The following interview was conducted by Backword Books member and Threshold author Bonnie Kozek. At the end of the interview you’ll find out how you can enter to win a signed copy of Homefront and a PDF of Tsetsi’s short fiction collection Carol’s Aquarium.
Kristen J. Tsetsi’s debut novel Homefront was published in 2007. Critics have said that the prose is exquisite, the mood heartbreaking. They have said that it reads like a long-form haiku written by Charles Bukowski in collaboration with Ann Beattie, and that every paragraph is a stand-alone gem of insight and observation. In itself, this was enough to arouse my curiosity. But, when I read in her bio that it annoyed her dad that she was reading Archie comics so much that he asked, “What could you possibly learn from comic books?” and she answered, “I learned the word disgruntled,” well, I just couldn’t resist asking her a few questions.
Bonnie Kozek: You’ve created an interesting cast of characters. Without upsetting any of them, do you have particular favorites?
Kristen J. Tsetsi: Donny Donaldson, the Vietnam vet, is a favorite for two reasons: he’s funny by accident, and he’s one of those characters who says things you’re not supposed to say in polite society (back when there was a “polite society,” I mean). And he’s unpredictable – he’ll go from gentle to nasty in half a second – which makes him appealing, too.
Another favorite is Denise, even though she’s not an obvious favorite. (People tend to take issue with her choices.) I really enjoy her bluntness and her fearless ability to face and accept – and, sure, insensitively point out to others – reality as it is.
BK: The subject of military separation lends itself to gravity and heartache. Yet, you’re funny. And the book is darkly humorous. I think you need to explain yourself!
KJT: Military separation is so supremely dark and heavy by itself – it really needs no help – that to write about that, and only that, would have sent me to the bottom of a bottle of something, both out of depression and sheer boredom. It would have done the same to readers.
There’s more happening in Homefront than the deployment itself, just like in movies and books about soldiers. In those movies, we don’t only see things exploding and people fighting—we get to know the characters and their lives and stories as they exist in that war environment. Homefront is the same way. There’s a whole story, a series of lives, affected by this big, huge, powerful, antagonist that is WAR. It hangs around in the background and influences the way Mia and the other characters behave in, and respond to, the world and each other…but they still have their real-life moments of fun and/or funny mistakes. The characters – Mia (protagonist, and Jake’s cab-driving girlfriend), Jake (deployed soldier), Olivia (Jake’s overbearing and morbid mother), erratic Vietnam vet Donny Donaldson, “seasoned” Army wife Denise, the hippie downstairs neighbors who urge Mia to attend a war protest, and anti-war soldier Brian – have their own personal conflicts with one another, and with themselves internally, under this war canopy.
While some of the humor in Homefront comes as a result of awkwardness between characters (Mia very inappropriately smiles at someone else’s extraordinarily bad news, for example) or the simple lightness of a moment, Donny Donaldson is probably the most entertaining as a character.
BK: Does a person have to be in the military or waiting for someone to come home from war to enjoy reading the book? I mean, do you think someone like Dick Cheney, for instance, would relate?
KJT: You absolutely don’t have to have any connection to the military to relate to, or enjoy, Homefront. Many of the situations at their core contain universal themes we’ve all seen before, but that are approached in Homefront (as they are in any novel) in a way that is unique to the book and its characters.
Love: Mia and Jake are the primary lovers, but they’re in conflict before Jake leaves for Iraq, and that conflict doesn’t disappear when he goes. Being in conflict while knowing any word said could be the last makes for an awkward, confusing, and torturous separation. You know how you feel when you want to take back something you said to someone? When your stomach twists and you get sweaty and it doesn’t go away until you call to explain what you really meant? Well, you can’t just call someone when they’re deployed. You just get to sit on that feeling for a while, but that feeling is multiplied by “he could die before I get a chance to explain and make things right.”
Hate: There’s plenty to go around. Donny hates that he never came “home” from Vietnam, and consequently, he hates most people. Mia hates people who are happy, hates soldiers who didn’t have to deploy, and hates Denise for being Denise.
Uncomfortable truth: Denise is best at pointing out the way things are, even if the way things are isn’t the way we think they should be (or like to fool ourselves into thinking they are).
Guilt: Having the person you love in what you perceive to be constant imminent mortal danger allows plenty of opportunity for guilt. While looking for longer than one second at an attractive person, say. Or after sending an email that should have been deleted. Or after realizing you stopped thinking, for a few seconds, about the person in imminent mortal danger because you were really hungry for the fried chicken at the drive-through.
Friendship: The friendships in Homefront are not friendships that would have occurred outside of the deployment—they’re based on things like desperation, mutual need, and convenience. As such, they’re both stronger and more fragile than friendships made in regular, everyday life. They’re also more unexpected.
Envy: Mia envies Denise for reasons best read, and while hippie Safia isn’t shy when it comes to sharing her feelings about the war, she isn’t personally affected by it and is able to float and sway (obnoxiously) through life in a way Mia wishes she could.
Lust: I’m not telling.
Growth: There is growth, but not in the expected directions or from the expected characters.
There is a lot going on that has absolutely nothing to do with war except for the fact that the characters are all connected and affected by it. The psychological and emotional experience that isn’t so universal is the one specific to having a loved one at war, but that part is written in such a way that readers will feel like they’re experiencing it, themselves. It’ll become familiar real quick-like.
BK: Are those billiard balls on the cover? They appear to be smiling. But there’s one that looks, well, different. Can you explain?
KJT: I think they’re candies. Like M&Ms, maybe. I’m not sure, though. And yes, they’re all smiling. The bullet-hole smile represents Mia, or anyone who, on the surface, looks like they’re “normal” but who’s not quite like the others. That bullet-hole smile is every person waiting right now for the person they love to make it home. They may be smiling, but somewhere in them is this deep, gaping hole of constant dread and anxiety and confusion and frustration making their world sit at a kind of tilt.
BK: I think it’s safe to say that the majority of those waiting for a loved one to return home from war are women. And your main character is a woman. What has the response been from male readers?
KJT: Men have had an incredibly strong reaction to Homefront. Women enjoy it, but men are affected by it. I don’t know if it’s because they can relate to Donny, or if it’s because they’re introduced to women in a new way, or if it’s because they feel like they’ve known these people or the individual experiences they have. I can’t say. But men are really, really affected by it. And I love that.
BK: I also need to ask about the response from female readers. What feedback have you received?
KJT: Women who have someone in the military have said Homefront captures the experience (the emotions, the thoughts they don’t want to tell anyone they have, the surreal and numb quality that comes with being in a state of torturous limbo) perfectly. Those without someone in the military are drawn to the relationships and the characters, their dialogue with one another, the tension, the touching and funny and angering moments, and to the real-ness of Mia. I think they like that she’s not one of those typical women you read about – the ones who do the things you think they should do, like take showers, practice self-control, or act like whatever a “lady” is. Mia is, without going overboard, someone who represents who we are when we’re just in a damn bad mood. (And, to be honest, I should say that some people who like the book don’t always necessarily like Mia as a person.)
BK: Is there a particular scene or sentence in the book that gives potential readers the essence of what’s in store for them?
KJT: There’s a passage with Mia that’s probably a good example of the story’s tone. (To set the scene a little bit – Mia is a cab driver, and Shellie is the cab dispatcher. Lenny is a night driver who hates Mia. In this scene, Mia is sitting in her cab getting high under a tree when she should be driving to pick up her next fare).
Shellie calls for me over the radio and I take another hit from the joint I bought from Lenny during this morning’s shift change. “At least this time you’re payin’ for it,” he said.
“Miss Mia. Where you at, girl?”
I pick up the radio and push the button and say, “Pshhchk,” and set it back on its base.
BK: Homefront has received tremendous critical acclaim. Has it gone to your head?
KJT: Absolutely. I’m not even sure why I’m talking to you.
BK: You describe Homefront as being semi-autographical. I’m trying to figure out the “semi” part of that word. So, which one of the following haven’t you been: English professor, cab driver, unpredictable alcoholic Vietnam Vet, anti-war soldier, or morbid mother-in-law?
KJT: I haven’t been a veteran, an anti-war soldier, or a morbid mother in-law. There are a lot of things Mia does (or doesn’t do) that I’ve never done (or did do…?). I’m not Mia (hear that, Dad and [uncle] Larry?), but I did write Homefront after Ian, my husband, came home from Iraq, and I drew from every emotional experience I had while he was gone to make it as real and relatable as it is in Homefront. Ninety-seven percent of the details in Homefront (minus the war timeline) are fictional, but the story – the heart, what readers feel and come away with – is absolutely true.
BK: How many ideas for books are going on in your head right now? And, what’s next?
KJT: Three ideas: 1. a collection of tied-together short stories 2. maybe another Mia book, and 3. the novel I’m working on now, The Year of Dan Palace (which also answers “What’s next?”).
BK: As a writer, are there things you won’t talk about? Is there a question that’s too private to answer? If so, what’s that question?
KJT: Things I won’t talk about as a writer…probably disease or serious mental illness. They’re just not interesting to me as story subjects. (However, I really do love the movie Terms of Endearment…but that’s because the characters are so rich, and because there’s a lot more going on than just the cancer. It makes me think of Homefront, in that way – in ToE, the cancer is clearly there just as Homefront’s war is, but the cancer, like the war, is not the whole story even if it affects everything about the story.)
And, is there a question too private to answer? I don’t think so. There hasn’t been a question yet that I’ve been afraid to answer. In fact, I usually feel like no question is private enough. Any time someone says, “Can I ask you something personal?” I get excited because I think, “Oooh, this is going to be juicy,” and I usually end up being disappointed.
BK: As it turns out, KJT is even more precocious — and charming — than I suspected. Find out for yourself by reading Homefront and following Kristen’s blog at http://kristentsetsi.wordpress.com.
And now…the win-a-signed-copy-of-Homefront and PDF of Carol’s Aquarium rules:
1. In the comments section, ask your own interview question that has something to do with Homefront. Don’t be afraid to get personal. (You don’t have to get personal, however. If you’re curious about something fairly impersonal, you can ask that, too.)
2. In Homefront, Mia lives in a small apartment readers come to know fairly well. After asking your question, name a room you’d find in a house (not a closet – a room), and if you guess the correct one, you’ll win a signed copy of Homefront and Kristen will email you a PDF of Carol’s Aquarium. NOTE: Be sure to read other responses to avoid double-guessing. (A house was chosen instead of an apartment because there are too few rooms in an apartment for the contest to go beyond four guesses.)
FINAL DAY OF THE CONTEST IS THURSDAY, OCT. 29.
Good luck, and have fun!
[Friday: Andrew Kent, author of the Johnny Denovo mysteries, interviews Waiting for Spring author R. J. Keller.]