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KC author Whitney Terrell has an unusual protagonist for war novel 'Good Lieutenant': A female soldier

KC author Whitney Terrell on his new novel, 'The Good Lieutenant'

We used Kansas City's World War I Museum as the backdrop to ask Whitney Terrell about his latest novel, "The Good Lieutenant." Terrell explains why he chose a somewhat unusual protagonist for this war story: a female first lieutenant leading a pla
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We used Kansas City's World War I Museum as the backdrop to ask Whitney Terrell about his latest novel, "The Good Lieutenant." Terrell explains why he chose a somewhat unusual protagonist for this war story: a female first lieutenant leading a pla

From the classic “War and Peace” to 2014’s award-winning “Redeployment,” war novels skew decidedly masculine — even as women have taken on greater prominence in the military in numbers and rank.

Whitney Terrell breaks from that myopia in “The Good Lieutenant.”

The Kansas City author revolves his third novel around Kansas-born Emma Fowler, an Army first lieutenant in charge of a platoon of male soldiers in Iraq. Theirs is a support role but dangerous nonetheless, and the book opens with a deadly bombing during a mission to retrieve the body of a kidnapped sergeant.

Fowler is smart and dedicated and suitably flawed, sensitive at one point to the fact that she is a woman treading on testosterone-soaked ground. Terrell already had her character in mind when he embedded twice with U.S. troops in Iraq in 2006 and 2010, officially for journalistic purposes — writing for the Washington Post Magazine, Slate and National Public Radio — but in reality to research his book.

He interviewed both male and female troops in Iraq about their experiences. Back home, he sat down with many more. It wasn’t just their stories he sought. It was their thoughts. Feelings. Reactions.

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Terrell takes pride in the Emma who emerged. “The Good Lieutenant” moves backward from that first-chapter tragedy, peeling through the layers of military and personal decisions and events — Emma’s and others’ — that led up to it.

“I’m trying the best I can,” Terrell says, “to get people to pay attention to and appreciate narratives about women who are in combat and the role they’re playing in altering the way we think about our military and the way our military thinks about itself.”

That isn’t the only intended takeaway of the book, which is scheduled for release June 7.

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“The other thing,” Terrell says, “is I wanted to show the experience of a good soldier, a good lieutenant, somebody who has the kind of moral values I think the reader would identify with. And even when they’re making what seem like good decisions, how a situation like Iraq — because of the unclarity of the mission, because of the complication of the situation on the ground — can slowly lead them to do bad things.

“I think that happened to many, many soldiers who were there. And I think it’s an important thing to understand.”

Terrell, an assistant professor of English and creative writing at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and onetime reporting intern at The Star, recently discussed “The Good Lieutenant” and the decade-long process that went into it (excerpts are edited for length):

Q: What took you in the direction of Emma Fowler, of a female military officer?

A: It was part of my original conception of the book. I work best from the point of view of someone who belongs to, but is an outsider in, an organization. I often think that any organization, social group or society is best observed by those people.

In past war novels, usually the protagonist has been somebody who is drafted but didn’t want to be in the Army. In this war, everybody is a volunteer. I was looking, I think, for another way to find that outsider’s viewpoint. And when I started meeting with women who were in Iraq when I was embedded the first time, I realized this was going to work.

Q: Women now account for some 15 percent of enlisted military personnel, and Secretary of Defense Ash Carter ordered their full integration — from regular infantry to the Navy Seals and Army Delta units — last December. What kind of presence did they have when you were in Iraq in 2006 and 2010?

A: It would be difficult to count them. The ones I interviewed who were important to the book were often isolated in a certain way. … I remember going on a long drive up to Mosul in 2010 and watching a captain interact with her troops. She was offering what I thought was perfectly good advice, like, “Guys, would you not play Insane Clown Posse while we’re on the road? We need to have clear radio communication.” And after she left, the soldiers she was with grumbled and complained and accused her of being frightened or not knowing what she was doing.

Those kinds of dynamics played a role in trying to imagine and create what it was like for Emma to be a lieutenant.

Q: Did your view of women in military change in any way?

A: I think there are certain male myths about being a soldier — that combat is a way to prove you’re brave and that you’re a true man, that war is a way to shape your identity and there is special kind of brotherhood available in combat that’s not available to any civilian, that combat might be horrible and terrible but passing through that sort of trial by fire can be a character-building thing.

Our culture perpetuates those myths, but I think women who are in the service are generally not vulnerable to them in the way men are. They tend to view what they’re doing and why they’re doing it with a lot less romanticism attached to it.

Q: Each of your first two novels, “The Huntsman” and “The King of King’s County,” was set in Kansas City and revolved around issues of race. Was it time to move on from that? Was it difficult?

A: Yes, I stepped out of my comfort zone. It took me eight years to write “The Good Lieutenant.” (But) I deliberately wanted to write something that was not set in Kansas City. I think it’s possible for somebody to get identified as a Kansas City writer, and it’s hard to change that.

That said, in the original drafts of this book, I didn’t have any scenes set at Fort Riley or in Kansas City (as the final version does). I didn’t emphasize the Midwestern roots that Emma has. I made Emma a very, very different person with a somewhat different background. It wasn’t until I sort of gave in and said, “OK, be a Midwesterner,” that I really finally figured out how to write the book.

Q: All three books tackle societal issues — race and segregation, women in military, the sometimes moral ambiguities of war. Is that important to you?

A: Yes. I believe writing is most interesting when it is touching on things that people care about in society. And when it’s touching on things that people know about but don’t talk about. That’s really my wheelhouse, my sweet spot. If you can find a thing that everyone is aware of, is curious about, but they don’t argue about it publicly very much or they’re afraid to or it’s embarrassing, that’s a good thing to write fiction about.

Q: In truth, this is not the third novel you’ve written but the fourth, right?

A: My very first book was set in Alaska, where I worked as a deckhand on a seine boat fishing for salmon a bunch of summers in college and in graduate school. It was a very intense experience, a very physical, peer-heavy experience and a huge adventure. I wrote a book that was good enough for me to win some scholarships for graduate school but not quite good enough to get published. … I think it was called “The Inside Passage.”

When I was totally stuck on “The Good Lieutenant” — as I was for a couple of years in the middle of it, I didn’t think I was going to get it done or that what I had done was ever going to be any good — somebody said, “Go back and look at the Alaska book. Maybe you can rewrite that.” I went and looked at it, and I was, like, “No, we will not be rewriting that.”

Q: And your next book? Is it already in the works?

A: I’m just starting. But given how often my ideas change from the beginning to end, I don’t think I’m going to talk about it until much later. … I can tell you it is not going to involve going on embedded war projects to war zones. I’m done with that.

Steve Wieberg, a former reporter for USA Today, is a writer and editor for the Kansas City Public Library.

Join the discussion

▪ The Kansas City Star partners with the Kansas City Public Library to present a book-of-the-moment selection every six to eight weeks. We invite the community to read along. Kaite Mediatore Stover, the library’s director of reader’s services, will lead a discussion of “The Good Lieutenant” by Whitney Terrell at 6:30 p.m. June 20 at the National World War I Museum. The evening begins with a brief tour of exhibits featuring women in the military. If you would like to attend, email Stover at kaitestover@kclibrary.org. Participants can obtain copies of the book in advance of its June 7 release.

▪ In a separate, ticketed event sponsored by Rainy Day Books, Terrell will discuss the novel with Kansas City Public Library director Crosby Kemper III at 7 p.m. June 2 at Unity Temple on the Plaza, 707 W. 47th St. More info at rainydaybooks.com/WhitneyTerrell.

An excerpt

From Chapter 7 of “The Good Lieutenant” by Whitney Terrell, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Lt. Emma Fowler and her company are preparing to search for two soldiers missing in the wake of a truck bombing already known to have cost two American lives.

“The day before, there had been grumblings about the checkpoint’s conditions, even after Weazer had been saved. As they’d hunted through the wreckage, Beale had pointed out that everyone had known the intersection’s checkpoint didn’t have any T-walls and soldiers would die if they were posted there. Which meant, as Waldorf noted, that the soldiers there had died to prove something that most everyone knew already. And finally, Dykstra had heard that the Iraqi bomber had been contracted to haul gravel to the checkpoint because it was Army policy to hire locals, even for jobs they could have done themselves. Which meant that Weazer had been killed (except, of course, they’d saved him) by someone that the U.S. Army was paying. So as Fowler prepared to address her platoon the next morning, she felt less like a lieutenant and more like a sex-ed teacher, hoping against hope that there were certain questions her students wouldn’t ask.”

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