Between Brothers and Sisters

Cote Smith and Whitney Terrell
In Conversation

Cote Smith & Whitney Terrell

Cote Smith’s debut, Hurt People—“A very special first novel . . . Writing with extraordinary grace and tenderness, Smith injects unnerving tension into a delicate coming-of-age story set squarely in the path of a tornado,” writes Marilyn Stasio in The New York Times Book Review—is set in his hometown of Leavenworth, Kansas, famous mostly for its prisons (which factor in the novel), but also notable to Smith for “such boredom,” which he and his brother endured together for years (and which also factors in the novel). It’s “Midwestern boredom” according to Whitney Terrell, who grew up down the highway and across the state line in Kansas City, where his first two novels are set. His third novel, The Good Lieutenant, is the story of Emma Fowler, a U.S. Army lieutenant in Iraq, and while the book obviously ventures further afield, Emma never quite escapes her Midwestern roots. The Good Lieutenant, which FSG will publish in June, has earned praise from Joyce Carol Oates (“a wild Humvee ride of a novel”), Anthony Swofford (“should be read by all”), Richard Ford (“has the grand complexities of war embedded in its bones”), Adam Johnson (you get the point), Chang-rae Lee, Gillian Flynn, and more—seriously, it’s quite the line-up. Recently, Terrell and Smith sat down at Harry’s Country Club in, of course, Kansas City, to talk about what makes Hurt People so “incredibly powerful.”


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Whitney Terrell: I had two sisters, no brothers. The same is true for my wife—two sisters, no brothers. Now we are parenting two boys and we’re seeing firsthand the complicated ways that brothers interact. So I wanted to start off by talking about the narrator and his brother in Hurt People. It’s an incredibly powerful relationship and your description of how the brothers relate to each other seems incredibly familiar and archetypal to me, when I think about my own sons and the ways that they get along—or don’t, quite frequently.

Cote Smith: Well, it helps that I am a brother. I was a younger brother. I have an older brother. So I could draw on our relationship, on how much we care about each other but at the same time how much we can torture each other. So that relationship to me was the heart of the story. Where it goes, how it evolves.

WT: So what is it about brothers? Is it peculiar to brothers the way they can abuse each other in order to show love?

CS: I don’t know if it’s different between sisters or not. My wife has a sister and they kind of tortured each other as well. But between brothers, that kind of communication is also physical—that’s not off-limits. If you’re the older brother, you are sort of like the default parent at times. You’re put in that position to have to look after that other person and you’re like, “I didn’t sign up for this.” I want to be a kid, too. And when you’re the younger brother, as I was, you just want to do whatever the older brother wants to do. I think that’s pretty common. But that desire is not reciprocated because the older brother wants to do his own thing. And he’s already gone through what the younger brother is going through, so he’s ready for the next thing. He doesn’t have time or doesn’t really want to put up with what the younger one wants to do. But at the same time, the brothers in Hurt People are super close—as my brother and I were super close. He was much nicer than the brother is in the book. My older brother will do anything for me. He’s super defensive of me. So if you slight me in any way, if you wrong me, he’s ready to come to blows pretty easily. There’s some of that in the book but not nearly as much as I experienced.

WT: Thinking about that kind peculiar dynamic between brothers—or men—became an important part of writing The Good Lieutenant for me. Because the main character, Emma Fowler, has to teach herself how to motivate and lead a platoon of male soldiers. The Army, as a predominantly male institution, is basically founded on the kinds of dynamics that your brothers use to communicate. So a key to understanding Fowler as a character—based on comments from many of the female soldiers whom I interviewed—was realizing that that kind of humor and bantering was a skill that Emma feels she has to learn.

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CS: Even though she has a brother. But she’s kind of thrown into that role of having to take care of her brother, too. Like we were talking about earlier, it’s a role she didn’t deserve to be in. She’s kind of like the stand-in mother.

WT: Which is an important distinction because she doesn’t treat her brother like a sibling. She acts like a parent with him.

CS: So when she enters the Army, she’s thrown into these really extreme circumstances. It’s like being around a bunch of super brothers—“Super Bros.”

WT: I mean, the banter between the brothers in your book is just like the way guys talk in the Army. Hell, the brothers are even playing with G.I. Joes most of the time.

CS: That’s smart. Because I was thinking about, in your book, that it would be about how it’s tough for a woman to be in a system of male power, an all-male area. But adding the whole learned skills of bantering and torturing—that’s really cool.

WT: And she’s not the kind of person who banters. For me, there’s a scene where her soldiers are saving a guy who’s trapped under a block of stone and she starts yelling at the guys in her platoon and making fun of their athletic ability, which is what a guy would do in that situation. But I felt like that was a huge discovery for her in the process of learning how to control these guys.

The title of your novel comes from a line the mother says: “It’s like I always say, hurt people hurt people.” So I wanted to ask you if you had that line at the beginning of the book. Or if it was something you discovered while writing the book?

CS: Well it was in the original story that became this novel. But I didn’t have it in mind when I got the idea for the short story. I just got to a point in the story where the brothers were bonding by making fun of their parents, which is common, and so they were sort of impersonating their mom, who had all these clichés she used. So they were trading expressions that she used, and I threw a couple out there, and that one popped in my mind because my friend’s mom used to say it to her. It was kind of like a joke, a cliché that my friend and I had made fun of. But when I put it in the story, I thought, “Well, that’s a really interesting idea.” And it fit what I was doing.

WT: Despite being hurt, neither of the parents are villains. They are compromised. Very often when you have a divorce in fiction—or maybe even in real life—one person is the villain and one is not. But you didn’t choose that path.

CS: I never thought of it in terms of villains. I don’t think of any of the characters as villains, really. As protagonists or antagonists. I was just trying to make them feel like humans. And that kind of ties to the hurt people theme in the sense that yes, people can do bad shit, can be cruel to each other, but it’s not always in the sense that they’re assholes. It doesn’t justify what they are doing, but their actions are coming from a place that is human. And so every relationship is much more complicated than it appears on the surface.

WT: The book I thought of a lot when reading this was Tobias Wolff’s memoir, This Boy’s Life.

CS: I love that book. Love it. I actually read that while I was working on the novel. And I read it because someone had read the original story and recommended Wolff to me.

WT: In that book, the stepfather is a villain. In your book, you made a different decision with the parents. For instance, I really admired that scene where the father takes the kids back to their old house. He’s showing them this place that he’s clearly still emotionally invested in, but at the same time, the narrator learns that he’s been spying on the mother’s phone conversations using his police radio.

CS: I think that’s because one of the things drawing the story forward is this potential for resolution between the mother and the father. And so, I had to make that believable and realistic. So if the mom, if she’s ever going to consider that resolution, well then the dad can’t be a villain the entire time. It doesn’t make sense.

As for the father, and his habit of sabotaging his marriage while trying to repair it, that’s part of it, too. Whenever you have characters who have fucked things up, it’s always because there’s this cognitive dissonance. They don’t realize they’re fucking things up as they do it. Even though he wants the mother back so badly, he’s continuing to do things that put the relationship in terrible places—or would, if the mother found out.

WT: I like stories with compromised characters like that. For me, when I was writing The Good Lieutenant, I knew that I was going to start with a good person, who’s in a situation in which good decisions lead to bad outcomes. And figuring out how to dramatize that was one of the most complicated and difficult aspects of the novel. Because good people are fundamentally boring in fiction.

CS: Right. We care about the bad people.

WT: Or the hurt people. So one of the reasons that the book is told backward is that we get to meet her when she’s at her most compromised. She becomes a much more interesting character when she’s compromised. And then we can look backward at how she became compromised over time and what the decision-making process was. When I was writing the book forward, and trying to establish her as a good, rule-following person, those scenes just weren’t as interesting as a starting point. But they become much more interesting when you first see what she has become, how she has been changed by her experience in combat.

You started with a story that was . . . how long?

CS: Eighteen to twenty pages.

WT: And so you expanded this into a novel—completely successfully, in my view. So what are the challenges of expanding a story like that?

CS: There were just so many, because I had never written a novel before. So in addition to thinking about expanding it from a story, there was the question of “How do you write a novel?” I did struggle in the initial drafts with sticking too closely to the short story. So plot-wise, the novel ends up in a very different place than the short story. And once I got unstuck from the short story, things became a lot easier. It was kind of a comfort thing. I hadn’t written a novel before so if I knew where the plot was going when I began, and I could follow the short story, that made it less intimidating. But once I said, “Okay, this novel wants to do something different,” things became more enjoyable and easier.

In terms of expanding the world, it wasn’t that difficult because I knew the world that I was writing about. And I knew there was a lot of material I hadn’t explored. In the short story, there’s just the two brothers and the mother. So the dad’s not in the picture at all. But I had this idea for a character because my dad was a police chief when I was born. I was familiar with the police world and I knew I wanted to bring that in—and it makes sense for the setting. So that part helped a lot.

WT: The prison is this massive presence in Hurt People, and in Leavenworth. For me, there seemed to be these parallels between that and the presence that Fort Riley has in Junction City and Manhattan, Kansas, and the areas around that base.

CS: They are similar. I noticed that when I was reading your book as well. It’s a place where people don’t . . . they don’t really pick that place to live. People don’t pull out the map and point at Leavenworth and say, “This is where I’m going to settle down.” Because they are cities that are based off of utility. Economic utility. Leavenworth exists in large part because of the prisons there. And Fort Riley exists because of the Fort.

You did such a good job of capturing army life there—and army life in general. I grew up as an army brat starting at like age eight. And it’s such a different culture. You forget until you revisit it. I went back on post years ago when my stepdad retired. And just going through the gates, it was like it all came back to me. Flashbacks.

So were you familiar with that world before?

WT: My grandfather fought in World War I. My dad had been in the Army during the Korean conflict but he never deployed. I had friends who fought in the Gulf War. That was the war that happened when I was in college. So when we were talking about invading Iraq in 2003, I just kind of threw myself into it. I embedded as a reporter in Iraq during 2006 and 2010. Started hanging out with men and women in the Army. Went down to Fort Hood and did a story for NPR. Went out for Fort Riley. There’s a certain point, after eight years of reporting on the war, you feel like you’ve got enough that you can intuit things, which is the most important thing to be able to do, if you’re a fiction writer.

CS: It makes sense, given the amount of time you put into it. I mean, hell, you spent a ton of time in that world. You want to honor it, and paint a realistic portrayal. It doesn’t have to be all flattering. But it has to feel true. For example, the way they talk in your book is so perfect. And the way they all sort of know they’re in a fucked-up situation, but the way the Army operates is they have these certain rules and guidelines that are supposed to make it feel like the situation is not absurd, even though every individual knows it’s absurd. But they still follow those rules. That was perfect.

WT: There’s a big divide between civilian and military culture in America. But when I went to Iraq and spent time with soldiers, I was like, “Oh, these people are . . . Midwesterners. Or Texans.” There’s a code. There are different rules. A specific culture. But underneath, they’re just people who are in this place doing this job. And for me, understanding that was crucial. There are going to be people who resist that culture. And people who embrace that culture.

CS: They’re all there for different reasons. Some people believe in what they’re doing. Some people don’t. They’re coming from different geographies. It is a job. People complain. Some people are getting promoted who you know shouldn’t be promoted. They are getting jobs they don’t deserve. It’s a different world, but they are real people. It has politics just like anything else. Variety just like anything else.

WT: Or sexism. You hear all the time—and rightly so—about the challenges that women have in industries that have been traditionally dominated by men. The Army is just a version of the American workplace on steroids, in those terms. And so for the women who work in it, their level of competency has to be so high that they are all extraordinary, in a certain way.

CS: Well, in your book, Emma is a specific type of person, too. She’s someone who, as you describe, is very rule-oriented. Wants things to operate in a certain way. So she’s super strong, in her way. But it’s not like she’s . . . you see so many characters on TV shows or in movies where the writers are clearly just trying to overcompensate. And you’ll run into a female character and the writer will have decided, “Oh, she likes sports. And she knows, like, every statistic of every baseball team ever.” And she doesn’t feel human. The writer is trying so hard to make her this atypical, tough, female character that she’s no longer realistic. But that’s not the case with Emma. She has flaws. She has weaknesses. She gets things wrong. She’s a very specific person. I like the way you balance that out.

WT: I remember this one long convoy I took from Joint Base Balad to Mosul. A female lieutenant told the guys I was riding with, “I don’t want you to be playing Insane Clown Posse while we’re on patrol. I need you to listen to the radio. This is a dangerous area. Don’t play that music.” If a male officer had said that to them—one who had combat experience, as this woman did—they would’ve all been like, “Yessir. Okay, Sir.” Because these guys were pretty green. But after she left, they were all like, “Oh, she’s scared. She doesn’t know what she’s doing.” And that’s a constant headwind for a female soldier—they can function, but they are just running into that wind all the time.

Speaking of running against the wind, as a kid growing up in Leavenworth, Kansas, how did you conceive of the idea that you wanted to be a writer?

CS: Will this be our Kansas talk?

WT: This will be our Kansas talk. I grew up in Kansas City, and I’m fifteen years older than you, but your dramatization of what childhood feels like in a Midwestern town was incredibly familiar to me. The pool, the sense of space, the boredom.

CS: Such boredom. So hot, so boring. That’s why the pool is amazing. It takes care of both those problems.

As for imagining that I could be a writer, I probably owe that to my older brother. Like the characters in the novel, I’ve always kind of followed him wherever he went. But I always knew I wanted to do creative things. You get to high school and you’re like, “Well, I don’t really like calculus. I’d rather be in English class.” Or, “I don’t understand physics, nor do I like it.” So when I was in high school, I was always looking for opportunities to inject creativity into anything.

WT: Did you and your brother make up long narrative stories based on G.I. Joe figures, like the brothers do in your novel?

CS: We did. And we had the ’80s G.I. Joes. You know, the little ones. And we would take them apart, because there’s a screw in the back so you could unscrew it, take their bodies apart, and then reassemble them—mash them up. And then create new story lines. This is the boredom. This is how we filled the time. So my brother, he got his MFA, too. He’s a writer as well.

WT: So you have a brother writer just like Tobias Wolff has a brother writer, Geoffrey Wolff. That seems interesting that two people in a family would end up wanting to be writers. Did your parents push that?

CS: Our poor parents. No, they didn’t. I mean, they’ve always been supportive, but I always feel so bad for them. My older brother is like, “I’m going to major in English.” And then I come along and say, “I’m going to go to grad school for poetry.”

My mom always encouraged us to read. Like a good mom. They’ve always been supportive. My parents are very funny and entertaining. But they weren’t huge readers, or artists. My dad was a policeman. My mom’s a teacher. She taught elementary and middle school. So maybe that’s where I get my love of books from originally. But as far as an interest in writing goes, I don’t know. How did you get started?

WT: I had this very deep sense that the stories I was being told about the world were not accurate. And I was dissatisfied with them and thought they were boring. And in fact, they were boring. I had a resistance to the sort of Midwestern politeness . . .

CS: Where you don’t talk about things. My favorite writing is the writing where I feel like I’m spying on somebody. I’m getting to see the things that they don’t want to be seen. Or that you wouldn’t tell at your standard Midwestern brunch.

WT: New Yorkers aren’t like that. They get it all out. So it’s sometimes very difficult to convey to people the level of suspended animation . . . the poor quality of the storytelling that you get in the Midwest. Because people are really actively suppressing stories. So for me, writing was a way of breaking out of that.

CS: I think part of it, too, was that my brother was always more optimistic in terms of pursuing dreams. Or doing things that take courage. He was always encouraging me to do things. So he made me feel like, “Oh, yeah, it’s perfectly normal to want to study poetry in grad school. Or to try to become a writer.” Because I saw him do it. That’s the good part about siblings. That’s the opposite of the torture part.

WT: That’s true. For me, it was that my parents—and it sounds like your parents—didn’t criticize that desire. Whereas I think a lot of Midwestern parents would have. They’d say, “This is impractical. You should not do this.” My parents never said that to me. For which I am very grateful.

CS: Yeah, same here. Even though they were probably thinking it. That might be where the Midwestern thing comes in handy. They don’t say, “You are wasting your time. You are making a mistake.” It’s like, “Can you pass me the egg salad?”
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Cote Smith grew up in Leavenworth, Kansas, and various army bases around the country. He earned his MFA from the University of Kansas. His work has been featured in One Story and FiveChapters. Smith lives in Lawrence, Kansas.

Whitney Terrell is the Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. He is a graduate of Princeton University and has an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His first novel, The Huntsman, was a New York Times notable book. His nonfiction has appeared in The New York Times, Details, Harper’s Magazine, The New York Observer, The Kansas City Star, and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He was an embedded reporter in Iraq during 2006 and 2010 and covered the war for The Washington Post Magazine, Slate, and NPR. He was born and raised in Kansas City.

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