Abashed the Devil Stood. She hopes to earn her Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and retire from the Army in sixteen years, and to ultimately become a creative writing professor. She has been happily married for four years to her husband, Francisco Almeida.
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