Trent Reedy on his career, the Army, Iowa, and “Divided We Fall”

"...as part of the backstory for Divided We Fall I imagined a federal government shut down over budget disputes. I worried, as I was writing the book, that people would find it too far fetched. Then, not long after publication, a shutdown happened..."

From Dysart, IA. to Afghanistan to Washington state, Trent Reedy’s life has been an adventure that has taken him all over the world. And with a lifelong desire to become a writer, his stints as a soldier and a teacher have given him the experiences he needed to better craft the stories he wanted to tell. Wanting to learn more about his career and his pre-dystopian military series, Divided We Fall, Reedy allowed me to interview him for ScifiPulse.

To learn more about Reedy, check out his homepage.

Nicholas Yanes: Growing up, when did you know that you wanted to become a writer? Was there a specific book or author that you feel inspired you the most to pursue this path?

Trent Reedy: As a very young child in school, I daydreamed a lot.  I spent a lot of time dreaming up stories in my head instead of doing my work.  The assignments I did get into were the rare opportunities to write stories.  I always loved telling and writing stories.  By fourth grade I decided I wanted to be a writer.  I thought it would be the best job, telling stories and I could stay home to work?  What could be better than that?  My fourth grade self was right.  This is the best job in the world.  In no other line of work would I ever be excited Friday night with the knowledge that I could wake up at 4:30 a.m. to enjoy a whole day of work on Saturday.

Yanes: I know several professional creatives who served in the military. How did your time in the Iowa Army National Guard make you a better writer?

Reedy: It is difficult to overstate how much my time and experiences in the Iowa Army National Guard helped me, my writing, and my writing career.  Joining the National Guard was one of the best decisions I ever made.  First, the Iowa Army National Guard was a great way to pay for my BA in English at the University of Iowa.  So I was able to learn a lot about stories and how to analyze them while also graduating with a practical teaching degree, and all without crippling debt.

I was sent to the war in Afghanistan near the end of my enlistment.  At the time, I thought this was a major setback to my writing career.  I had a novel manuscript about which I was querying to agents.  In those days, I still had much to learn about writing, and I was unable to see how crude and flawed the manuscript really was.  It turned out, being sent to the war and forced to stop sending that manuscript around really protected me from damaging my career.  War gives one a lot of time to think.  In particular I thought about what I would do with my life if I returned home.  So I began to think about an MFA in writing.  After earning an MFA in writing for young people at Vermont College of Fine Arts and learning so much more about writing, I could tell how unready that first manuscript had been.  I rewrote it, and it became my second novel Stealing Air.

Of course the biggest help the National Guard gave my writing and my writing career was in all the ideas it gave me.  My first novel, Words in the Dust resulted from helping an Afghan girl on one of our missions, and my promise that I would tell her story.

I served in the Iowa Army National Guard as a combat engineer, working with, among other weapons systems, landmines and plastic explosives.  These experiences were very useful for a lot of the combat scenes in several of my books, particularly in the Divided We Fall trilogy.

Yanes: In addition to having the Iowa Writer’ Workshop, the state is also home to Erik Therme, Phil Hester, and several other professional writers. In your opinion, what are the pros and cons of trying to become a professional writer in Iowa?  Do you feel you have more professional connections and opportunities because you now live in Washington?

Reedy: It’s interesting that you mention Phil Hester, the wonderfully talented professional comic book artist from North English, Iowa.  I used to teach high school English in that community, and Mr. Hester was simply one of the best guys, very generous with his time and support. I admire him very much.

Writing is, by nature, a somewhat isolating activity and occupation.  I do not talk to and work with colleagues in my day-to-day labor as I did in teaching or in the Army.  So I am grateful for the community of writers for young people that is present here in Spokane, Washington.  I do not think Iowa has as large or as active a kidlit community.

But as far as professional connections go, I think the digital revolution has allowed the business to become more decentralized.  Agents work out of many different cities.  Communication with agents and editors is faster and easier.  In that respect, I do not think it has made much of a difference professionally living in Washington as opposed to living in Iowa where I started my career.

Yanes: You were a high school teacher. How do you think being a high school instructor helped you better understand young readers?

Reedy: My experiences as a teacher have helped me write what I believe are more realistic teacher characters, and they’ve helped me create small town school environments for my characters to inhabit.  More important, my time in the classroom gave me a chance to experience a lot of teen life from the position of interested observer, rather than from the position of my teen self or rather my adult memories of my teen self.  I only had the opportunity to teach for four years, but I loved it.  Those were good times.

Yanes: What was the inspiration for the Divided We Fall series?

Reedy: Writing Divided We Fall was an amazing experience for me.  It all came together very quickly and sometimes seemed to almost write itself.  I had been living in Spokane, Washington, a city not far from the Idaho state line, for a few years by the morning I was driving and wondered, “What if that state border was locked down by military blockade?”  I imagined barriers set up, tanks and armed soldiers on both sides of the line.  Then I wondered what would have to happen for such a circumstance to occur.  For every question I answered, two more questions came up.

Eventually, I imagined a young man, Private First Class Daniel Wright in the center of the controversy that eventually leads to a second and final American civil war.  I knew by then that I wanted a trilogy that explored the possible consequences of America’s Great Divide as well as a story that was sort of “pre-dystopia,” an account of the end of the United States of America that could lead to many of the dystopian worlds depicted in various young adult novels.

Yanes: With the first volume published 2014, were there any real world issues that influenced this series?

Reedy: Several historical events influenced the series.  The inciting incident, the National Guard soldiers firing on protestors in Boise, killing twelve and wounding nine, was inspired by the Kent State University massacre of May 4, 1970.  Back then, federal and state officials completely supported the Guardsmen.  But I wondered what might happen if the President of the United States ordered an investigation into the shooting, but the governor refused to cooperate.  Under the law, the president has the power to federalize National Guard soldiers.  His orders take precedence over those of the governor.  In Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957, the governor had ordered the National Guard under his command to prevent school integration, barring the Little Rock Nine from attending school with white students.  President Eisenhower federalized the Arkansas National Guard and ordered them to return to their armories.  They obeyed the president.  But what if they hadn’t?  What if they had decided that the orders from their governor were of greater priority?  How far was Eisenhower prepared to go?  I wondered how far a modern president would go to ensure the supremacy of federal law.

So the series is also influenced by the concept of nullification, that is, states deciding for themselves which federal laws count as real laws and which do not.  Many states are using this method explicitly or indirectly to illegally circumvent federal gun and marijuana laws, resulting in a dangerous precedent of inconsistency, one that is played out to its possible dark conclusion in the Divided We Fall series.

I’ve been amazed with how much real world events have mirrored the entire Divided We Fall series.  Readers often point out echoes of DWF in the news.  For example, as part of the backstory for Divided We Fall I imagined a federal government shut down over budget disputes.  I worried, as I was writing the book, that people would find it too far fetched.  Then, not long after publication, a shutdown happened.  There have been numerous other news events that seem to come right out of Divided We Fall from the National Guard actions in Ferguson, Missouri to the armed civilian occupation of federal land in Oregon.  Sometimes I want to scream out to the country that I did not write this trilogy as a political how-to manual.

Yanes: The third and final part of the Divided We Fall series, “The Last Full Measure,” was published in 2016. How do you feel you improved as a writer over these three books?

Reedy: Over the course of writing the Divided We Fall trilogy I believe I improved at structure and organization.  The Divided We Fall story is large, takes place all across the country, and has characters who are active “live” in scene, and off the page as well.  At first, it took a lot of time organizing all that information, but over time, I developed some systems, some guide sheets with information I could reference, maps and diagrams to track the action.  It was a lot of work, my life for three or four years, and I loved every minute of it.

Yanes: When people finish reading “The Last Full Measure,” what do you hope they take away from the series?

Reedy: I hope those who read the trilogy will have enjoyed a fast fun adventure, but I hope to leave them with plenty to think about as well.  The trilogy is not about whether the federal government or the states ought have more power, and it’s definitely not about the superiority of the American Right or Left, but rather the story explores the growing tragedy and dangerous potential of America’s Great Divide.  In the end, protagonist Danny Wright’s involvement in the national argument costs him nearly everything he loves and the relentless struggle for each side to defeat the other destroys the country.

I see a lot of Americans wishing the country was more unified, but expressing that desire with paradoxical statements like, “We would have unity if these darn Republicans would just vote for these Democrat proposals” or “Democrats are the worst!  They’ve destroyed the unity of America.” Wright realizes that victory in such a dispute is impossible.  He calls for an end to the fight, right or wrong, for a compromise, and he resolves to personally focus on his friends, his family, and living in peace.  I think a lot of people would be happier if they gave up the asinine political struggle and followed Wright’s example.

Yanes: What are your long term goals for the Divided We Fall series? Do you have any plans for revisiting any of the characters? Do you want to see the series adapted to film?

Reedy: I have considered a sequel book, or possibly a sequel series, set decades after the events of Divided We Fall, involving the descendants of some of the background characters from the original trilogy, but that depends on sales for the first trilogy, honestly.

As far as film or television adaptations, there has been some interest from people in that business, but more than that, I am not allowed to say.  I always tell readers who are interested in seeing a Divided We Fall film or television show that the very slim odds of an adaptation being created increase slightly as more people know about the trilogy.  So I am grateful for the opportunity to answer your questions and tell people more about Divided We Fall here.

Yanes: Finally, what are some projects you are working on that people can look forward to?

Reedy: I have a lot of novels in production.  One is under contract with Arthur A. Levine Books of Scholastic.  My seventh novel, called GAMER ARMY will be published in late 2018 and is a fun science fiction adventure involving video games and artificial intelligence.  I’m having a lot of fun writing that book, and I hope readers enjoy the story as well.

Remember, you learn more about Reedy by checking out his homepage.

And remember to follow me on twitter @NicholasYanes, and to follow Scifipulse on twitter at @SciFiPulse and on facebook.

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