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One Self-Published Author Gives a Story of War a Soul

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Yesterday I posted a review for Kristen J. Tsetsi's novel Homefront. After seeing my previous reviews for some other books here on The Huffington Post, Kristen asked if I'd consider reviewing her novel. Once I heard what the subject matter was, I agreed. I'm glad I did. I was so intrigued and impressed by this book that I needed to ask the author some questions about the story itself and how it came to be self-published. I invite you to read the interview I conducted with Kristen:

Q: Thank you, Kristen, for taking the time to answer my questions about Homefront, a novel about someone waiting for a loved one to return home from war. What inspired you to write this particular story?

A: And thank you so much (truly) for your interest, Carol. The story was inspired by how important I think it is to dispel the myth of the stoic, valiant, yellow-ribbon, cookie-baking, proud and strong supporter -- because looking at people that way doesn't leave room for the cracks, the weaknesses, the real and hard and surreal time spent hoping the person you love isn't killed that day. It allows us to gloss over this very real and horribly tumultuous experience, as if it's one of the lesser side-effects of war instead of what it really is: something that leaves people feeling numb for a year. Something that sends people to therapists. Something that causes people to lose their hair because they're so distraught. They lose sleep. They lose any sense of normalcy. (For how military spouses say they're affected, in their own words, I invite you to read a segment of an unscientific survey I conducted some time ago.)

I've been writing for a long time, and what's always interested me as a writer is the subtle, but consuming, power of emotions, so when months after my husband's (boyfriend, at the time) return from his deployment to Iraq, I still found myself irritatingly quick to cry when remembering or talking about his absence, and knowing this was something thousands of others were going through, I knew it required a deeper literary exploration than it had been given. And, fortunately, I'd been writing about emotion almost exclusively, so I was reasonably confident I could find a way to make this experience real for the reader.

The story was also inspired by my frustration that as these wars (wars everywhere, for that matter) go on, as deaths continue, soldiers and those who love them are too frequently turned into one-dimensional Uniforms and Yellow Ribbons. Homefront makes them real people, and it turns war into something more than a convenient topic for people to argue about when they feel like having a political debate. It was inspired by my desire to communicate something Iraq veteran Charlie Preusser took from the novel and wrote me about in an email after his reading of Homefront:

Being in Iraq sucks beyond comprehension. It only gets worse with time. I always just figured that folks back home were bored, or felt the absence of those deployed as an inconvenience. I get it, now. People so often tell the stories of soldiers at war, and thereafter in stories about protest and strife riddled with dissolution. These stories are so often event driven and formulaic they somehow miss the greater depth of the story. They don't really tap the emotion that runs deep. You gave it a soul. As a veteran, I thank you.


Q: What a wonderful, heartfelt response to your novel. That must have been gratifying to receive.

You have a number of different characters, all very interesting and fleshed out to believability, meaning they are flawed. Besides Mia who, like you, is a former English professor, cab driver and lives in Tennessee, are any of the other characters based on people you know?

A: A few. Donny Donaldson is the strongest representation of a real person, a Vietnam veteran I met over a decade ago when I worked for a telemarketing company in Minnesota. Donny is actually a watered-down version. The real man was, if you can imagine, more erratic than Donny. And our relationship, which was an unlikely friendship based on a mutual need for someone -- anyone -- to talk to, wasn't much different from the one shared by Mia and Donny.

Other Homefront characters have elements of real people I knew. Shellie the cab dispatcher, Paula with the smoke-scratched drawl, and Lenny the night driver are character sketches of people I worked with in the cab stand. The others -- Denise, Olivia, Brian, and even Jake -- are more representative of different types of people. But even the smallest characters have to have flaws, or they won't be believable as people.

Q: Mia, the protagonist is such a strong character. I could feel her anger at a situation she couldn't control throughout the novel. Since this is semi-autobiographical, was she helpful in getting you to come to terms with your feelings about your boyfriend being a soldier in the army?

A: I never had any issues with Ian being a soldier. I don't think Mia does, either, until closer to the end of the novel. What I understood very well with Ian, though, and what I wanted Mia to learn, is that you don't have to personally want to be in the military to have an appreciation for what drives others to join or how much it can come to mean to them to be a part of it while they're in. Many people can't imagine why anyone would join the military, or why anyone wouldn't get out as soon as they could after going through one deployment. Mia's own issues with this are explored so that others, when reading Homefront, will come to understand it a little better along with her.

Q: Your book is published by Penxhere Press. Could you tell us a bit about them? In addition, I see that you have support from http://www.backwordbooks.com/. Would you tell our readers about this?

A: I published Homefront myself using a POD distributor, and as my own publisher -- but still a publisher -- I needed a name. I chose Penxhere because in Albanian (I'm half Albanian) "penxhere" means window, and fiction (any kind of writing, really) is a window to any number of worlds.

Henry Baum and I are I guess what you'd call the founders of Backword Books. (Two others were involved in the beginning, but they dropped out early because they were incredibly, incredibly busy with other projects.) Backword Books is a collective of indie authors/publishers whose novels have, without the benefit of having a traditional publisher, proven themselves with the most important audience: readers and critics. Some have even achieved wide media coverage. While not opposed to traditional publishing (and, in fact, we're in favor of it), we recognize indie publishing as a viable option and strive, through our collective, to make known that good self-published work IS out there. Backword Books has seven authors: R.J. Keller, Christopher Meeks, Henry Baum, Andrew Kent, Bonnie Kozek, Eddie Wright, and myself. So far. We're growing.

Q: Did you try to get a literary agent for Homefront?

A: Absolutely! That was my first step. I queried and queried and queried, and while I received favorable responses to the novel, there just wasn't a fit until recently. I have an agent now. A wonderful, supportive, patient, and hardworking agent who not only feels strongly about Homefront, but who believes it's just a matter of time before it's picked up.

Q: What has been the response so far to your novel?

A: When I started writing seriously (after reading Kate Chopin's "Story of an Hour"), it was because I wanted to write something that would mean something to people, that would affect them the way "Story of an Hour" affected me; something that would make them feel understood, or less alone, or less guilty about feeling and thinking what they think and feel and would never, ever tell anyone they're thinking or feeling. The responses to Homefront from literary critics have been overwhelmingly positive, which is more gratifying on a professional level than I can begin to express, but the responses from soldiers, veterans, and military spouses who, like Mr. Preusser above, or like Army wife Beth K. who wrote to say she's read the book three times because it makes her feel understood at a time when it's important to be understood, are the most meaningful. These people were affected, and if you affect people who are living the real-life situation depicted in any story it means you did it correctly.

Q: What are you working on now as a writer?

A: I've just released a collection of short fiction as an ebook, Carol's Aquarium. The collection includes a few short stories that, like Homefront, take you inside the experience of having a loved one at war, a few stories are illustrations of the relationship tension we all know and love, and a story or two explore love as it is rather than love as we think it should be. (Carol's Aquarium is available on Smashwords, Scribd.com, and is also a Kindle book.)

I'm also working on a new novel with the working title The Year of Dan Palace. In Dan Palace, a single event causes a man, Dan Palace, to believe he must live the rest of his life as if he'll die any day. And he does live that way, but at the expense of those around him.

Q: Do you have any advice for writers?

A: Um, it would depend on the question. I think my advice changes from day to day. Today, my advice is to read my advice to people who take writing advice.

Thanks, Kristen, for taking the time to discuss Homefront and your writing life. I wish you every success in your career.