A Conversation With Helen Benedict: Writing Fiction and Non-Fiction

Helen Benedict has written five novels and five books of non-fiction. I recently spoke with Benedict about the unique undertaking of writing both fiction and non-fiction from the same research material.
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Journalist, author, and professor Helen Benedict has written five novels and five books of non-fiction. Her most recent novel, Sand Queen, was published last month, and her non-fiction book, The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq, was published in 2009. Although both books deal with women at war, Benedict says it not necessary to read The Lonely Soldier to understand Sand Queen. I recently spoke with Benedict about the unique undertaking of writing both fiction and non-fiction from the same research material. Here are excerpts from that conversation:

How did you construct fictional characters and storylines from all of the non-fiction research material that you had gathered?
When I write fiction it doesn't even feel like fiction. It's more like daydreaming. The story just comes out once you have the characters in your head. So I had the idea of this U.S. female soldier, Kate, and I had the idea of Naema, the young Iraqi woman whose brother and father were arrested and all of the angst and misery she was going through. Once I had those two characters in my head I just poured out the story. I had to figure out how they would meet, and what effect they would have on each other from then on, and how their stories would evolve. But I don't think the story out beforehand. It comes out as I write it.

What is different in the way you structure your novels as opposed to how you structure your non-fiction books?
I plan out the structure of non-fiction before I write it. Novels I just pour out and let the structure find itself. In fiction, it's not really structure that matters, its plot. The plot -- the storyline -- forms the structure, and the plot comes from the characters.

How did you learn to trust your instinct to let your imagination determine what shape your fiction would take?
I found out a long time ago that my instinct and imagination are much smarter than the conscious part of me, at least when it comes to telling stories. Even in journalism, I just pour out the story and it finds its own shape. I learned that by working on a daily newspaper and having to write three stories a day, fast. No time for planning, just tell the story! Practice, is the short answer! But we all have the instincts of a storyteller. We use them whenever we tell friends stories of what has happened to us. We do this from the minute we learn to talk. As children, we make up stories as we play. In a sense, writers just never out grow this.

What are your trying to accomplish in your fiction?
I just want to move people, engage them, pull them out of their own lives and skins and put them in the lives and skins of others. I think becoming someone other than oneself, through reading or writing, is one of the most powerful antidotes to prejudice and hatred I know. In that way, fiction breeds compassion. That's what I want to do: breed compassion.

What are you trying to accomplish in your non-fiction?
Most of my non-fiction has been about violence against women or racism -- it's been about the harm that prejudice does to others. So I want my non-fiction to raise awareness and even, hopefully, trigger action against oppression. I am pleased to say that The Lonely Soldier did a little of this. It got me invited to testify to Congress twice on behalf of women soldiers who have been sexually assaulted. The Defense Department read the book and implemented some of the reforms I suggested in the book. And my book helped to inspire an incredible lawyer, Susan Burke, to press a class action suit against the Pentagon on behalf of military women and men who have been sexually assaulted while serving.

How do you organize your time to get all of your writing done?
I do most of my writing, at least the first draft in the summer when I don't have to teach. I leave the city and I go to an artist colony if I'm accepted, where I can write all of the time far away from my obligations. They shop and cook for you so you don't have any errands, and you can just write with complete concentration. It's delicious. Or I go upstate where we have a place in the countryside, which is very quiet. I work really hard over the summers, writing nine hours a day, and exercising, as well. And then I relax in the evenings.

What is your writing process like when you return to your daily routine?
It's really hard to get the depth of concentration that you need in the middle of work time when you have a lot of other things on your mind. When I'm absorbed in my writing I completely forget about everything else. I sometimes even forget to eat, return phone calls or answer e-mails, and I forget appointments I made with people. It's a sort dangerous state of mind in terms of living your daily life because you suddenly become wildly irresponsible and make a lot of mistakes. So it's better for me to not do that too much when I have a lot of duties to take care of, because I don't want to spread chaos (laughing).

What effect could these distractions have on your writing?
A novel is a huge thing to hold in your mind all at once. And there is a time when you really need to hold it all in your mind at once, otherwise you'll make mistakes. You'll give someone green eyes, when they had brown eyes on page four, or worse. You could have started a whole plot early in the novel and forget about it, and have the character do something else. You could make terrible mistakes if it's not all in your mind. Not only plot mistakes, but semantic mistakes, and philosophical mistakes. So in order to contain a huge, 300-page book in your head all at once, you really need a lot of privacy and quiet. At least I do.

Since both Sand Queen and The Lonely Soldier deal with war, what have you learned about death?
I'm not sure I've learned anything about death, but I've learned a lot about war -- how it not only kills and mutilates but corrodes people's souls, minds, and morals.

What do you think about the female soldiers who participated in the prisoner torture at Abu Ghraib?
When Bush's government gave the order to torture, it had a profound effect on the morals of U.S. soldiers. They, men and women, were not only encouraged but ordered to act in the most sadistic and depraved ways towards anyone regarded as an enemy. Some resisted, some didn't. It has nothing to do with one's gender, but with one's personality and circumstances. In Sand Queen, I examine how a very nice person -- even a woman -- can be changed and morally deformed by a corrupt and senseless war.

What would you like readers to take away from Sand Queen?
I think that I just want people to recognize that there are not very many novels out there that tell the story of the Iraq war from the point of view of two women, especially one that is Iraqi. I think it is an overdue and important point of view. Whether people like what I have to say or not, I hope it will be a really good subject for discussion. I've gotten very passionate responses to it, which is exciting. Someone even wrote me a poem in response to it. They were so moved. You work all alone for years in your room, and you have no idea what people will think. And so to get that sort of passionate response is very rewarding and moving to me.

For a closer look at the novel, Sand Queen, please read Women Isolated and at War in A Desert Outpost.

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