It is a rare occasion reading not just a wonderful book but one by such a lovely author. Patricia Furstenberg reached out to me about six months ago to review her debut novel Silent Heroes, a riveting tale that follows IED removal squads in Afghanistan with their canine partners. It was an absolutely fantastic debut and one I would highly recommend. After finishing the book, I reached back out in hopes I could do my first ever author interview and she graciously agreed. I was so excited as a blogger, an aspiring writer myself, and a happy reader to interview such a wonderful author and person.
As an avid reader and writer, I am always curious, as I am sure many people are, as to what draws authors to a certain subject matter. What inspired J.K Rowling to write Harry Potter? What makes Steven King dive into dark and disturbing worlds? What was C.S Lewis thinking when he spun out The Tales of Narnia? Where does that idea come from; where was it formed? What drives a person to write about Afghanistan, military dogs, and an ongoing decade-spanning conflict?
Furstenberg lived through a revolution and the fall of the Eastern Bloc. Her past and personal history influences her amazing respect for history. This reverence for history and her desire to write something that held true importance fathered the idea of Silent Heroes. She asked herself important questions: “how many westerners knew back then [during the separation of Eastern and Western Berlin] that the food was rationed in countries such as Romania or that Estonians, exasperated by the Russian sandpaper rolls, smuggled toilet paper? Or that the Communist regime censored every bit of news broadcasted on TV? That friends turned informers overnight and that writers were put under house arrest and their books taken off the market for refusing to praise political leaders?” Her respect for history, her reverence for the period she lived through and seeing the lack of understanding and respect for the history of the Berlin Wall and its loss of meaning gave her insight into why history matters. The War in Afghanistan is a “global interest” and writing Silent Heroes respected her desire to write something that is historical and of significance as well as something out of her comfort zone. It is an extremely difficult yet important endeavor that she is lands so well with her novel.
I wanted to create a work of fiction that will appeal as well as stir emotions, aimed at a wider group of readers.
The attention to the details of the region and people that were front and center in the novel was a major success. During her medical studies, Patricia encountered people from many different cultural backgrounds. She saw in them a respect and reverence for different cultures and it inspired her to write something out of her comfort zone. Something that was different from her own perspective and experience. Rather than stick to what she knew, she ventured into an unknown territory that required a lot of research. A process that required reading a lot of historical documents and watching live-footage to truly understand the situation in Afghanistan and the Middle East as a whole. During her research, she found herself drawn to the lives of the people: the natives and the soldiers. These tough men of American folklore are, in reality, just that: men. In the middle of it all they see civilians and learn about them and do help them. She was drawn to the horrors of the civilians who live in a war zone with a fear driven by explosions and political agendas. This humanity is a very strong asset to Silent Heroes because it guided well-rounded and characters who the reader can empathize with.
Yes, I found myself drawn to their lives.
The final product of all her hard work and research is Silent Heroes. It wasn’t all smooth sailing, however. As a dog-lover and woman, it was hard to be so immersed in a book dealing with military dogs and the death of military dogs as well as a society that has harsh restrictions on woman. Not to mention having to face death on a daily basis while writing. Interestingly, however, was the flack she faced as a female writing about war. She had her own doubts but knew that not only could she do it but she had to. She is no quitter and she knew that. These moments of doubt prepared her for the aftermath of publication when she received criticism from men in particular about her credentials and what right she had to comment on contemporary war and the Middle East. It is a good thing she is a fighter or we would not have the pleasure of reading Silent Heroes.
I am a fighter
With all this under her belt, a few wise words from Furstenberg herself to anyone who is looking to write anything that requires a lot of research is that research is critical. She advises to take all points of view into consideration. Take a lot of notes. Use mind maps and timelines. And, as a student of history I truly appreciate this piece of advice, always double check! Don’t trust your first source as the only truth and use multiple sources. Her final piece of advice is that stand by what you write. Very wise words.
It was an absolute pleasure to interview Patricia Furstenberg. Her words made me appreciate and admire Silent Heroes all the more and I look forward to more works by her. Whether she sticks to the Middle East or ventures closer to home in Eastern Europe, I highly anticipate her next book. Until then, you can read my original review of Silent Heroes here and get the book on Amazon. My deepest thanks to Furstenberg for her time! Happy reading all, and make that next read Silent Heroes!
If you have any suggestions for my next book or are an author who would like me to review their book let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org or catch me on twitter @booksbyjen1
You can read the full interview below.
Question: What made you want to write about the war in Afghanistan and the dog handlers specifically?
Patricia: Having lived through a Revolution and the fall of the Eastern Bloc, I believe that the power of historical knowledge is overlooked. Take the fall of the Communist Bloc. How many westerners knew back then that the food was rationed in countries such as Romania or that Estonians, exasperated by the Russian sandpaper rolls, smuggled toilet paper? Or that the Communist regime censored every bit of news broadcasted on TV? That friends turned informers overnight and that writers were put under house arrest and their books taken off the market for refusing to praise the political leaders? Today the Berlin Wall has been down for almost as long as it’s been up and the two fingers once raised in Victory risking the price of one’s life have long lost their meaning. Once acclaimed political ideals have surrendered to the board game that foreign policy is today. And this is ironic, as concepts and actions that have the power to influence and change human lives are handled in a detached manner.
From this point of view, the situation in Afghanistan is of global interest. There are other political hot spots throughout the world, like the North Korea Crisis, the tensions in the East China Sea or the violence in Mexico.
My interest in the War in Afghanistan was stirred on understanding what a major influence the use of military dogs had all throughout history and during contemporary events, especially on the lives of civilians. Yet most books written on this subject are from a military or political perspective, a retelling of true facts. I wanted to create a work of fiction that will appeal as well as stir emotions, aimed at a wider group of readers.
During my medical studies I came in contact with a wide range of foreign students. Greek, Iranian, Egyptians or from Iraq or Sudan. The level of their cultural knowledge amazed me, as well as the way they embrace foreign traditions while maintaining their own.
This reverence for foreign civilizations stayed with me and it was something I knew I wanted to focus on while writing Silent Heroes. We tend to read a book from the perspective of our own experiences. Some books, after reading them, manage to change the way we see and understand out own life and the present world – and this is what I tried to achieve with Silent Heroes.
Question: What was the research process like? Did you find yourself drawn to a particular subject matter while doing research?
Patricia: I read a lot of historical and political material and watched as much live-footage as I could find, to understand the situation in Afghanistan, how it developed, why it evolved the way it did, what were the steps that led to what we know happens today. But what about what we don’t know, what we don’t hear about? The bits considered unimportant, the tiny bits that fall between the big headlines-these grains of sand that will, in fact, rise to engulf the local population. And what about them – the people whispering, whose voices are covered by the explosions and the loud political agenda…Yes, I found myself drawn to their lives.
Research was an eye opener. We think of soldiers as tough guys holding guns and as large as life. But in their hearts, they cry and they fear too. And, living in the middle of the action, they are exposed to so much more information, first-hand, their insight into the civilian lives is often overwhelming – and I tried to show them as such. The Marines fighting in the Afghanistan War had to, throughout the year, step out of the military job description and lend a hand to aid the locals, or a different country’s patrol team.
Question: Did you ever find it hard to keep going? Was it very emotional writing such tough subject matter?
Patricia: As a modern woman writing about a society where women have little to no rights in life and as a dog lover writing about the death of military dogs, yes, it was a difficult task, one that both enraged and saddened me. Looking back at the time I spend writing about death, I see that it affected me, but it toughened me too. As a woman writing about contemporary war, yes, at times I doubted myself, my own resourcefulness. That was when I reminded myself why this book had to be written; and that I am not a quitter. I believe these were moments that prepared me for later. After publishing Silent Heroes I found myself cornered by male voices demanding to know my reasons for writing on this subject, since I am a woman with no military background. But I am a fighter.
Question: Do you have any advice for someone looking to write a book that requires a lot of research and knowledge? What was the hardest part about writing a book dealing with current events?
Patricia: Research is crucial, understanding the events and the different point of view of the parties involved is essential. But research can also be fun. Looking at various types of sources helps keep things in perspective. Note and mind maps are important. A time-line including global affairs and your story-line is paramount. Also, know whose side you are, in your heart. Truth is never what it seems and often, it has more than one facet. Always double-check your facts, look for reliable, multiple sources. Stand for what you wrote: after all it is a work of fiction.
Question: Do you plan on doing any more books set in the Middle East or are you moving to a new chapter of your writing career?
Patricia: I plan on writing something closer to home, Eastern Europe that is. Also contemporary fiction, but with a spin on historical.