Today, we kick off our three-part exclusive interview with I’ll Meet You There author Heather Demetrios. Tune in for part 2 on Wednesday and part 3 on Friday. Meanwhile, here is part 1:
Whose story came first in I’LL MEET YOU THERE: Skylar or Josh? How did the other story evolve?
I love this question because it’s part of why this book is so special to me. It was originally Sky’s story—a crazy story about a girl who works in a motel in a tiny roadside town (still true) who ends up sheltering a Lindsay Lohan kind of celebrity girl on the run (um…not true anymore). Ha! Josh was just a small character in a party scene (this is now the first scene in IMYT). I brought the chapter to my writer’s group and they basically pointed to him and said, Hello, this guy is who you need to be focusing on and also can they kiss each other, please?! And, of course, Josh was important, but I needed help seeing that. I was just using him as a set piece, to show how sad this town was. In reality, my subconscious was bringing up something that really matters to me—PTSD, vets returning from Afghanistan, and the toll of the war on the young men and women who serve, particularly in the Marines. The more I worked on the book, the more I realized how hard my inner voice was trying to be heard when I wrote that chapter. Thank God for my writer friends!
If you don’t mind, tell us a little about your personal experience with PSTD and how that impacted your writing of I’LL MEET YOU THERE.
Before the book went to print, I asked my dad for permission to talk about all this, because it’s very personal. He said, “whatever sells your book, baby.” That is SO my dad, by the way. In all seriousness, I didn’t realize the impact of PTSD on my family and on my life until I started working on IMYT. I didn’t even realize how very much I cared about veterans and what’s happening to the service men and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan until I met Josh, the Marine in my book. My dad was in the Gulf War and for twenty years he’s been struggling with PTSD. Back then, people weren’t talking about PTSD, especially in the Marines. For readers who aren’t familiar with the Marines, all I can say is that it’s a very intense culture. I have a deep love for the Marines because both of my parents and my grandfather were Marines (I dedicated the book to all three of them), but there is a lot of stuff that goes on in their training that is excellent for battle zones but not so great for the home front. A Marine I spoke to who suffers from PTSD told me that Marines are essentially registered lethal weapons and that when their combat switch gets flipped on, well, it’s on. I’ve seen it happen myself and, frankly, it’s terrifying. If I were the Taliban, I’d be scared shitless.
The thing about PTSD is that it can manifest in countless ways and there are any number of triggers. One sound can result in a violent episode. Paranoia is a major issue, as is depression and suicidal thoughts. Josh exhibits PTSD in a number of ways in the book. For example, he mentions feeling uncomfortable at a party that takes place in a field because it’s too exposed. Or he has nightmares and struggles with not reacting to certain sounds.
In my family, the biggest way PTSD reared its ugly head was alcohol and drug addiction. I think that’s why for so long I didn’t realize my dad had PTSD. I just thought he was your run of the mill addict. Now I know better and it’s helped me to understand a lot of what went down in my childhood. I love my dad. And I’m proud of the steps he’s taken to wrestle his monsters to the ground. But it’s a long, hard road that veterans and their families walk down for the whole of their lives.
What research went into writing I’LL MEET YOU THERE? Did you learn anything unexpected or surprising?
I did tons and tons of research. It was really important to me that I got things right because to do otherwise would have dishonored the very people whose lives I was trying to shed light on. I began with talking to my dad, of course, and other family members. I’m really lucky in that I come from a big military family. My aunt, for example, was a Family Readiness Officer (civilian) for both the Marines and Army. This means she was able to give me a lot of firsthand information on what happens when a Marine or Soldier gets hurt and what steps are taken when they come home. I also reached out to a lot of Soldiers and Marines who served in either Iraq or Afghanistan. I mention them in the acknowledgements. And I did tons of reading. I loved David Finkel’s reporting, especially in Thank You For Your Service, as well as all of NPR’s journalism about veterans’ issues and our modern wars, most notably their series on the Dark Horse Battalion. They were a Marine regiment that lost tons of guys in a really short amount of time. I also had to do a lot of research on prosthetics and amputee life, specifically how to removed and put on a prosthesis and, um…what do about it when you have sex. Oh my god, that was some really blush-inducing research!
There were two major things that surprised me the most in my research. The first was how much more I learned about my family and, by extension, myself, as a result of really facing the whole PTSD/military thing head on. I was writing a fictional love story, but in the process, I began to understand why my parents are the way they are and where some of my fascination with military culture comes from. The other thing was how poetic the Marines and Soldiers I spoke to were in their descriptions of their service and of the landscape of Afghanistan itself. There is so much quiet dignity in the lives of people that serve in the military and as civilians we have so few opportunities to see that. It was a real honor to be entrusted with such personal recollections.
Thanks for stopping by, Heather!