Pretty Much True: My Interview With Kristen Tsetsi

I recently had the pleasure of reading an ARC of Kristen Tsetsi’s debut novel, Pretty Much True…, and I felt compelled to write a little something about it here. First thing’s first, though. Here’s the official plot synopsis:

“I smell yoru shirt sometimes, but not foten,” Mia writes, those slurred keyboard strokes the only connection to her deployed boyfriend, whom she sees everywhere and nowhere in their small military town. A former English professor, Mia passes the time working as a cab driver, mulling over the intricacies of her encounters with others who are affected by the war: her dramatic future mother in-law, who eats bad news for breakfast; a charismatic alcoholic who may have been a medic in Vietnam; a pragmatic but secretive longtime Army wife; and a soldier who found a way to stay home. Pretty Much True… is the war story that’s seldom told-the loss and love in every hour of deployment, and a painfully intimate portrait of lives spent waiting in the spaces between.

The story unfolds over a period of months following Mia’s boyfriend’s deployment, documenting the anguish and uncertainty of his absence. It’s raw and gritty, but not in the traditional sense. You won’t find personal accounts of the front lines here. This is a novel about the silent war fought within, detailing Mia’s struggle to reconcile the grim truth that, at any moment, her boyfriend could be shot down half the world away. Tsetsi does an excellent job of building a subtle, quiet tension that permeates throughout the novel while Mia descends into despair and potential alcoholism.

This point of view isn’t one you usually hear about, and I found it to be a refreshing take on the traditional “war novel” you’ll typically find on bookstore shelves. I’ll be honest: this isn’t the sort of book I go for, but I’ve been trying to step out of my comfort zone when it comes to fiction, and in this case, I’m glad I did. Pretty Much True… challenges the typical definition of a war novel and brings to light an often understated side effect of countries in conflict: the families who are left at home to wait in bitter silence while their loved ones fight on the front lines.

Kristen was nice enough to answer a few questions I had for her, and now I’m passing them along to you. On with the interview:

TK: Tell us about yourself. Who is Kristen Tsetsi?

KT: I have no idea how to answer this. (But I do! Here’s Kristen’s bio. – TK)

TK: Pretty Much True… comes across as a very personal novel infused with a lot of raw emotion, including anger and resentment. How much of it is based in fact? How true is Pretty Much True…?

KT: Anger and resentment are safe. Opening yourself to the possibility that the person you love most in the world, who has already been gone for days/weeks/months, won’t ever touch your hand again and could, for all you know, be kidnapped and have his head sawed off, is less safe.

The book is infused with raw emotion because everything about not knowing whether the conclusion of any given day, week, or month will be very good or the worst thing imaginable is the kind of experience that leaves you feeling skinless. Nothing is the same from the moment of goodbye. It’s endless drama (even if it’s just sitting somewhere under your ribs), passion like you’ve never known, and something like being constantly drunk or hungover. Possibly both, and simultaneously. Everything’s changed, from what the sidewalk outside looks like to what people do or don’t mean to you to whether you go to a party…perceptions shift, and even the way you talk to people is different.

It’s as if your soul is replaced with a shadow.

TK: I understand the novel has a bit of a history. Care to tell us the story of this novel’s journey to publication?

KT: It was a long journey, so I’ll number the steps to avoid boring anyone: 2005-2006.5  1. All the regular writing/revising/killing darlings/shredding chapters/rewriting. 2007 2. Agent queries. 3. Responses from a few big agents who said “Like it, but can’t market it – it’s literary, and you’re unknown,” “Love this, would ordinarily love to try to sell it, but the industry right now wants blockbusters/genre…” 4. Self-published through Lulu 2007-2010 5. Marketing marketing marketing (radio, TV, newspaper, signings) 2010 6. Publishing deal with small press 2011 7. Fell through 8. Tentative deal with another small press 9. Fell through 2012 10. Publishing contract signed with Missouri Breaks Press, and utter glee and gratitude.

TK: When I first heard about the book, it was originally titled Homefront, with a completely different cover. Why did you decide to change the title and design?

KT: Well, when you compare a warfront to a homefront, the story itself suffers from an immediate comparison: active war story to passive wait story. It’s easy to make the assumption that nothing of interest could possibly be happening on those pages, that it will be either a cathartic, prolonged diary entry or a “You can do it!” feel-good book, and it’s neither.

My goal was to write a literary novel that looked deeply and honestly – and also entertainingly, engagingly – at a different kind of war experience. It’s a raw, gritty illustration of an experience very few people know anything about, and trying to convince would-be readers of that with a title like “Homefront,” which as a word effectively squashes all but one dimension of the story, is almost impossible. It needed a more complex cover image and a more curiosity-inspiring title to speak to the story’s layers and the universality of the emotions most of the characters experience.

TK: One of the things I enjoyed about the book is that it provides a snapshot of the early 2000s, a rather tumultuous time here in the states during which a lot of anger and political divisions surfaced. The novel taps into the country’s overall mood without drowning in it, balancing between left and right points of view, and you weren’t afraid to let some of the characters provide a counter-argument to Mia’s outlook on the war. This isn’t a question. I just wanted to point it out for my readers and say that I respect your approach to the subject matter.

KT: Thank you. To have not included the politics would have been to … I suppose it would have been to lie about that period. Or to at the very least have treated it lazily. (Considering the angle I was coming from.)

TK: Out of all the characters with whom Mia interacts, I thought Donny Donaldson was the most genuine. I was skeptical of his intentions, but he grew on me over the course of the book, and by the end he’d become my favorite character. Who (or what) inspired Donny Donaldson?

KT: An older, “wiser,” perspective of war was needed, as was someone who had been impacted by war’s action directly. I’ve known people like Donny Donaldson, and they’re painful to spend time with. And vexing. Frustrating. But they make you want, so strongly, to know who they were before the damage. Mia, the protagonist, who has no idea what’s going to happen to her boyfriend Jake, is naturally drawn, I think, to one of the possible outcomes. But there’s also a give and take between the two – Donny needs to feel useful and, at times, superior, and Mia needs a distraction as well as Donny’s attention.

TK: The novel reminded me of a cross between Tim O’Brien (echoes of Vietnam abound) and Chuck Palahniuk (with the rapid-fire first-person prose, sans nihilism and shock). Did either of these authors influence your style, or am I completely off base? Who are your influences?

KT: When I started writing Pretty Much True…, I’d heard of O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. One of my former writing professors, Alan Davis, would recommend it somewhat regularly. I never read it at the time because I thought, “War story, huh? I’d rather watch the movie.”

Later, after I’d started writing, I remembered what Al had said, and I was suddenly curious, but I didn’t want to be influenced by anything (I read nothing at all while I’m writing), so I didn’t read it until a few months after Pretty Much True… was finished. When I did finally read it, I almost felt like I’d written the companion at-home story to his at-war story. It was strange.

I can’t remember whether I read Lullaby (the first Palahniuk novel I read) before or after writing PMT. The only influence I remember having consciously in my head when I was writing that particular book was Joyce Carol Oates. I’d recently read her novel Solstice, and there were lessons I learned from reading it that I wanted to remember.

Other influences for much of my writing, whether PMT or short fiction, have been (for any number of reasons) Margaret Atwood, Kate Chopin, Dorothy Parker, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, and John Irving.

TK: What’s next for you? After the long road you’ve traveled to bring this novel to print, where do you go from here?

KT: Sadly, more marketing. (I say “sadly” because it makes me so uncomfortable to thrust myself/my book at people. I haven’t quite figured out the right way to do it.) But, I’ve also started a new novel that I’m looking forward to getting into. It’s completely different, and there are so many possibilities I get to play with that I’m already excited to get to the second half, and I’m only on page three.

TK: Another non-question: I have friends whose family members are currently serving. No one (at least in my experience) discusses what those left at home go through while loved ones are in harm’s way. Thank you for writing a war novel from this often unsung perspective. That is all.

KT: It’s hard to talk about because, frankly (and I believe this), I don’t think people find it very interesting as a surface-level news feature. It starts to get old, with the yellow ribbons and the smiling waves and the natural stereotyping.

Even Lifetime feels the need to spice up “Army Wives” – whose characters frequently deploy – with affairs, abuse, and PTSD. But I understand why they have to do it on that network. They can only get so deep inside the slower, more grating, more powerful experience. They can’t air something comparable to, for example, the HBO series “Tell Me You Love Me,” whose everyday honesty about “simple” marriages I found completely riveting. It was because they got down into the dirt, the lies people tell, the ugly ways they feel, the surprising things that make them (us) smile. It takes a certain kind of freedom to go there, and it’s the kind of freedom fiction gives you.

TK: Okay, last one. Why should readers check out Pretty Much True…?

KT: Because the last thing I would ever want to write is something I wouldn’t want to read myself. I don’t write for myself the writer, but for myself the reader. Pretty Much True… has the kind of tension, conversations, uncomfortable moments, and warmth (without sentimentality) that I would personally want to dive into.

But (and this is the answer that gets no sales), also, it’s one of the war experiences more people should know about. And I hope I introduced them to it in a way that makes them feel like they’re inside of it.

Bonus: Mia consumes a lot of alcohol over the course of the book. What’s your favorite drink?

KT: Tanqueray and tonic. I’m having one right now.

Excellent answers! Join me in wishing Kristen success with her debut. Pretty Much True… is available now in print and on Kindle from Missouri Breaks Press. Her website can be found here.