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Music, military family inspire Edmond professor's debut novel, ‘Along the Watchtower'

BY GEORGE LANG Published: June 26, 2011

— Shortly after graduating from the University of Oklahoma, novelist Constance Squires left the state of her birth for London. For her, as a former “Army brat,” pulling up stakes to live in far-flung places was nothing new.

Armed with a degree in English, Squires thought her literary future could be spiked by firsthand experience in the land of literary classicism and that her life up to that point needed a massive augmentation for her writing to mean anything to anyone. And yet, as she rode on a double-decker bus through London, Squires was reading a uniquely American work of fiction: Sherman Alexie's then-new short story collection “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.”

Many of Alexie's interconnected stories in “Fistfight” take place in a 7-Eleven store in Spokane, Wash. — a considerable distance from the parlors of British aristocracy. And the notion that great literature could emanate from seemingly commonplace quarters turned the young writer's head around. Suddenly, her life measured in two-year chapters — a blur of Department of Defense Dependents Schools and officers' housing in places as exotic as Grafenwohr, Germany, and as salt-of-the-earth as Fort Sill — felt like it had literary value.

“I was like, ‘I can write about that,'” said Squires, 42, in her office at the University of Central Oklahoma, where she directs the Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing. “‘My material is going to be closer to home than I thought.' So I started to think about that time of my life as interesting fiction, which I'd never done before.

“That's a typical thing with immature writers,” she said. “You have the sort of feeling that your own life is mundane and that the word ‘imagination' means pure invention. But I say this all the time in my writing workshops: Pure invention usually comes off as derivative and weak.”

Years later, after channeling her experience into short stories and then linking them into an overarching story about an adolescent girl living with the military and coping through rock music, Squires' first novel, “Along the Watchtower,” will be published July 5 by Riverhead Books.

Sense of time, place

The novel focuses on teenager Lucinda Collins, a precocious music lover dealing with hormones, constant relocation and a dad who is far better at being an Army major than he is at being a father and a husband. For Lucinda, the peculiarities of life on base at Grafenwohr wreak havoc on her social life and, in the last decade of the Cold War, the ghosts of World War II and Vietnam vividly haunt her world.

“I lived there in Grafenwohr when I was in sixth and seventh grade, and that was '82, '83 — or was it '81, '82? One of those,” Squires said. “I'd never really thought about using it as material, but I wrote one short story that was set over there, and people really responded to it; they were really interested in the setting. And I know what that's like: I know that a big part of the pleasure of reading stories is being taken somewhere you've never been.”

But a key element of “Along the Watchtower” is its sense of time and place, and the often deluded notion people have about the permanence of the status quo. Maj. Jack Collins is an unalloyed Cold Warrior, a man trained by his experiences in Vietnam to believe that the geopolitics of his time would never change, and his entire world view is based on a wall separating West Berlin from East Berlin.

While this notion was ever-present in Squires' childhood, she also gained inspiration from the novels of E.M. Forster, in which characters believed that the British Empire of the early 20th century was an unshakable force and the class divisions of their time could never be breached. Squires, whose short stories have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The Dublin Quarterly, Identity Theory and other publications, saw Forster's work, which she immersed herself in while working on her doctorate, as a template for writing about specific periods just before a seismic change.

“We thought the Cold War was always going to be happening,” she said. “I remember asking my dad if the Wall would ever come down, and he said, ‘Probably not in a thousand years.'”

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Edmond resident Constance Squires' first novel, “Along the Watchtower,” publishes July 5. She will read and sign copies at 7 p.m. July 7 at Full Circle Bookstore at 50 Penn Place.


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