A reluctant military wife is how novelist Andria Williams describes her initial reaction to her husband’s decision to join the Navy, just a year into their marriage and shortly after she graduated from the University of Minnesota with a master’s degree in creative writing.
Williams feared her lifelong dream of publishing a novel would be ambushed by the demands of the military lifestyle and the loss of her supportive writers’ community in Minnesota.
“It is so hard to publish a novel,” she explains. “Until you do it, until the last minute, you feel like it is never going to happen to you. I fell sway to a little bit of pessimistic thinking — moving all the time, living in military towns, not knowing anybody in the publishing world. I was a little frustrated for a while.”
Seven duty stations, three children and 13 years later, Williams, now 39, is the author of a highly acclaimed novel, The Longest Night, and her blog, “The Military Spouse Book Review” has become a cornerstone of support for women writers in the military community.
The Longest Night
Reviewers have praised The Longest Night as a “scintillating debut novel” and a “riveting 20th century love story.” Williams tells the story of an Army family, Paul and Nat Collier and their two young daughters, who are sent to Idaho Falls, site of the Army Nuclear Power Program. The historical backdrop to the novel is a true story – the 1961 atomic accident at the SL-1 experimental nuclear power reactor in Idaho Falls, which resulted in the deaths of three military technicians. Williams captures the intricacies of a 1950s-era military marriage in which social pressures, strict gender rules and separation tear away at Paul and Nat’s relationship, which is further strained by Paul’s inability to confide in Nat about the potential for a nuclear meltdown at the Army base.
Williams says it took 18 months to write the first draft of The Longest Night, a period that was punctuated by the birth of her third child and her husband’s deployment. Combining military marriage, motherhood and writing meant waking up before dawn to grab whatever amount of quiet time Williams could find.
“With little kids, it was the only time I could guarantee I could get anything done,” she says. “For the year-and-a-half I was writing the rough draft, I was incredibly disciplined and I’d get up at 4:30 every morning and I’d write until the littlest one woke up.
“Some days I would have only 20 minutes to write and then other days the baby would randomly sleep in and I’d get an hour and a half,” she added. “At the end of a year and a half, I realized I had a 450-page novel. It was almost like compound interest. It was like it grew when I slept.”
While slices of Williams’ military life, such as the emotions that come with being a new military spouse or learning her husband was deploying on six days’ notice are mirrored in her book, she describes her writing as a “smattering of a whole bunch of things I know and have experienced and then complete fabrication.”
The five-year process of writing, editing and publishing her first novel came to fruition in 2016 when Penguin Random House published The Longest Night. “Seeing that all the way through gives you a sense of accomplishment because it is such a kind of strange, solitary thing to do,” Williams explains. “When it finally comes out in the world, it is very exciting.”
Williams started MSBR in 2014 while she nervously waited to see if her novel would be sold to a publishing house. Her goal was to promote the writing of women connected to the military by publishing their book reviews, essays and articles. She has given voice to military spouses and military mothers and sisters as well female service members and veterans in a forum framed by intellectual curiosity for literature.
“I thought if I am really going to be at peace with this identity change that we’ve had – we’re now a military family – I am going to try to embrace it,” explains Williams, whose husband had then hit the 10-year mark in his Navy career.
In addition to its book reviews, essays and articles, the MSBR also provides links to blogs dedicated to the writing of military spouses, female service members, women veterans and the websites of military-focused organizations. In addition to Williams, nonfiction writer and Navy spouse Alison Buckholtz and poet and Marine Corps spouse Lisa Stice serve as editors of the site.
The MSBR has developed into the supportive literary community Williams feared she never would find again when she traded life in the Twin Cities for the nomadic military lifestyle.
“Entering the military, I thought ‘I am never going to find anybody like me,’” Williams admits. “It was a stupid thing to think. I realize there are tons of people who share my interests.”
One of the women who shares her passion for literature is Army spouse and award-winning writer Siobhan Fallon, whose debut novel, The Confusion of Languages, was published last year by G.P. Putnam’s Sons. Fallon says Williams’ blog serves a unique role in the military spouse community.
“Andria’s focus is on books, and that intersection of, or maybe aspiration toward, art and military family life,” Fallon wrote in an email from her home in Abu Dhabi. “There are plenty of blogs about how to do a PCS move, or ways to help your children adapt to new schools, and those are necessary and wonderful. But Andria’s blog connects both military spouses and members of the military community and lets us all geek out together over our love of books, from poetry to best sellers to high literature.”
The MSBR also has fostered friendships among military writers that bridge geographic boundaries. When Fallon was in Denver for her book tour, she said, Williams “loaded her family minivan with everyone she could grab in Colorado Springs and drove to Denver to hear me read.”
“Military spouses are a ‘community’ but often our lifestyle makes this community dependent on an online world rather than an old-fashioned, next-door-neighbor relationship,” Fallon points out. “During my book tour, the support of mil-spouses, everyone from the women I first met in 2004 when my husband was stationed at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii, to mil-spouse artists who I’ve recently become friends with online, was incredible.”
Looking to the future
Williams currently is working on her second novel while living in Colorado Springs, but she admits her writing slowed following the family’s last change of station move and her husband’s three-month absence last year.
Though her second novel originally was not going to have ties to the military, Williams says, a World War II veteran has emerged as one of the characters. “Themes of service and that sort of thing are probably always going to weave their way through what I write. It is of interest to me and something I can ruminate on and bring to other people,” she explains.
Fulfilling her ambitions while forging her own identity within her military marriage has brought Williams unexpected rewards.
“It is really important to find what moves you and motivates you inside of a military marriage because so much of your identity can get caught up in what your spouse is doing,” she says. “I was happy before but now I feel like I am happier. I have something that animates me and motivates me. I’m excited about almost any day “It is always worth trying to find that thing that really moves you,” Williams adds, “because it will pay you back in spades.”