Inteviewed by Sandra Van Winkle for Reader To Reader
The word is out! Lindsay McKenna's Down Range takes a fresh perspective on a very controversial time in our military. Her latest novel in the Shadow Warriors series directly deals with military men and women in combat.
McKenna's story happens to be at the right place and right time. And it is sure to garner strong pro's and con's, depending upon the reader's perspective on women in combat.
Reader To Reader interviewed McKenna about her latest series and how her military background played into the reality of the story's dynamic situations.
Your have experience in the Navy, test piloting and the volunteer fire service. As a woman in these largely male fields, did you encounter the kind of resistance your heroines experience? Having succeeded, do you have any advice for other women considering these fields?
I've never been a test pilot. I did interview test pilots in the US Air Force base, Edwards, Lancaster, California. I also rode in a "chase plane" on an actual test flight. I did serious, long, in-depth research so I could write authentically about test pilots. And I penned a number of books on them. I do have photos of myself getting ready for the test flight (G suit) and also in the T-39 Talon jet which I flew in as the chase plane on that particular test. If you'd like some, let me know?
I grew up in a household where the girls did the same things boys did. My parents didn't decide to hand me a doll and the boy, a tool set. My father believed women should be prepared for the world in all ways. I grew up changing tires on cars, taking apart carburetors, draining oil from a car, working with electronics of televisions and driving a tractor at nine years old. I was treated as an equal, not as some weak female who was cut out for only certain jobs and certain expectations. And both my parents told all of us: we can do anything that we want to do. They never clipped our dreams. They allowed us to go after what we wanted, work hard, and achieve it.
I had always loved flying since I was a child. At age 17 I made enough money to bike up to the Medford, Oregon airport and plunk down $600.00 and asked them to teach me to fly. I soloed at that age. By the time I went into the Navy at 18, I had 39 hours of flight under my belt.
Both sides of my family had a long tradition of going into the military. My father was in the US Navy. My mother was a civilian working on Ford Island when Pearl Harbor when it was attacked by the Japanese. She never forgot it. I grew up with that devastating day. I wanted to be a patriot and serve my country as well.
I was always coming up against male prejudice even in high school because I wasn’t “like” other girls. I had self-confidence, I knew I was an equal and I didn’t play ‘games.’ Honesty was always the best policy and to this day, I’m blunt. I’ve learned some diplomacy over the years, but I stay true to the maxim it’s better to be honest than lie. And not pretend to be something I am not. What you see is what you get.
I was in my teens and twenties when the Feminist Revolution took places in the 1960’s. And believe me, I was a bra-burning feminist because even at that age, I had done things men could do. And sometimes, I did better than they did. I had men in the military constantly, sexually harass me. It was part of the over all environment....and it hasn’t changed much, has it? Even in this day and age. But there is SOME hope whereas in my era in the military, it was brutal, daily, ongoing event in my life.
Women should never have their wings clipped as little girls. Don’t hand your girl a doll. Instead, put out a whole array of choices and let HER choose among them. Even at six years old, I wanted to build things. I remember that my brother got an Erector set for Christmas when I was seven. And I played more with it, building things with screws, nuts, washers and bolts than he did. I was fascinated with such things.
Women should never be told they can’t do something. I don’t do well when someone tells me because I’m a woman I can’t do it. That I’m not physically able. That’s all a crock of societal brainwashing that occurs in both young boys and girls. I was a prototype of a woman who could do whatever she wanted or was drawn to do. And I didn’t listen to men who told me I couldn’t do it, either. I just went out and showed them I could.
As a prolific writer, you have a history of firsts. What is your go-to source of inspiration for keeping it fresh, real and innovative?
Yes, I created the military romance sub-genre in 1983. In 1988, I created the 3-book series concept. Both have changed the industry and evolved it. Now, I’m pioneering once more with my Shadow Warrior series where men and women are in combat together. This is setting another evolution turn in the Industry. And no one better than me because I am a military veteran. I stay true to myself and my roots: I write what I know.
I’ve always had a powerful intuition and I’ve always trusted what I know. I knew back in 1975 that women would one day be allowed into combat right along side men. I wrote Valkyrie at that time. And then I waited for times and attitudes to change In 1999, I brought the book out of the file drawer, updated it and VAL (now Danger Close) became an ebook. I wanted to send out a ripple into the universe with it, to bring it to the consciousness of readers. It went on to take Ebook of the year in 2000 with Romantic Times Magazine. And it took a 4 1/2 Gold review on it, as well. I then waited because I could feel that day coming where all slots in the military would be thrown open to women. I could feel it coming. Three years ago, I laid down the template for Shadow Warriors. And as that feeling got stronger in me, I penned Down Range and in March 2013, Secretary of Defense at that time, Leon Panetta, threw open the doors of combat to all women. And my book was timed perfectly, coming out to underscore exactly what I had seen coming in December, 2013.
In fiction, women in the military are most often portrayed in supporting roles, but you’ve brought them into the forefront as leaders and heroes. How has this been received by your readers?
I’ve been writing since 1981 about women who were equals to men, so this isn’t the first book where that has happened. I’ve always portrayed my heroines as completely able to do whatever it is that they’ve chosen to undertake. Women are far stronger than a man in so many ways, and I like showing them in action as intelligent, competent and unafraid to be who they are. My first book ever bought in 1980, was about a woman civil engineer.
I have 23 million books sold in 22 foreign languages so my readers like to read about women who have broken out of the mold Society has told them to be, and have turned around and never looked back. So they have answered that questioned. There is a place for women such as myself and the heroines I write about. And I’d like to think I’m a role model in some ways, for women to reach for the stars and not any lower than that. My books will always portray women as EQUAL to any man. Never less. What I do like to show is how a man who has been brainwashed by Society to see a woman in a certain way, gets his reality shattered. But that the hero has enough confidence in himself--and the heroine--to begin to treat her like an equal at his side. Not less, not more. But as an equal. That’s an underlying theme in all my books. I know an awful lot of women who got pigeoned hold in stereotypes who want to break free and be their own, unique person. I hope my books over the years has given them the support to do just that.
Women in combat is a hot topic right now. To what degree do current events affect your writing?
See my above answer. I think I’ve already answered this. As a writer who does deep, thorough research, I do read a lot of military information. I do keep current because there’s always changes in uniforms, gear, weapons and command structure. I read books, go out on the internet and Google, read military briefs, reports or anything else I can get my hands on. And sometimes, I’ll read an article that looks like it might be a good story for a future book.
In Down Range, the hero and heroine’s firefight with drug lord Khogani and his Taliban henchmen, is electrifying. How do you build that level of visceral intensity and realism into your writing?
I don’t think you can write combat unless you’ve been in combat of some kind. You can “imagine” it, of course, but it’s not going to reach the level of intensity that a writer who has experienced it, will write those same scenes. I’ve been in the world of combat as a firefighter and EMT. And if you don’t think fighting fire isn’t a “war”, it is in every sense. It has life-and-death issues every time there’s a fire call. I was running on 400 out of the 600 fire calls for my township for three years. That’s a lot of fire calls. I’ve seen blood, death, people traumatized, in deep shock, and seen things I wish I could forget but never will. I saw what all this did to me inwardly, mentally and emotionally. I know danger. I’ve been in the middle of it. I’ve almost died a couple of times in my life, so I know what that is like too: to face Death. I held a secret clearance while in the Navy and saw/knew things I can’t speak or write about to this day.
When I write a combat scene, I’m THERE. I’m in the body of Captain Morgan Boland as she fights for her and Jake’s life. I feel her, I know her emotions, I know her mind and I see what she sees. All I have to do is be a scribe and get it down on paper. But my own experiences as a firefighter in rural Ohio for three years, plays an integral part in the gritty reality of what combat is really like and how the reader is going to get sucked into it and “be there.”
And toward that end, I hope to achieve in the Shadow Warriors series, what combat does to a person, no matter whether man or woman. Combat affects you deeply--irreversibly at times. I had PTSD from being a firefighter. I know the symptoms because I had them for decades afterward. I feel very qualified to write in these areas, but it goes back to writing what you know, too. This is what I know because I lived it. And survived. And there were times when I shouldn’t have.
And because I’ve lead this kind of life, I can also show my reader what war does to a person, inside and out. Not all wounds are physical. If you’re in the military, in law enforcement, a firefighter, an EMT/paramedic, then you KNOW war. There’s all kinds of wars. You don’t have to be in the military to experience it, believe me. But I can overlay my experiences over military combat because of my background.
Chief Michael Jaco, US Navy SEAL, retired, read Down Range and he said the combat scenes had him reacting viscerally, adrenaline leaking into his bloodstream and hyping him up, too. I want every reader to feel that gritty, realistic qualities of being there, too. Human beings under extreme pressure fascinate me. Endlessly. That’s why I put my characters in those kinds of situations and environments. How are they going to act/react? What is it doing to them internally? Emotionally? How is it going to change their world view?
And the world of combat is more than just physical. It’s mental, emotional and spiritual. Those are the many areas I like to explore through my stories and characters.
Your descriptions of Afghani people, villages, customs and lifestyle are rich with visual details. Have you been to the Middle East, or how did you achieve this detailed sense of place?
I’ve never been in the Middle East. I did three years of research before writing Shadow Warriors books. I read Chief Jaco’s book, The Intuitive Warrior (www.michaeljaco.com) and that is what brought us together as writer and SEAL. His book stood out in the world of SEAL books written by SEALs (and their professional writer hired to tell their story). I also used maps, terrain and photos of Afghanistan. I have a friend who lived there and I pick her brain. I read blogs, interviews, articles and stories of people who live in that region. Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson was one of the first books I read and it was a wonderful window into the plight of the poor Afghan people who are caught in the middle. He humanized their situation. It showed their terrible plight. I also have Muslim friends from other Middle Eastern countries and I have long, deep, searching talks with them. I wanted to understand their belief system. Their lives in the countries they left to come here to the U.S. I love Rumi, one of the greatest heart centered poets of all time. His poetry is as viable then as it is today and he came from the Middle East.
I also can talk to my SEAL consultant, Chief Jaco, about the Middle East because he’s spent a lot of time there. He gives me nuances on sights, sounds, smells, tastes, clothing, and customs that I wouldn’t get otherwise. And, I live in Arizona, a desert state. I know what it’s like to be out in 120F heat. I do a lot of hiking in the Red Rock country of Sedona, and I know how important hydration is when you’re out in the wilds alone. I can take my desert experiences and overlay them on Afghanistan and Iraq with ease.
Above all, I know 99.9% of muslim people are not “evil.” Nor are they our enemy. Muslims should not take the rap for what the fringes of their religion, the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, do to others. I want to also present them fairly and honestly, as well, in my books. No question in Down Range, that Sangar Khogani, the Hill tribe chief who works with the Taliban, is a villain. But even he is fueled by experience and reasons that have nothing to do with Muslim religion. He is driven by greed and money, instead. And on the other side of the coin, my beloved secondary character in the book, Reza, who is a poor Afghan shoemaker. He is a gentle soul who acts as an interpreter and guide, helping American forces because he wants something better for his people. And he knows that the United States can help.
I want my readers to understand the dynamics of what the Afghan people have to live with, day in and day out. I’ll bet most of us could not deal with it, much less, survive it. They are a courageous, tough, hardy people who deserve to be written about. They are not all good or all bad. They’re just like us. Only, they live in a pressure-cooker environment where life-and-death is only a breath away. Every day.
What’s the latest on Down Range being developed into a screenplay?
I’m meeting with Dorothy Fontana, Hollywood screenwriter, in early December, 2013, in Los Angeles. We’ll have a luncheon and sit down and discuss the script. There’s actually two scripts that are written. One is a blocking script and the other is the dialog script. I feel by Spring of 2014, her agent will have the script in hand and go sell it. Whether it does get sold is always a great unknown. But Dorothy is one of the great script writers (she wrote Star Trek scripts) and I have loved working with this woman. No one clipped her wings, either :-).
Once again, thank you for your time and responses. I can't wait to see what you'll come up with next!
If you want something even more riveting and intensely emotional and powerful, be sure to read Breaking Point, HQN, May 2014 and its sequel No Surrender, HQN, July 2014. These two books are ‘fresh’ and leads people into situations that are going to happen because women are entering ground combat. I dare you to read them . . .