The germ of the plot was my college senior thesis, a play in verse heavily under the influence of Christopher Fry. It concerned a girl who has been praying to the statue of a saint, which suddenly comes alive, claiming that God has de-sainted him for not being holy enough. I don’t write blank verse nearly as well as Christopher Fry did, and there is not a lot of market for historical plays in verse. But years later I thought the premise still had possibilities, and we were in the middle of a war - again - and I thought the saint probably had some old battle scars of his own.
War is a very different thing when you are fighting it than when you are supporting the troops on the home front with “Power of Pride” bumper stickers and magnetic ribbons on your car. Angie, my heroine, is fifteen, and anyone her age has grown up with these wars. Even Jesse, who was hot to join the Army at seventeen, was a child when it started. For them, it’s always been there. And yet I wonder how real it seems to teens if they aren’t in a military family. I’m reasonably sure that Jesse didn’t know what he was getting into. I looked at the pictures of young people cheering when Osama Bin Laden was killed, as if they were at a football game, and I had a sense that to them it was a game.
During the Vietnam War, it was clearly no game because any male might get drafted and sent to fight. At first you could get a deferment by staying in college, but after a while it became clear that the war was unfairly taking the boys who couldn’t afford college, and so they began a lottery – literally. Numbers were drawn once a year corresponding to birthdays. If your birthday got a low number, you were gone. Every man I know of that generation has some scar left over from it, whether he was drafted, volunteered, protested the war, or even went to Canada with the draft board and the FBI on his heels. Even the unscathed ones have a sort of survivor guilt about that. But now, I wonder. We have no draft, and I thought that it was likely that for someone like Angie the war would only get suddenly and extremely real when someone she knew got hurt or killed.
That’s when Angie wakes up, so to speak. She befriends Felix, a Vietnam era medic who has nightmares about the boys he couldn’t save, and Jesse, nineteen, with one leg gone to an IED in Afghanistan, who has demons of his own and an enormous need to someone to love him and be his anchor.
A structural difficulty arose when I had to figure out how to let the reader see what Felix and Jesse had been through, since the story is told by Angie and she wasn’t there. We had to know what had happened to them, and in fairly excruciating detail if it was to be effective. But it’s never a good approach to have action scenes summarized in dialog and besides that neither of them would be likely to talk to Angie about it. That’s when Felix’s nightmares came fluttering out of his head and suggested I let Angie have them too. So the book has a bit of a magical realist twist to it, between the dreams and the question of who Felix really is. I’m very fond of magical realism and it seemed a good match with the war, which I have always thought must be the ultimate in surreal experience.
What We Keep Is Not Always What Will Stay isn’t meant to be an anti-war book, although certainly not a pro-war book. It’s a story about a girl who gets tangled up in what war does to people she loves. Story is important because through story we look at the world and “get” certain things we didn’t get before, and I admit that I did have in mind all those boys who went to war and didn’t come back, or came back someone else. But as Sam Goldwyn said of his films, “If you want to send a message, use Western Union.” As writers we go easy on message and heavy on story and let our readers think the hard thoughts for themselves.
Note from Lisa: I really can't wait to read this book. Thanks for stopping by, Amanda!
Amanda Cockrell is the founding director of the graduate program in children’s literature at Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia, where she also teaches creative writing and is managing editor of the university’s literary journal, The Hollins Critic. At various times she has also been a newspaper reporter and a copywriter for an ad agency and a rock radio station. She is the daughter of a screenwriter and a novelist and grew up in Ojai, California, the town that provides the template for Ayala in What We Keep Is Not Always What Will Stay.