What happens when a soldier goes AWOL and ends up meeting a lonely gardener at an isolated farm in small-town New Brunswick? That’s the premise of Pamela Mulloy’s gripping debut novel, The Deserters (Esplanade/Vehicule).
The Montreal Review of Books says “The Deserters feels sturdy, the narrative evenly paced with no sharp turns. It is a novel about a failing marriage, an affair, war, and complicated family dynamics, but it’s more about lonely people who choose to weather their sufferings solo instead of developing sustained closeness.”
Pamela Mulloy is the editor of The New Quarterly and the creative director of the Wild Writers Literary Festival. She is also a writer with short fiction published in the UK and Canada. She lives in Kitchener, Ontario, with her husband and daughter.
THE CHAT WITH PAMELA MULLOY
Trevor Corkum: The Deserters is set largely in a remote, rural area of New Brunswick. The descriptions of this setting are both strangely expansive and incredibly claustrophobic at the same time. Did you have a particular location in mind as you wrote?
Pamela Mulloy: I had a notion of it being a few hours inland across the Maine border, but I didn’t have a particular place in mind. It was more a composite. When I was growing up I spent a lot of time at my grandparents’ farm in PEI and although Eugenie’s wasn’t the farm of my grandparents, the space that their farm occupied, both sweeping and isolated, was a territory I was familiar with and felt key to the story.
For the past eight years my daughter and I have taken the train from Kitchener to Moncton and when travelling by rail through New Brunswick the dense forest will suddenly open up to a pond, a house, a deserted shack, or farmland, then just as suddenly close up again. There is deep isolation in this landscape that has an inherent drama. For miles as I rode the train, I would peer into the wild scrubland, imagining Dean living out in the bush trying to understand what it would mean to live in such an environment. You could say that for me the specifics of the location were not as paramount as the ineffable quality of landscape itself, and the emotional connection that emerges as these characters inhabit this space.
You could say that for me the specifics of the location were not as paramount as the ineffable quality of landscape itself, and the emotional connection that emerges as these characters inhabit this space."
TC: The novel centres around an American deserter from the Iraq War, Dean, and a Canadian woman named Eugenie who is working to rebuild a ramshackle farm. What drew you to their story? When did you know you had a novel on your hands?
PM: I’ve thought about this a lot and have come up with three distinct strands that formed the genesis of the book. In 2004, we were living in a university town in Illinois where most people were against the Iraq War, but surrounded by farmland where it seemed everyone supported the war. We met a grad student at the research centre where my husband was doing his post-doc, and we learned that he had enlisted in the Reserves in order to help to pay for his education. He had a wife and two children, with another one on the way, and despite his weekend training in preparation for battle, I don’t think he ever expected to go to war. This is where the idea of a reluctant solder began to surface.
Another strand involved my cousin Bill, who was an American soldier, the only military presence in my large family. He was seriously injured when his vehicle hit an IED. Along with his physical injuries he has suffered from PTSD and also has been quite vocal about his struggles, helping other veterans who are also afflicted. In conversations with him I realized I wanted to write about someone who suffers from PTSD.
The last strand goes back to my teen years. The Vietnam War was over and when visiting a friend who worked at a swimming pool I met a deserter. There is something of a mythic quality to the encounter; I don’t think I even understood what a deserter was other than someone who had crossed the border to escape the war. As a memory fragment this encounter became frozen until years later while I was working through all these ideas I had.
TC: Like many veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, Dean suffers from a form of PTSD, struggling to come to grips with painful flashbacks from the battlefield. How much research was involved in writing his story?
PM: Dean was the starting point of this story and it was important to portray him with authenticity, especially given how far he was from my own life experience, so yes, I did a lot of research. I read books that gave me insight into a soldier’s life during the Iraq War, and the repercussions once they returned home, so much so that my daughter, who was around nine or ten at the time, asked me why I was always reading about war. I needed to learn about the fundamentals of military life, but in reading these accounts by soldiers, embedded journalists, or writers, and watching documentaries where I could hear their voices, I also wanted to get to the essence of what it means to return from a devastating experience, to ask the question of how does one cope when one has been through something horrific?
The facts, such as the geometry of a gunshot and what a F.O.B. is became the base of my knowledge, but the personal stories helped with the psychic or emotional aspect. For me, research is a constant and ongoing part of the writing process and towards the end of the writing of the novel I interviewed my cousin Bill for an essay I wrote on his experience which helped fill in some details and also underscored the importance of writing about PTSD.
I also had fun learning about marquetry through watching YouTube videos, reading A Marquetry Odyssey by Silas Kopf, and having conversations with a friend in the UK who happens to be a lute maker and knows something about the craft.
TC: There’s also a peripheral character named Jack, who is in fact a Vietnam draft dodger who has been living in New Brunswick for decades. The novel describes and explores the large number of Americans who settled in Canada in the 60s and 70s to escape the draft. How significant is this period in New Brunswick’s history? What did you learn?
PM: This is the gift of research, when you come up with something that enhances your story, gives it another layer you hadn’t anticipated. I didn’t really know about this phenomenon until I started reading about the experience of modern-day deserters. I knew that draft dodgers and deserters escaped into Canada, especially since I’d already met one, but I didn’t think about what happened to them until I started reading about how some had stayed and were eager to live off the land, which was a trend at the time.
The experience of Mark Frutkin, who crossed the border into Quebec as recounted in his book Erratic North, was certainly one of escape but it was also an intentional commitment to this new land.
I read of the journey of New Brunswick writer Beth Powning and her husband Peter, which similarly seemed to have been initiated by anti-war sentiment but was also powered by the need to establish deep and meaningful roots. I have heard that there are others who settled into the area as well, and what surprised me is how their experience seems so fundamentally different than that of those who tried to flee the Iraq War.
Jack played a critical role in the narrative but later I saw that it was important to include mention of these veterans, if only as a way of saying that we’ve been here before with this issue, but that was another time, one where the process was in many cases more straightforward, the landing gentler, somewhat purposeful, less mired in fear and bureaucracy.
TC: Finally, you’re a highly respected editor of one of the leading literary journals in Canada, and you’ve been an advocate and mentor for so many. How have you juggled your own writing alongside those responsibilities, and what does it feel to have your own book out there in the world?
Thank you! I’m thrilled to have my book out in the world. I began The Deserters before I started at The New Quarterly so the juggling was part of the plan from the moment I took over as editor. I try not to relegate my writing to the margins of my life but it does happen sometimes, so I’ve learned to dedicate blocks of time, a day or two in a row where I can focus on my work. In practical terms, of course, my TNQ time bleeds over into my writing but it has also nourished me as a writer since my work as editor involves reading the material of talented writers, both emerging and established. I can’t help but be inspired.
Excerpt from The Deserters
The evening wore on with Dean becoming more restless until he remembered the button on his shirt that had come off. He fumbled through his gear looking for the tin that held the needle and thread and sat down, leaning into the light of the fire. He held the needle, his hand firm against his knee while he took aim with the thread. It was his older sister Victoria who’d taught him to sew, telling him a man ought to know how to work a needle as much as a saw. He missed his sister, now a nurse in Bangor, and wondered if he’d ever see her again. She would not be impressed with his half-hearted effort trying to get this button on. He muttered to himself as he jabbed at the hole, the thread bending, splitting. He began to lose patience, which he knew would get him nowhere. He tried several times, the thread quivering until at last, success. He guided it through the needle slowly then tied a knot, his fingers getting cold as the evening damp set in.
The fading sun scattered vivid patches of light on the forest floor, and Dean, looking up at the sudden illumination, distracted by its beauty, accidentally stabbed his finger. Blood dripped onto a leaf, then trickled off. It was getting too cold for sewing, but he needed to get the button onto his shirt before going to work in the morning. Beside him lay his hunting knife unsheathed, ready to slice the thread once the button was secure.
A flock of starlings few past, squawking and frenzied, just as he’d known them to be back home in Maine on summer evenings. Those nights sitting out on his deck drinking a beer, enjoying the peace of doing nothing, just sitting and listening. Not worrying about life and death, or a future, or where his next meal might come from. Not thinking about civilians or soldiers, nor any kind of duty to which he might feel obligated. And this memory, of the quiet and the birds, stung him so much that he put the shirt on, the needle still dangling, and shoved those thoughts of home out as if they never really belonged to him. A rustle in the bush jolted him and he grabbed for his gun, his hand scrambling through the debris of clothes, food packets and utensils that lay around him, before he figured out that he no longer had one. Then came the swift realization that it was just a rabbit out in the woods, not an insurgent.
Reprinted with permission of the author.
Listen to an audio excerpt of The Deserters at The Oddments Tray.