Schooled by frequent moves, military spouses become adept at creating community for themselves, whether virtually or in person. Navy wife and author Andria Williams, a self-described “reading machine,” finds connection through literature.
“It’s really kind of nerdy, but this is the way I connect with people,” she says. “When you’re the shy dork, you need something to talk about. I can’t talk very well about football. You know, you can’t talk about politics with everybody, because that won’t go over well, but books are terrific.”
Using that favored medium to link with fellow military spouses, Andria created the Military Spouse Book Review, a blog featuring book reviews by military-connected women. Some of the titles reviewed also have a military connection, but all books are fair game, from mystery to memoir, self-help to poetry. Both fiction and nonfiction are included. A clickable index makes the posts easy to navigate and to choose by genre, author, book title or topic. Links to authors and literary blogs are included as well.
The reviews and author profiles are intermingled with Andria’s well-crafted, often humorous posts and photos depicting her writing life amidst deployment, military moves, and parenting. Perhaps that should read: Parenting, deployment, military moves, and somehow carving out time to write.
Her first novel, The Longest Night, is due out in January 2016 from Random House. The story, which begins in 1959, is about fictional Army wives whose husbands work at a nuclear reactor. The plot revolves around an actual nuclear incident, which occurred in 1961.
To complete the novel, Andria got up each morning at 4:30 so she could write for two hours before her children woke up. When she began working on the book, she had two small children. After giving birth to her third child, Andria took six days off, then on the seventh day began writing again—every day.
“I can’t imagine ever not feeling hungry to write,” she says. “I write wherever I can, whenever I can. I have written on bathroom floors, in cars full of kids, hiding in my bedroom. This summer, we made a military move from southern California to Colorado and turned it into a little national parks tour with the kids. There were five of us in one hotel room, but I was able to write in the mornings by putting my laptop on the toilet seat and sitting on a toddler potty with the seat down, surrounded by everyone’s wet swimsuits and hand-washed undies dangling from the racks and side of the bathtub around me. I could get a couple hours in before the kids woke up and we headed down to the hotel breakfast and then hit the road.”
Andria finished writing her novel and, in early 2014, signed with an agent. But with her drive to write and create, she needed another literary outlet while looking for a publisher, so she created Military Spouse Book Review.
“The manuscript hadn’t sold, and I honestly didn’t believe that it would,” Andria recalls. “A few people were reading it, and it was sort of floating around in space. So I thought, if I don’t break into the world of writing this way, at least I can find another way to talk about books.”
Another deployment for her husband was also on the horizon, so she decided to gear the blog toward military spouses, as well as books.
“I started the Military Spouse Book Review one night in a fit of literary passion and mil-spouse pride,” she says. “I selected my WordPress template, tossed up a whole bunch of pictures, designed a few pages, and wrote an intro and a first post all in one night.”
She soon decided the best way to keep the blog fresh was to enlist other readers and writers to review books as well as writing some herself. Contributors to her blog are all connected to military life in some way—wives, active duty, moms and daughters—but the books come from every genre. Some are about military life, but many are not.
“It was important to me to include all women connected to the military,” Andria says. “We have this common lifestyle, even though there are so many variations within that lifestyle.”
Siobhan Fallon, an army wife and author of You Know When The Men Are Gone, says Andria’s blog fosters critical thinking alongside connection and friendship.
“Everyone has found themselves in a new base, in a room of strangers, wandering awkwardly around with carrot sticks and spinach dip, trying to think of clever small talk,” Siobhan says. “When you start chatting with a kindred spirit it feels miraculous. Andria … has created a sort of online meeting place for literary-minded spouses, minus any awkward online wandering.”
Andria says the blog “opened a whole new world,” introducing her to other writers in the military community, because they were the ones most likely to contribute reviews.
“I’d envisioned the blog for readers—and it is—but I didn’t take into account that the average person doesn’t write book reviews for fun,” she says, laughing.
“Coming out of the cocoon of having had three kids in six years, I hadn’t spent enough time looking for other authors,” she says, “But a lot of female veterans and military spouse writers have been communicating with each other for a long time. Their generosity—sharing people’s names, information, ways to connect, resources, publications to write for—was really overwhelming.
“Another fun surprise was that female veterans were really receptive,” she adds. “They have their own niche, obviously, but I think sometimes they feel overlooked if the discussion is just about (male veterans) who are writing. There may be a slight discomfort for them to join up with military spouses, but I wanted to purposely work to get past that.”
Iraq veteran and writer Brooke King, in an interview on the Military Spouse Book Review, calls the blog a platform “that helps bridge that gap between civilian and soldier, bringing that divide a little closer each time.”
Army wife and writer Angela Ricketts, author of No Man’s War: Irreverent Confessions of an Infantry Wife, agrees that literature ignites conversation.
“While each person’s individual experience is her own,” she says, “war literature gets people talking and that’s never a bad thing.”
Whether discussing the war front or the home front, having a place to connect is important for Andria and other military women, who might meet at one assignment only to be separated a year or so later. Connecting via the Internet works with long distance friends as well as a busy schedule.
“Because I have three small children, I really can’t travel often,” says Andria. “I went to my first writers’ conference this past year. Before that I had virtually no face-to-face contact with other writers. Thank goodness for the Internet, because that’s the way I got to meet these other women.”
“Andria’s blog is built on the idea that the written word can create empathy—connections among people who might share nothing else in common,” says Alison Buckholtz, navy wife and author of Standing By: The Making of an American Military Family in a Time of War.
“These connections might be happening at individual bases that have book clubs,” she says. “Andria thought of a way to foster it online, welcoming more people than would have access otherwise.”
For Andria, her online friendships with other writers led her to attend a literary event, the Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference in Minneapolis, earlier this year, where she was invited to speak about the role of military spouse writers in America’s most recent wars.
“A panel on ‘Women Writing War’ had a member cancel last-minute due to illness, so they needed a fourth woman,” Andria says. “Due solely to my blog, my name came up, and I was able to fill in.”
Meeting these writers and many others in person would not have happened without the connections that began with Military Spouse Book Review, Andria says.
She had been corresponding with fellow mil-spouse writer Siobhan Fallon and the two met face-to-face for the first time at the AWP conference. While Andria says the Military Spouse Book Review has created these connections, Siobhan credits Andria’s dedication to her craft and to her fellow writers.
“Here she is, a military spouse, mother of three, novelist, blogger, and yet she finds time to constantly give credit to and spread the word about fellow military spouse or veteran writers,” says Siobhan.
Andria brings it all back to her love of books and their ability to create relationships and strengthen communities.
“If you like books, then we’ll find enough to talk about,” she says.
Emily Gray Tedrowe
Feature photo: Andria says, “Now that we’re in a new house, I sit in a chair and at a desk like a normal person. I’ve always written at this old schoolhouse desk that belonged to my mother-in-law and I sit in a ten-dollar folding chair. (You can’t let yourself get too comfortable at 4 a.m. or you will fall back to sleep.)”
Terri Barnes is a military spouse and the author of Spouse Calls: Messages From a Military Life, a collection from her award-winning column for Stars and Stripes. She is also the editor of Stories Around the Table: Laughter, Wisdom and Strength in Military Life, the 2014 INDIEFAB Book of the Year Awards silver winner for Best Anthology. (She is also one of those people who writes book reviews for fun.) Connect with Terri on Twitter: @SpouseCalls