EDMOND — 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.'”
Packaging the past
The novel's title, which refers to the controlled life of an Army base, is derived from “All Along the Watchtower,” a song Lucinda thinks of as a Jimi Hendrix classic before her music mentor, Pfc. Nately, tells her about the original version from Bob Dylan's 1967 album, “John Wesley Harding.” As the novel's cover art makes clear, Lucinda lives for music, and thanks to Nately's voluminous collection of vinyl, she is able to move beyond the mainstream hard rock of her early teens and discover the punk and new wave that would shape her as a young adult.
Looking back on the early to mid-1980s that dominate “Along the Watchtower,” Squires' view of the culture stands in stark contrast to the version promulgated by MTV's revisionist history of the period, in which only Duran Duran, a-ha and Billy Idol reigned supreme. What kept Squires sane during her own years as an Army brat was, first and foremost, American hard-core bands such as X, GBH, Meat Puppets and Black Flag. If it was on SST Records, the label founded by Black Flag guitarist Greg Ginn, it was golden for her. When Squires' family returned to Fort Sill after Grafenwohr, she would sneak out of the house and drive to Oklahoma City to see Henry Rollins and Black Flag at the Bowery or the Minutemen in Norman.
“One of the things I've noticed about how the '80s have become packaged or ‘commodified' is how I disagree with almost everything they choose,” Squires said. “You know what I mean? That music was not important when it was happening — it was not!”
Because of the transient nature of her Army brat life, music served as a constant, a foundation in a childhood in which the moving van seemed to be constantly rolling up to Squires' front door.
“I can track my military life by songs, because we'd move every couple of years,” Squires said. “Even now in my family, someone will play a James Taylor song, and they'll be like, ‘When did that come out?' And I'll say, ‘That came out in the fall of 1975, because I remember being on my way to kindergarten in Tennessee.' They (the songs) were always really important to me.”
Life in Oklahoma
But Squires, who lives in Edmond with her husband, fellow UCO professor and novelist Steve Garrison and their daughter, does not want “Along the Watchtower” to be pigeonholed as a music novel. She said it is a story in which music plays a key role in charting Lucinda's growth toward womanhood, but her real goal is to tell the story of people growing up in military families and to depict modern life in Oklahoma, a place that Lucinda, much like Squires, comes to know well in the final chapters of “Watchtower.”
“That's my hope. I read all the time, and I've often had this feeling of frustration that nobody's showing our world,” she said. “What about us? What about Oklahoma, and there's something like 1 in 10 Americans who's been an Army brat.
“What's that guy's name who wrote ‘Generation X'? Coupland? Douglas Coupland? He had that term, ‘Poverty Jet Set,' and I always really related to that, because that's what it's like being in the Army,” she said. “You're living in these fabulous European places, but it's not like you're wealthy or anything. And you go back to these other places, you go back to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and you're sort of looked down on for not shopping at the right store in the mall. But I'm like, ‘But I got these in Paris? Is that not cool?' ‘No, no it's not.'”
Squires, who will read and sign copies of “Along the Watchtower” at 7 p.m. July 7 at Full Circle Bookstore at 50 Penn Place, will embark on a book tour in late July, and soon the music-filled, chaotic life of Army brat Lucinda Collins will be known by many more people. After years of work on the story, Squires is only now getting used to her first novel being out in the open.
“It's so strange to me that it doesn't just live in my computer — total trip,” she said, laughing.
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.