In Hannah Kohler’s new book The Outside Lands, Kip a young man who enlists with the Marines in 1968 to fight in the Vietnam War, narrates the prelude to an ambush scene by the Viet Cong. The tension is palpable between the young soldiers trying to sleep surrounded by the overwhelming sounds of the jungle and an impending prickling of death:
“The death of the light sets off a commotion: the birds thump and the rats scurry and something —a monkey or a chicken or a lizard—starts cackling. Those dink animals are downright stoked that night’s here. But for me, now that the last smear of light has gone. I can feel it, feel its soft, wet fingers on me: Fear—slobbering, bucktoothed, loon-bird Fear. Esposito is crouched down next to me; I hear his throat make a loud click and wonder if he feels it too.”
While Kip is enduring this sort of delirious slice of hell in the jungles of Vietnam, his sister Jeannie endures her dissatisfaction with domestic life and its overwhelming passivity, with a husband who is kind but inspires no real conjugal passion. Having lost their mother in an accident at a young age, and being left alone with a father who was there in body but not in active presence, Jeannie felt all her life a tacit responsibility for her brother and an obligation to act as a reluctant surrogate mother. When Kip’s rebellious nature threatens to overthrow the family’s peace of mind, Jeannie is in a sense relieved to be free of him when he decides to enlist.
But this changes when Jeannie meets Lee, a young girl who is as spirited and outspoken as Jeannie is quiet and contemplative, who also as it happens is the god-daughter of Jeannie’s overbearing mother-in-law, Dorothy. The two start a strange friendship which later turns into an intense love affair, bringing up the question of Jeannie’s true sexual self and her inability to express it. As their relationship evolves, Lee’s seduction stretches its tendrils into Jeannie’s limited understanding of the war . She instructs Jeannie on the reality of what is truly happening a world away, the horrors that soldiers endure in the suffocating jungle, not to mention the overwhelming and frequently unreported death toll. Lee convinces Jeannie of the necessity to save young men from the draft and her plan takes no prisoners, including Jeannie’s loyalties and previous convictions which will shift even further when she meets Tom, a wounded soldier who unwillingly and unbeknownst to him, has the power to destroy her family.
Only a handful of female authors have ever dealt with the controversial topic of Vietnam, and Hannah Kohler certainly stands out among the ranks. She was candid when asked why she chose to write about the Vietnam War, how she truly sees her characters and why she wanted to write about this dark episode of American contemporary history.
Why the Vietnam War as a central topic for The Outside Lands?
I’ve been interested in the Vietnam War since high school. I studied post-war American History in my senior year, and had this brilliant, passionate teacher who really brought the post-war era to life. I was especially gripped by the Vietnam War, because of its scale, its historical proximity, the vividness with which it was portrayed in the media (the first “television war”), and the poignancy of the draft. That fascination didn’t leave me, and when I went on do to a Masters in American Literature years later, I wrote my thesis on the literature of the Vietnam War.
Most Vietnam War narratives, fiction and non-fiction, are, unsurprisingly, voiced by men. I wanted to tell a story of the war that also incorporated a female, domestic point of view. And so The Outside Lands is about a young American woman, Jeannie, and what happens to her and her family when her younger brother, Kip, enlists to fight in Vietnam.
Jeannie and Kip both lose their mother early in life, and their father is indifferent at best. How does this loss re-shape their life?
Jeannie and Kip lose their mother the day before JFK is assassinated, and their loss absolutely changes the shape of their lives—just as JFK’s death arguably changed the shape of modern American history. Kip and Jeannie’s childhood home becomes a place of ghosts, and their father, grief-stricken and alcoholic, loses sight of his teenage children. Jeannie escapes into early marriage and motherhood, and Kip escapes into the delinquency, and later, the Marines. But by escaping in these ways, Jeannie and Kip are only creating greater traps for themselves.
Jeannie seems compliant most of her life, with her father, brother and then her husband until she becomes involved with Lee and the cause against the draft. What is it about Lee that inspires her to stand up for something for the first time in her life?
At the beginning of the novel, Jeannie is pretty negligent with her own life and the lives of those around her. She drifts into a safe but stifling marriage and fails to stop her brother from enlisting in the Marines. When she meets Lee, she first experiences real desire. She wants something—someone—and this provokes her into taking enormous risks, it prompts her to take action. And although her involvement in the anti-draft movement initially arises out of her obsession with Lee, it later becomes a way for her to atone for her earlier negligence—her failure to save her own brother from the war.
Kip’s volatile personality eventually leads to tragic events. How does Vietnam transform him as a man and as a person?
Kip’s a teenager, and an attention-seeker, and his bids for attention take increasingly harmful forms. He’s making his bad choices in one of the most distressed and violent eras in modern American history, and the consequences of those choices are real, and brutal. Kip ships out to Vietnam with his head full of movie-fuelled fantasies about war. But in reality, military life is boring, frustrating, and frightening. His disillusionment leads him to commit a terribly violent act; and ultimately, he’s forced to come to terms with what he’s done. Vietnam forces him to grow up, to see himself and the world more clearly, and to take some responsibility for his actions.
Would you say that Jeannie experiences not only a sexual but also a political awakening after she meets Lee, and then Tom?
Absolutely. At the beginning of the novel, Jeannie is lost and lonely. She’s longing for human connection—sexual, emotional—and this longing leads her into complicated and dangerous relationships with both Lee and Tom. And as she forges these human connections, she becomes connected what is going on around her—specifically, the war and protest that are eating up her generation.
Kip and Jeannie’s relationship has always been strained, but she becomes adamant and passionate about bringing him home and later tries to save him from a terrible outcome. Would you say she does this out of guilt?
Yes. After the death of her mother, Jeannie is expected to become a kind of mother to Kip. It’s a responsibility she instinctively wants to run from; and this mixes uneasily with her sense of protectiveness towards her younger brother. Her ambivalence means that she fails to stop Kip from enlisting. Her later attempts to save him absolutely stem from her feelings of guilt over this. But there is something else: while Kip is trying to place the blame for his actions on everyone but himself, Jeannie is trying to establish where she is guilty in the chain of events. I think this is a response to the fact that she is actually somewhat powerless, and as a young woman in the 1960s has relatively little agency. So her guilt is not entirely fairly placed. And I think the sibling relationship is an interesting one—what are the limits of our responsibility to a sibling?
You write Tom and Jeannie with a third person point of view but Kip’s is written in the first person. What prompted you to write them this way?
It was something that emerged quite naturally in the writing process—that was the way they came out! But there is something in the nature of third person narration—a sense of being observed, of a certain detachment and acquiescence—that felt fitting for Jeannie. As for Kip, I had such a strong sense of his voice, I couldn’t write him any other way.
In the end there’s a sort of reconciliation for Kip and Jeannie because they try to clarify and explain why they drifted apart from each other. But also in turn, Jeannie seems to do a 360 and come back to the point where she was when the novel began. Why does she decide in the end to just accept her fate as it is?
Well, like Kip, I think she grows up, and in that growing up there is a great deal of compromise. At the end of the novel she is taking responsibility for her life and the lives of her family, her children; whereas at the beginning of the novel, she is a pretty irresponsible character. She gains a new understanding of the world; the scales fall from her eyes. And, actually, I don’t think of it as an ending for Jeannie—I like to think of her as having a life beyond the end of the book. I don’t think, having stepped outside of the constraints of her role as wife and mother, she has consigned herself to suburban domesticity forever. At the end of the book, she is still restless.
All the characters in the novel are truly complicated and troubled. Which character did you find the most difficult to write?
It’s Jeannie’s book, and actually I found her trickiest to write, I think because she begins the novel as a relatively acquiescent character who is drawn into acting in ways that are strange and exciting and frightening for her. Kip seemed to walk onto the page from nowhere, and he was so much fun to write, with his swagger and his bad language and his vulnerability. I came to Tom later in the writing process, and it was refreshing to write a new, very different point of view—his is a much plainer, more direct voice.
A lot of Kip’s experiences, particularly his interactions with the other soldiers made me think of Jim Webb’s Fields of Fire. Did Webb or any other writer serve as inspiration for The Outside Lands?
I haven’t read Fields of Fire, but I’ve read a lot of other Vietnam War novels and memoirs, and that reading was extremely influential in shaping my understanding and imagination of the war. The Vietnam War writers that were most powerful for me were Michael Herr, Tim O’Brien and Ron Kovic. Other writers that influenced me in the writing of The Outside Lands were DBC Pierre and Sarah Waters. I also read a lot of contemporary American writers while I wrote this book (Jonathan Franzen, Joshua Ferris, Jeffrey Eugenides, David Vann and Lorrie Moore); that really helped me to hear and sustain American voices in my writing.
Did you have a clear view of how the novel would end when you started writing it?
Yes and no. I had planned out the major milestones of the plot, but I left the last quarter of the novel somewhat open. I knew roughly where I wanted my characters to end up, but I didn’t know exactly how they would get there. And this was in part because I felt that sewing everything up before even beginning the novel would take the adventure out of writing it. But the other side of it is that I rewrote the last part of the book over and over again—it took a long time for me to get it to the point where it felt right.
What would you want readers to take from The Outside Lands?
I want what perhaps any writer wants—I want readers to be transported by the story, to connect with the characters as real and alive, to feel what the characters are feeling. There are a number of ideas I was exploring in this novel: ideas of truth and fiction in war—how war is mythologized before, during and after the fact; how story-telling acts a way to cope with trauma; how the trauma of the Vietnam War was a trauma of the American family, in the smallest and largest sense. But ultimately, I think writers are in the entertainment business—and I want readers to be entertained.