by Andy Shi
America is a country of absolutes: one is either pro-choice or pro-life, pro-guns or wants them all banned. The truth, as sophomore Judy Talton learns on the campus of Central Illinois University in Rita Dragonette’s 2018 award-winning novel, The Fourteenth of September, is that life is rarely as Manichaean. For example, take considerations of duty: to her conscience, wholly anti-Vietnam War; and to her mother and to herself, both of whom want so badly for Judy to escape her hometown and its inevitable life as a secretary then housewife. To do so, Judy will need to graduate from college, which she can afford only with the military scholarship that she secures with a promise that after she finishes her nursing degree she will serve in Vietnam.
Judy hides her deal with the army from her new friends in the Student Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (SMC). Because, for them, you’re either for the War or against it. There is no nuance. Judy lies to them even as she helps rally to save a professor nearly fired for anti-war rhetoric and as she joins a cohort of SMC members to protest in Washington D.C. She lies to them as she falls in love with one of SMC’s charismatic but inflexible leaders, David. She lies as she wins over the Committee with her own memorable contribution to the protest campaign: a reading of Shirley Jackson’s famous story, The Lottery.
The story is apropos. In 1948, Jackson attracted vitriol and death threats for her story of a small America town that annually performs a ritual of drawing ballots. The winner of the lottery is to be stoned by the other villagers, simply because that’s the way it is. As the SMC desperately rallies the campus to protest the War ahead of its own draft lottery, Jackson’s story and its literary history forbodes the violence of unreflective traditionalism.
In 1969, traditionalism does tear apart America, as children protest a draft for a war they do not believe in and their parents—parents who served in Europe and the Pacific 25 years earlier—condemn them for betraying their country and the proud legacies of the Greatest Generation. How could America’s military, the last line of defense against Nazism and saviors of the world, be the propagator of the evil the youth claim it to be? The simpler and easier heuristic is that you’re pro-military or against. You either love America or you’re in bed with the communists trying to destroy her.
The complexities of social movements, the banality of slogans, and the fallibility of rigid ideologies that cannot contend with change and circumstantial vagaries, all of this Judy must work through on her own as the dreaded draft lottery approaches. That wintry evening, she and her SMC friends gather around the common-use television and watch as the first number is called, a date to identify which boys born on that day will be sent first, and the birthday is her own: the fourteenth of September. Though it is not she who risks being ambushed in the jungles of Vietnam, Judy knows she must decide nevertheless on her participation in the army, her lies to her friends, and her relationship with her military family. Despite her generation’s idolization of The Beatles, Judy knows choices must be made; she cannot just let it be.
At the helm of this ambitious coming-of-conscience story, set in one of the most tumultuous times to be a young adult in America, is Rita Dragonette, who draws on her own memories of the protests to craft her debut novel. For nearly thirty years Rita has told the stories of others as a public relations executive. Now she tells her own.
Andrew Shi: Much of the tension in The Fourteenth of September comes from Judy being against the Vietnam War while dependent on her military scholarship to fund her education. This is a dilemma inspired by your own personal history, and one you were initially unwilling to use. Why were you so hesitant to use your own history in a novel inspired by your memories of the Vietnam War and its protests?
Rita Dragonette: I’d always envisioned this story as a narrative to heighten and illuminate the experience of a generation during what I feel was a seminal time in our country’s history—between the first Vietnam Draft Lottery and Kent State. The dilemma of the time was, for male draftees, do I go to Vietnam, where I will probably die for a war I don’t support? Or Canada, which is another kind of “death” (you’re alive, but your life has to start over)? I wanted an equivalent female dilemma to demonstrate that the war (as all big issues in life) was a conflict with equal impact on both men and women, and equal opportunities for bravery and character development.
As a debut writer, it didn’t seem to me as “legitimate” fiction if it was too close to my actual experience, but at the same time I couldn’t “improve” on the military scholarship-in-jeopardy circumstance of my own story. I told a writing professor early on that I wanted Judy to have a conflict with as much gravitas as my own, but I was struggling to find one. He reminded me that as a writer I am free to use, steal, plagiarize, change, etc., anything from my own life. It was my material. That gave me permission. The central dilemma of the story is very similar to my own. Most of the rest, though based on fact, is highly fictionalized, including the lively scenes of sex, drugs, and rock and roll.
AS: The Fourteenth of September is, to quote the back cover, “a coming of conscience novel,” and what is constantly being reconsidered throughout the novel is the idea of principle. Friends die for their principles; people betray each other for their principles. Judy, meanwhile, must decide if she should abandon her military scholarship and thus her hopes for an education. In such turbulent times, the line between right and wrong is often drawn rigidly, but, without divulging her eventual decision, do you think Judy has to relinquish her military scholarship in order to be an honest participant in the antiwar movement?
RD: This question is actually the crux of the story, so readers will need to follow Judy’s path to figure out what she’s going to do as well as hopefully think about what they would do in her shoes. My focus is to demonstrate that women face questions of conscience equal to those of men in conflict, even if they aren’t issues of life or death. I’ve always thought of Judy’s story as a female version of evaluating the decision to go to Canada, like a pivotal scene in The Things They Carried. What if a woman were in that canoe, paddling to Canada, weighing issues of patriotism, fear, duty, conscience, etc.
The Coming of Conscience issue is deeper than what we know as a Coming of Age story. In the latter, the young protagonist is faced with obstacles that are painfully resolved but allow her to emerge as an adult, resilient enough to face what life has before her, and Judy goes through all of that. However, she also feels that this decision she makes at 19 will define her character for the rest of her life. Her dilemma also mirrors the question of conscience the country was trying to make at the time. We were divided between those who felt we had to stay in Vietnam because America had never lost a war, and those who felt it was not worth the price in loss of life. The moral question became who are we if we leave, what are we if we stay. The Fourteenth of September is an intimate story about a teenage girl on a global canvas. In the big issues in life—like war, or today’s racism—we all have to take a stand and that stand—and its risk—will define us.
AS: Judy’s relationship with her mother becomes strained as Judy becomes more involved in the antiwar movement. The Vietnam War divided may households across the nation, including your own. These are fractures that are surfacing again with the Black Lives Matter movement and Trumpian politics. Do you regret participating in the antiwar movement knowing in hindsight the permanent rift it would create between you and your parents, particularly your mother? What would you counsel the younger generations that are likewise choosing between their values and families?
RD: The time frame of the story is where the term Generation Gap was forged. Our WWII parents, who had faced a war of clear objectives, couldn’t understand that the murkiness of Vietnam was not the same. And, we didn’t know how to explain it. We only knew that we were being called to die, including in the game-show format of the lottery, for a reason that no one could any longer articulate. To our parents that sounded cowardly.
The issue was magnified by the eternal struggle of young people breaking away from their parents and asserting themselves. I don’t at all regret what I did. I do regret how I did it. I’m sure anyone looking back at the self-righteousness of their teenage selves on any number of issues would agree. The lessons of life teach us that things are never as black and white, or clearly right or wrong as they seem. They also teach us that we should keep the volume lower and arrive with a point of view that can be explained in context. I’m sure there are many parents counseling children today to choose peaceful protest over violence. The issue is more of the method than the goal. No sane person would want a pointless war to continue, or abuse to happen because of the color of someone’s skin.
Today, it’s 50 years later and we are debating other issues, but with the same shrill, my-way-or-the-highway voice. Protest that ends up in the streets then and now is born of frustration and eventually rage over the failure of proper channels for disagreement. It often leads to violence. What I learned from our antiwar protesting is that once the glass is broken, that is the only sound that anyone hears. No one hears what you’re saying. The more things change, the more they stay the same. The hamster wheel of history. The politics of protest are complicated. That’s part of the message of my novel as well.
AS: The Vietnam War led to a nadir in pro-military fervor in America, which in turn inspired a concerted effort under President Reagan to rebuild support for the military. The ubiquitous refrain to “support the troops” comes from his efforts. Looking at the other side of the home-front conflict, what do you think is the legacy of the anti-Vietnam War movement?
RD: I hesitate to be a spokesperson for the topic of the Vietnam War. However, among the good things we’ve learned were not to have another draft, certainly not of children who are “too young to vote but not too young to die.” We’ve also lowered the voting age, learned to respect and honor our troops even if we do not agree with the directives of their generals, and have been more cautious (if not entirely successful) about entering into a conflict without clear objectives that can be articulated in a way that makes sense to the country and will engender support. And, we have learned that the impact of war on soldiers and everyone they encounter after is lifelong, profound, and often tragic.
That said, we have a long way to go. We are just now, after 50 years, peeling back the true facts and impact of the conflict. Every American should see the Ken Burns NPR series Vietnam. We have many lessons yet to learn and healing yet to tend to. Like every war, Vietnam is in our DNA, we can’t ignore its impact. We need stories like The Fourteenth of September. Many of my readers are surprised at what happened back then, and puzzled at what isn’t taught about this troubled moment in history.
AS: An understated theme in your novel is the role of feminism. Recalling your own experiences, what was it like to be a female participant in the antiwar movement? Did you ever feel like you had less of a stake or were disenfranchised within the movement or Student Mobilization Committee simply because you didn’t have a lottery number to be called?
RD: I’m actually hoping that feminism emerges as a key theme in the book. It was certainly a primary driver. And, there are very few novels written about women and the Vietnam War. I’ve always been interested in the role of women in war and look to the experiences of my parents, both WWII vets, as an example. They were equally patriotic, brave, honorable, and had equally wonderful and horrific experiences—those experiences weren’t the same but should be valued the same. My mother was often told she was “just a nurse.”
In the antiwar movement as a woman you could be very active, even leading events, and at any moment be marginalized by a guy who’d say something like “why should we listen to you, no one’s going to be shooting at you.” Women’s war stories, until recently, were primarily of impact vs combat. Impact affects everyone. We were and have all been impacted by war—and the other big issues in life. I’m very interested in battlefields that aren’t on the front.
AS: I’d like to now shift from your experiences of the protests to your experiences as a writer. Before becoming a published author, you spent nearly thirty years as a public relations executive. How did that prepare you for publishing your first book, and what words of advice do you have for aspiring writers who are trying to break through and have their names heard?
RD: Writing has always been my avocation, which led naturally to a career that required writing skills. Fortunately, PR also is primarily a marketing profession and a business, like publishing. Virtually all of my professional skills have been utilized to write my book, attract a publisher, and market it to the target audience readers most likely to enjoy the story. Thinking about it now, there’s little I learned in my first career that I haven’t been able to tap into. It also taught me to appreciate that the all-important marketing aspect of publishing a book is a valuable and important process with joys of its own, versus a necessary evil as many writers feel.
The best advice I have for any writer is to not go it alone and don’t feel you have to start from scratch. There are countless programs through universities and other entities that have sprung up—both live and online—where you can benefit from the experience of writers who’ve been along the path before you. These programs will provide the all-important community and networking that will keep you going. Do your homework to find the best. The investment is more than worth it. Being part of a formal program will save you years.
I also benefitted greatly by working closely with an experienced writer that I hired as an editor, and a separate developmental editor at the end. If you have the resources, once you’ve been through a program, individual attention specifically on your work is worth its weight in gold.
AS: The Fourteenth of September came out two years ago, and you are now working on your next projects: two novels and a memoir. What changes have you made to your writing process or, alternatively, what lessons on writing did you learn from writing your first book?
RD: It took 13 years to write my first novel. I did it in the most laborious and difficult way possible, including envisioning it originally as a series of linked stories (the early ones all at the end) that I had to back up and find the beginning for, and losing years when I couldn’t figure out what would happen next. For my second novel, I approached the process in a more organized fashion. At the suggestion of my developmental editor, I worked out a very detailed plot plan—almost scene by scene of the story. This process revealed many issues almost immediately and saved a lot of time. I’ve changed much of what I had originally planned, but having the bones of knowing in general where I’m going has helped tremendously. I’m also aware that as I go, the story has taken on a life of its own. It’s a more organized way of addressing the blank page. So far, it’s working better for me. It also keeps me from falling in love with sections or characters until they become essential to the final product.
AS: And lastly, what have you seen to be the benefits of waiting to publish until you’ve already had a first career?
RD: I actually don’t think there are many novelists who start cold without any work experience. I certainly tried to write fiction many times after college but really didn’t know what I was doing. I missed the community and feedback of my creative writing classes and didn’t have the discipline or organizational skills I learned in the working world. These help tremendously to keep you at it and save you time.
My one regret is that I didn’t get an MFA early on in my career. I have a degree in English with an area of concentration in creative writing, but they didn’t have many formal MFAs in my time. As a result, I didn’t have the benefit of formal education in a lot of the craft of writing. Applying my marketing skills to publishing and promoting was an easy transfer for me. The craft I’ve had to pick up on my own or ad hoc through classes I’ve taken, or these days through webinars, etc. So, if you have the chance to get into the best program you can as early in your career as possible, it’s tremendously beneficial. There are many low-residency and part-time programs that will give you more than workshops. Check them out.
Andy Shi is a recent graduate from the Columbia University-London School of Economics dual MA/MSc program in International and World History.
Author photo courtesy of Rita Dragonette’s web site.