The Bookshelf: Novelist Elizabeth Marro

Apr 29, 2016

The Bookshelf is NHPR's series on authors and books with ties to the Granite State.  All Things Considered host Peter Biello features authors, covers literary events and publishing trends, and gets recommendations from each guest on what books listeners might want to add to their own bookshelves. 

If you have an author or book you think we should profile on The Bookshelf, send us an email. The address is books@nhpr.org.

This week, The Bookshelf features novelist Elizabeth Marro. Elizabeth Marro’s debut novel, Casualties, tells the story of Ruth, a woman devastated by the suicide of her son, Robbie. Robbie was a veteran of the wars in the Middle East, a Marine, and he comes back from the battlefield a changed man. Ruth copes with feelings of guilt and grief as she embarks on a tumultuous journey across the country from San Diego to the North Country of New Hampshire. Scroll down to read a list of the top five books on Marro's bookshelf, listen to her conversation with Peter Biello, or read the transcript.

Elizabeth Marro's Top 5 Book Recommendations

1.   Where The Rivers Flow North by Howard Frank Mosher. "This collection — the novella that provides the title and related short stories — was the first book of Mosher’s I ever read and, since then, I’ve read all of his fiction and some of his nonfiction. I loved everything about this book: the characters, the place, and Mosher’s writing. He is not afraid to experiment — his stories always contain at least a hint of magical realism, or at the very least, a sense of mystery. He does this with unforgettable characters and, stories that are rooted in the Northeast Kingdom but are universal. Mosher is too often classified as a “regional” writer. I thought recently of the Where the Rivers Flow North when I read “River Runner” in Jason Brown’s collection of stories. Why The Devil Chose New England For His Work, a collection that lives up to its great title.

2.   The Heart is a Lonely Hunter  by Carson McCullers. "I came late to this book but now have read it several times. The first time was the best — I just fell into the story and didn’t come out until I was finished. I’ve read it two more times just to appreciate the structure and the command McCullers had of her people, the town she created, and the way she showed us what loneliness and yearning looks like from so many perspectives. "

3.   I Am Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout. "I just finished this book a couple of weeks ago and it is still reverberating. Such a quiet, small novel — the narrator tells the story as if she’s sitting across from the reader. It comes out in the same, halting, sometimes evasive way we use when there is something important, yet painful, to face directly. Strout appears to break some rules that we were all taught as we learned to write. There is lots of “telling” rather than “showing.” There is little in the way of plot. What we have is voice, writing that pulls us down paths that seem clear enough and then springs a memory — just a sentence or two — that leaves us reeling. This books explores poverty, class, trauma, and the complexity of love. The voice of Lucy Barton will keep whispering long after the last page."

4.   The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx. "One of the best books ever. Period. A wonderful story with one of the best openings I’ve ever read. Every single word of this novel has a job to do and does it. Coyle, one of the saddest sacks in the world, remains one of my favorite characters ever created. Proulx is another writer who comes at a place as if it it is a character -- Newfoundland lives and breathes somehow apart from its people. After finishing it, I thought for days about what it takes to write a book with such heart to it while never once dipping into sentimentality. "

5.   My Life As a Foreign Country by Brian Turner. "There are so many really good memoirs and novels being written now by those who served in our most recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is one of them. The language and power of Brian Turner's memoir, 'My Life As a Foreign Country' are still sinking in. Its reach back through time and into the bones and DNA of the humans who start war and serve it in each country, each generation. He shares images from his own time preparing for Iraq, fighting there, and returning home interspersed with the faces, bodies, ghosts of each and every human touched by the violence. He does all of this is sentences so direct, so sharp, so lovely, you don't feel the cut until you lift your eyes from the page and realize you are bleeding."

Tell us about Ruth.

Many people ask me, “How well do you know Ruth? Is she you?” And the answer is, “No.” She was the hardest character to write, interestingly. She’s the main character and the hardest to write. She is built from exposure to certain setting and certain experiences, but also from many, many women that I’ve encountered in the course of all of that. And, sure, I accessed everything I knew about being a single mother, which I knew a lot of, and working and supporting my son and I.

Those things you have in common.

Those things we have in common, so I was able to pull from that very easily. But one of the things that has often come up—a lot of the things that Ruth experiences are not unique to single parents. They just happen to be very much on her mind going forward. You want things for your children, you’re working very hard, you think to provide them, but also to provide a few things that you want for yourself. And the conflicts are always there and it can be true in two-parent families. It can be true with the greatest mothers in the world and the worst mothers in the world.

How did your feelings about her change as the novel evolved? Because she certainly changed.

Yes, and thank you for asking that, because as I mentioned, she was one of the hardest characters for me to write. And I’ve shared this with a few reading groups as I’ve gone out there. I realized that I was mad at her when I first started writing and I didn’t flesh her out, I didn’t try to break in and see what she was all about. It wasn’t until I started writing scenes from her childhood and really understanding how she became who she was that I could allow her to change.

But wait—why were you mad at her?

I was mad at her, and I think “mad” is probably too strong a word. I just couldn’t empathize with her. But I realized I was judging her. I was judging her the way some of my readers judge her now.

She was wealthy. I don’t want to say she’s a helicopter mom, but she needed Robbie in ways that seemed really intense.

A little controlling. She wanted to control every aspect of her life. That’s actually how she’s been successful. And she only had one child, so she was investing everything in him. Or she thought she was. That’s how she looked at it. Of course, you can imagine how that must have felt for him. [Laughs] But she didn’t see that right away. She came to see it. To feel it, in any event, when her world started to crumble as it did. Some of who she really was hiding in there all those years had probably been more of as a kid—that started to come back out.

This is a book primarily about the aftermath of a veteran’s suicide. And there are some statistics that say there are 22 veteran suicides per day on average. Very much in the news still. Why did you choose to write about this particular issue?

It was not my plan going into this story. I got into this story ten years ago, right about 2004—ten years until I published it—and I had just moved to San Diego. I knew my story was going to be about a mother and her child and I knew there would be something that sends her out of her loop and on a journey both personal and geographical. And when I moved to San Diego it all became clear what was happening. It was all around me in ways that was never visible where I was in corporate pharmaceutical suburbs of New Jersey. It became very, visible there.

Because it’s near Camp Pendleton?

It’s a military town. Deployments weren’t just headlines. They were people’s faces. They were families in the city. The whole city was affected by it. Even though many people think of San Diego (quite rightly so) as paradise on earth. It’s also this other big part of it. It became very clear when young men and women started to return home and this book took me a long time to write. I understood very early on that something bad happened and—actually, to be honest with you, I knew that Robbie would do this, and then I found out why, and I became very concerned about what we were hearing and what we were seeing. But we’ve learned a lot since and I don’t have full command of all the statistics that we need to have to have this discussion, but there’s a lot that goes into what happens to somebody when they go into a situation as Robbie did and come back out.

Many, many do not do what he did, and they’re looking at why an alarming number do. And a lot of them haven’t served in combat. A lot of them are just broken up and what we’ve learned is that the very separation of what became their family in the formative period of their lives. I mean, 19, you join the military, and those people are your family. That’s your home. And when you come home from your second, third [deployment], and you separate from the military, there’s a huge amount of change and grief and a lot goes into that. There’s the trauma of combat. There’s the boredom of being deployed. IN many case, we understand that there are many long stretches of utter, complete boredom. But there’s also those moments of fear because you know what situation you’re in. You’re tangibly affected by it. And everybody is going to respond differently.

I really wanted to understand how a family encountering this got through it, because we were seeing more and more of these happening and I thought it was important for me as a civilian to try at least to put myself on the page in the shoes of a family going through this. So I did it using a mother I could understand a little bit about and sort of see what happened from there.