SHE: Yeah, I think it’s fair. In the book, Wedge, the pilot, becomes the commanding officer of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 323, the Death Rattlers. One of my oldest friends is currently deployed to the Persian Gulf as the commander of the Death Rattlers, so using this squadron was a tribute to him.
But with novels – the ones I love to read and the ones I try to write – you often show the topography of people’s inner lives. And past a certain point, the characters I write are all me, or a version of me.
For example, with Wedge, there’s an opening chorus in the book where he talks about wanting to be close to he, and the he flies on instinct, close to the seat of your pants – what his great-great-grandfather did in WWII. He feels like he’s never had a chance to do this when the book opens, and much of his emotional journey tries to be close to that. he. I have never been a pilot, but he, the quest for something real is definitely an emotional journey that I feel familiar with. There are also other figures, like Chowdhury, who sits on the National Security Council. He has a complex personal life and is divorced. I’m divorced.
And I lived in Washington, I worked in government, and I felt the anonymity crush that comes with some of these dark government jobs. Chowdhury talks about it; it’s part of his character. I know how oppressive the bureaucracy can feel, but also how, even if you face that feeling, you know you are sitting at the center of major decisions.
So a lot of times you take things out of your own experience, out of your subconscious, and put them in these characters.
MRS: With all these characters, reading this book, I had a strong feeling … well, I kept asking: Why don’t they stop? Just: Don’t press the button, don’t drop the bomb. This book is an uplifting tale, but the people in control don’t stop. Is it just me, not having a great idea of what it’s like to be in the military, with the imperatives that come with orders and chains of command?
JS: I would say it’s not a military thing. I think it’s a sociological, human thing. Just look at the last hundred years or so – years when we’re supposed to evolve as a species, when we trade regularly with each other and elevate the rights of women and minorities, all the wonderful things of the last 100. years. Yet we fell into two massive world wars, one from 1914 to 1918 and the other from 1939 to 1945. Together we killed 80 million people in the 20th century.
We certainly see poor leadership around WWI and WWII. These people could have stopped, but time and time again they did not. And we see that the events take their own momentum. This happened in particular with World War I – the sleepwalkers, as they are sometimes called, those nations intertwined with blood, marriage and commerce and similar political systems, but who get it wrong in this devastating conflict. And you can draw a plumb line between that war and WWII.
SHE: The question you ask is one of the central themes of the book: why, as humans, do we do this over and over and over again? Another theme is that it is seldom good to start a war: you want to be the one who ends a war. Much of our American century is based on the first two world wars: these are wars that we did not start, but, you know, we surely ended them and they set us up with great prosperity. If a war breaks out between the United States and China, how does that war end? And is it even possible that it ends for the benefit of either party? Thematically, this is found throughout the book.