In his latest and third novel, “The Good Lieutenant,” Whitney Terrell writes an unsettling story about a female soldier’s operation to recover the corpse of a kidnapped sergeant during the Iraq War. It’s an addicting epic about disaster and, more important, what leads to disaster.
But in a bold move, Terrell narrates the story in reverse. The book’s opening is actually the story’s terrifying climax: Lt. Emma Fowler — the “good” lieutenant — arrives with her colleagues at the location where the sergeant’s body is believed to be buried, a field west of Baghdad by the home of a deaf Iraqi man. When three soldiers pursue the deaf man standing in the field, a land mine blows up their Humvee. As the injured deaf man crawls away, Fowler approaches and fatally shoots him.
Terrell, who wrote a gripping story in 2006 for The Washington Post Magazine chronicling U.S. soldiers’ efforts to defuse improvised explosive devices in Iraq, knows the war zone, the military vernacular and the intimate mind-set of soldiers. What he also brings to “The Good Lieutenant” are the hard-to-get perspectives of people who don’t necessarily dominate the cable TV news: female soldiers in combat and ordinary Iraqis manipulating — and being manipulated by — the U.S. military.
An assistant professor of English and creative writing at the University of Missouri-Kansas City , Terrell spoke about his novel by phone:
How did you decide to tell this story in reverse?
It was an emergency operation. I reached the point where the book didn’t work going forward. My editor loved the last 100 pages, but I couldn’t write a beginning and without a beginning, I didn’t have a book. The ending was too narrow, the characters were left with no options. I was looking at the last 40 pages and thought of making a short story. But it was too depressing. I was sitting at my desk believing I was going to trash six years worth of work. As I was paging through the chapters, I realized I could solve my problem by putting the chapters out of order, by going backwards. In a traditional war story, combat is where characters are revealed: Are they heroic? Are they cowards? Are they losers? I do not feel like combat is, in fact, that kind of experience. Combat is a character-flattening experience. It robs people of themselves rather than makes something of who they are. But when the story goes backward, the characters grow and become more complex as they move away from it.
Do you think the reverse structure forces readers to push forward — backward, technically — to learn what they should have felt in the beginning?
I didn’t know this when I first decided to do it, but the book’s chronology creates a mystery story in reverse. The goal was to create characters I loved and hoped the readers would love and tell the story of how Lieutenant Fowler got to this moment of crisis. It’s easy to make moral judgments about the kinds of things soldiers do in Iraq and other war zones. It’s a lot more complicated if you understand the steps that lead to that moment.
You’ve done a lot of reporting for The Post and Slate on the Iraq War. Was there a moment during that time when you thought: I could write more intimately about war with a novel rather than with a nonfiction book?
When I first went to Iraq in 2006 for The Post, I already knew I wanted to write a novel. You can’t embed as a novelist. I met a woman, an officer, and she told me about a five-day mission trying to rescue a vehicle stuck in a muddy field. It became a nightmare operation. Her soldiers took fire and got hit with a bomb. I realized she was leading the operation and probably making her superiors angry at the number of difficulties she was dealing with. It was at that moment I realized I wanted my character to be a woman. One of my writing teachers was John McPhee, so to suggest a nonfiction piece can’t be every bit as a novelistic and powerful would cause John to be upset with me. So I’m a real believer that the literary merit of both forms is equal, but I happen to be best as a novelist.
Ian Shapira is a Washington Post writer.
At 7 p.m. Monday, Whitney Terrell will be at Politics & Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
By Whitney Terrell
Farrar Straus Giroux. 288 pp. $26