For Divided We Fall, the first novel in a trilogy set in the near future, Trent Reedy draws upon his time as an Army National Guardsman to tell the story of a young man caught up in an impossible struggle between state and federal governments, one that threatens to tear America apart. Reedy’s military deployment to Afghanistan inspired his first book, Words in the Dust (Scholastic/Levine), about an Afghani girl who finds new hope and a chance at a better life after the fall of the Taliban. In a conversation with PW, Reedy mused on the growing rift in American politics, the omnipresence of social media, and the potential role of his new book as a cautionary tale and tool for debate.
What inspired you to write this new series?
I was inspired to write Divided We Fall after reading and watching the news, and taking in current events. I was troubled by the increasing political divisions in this country and things like the efforts in Kansas and Missouri to nullify federal gun control legislation, and I wondered what would happened if these disagreements were allowed to fester, and draw out to their logical conclusion. I was intrigued by efforts to nullify Obamacare, for example. What would happen if a state utterly refused to enact a federal law? Would the federal government resort to force to compel that state’s compliance with the law? I thought of this character, Danny Wright, and how he would be placed in the center of this controversy. It all expanded from there, and came together pretty quickly.
Your protagonist plays football, rides bulls, listens to country music, and drives a pickup truck. Danny’s a quintessential good ol’ American boy. What made you choose that particular demographic?
For me, Daniel Wright represents the sort of small-town kid with whom I grew up. I think that in literature for young people, small towns are often overlooked. So many stories are set in larger cities and urban areas. I also wanted to explore what it would be like for a character who believes in those country music lyrics, for someone who enlisted in the Army National Guard because he loves America and he loves his home. I wanted to write about someone who takes his oath very seriously, and explore what happens as he begins to experience some disillusionment through the course of events.
You’re both National Guardsmen. How much of this was drawn from your own experience?
I think that having been called up, to leave my home and go to war, I can identify with Danny, who is likewise called to action. I am grateful that I was never asked to choose whether my loyalties lay with the president or the governor, both of whom, like Daniel, I had sworn to obey. He’s placed in an impossible situation, one I do not envy.
You present both federal and state governments as having their good and bad points. Did you find yourself more sympathetic to one side or the other?
From the very beginning, I was determined to avoid writing propaganda, either for the right or for the left. I didn’t want to write a story where there’s some kind of evil mastermind puppet-master who’s trying to sabotage events for his own purposes, because that’s not what happens in real life. The division that America faces is the result of groups of people who want the best for the country and for their children, but who disagree profoundly about what that America should look like. And so I was very careful to show the positives and the negatives of both sides. I really hope that there’s not a clearly correct side in Divided We Fall. The truth is somewhere in the middle and is far more complicated.
What made you decide to use snippets of social media and news reports as a Greek chorus, providing background flavor?
The media noise sections are a practical solution to a problem I faced. Danny Wright doesn’t care about politics all that much. He loves his country, and he’s willing to answer the call to service, in the Army, but he’s mostly concerned about his friends and his girlfriend, playing football. He loves his big truck and he loves his town. So in a first-person point of view story, how can I get the larger national story to the reader, without having Danny stop to watch the news all the time? That’s where these sections come in. We live in a culture that is absolutely saturated with media noise. After the Boston Marathon bombing, I had to put in some late revisions, because the reporting seemed to change. The Boston police had to ask people to stop tweeting the location of law enforcement personnel, and the police had to ask news media to stop broadcasting the live positions of SWAT teams so as not to give away information that could be an advantage to the suspects. I wanted to make the media as realistic as possible and give readers a sense of the way it would feel with this noise all around us, as these huge catastrophic events happen throughout the story.
Author Katherine Paterson has become a friend and mentor to you. How did you two meet?
During my time in the war in Afghanistan, my wife sent me a copy of Bridge to Terabithia. That novel brought me a lot of hope and it reminded me that there was still beauty in the world, and it helped me to hold on. So I wrote Katherine Paterson a thank-you letter, because I thought she should know how important her writing is to people. I never expected to hear back from her, but she answered the letter, and that started a correspondence that developed into a friendship, which I cherish very much. She picked me up at the airport in Vermont, when I was first going to my residency at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. As she drove me to the college, I asked her why she wasn’t a teacher there. She said that she wasn’t a teacher and she didn’t think she knew how to be a teacher, but no one has ever taught me more about how to be the kind of person I want to be as a writer. Katherine Patterson is, for me, the foremost model of kindness and generosity and freeness of creative spirit.
There were some uncanny parallels between recent events and the backstory leading up to the events of Divided We Fall. How did you feel about that?
I worried that a lot of the political elements and backstory would seem too far-fetched. I started drafting the book two years ago. There’s a federal shutdown over disagreements over the budget in it, and I worried that [readers] would find that unbelievable. Then recently, the federal government imitates my book by having a shutdown! As I mentioned before, states are beginning to experiment with nullification, as a means to disregard federal legislation with which they disagree. Colorado and Washington, for example, are disregarding federal prohibition against marijuana. I just want to tell people that it’s not meant to be a political how-to book. It is the opposite of the way things should be, a guide for what not to do. I hope that people might have discussions, and find their way towards compromise.
Divided We Fall by Trent Reedy. Scholastic/Levine, $17.99 Sept. ISBN 978-0-545-54367-5