Outrage, more often than not, motivates me to write a story.
In my latest novel, War Women (Soho Press, November 2021) the focus of my ire was (and still is) the sexual abuse of women in the military. This was poignantly brought to national attention by the rape and murder of Specialist Vanessa Guillén, a young female soldier stationed at Fort Hood, Texas. After she disappeared under suspicious circumstances, the army investigated but failed to find her. Instead, they started carrying her as AWOL (absent without leave).
Her understandably distraught family waged a vigorous protest and with the help of other concerned citizens and movie star Salma Hayek, they attracted widespread news coverage. Civilian police forces adjacent to Fort Hood and the FBI joined in the search. Tragically, her hammer-bludgeoned and dismembered remains were eventually found buried outside the base. Before the authorities could arrest him, the soldier thought to have committed the murder put a bullet through his head.
Guillén’s family members testified that before her death she had complained about the sexual harassment she was experiencing on base. Contrary to her mother’s advice, she refused to make a formal complaint to the army; apparently worried about the negative repercussions. From my own experience, I can verify that she had reason to worry.
In the mid-80s, I was stationed on Camp Red Cloud in the Republic of Korea. A small base, it housed the headquarters of what had once been known as I Corps, the command center of all the infantry divisions arrayed along the Korean DMZ. One day, unsolicited, a senior sergeant approached me and asked if I had heard about a formal complaint made by a young female soldier against her superior NCO. I hadn’t. He explained that the accused NCO had a wife back in the States but he had taken off his wedding ring and presented himself to the young female subordinate as being single. After they formed an intimate relationship, she discovered that he was in fact married and made a formal complaint to the base commander.
The reaction was swift and vicious. As the senior sergeant told me, “We NCOs have to stick together.” She became an outcast on base, subject to all sorts of extra work details and vile verbal abuse. All because she told the truth.
I would not take part in this harassment. Later, when I encountered her, she was nervous and seemed on the verge of breakdown. I tried to speak to her and explain that I didn’t agree with what was happening and if she needed help, I stood by ready to assist. Understandably, she didn’t believe me. She walked away and refused to talk to me, believing, I suppose, that I was just trying to take further advantage of her. I wasn’t.
Specialist Guillén, many thousands of miles away and many decades later, understood the same thing this young woman in the 80s had. When soldiers close ranks against you, their hatred can become unbearable, especially given the close quarters military life demands. Guillén tried to handle the sexual harassment on her own and the worst happened. If the military was more open to actually dealing with these problems, she might not have been afraid to seek help and possibly she would be alive today.
For the short story “Death Floor” (Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Mar/Apr 2022), the outrage is based on a different issue: the brutal exploitation of workers around the world. Due to various investment entanglements, American celebrities are often caught up in these scandals; including child labor in Southeast Asia and even accusations of slavery in the case of the massive subjugation of the minority Uighur population in Xinjiang, China. I decided to take a closer and more personal look at this phenomenon (albeit fictional) in “Death Floor” and have my two long-standing protagonists, George Sueño and Ernie Bascom, take a whack at this hidden, yet widespread, injustice.
However, after 30 years of writing (including 15 novels and umpteen short stories), my mind needs at least two plotlines progressing simultaneously before my subconscious can conjure up a story. So, in addition to worker abuse, I needed something else. I came up with gambling addiction, police corruption, the sexual exploitation of poverty stricken women, and the plight of half-American orphans throughout Asia. A grim stew, indeed. The saving grace is that I assigned my heroes the mission of righting a wrong and they go about the job with an iron determination. In line with the rules of suspense, I pushed myself to make each obstacle they encountered more difficult than the previous one and I tried to come up with clever ways to overcome those obstacles. In short, I didn’t want the reader to have a chance to breathe or, worse yet, put the story down. Like a fighter throwing one punch after another, allowing his opponent no time to do anything other than duck and hold on.
At least that was my goal. In real life, however, one doesn’t always succeed at everything you set out to do. But I tried. Like justices on the Supreme Court, the readers of “Death Floor” will be the final judges of whether or not the story worked. I hope you will bang the gavel, call the court to order, and read (and hopefully enjoy) “Death Floor.” I’ll be waiting breathlessly for your verdict.