A Polished Dream: An Interview with Helen Benedict Conducted August 2011 for Art & Document by Timothy Cahill, Director of the Center for Documentary Arts at The Sage Colleges, Albany, New York.
Timothy Cahill: Did you conceive of Sand Queen while you were writing The Lonely Soldier?
Helen Benedict: I conceived of Sand Queen long after I finished The Lonely Soldier, although all the inspiration for it came from the same research. I came to realize, even after interviewing more than forty women who served in the Iraq War and doing a lot of other research too, that there was more to say—an internal, private story of war that lay in the soldiers’ silences, jokes, and tears. Those moments are closed to the journalist, but they are exactly where fiction can go
Do you consider the two books companion pieces in any sense? How helpful is it for the reader to know the stories of the five women in Lonely Soldier to understand the events in Sand Queen?
I wrote Sand Queen to be read entirely independently of The Lonely Soldier. Fiction cannot depend upon nonfiction to be understood. But those who wish to read both will find an interesting relationship between the two.
What was the most rewarding aspect of writing the novel? How do the rewards of fiction differ from narrative non-fiction?
The most rewarding part of writing fiction is the artistic thrill of creating people from scratch, discovering the language they speak and the lives they live. But I also love entering the skins and souls of people entirely different from myself, in this case Kate, the soldier, and Naema, the Iraqi medical student. None of that can be done in nonfiction.
I also found it incredibly moving to meet and talk to the women soldiers and Iraqi refugees who helped me with the book. That is true for nonfiction, too.
As a writer, what is that transition like at the point when you enter the skin of your characters and information gives way to imagination? What’s your experience of the back and forth between the factual world of research and the creative process of inventing a world?
I always do a lot of research for my novels, but the story takes precedence. In a way, writing fiction is the opposite of writing nonfiction. In the latter, the research leads the story. In fiction, the story leads and the research is only there to provide authenticity.
I write realistic fiction, so the “factual world” is never really separate from it. That is, although my characters and their adventures are all invented, everyone I write about could have existed, and everything that happens to them could have happened. Essentially, though, writing fiction and nonfiction are like using different sides of the brain. Nonfiction is like putting together a hugely complicated puzzle. Fiction is like controlled and polished daydreaming.
How much of the novel was worked out in advance before you began to write?
I never plot before I write because the imagination is so much more inventive and intuitive than the logical part of the brain that plans.
Do you think fiction can bear witness to real life?
Fiction not only bears witness to real life, it may reflect it better than nonfiction ever can. The job of fiction is to plumb the soul, the unconscious, the human motivations so often hidden even from ourselves. Facts are not enough to tell the story of human beings and all their wonderful complexity. Even more important, reading fiction is a way of leaving yourself and entering the souls of others, and in this way it can work against prejudice and myopia.
Will you continue to pursue the subject of women soldiers in the future?
I will indeed. At the moment, I am writing a sequel to Sand Queen that follows several of its characters seven years into the war, American and Iraqi, men and women.
What do these stories of women soldiers touch within you that makes them compelling and of continuing importance?
I think what most moved and disturbed me about the stories of these women soldiers was seeing their youthful idealism crushed. So many of them believed they were going to help the Iraqi people and do some good in the world, and believed their fellow soldiers would be comrades and brothers, too. Instead, they found abuse at the hands of comrades and a war that was destroying a people, not helping them. To see idealism turn angry and bitter in the young is heartbreaking. We should not be doing that to our youth.