Powerful and lean, Eleven Days is an astonishing first novel full of suspense that addresses our most basic questions about war as it tells of the love between a mother and her son. When the story opens on May 11, 2011, Sara’s son, Jason, has been missing for nine days from a Special Operations Forces mission on the same night as the Bin Laden raid. Smart, young, and bohemian, Sara had dreams of an Ivy League university for Jason that were not out of reach, followed by a job on the Hill where there were connections through his father. The events of 9/11 changed Jason’s mind and Sara accepted that, steeping herself in all things military to better understand her son’s days, while she works as a freelance editor for Washington policy makers and wonks.
Now she knows nothing more about Jason’s fate than the crowds of well-wishers and media camped out in the driveway in front of her small farmhouse in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, waiting to hear news. In a series of flashbacks we learn about Jason’s dashing absentee father, a man who said he was a writer but whose career seemed to involve being in faraway places. And through letters Jason writes home from his training and early missions, we get a picture of a strong, compassionate leader who is wise beyond his years and modest about his abilities. Those exceptional abilities will give Jason the chance to participate in a wholly different level of assignment, the most important and dangerous of his career. At the end Sara will find herself on an unexpected journey full of surprise.
This is a haunting narrative about a mother’s bond with her son; about life choices; about the military, war, and service to one’s country. Lea Carpenter, a dazzling new talent with the kind of strong and distinctive voice that comes along all too rarely, has given us a thrilling and unforgettable story.
Excerpted from Eleven Days by Lea Carpenter. Copyright © 2013 by Lea Carpenter. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Q: Though you have a Harvard MBA and were an editor at Francis Ford Coppola's literary magazine, Zoetrope, as well as a deputy publisher for The Paris Review for two years, you've written your first novel about a subject entirely different: the life and training of a Navy SEAL, as well as the love between a mother and son. How did you first come to this topic?
A: A few days after my father died a close friend who had worked in national intelligence came to see my mother and me. He helped us declassify a citation for something my father had done during World War II. I had never seen the words "special operations" in the same sentence as my father's name. He never talked about it. I was born when he was in his 50s; I'd never asked about the war. That friend brought the former Chief of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces with him. They sat my mother and me down and encouraged us to have a military funeral. We were presented the flag.
That was in 2009. And in 2010, I was working on another book, with a co-author, and a friend who is an agent dared me to try fiction. He said, “give me ten thousand words.” He gave me a deadline: May 3, 2011. I sat down and wrote about what I had been reading about—special operations forces, military intelligence. And I saw him on May 3rd and said, “the subject is Naval Special Warfare.” It was the day after the bin Laden raid; he thought I was joking. But he read the pages and told me to keep going.
At least, that is the short version of the story.
Q: What kind of research did you have to do to learn about the Special Forces and "special" operations? Which qualities, in particular, would make one suitable to become a Navy Seal?
A: I talked to a lot of people. And I read. I asked for reading recommendations from friends who knew more than I did. Spring 2011 was perhaps the best and worst time to start writing—and learning—about special operations forces, Naval Special Warfare in particular. On qualities, aside from the obvious ones, what I saw again and again was consistent: character, humility, intelligence. And wit. You have to have a sense of humor being in that line of work, I think.
Q: Where did this research take you physically and mentally and who were some of the real-life inspirations you met along the way?
A: I went to Coronado but then had to stop traveling due to my pregnancy. You can learn a lot from talking though. I spent a lot of time on the phone. Mentally, learning about people who place their lives on the line is a very rewarding process. Real life inspirations: pretty much everyone I met. The families, of course. These extraordinary wives and mothers. This is our greatest generation. It is perhaps a cliché but it happens to be true.
Q: This novel gathers intensity and emotion as it alternates between a mother's extremely heart-wrenching view and concern for her only, missing son, and the son, Jason, and what he experiences all around him—his own courage and that of his fellow soldiers. Was it a challenge to go back and forth with the two perspectives?
A: It was a device. I wanted to try and write into a certain genre, then try and write against it—in the same story. Mark Bowden wrote a fantastic Afterword for the paperback edition of Black Hawk Down in which he talks about certain literary choices he made—choices for which in some cases he was criticized. I learned a lot from that essay. One challenge was writing about something many far more informed and sophisticated writers than me have covered. I am not a journalist. I am not a scholar. But my father was in the army and my father-in-law was a Marine and I have many friends who have served in these wars. I wanted to try and understand it.
Q: Were there surprises for you once you started writing the book—either about the relationship between a mother and her grown son, or the military world he enters?
A: I was surprised by how my interest in war and military history, formerly casual, deepened. In the book someone says to Sara, “You’ve traded Athens for Sparta.” That was something someone said to me. The shift surprised a lot of people perhaps. On sons, having two myself, that intensity was not tough to channel.
Q: There's a line in the book which one of Jason's godfathers says to Sara: "War is the ability to die for another person without hesitation. War is the belief in the value of another person's life above belief in your own." Has your own viewpoint changed about war, and the military, since writing this book?
A: That is a difficult question. I met a Marine general recently, and I asked him how he felt about these wars. And he said, “We don’t start them; we fight them.” I think there is a tendency to be agnostic or, on the other hand, “too goo-ey,” about war. And about the military and about service. I think it is important to understand these elements of America. It is also important not to sentimentalize them. That balance is tricky for a civilian to navigate. If I wrote a book that’s sentimental I have failed. I stole the word “goo-ey” from a friend who worked in intelligence. He said to me, “Lea, just don’t make it too goo-ey.” And I know what he meant.
Q: Of the many active, reserve, or retired Team guys who met with you, have you let them see the book and were you surprised by their reactions to it at all?
A: I have. Those reactions I’d prefer to keep private but I will say that my early readers were as thoughtful as any literary editors I’ve ever worked with. I had an early draft read by three people from three distinctly different generations, and what was most interesting was how different their perspectives were. Of course they would be different. Each had served in an era with a very different framework. A war is not a war is not a war.
Q: You wrote a blog, “English Lessons,” for the website, Big Think, celebrating "writing we love" which covers a multitude of subjects. How did you come to do this? And though perhaps apples and oranges, which do you enjoy more: writing fiction or nonfiction?
A: Big Think was founded by my roommate from grad school, Victoria Brown. I wanted to see what that medium was like and whether if I applied my skills I could add any value. While Big Think is brilliant, blogging is not something that came naturally to me. Ultimately, I didn’t feel comfortable with it. It is about consistency and to some extent, sensation. I thought I could couple it with my day job but it actually is a day job. The concept for “English Lessons” was that if a blog must be educative, perhaps I could train a blog on the question of what good writing looks like. There is an audience for that. And one day someone will do that blog, if it is not being done now. I was not the right person to do it.
Q: Why the Marines?
A: Although the United States Marine Corps technically includes the Navy, when we think about “Marines” we tend to think about something different from what we think about when we think about “naval special warfare.” I chose Naval special warfare, or the SEAL Teams, because I knew some guys in that line of work. I felt if I wrote about an area of the military where I had friends who could fact check my pages that was not a bad idea. Also, if you look at the history of special operations forces in this country you do see a line that extends from things my father did in the 40s down to some of what the Teams, and their colleagues in the SOF community, do today. Rescue missions, for example.
Q: What message do you want to teach your readers?
A: I am not sure there is a message. I tried to write something structured like a fable, that would read easily, but that might possess deeper resonance for a certain audience. I hope readers come away having felt something. If they learned something, that’s gravy.
Q: Are any of the characters modeled after someone in your life? If so, who?
A: Fiction writers often say that they are “all their characters.” I will say that the character of Jason is quite like my father. Jason is someone who knows poetry but also knows how to handle a gun. You can’t say that of many men. People tend to forget that Achilles read at night, through the war. He returned to his camp at night and read.
Q: What inspired you to write this book?
A: Going through loss. I wanted to write about something that I knew very little about but I ended up writing about a community for whom loss has been a central element, especially through these wars.
1. The themes of young men going off to war, and the overwhelming anxiety this causes their mothers, extends as far back as ancient Greece. In what ways does Eleven Days both participate in and add to this literary tradition? What is new and unique about the novel? What are some of the novel’s most emotionally wrenching moments?
2. When Jason asks his mother about the difference between “myths” and “fictions,” she tells him: “A myth is a fiction that matters” [p. 241].She also quotes her favorite writer, Joan Didion: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live” [p. 241]. What role do myths, fictions, and stories play in the novel? How are the mythic stories of Thetis and Achilles, and Jason and the Argonauts, especially relevant to Sara and Jason?
3. What is the effect of the novel’s cutting back and forth between Sara’s and Jason’s perspectives and between different time periods? Would the novel have been less effective or suspenseful if told in a straight chronological order and from a single point of view?
4. What motivates Jason, beyond the attacks of 9/11, to join the military? Why does he keep going back for five tours?
5. How have Sara and Jason each been affected by David’s absence? In what ways does David’s absence deepen the bond between mother and son?
6. In a letter to his mother, Jason talks about his training and what he’s learning about the Inner Warrior. He writes: “The Inner Warrior is kind of like the Editor inside us. It is the voice you hear that tells you not just what to do but what not to do, too. ... You have to be able to do everything, and then you have to have the ability to refrain from doing anything. That last skill is often the most powerful of all” [p. 76]. Why is this kind of restraint so important in the context of the new forms warfare has now taken? What other aspects of his training, and the specific military ethos of the Teams, affect Jason most strongly?
7. Eleven Days offers a rare inside look at the unique training and culture of Navy SEALs. What aspects of this training—and the ethos that it promotes—were most surprising?
8. What is the symbolic significance of Jason’s decision to go back for the baby he hears crying in the Kill House—of risking his life to save a child? Why does it seem both unexpected and inevitable that he would make that choice? What are the consequences, for all concerned, of his actions?
9. Near the end of the novel, Sara thinks that David “had drifted, at last, to that higher plane he’d long desired to live on, where nothing could hold him to gravity’s laws. He would float above feelings. He always had. But what was her task now?” [p. 252]. Has David’s spiritual life been a form of escape, a kind of spiritual bypassing, a way to avoid difficult feelings? How is Sara different from David in how she handles her emotional life? What is the task that she must now accomplish?
10. Sara waits several months before reading the letter [p. 253] Jason left for her, until she feels emotionally ready. Many writers would have taken full advantage of Sara’s response to the letter, which was no doubt profound, but Carpenter chooses to leave that to the reader’s imagination. Why might the author have made this decision? In what ways does Jason’s letter land with greater power because readers don’t get to see Sara’s response?
11. At the end of the novel, when Sara visits Arlington National Cemetery, she thinks, This is the first place people should come if they want to understand us [p. 259]. Why does she feel this way? How might Arlington illuminate something essential about the American character?
12. The final mission Jason leads occurs on May 2, 2011, the same date that Osama bin Laden was killed by U.S. Navy SEALs. In what important ways does the novel diverge from the actual events of that night? What is it that can make fiction that grows out of real, historical events so compelling?
13. Most novels about war have been written by men. In what ways does Eleven Days offer a uniquely feminine perspective on war?
14. What makes the ending of the novel so moving? Is there a hint of hopefulness for Sara in the book’s closing paragraphs?