Interview With an Author: Kelli Estes

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Kelli Estes and her latest novel, Today We Go Home

Kelli Estes lived in the deserts of eastern Washington state and Arizona before settling in the Seattle area, which she loves so much she plans to forever live near the water. She’s passionate about stories that help us see how the past shaped who we are today, and how we all have more in common than not. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her family. Her new novel is Today We Go Home. It is about the women who have fought for our country, both past, and present, and both with and without sanction. Ms. Estes recently agreed to talk about Today We Go Home for the LAPL Blog and it seemed most appropriate to post it now, as we take time to honor those who have served.

What was your inspiration for Today We Go Home?

The character who is a current-day veteran came to me years ago and I tried to put her into two different manuscripts, neither of which came to fruition. I could not give up on her, though, because everything I was learning about women who serve in our armed forces was opening my eyes to all that these women experience, not only while performing their job duties, but all the ways that their work environments can be hostile for no other reason than that they are female. Since I write dual timeline novels, I needed to find a historic event or character that was equal to the amazing women of today’s military. That’s when I learned that women have always been involved in war in one capacity or another. Researching further, I found the stories of women who disguised themselves as men so that they could enlist and fight for their chosen side during the U.S. Civil War. Women have always been much stronger than history has ever given them credit for. I wanted my book to honor these women warriors, past and present.

Beyond the characters that are based on actual people, were any of the characters inspired by or based on specific individuals?

There are a handful of secondary characters who appear in the book who were real people, and those are explained at the end of the story. My two main characters, Larkin in present-day and Emily in the historical storyline, are both amalgamations of the hundreds of women I read about or met while doing research.

How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?

As I studied the real women who served during the Civil War, I created a spreadsheet of where they were and when. Once I’d narrowed down the exact regiment my character would serve in, I knew the locations, movements, and battles in which she would have been involved. I was then able to compare this with my spreadsheet and identify the real women whom my character might have come in contact with if she had existed. I was sad to let some of the real women’s stories go because they would have added an interesting element to my story, but I just couldn’t realistically place them where I wanted them to be.

With regard to scenes that were lost in the process that I wish had made it to the published version, I can’t say that there were any. The revision process truly is magical and the published version is the best it can be. Things that were cut needed to be cut. I liken revising to making a clay sculpture. Once the main form is complete, the true work begins of adding here, shaving off there, completely reshaping over here, etcetera. The story starts to be revealed through the multiple revisions and that’s when it starts to breathe life.

In the author’s note at the end of the novel, you state that you are neither an expert on the Civil War nor do you have a military background. What kinds of research did you do about the Civil War and more recent conflicts for the novel? What is the most interesting discovery you made during your research?

Research took over a year. I read dozens of books, both fiction and non-fiction, written by veterans, as well as books along the lines of The Military for Dummies. I also joined Facebook groups for women veterans (I was upfront that I wasn’t a veteran and was there to learn) and subscribed to newsletters and blogs on military and veteran topics. I interviewed veterans, both in person and via email, and I kept an ear and eye out for print and television news stories on present-day military subjects. As for Civil War research, I did all of the above and also attended a local Civil War reenactment, traveled to the battlefield where my story takes place (no spoilers!), pored through Civil War topic magazines, and read all of the newspaper articles from the era that I could pull up on on the subject of female soldiers.

So much of what I discovered was interesting so it is difficult to choose the most interesting. I’ll answer that it was the individual stories of real women who served. Like the woman who served as a man during her entire pregnancy until she went into labor while on picket duty. The military celebrated their “new recruit.” Or the woman who was sitting on a railroad platform with her fellow soldiers when a train ran off the tracks and crushed both her legs. She was discovered to be a woman by the surgeon treating her. Sadly, she did not survive. I was also fascinated by the range of attitudes towards the women who disguised themselves as men to be soldiers. Some, usually their fellow soldiers, respected them and did not have any problem with serving beside them in battle. Others, the military officials, and the general public, often treated the women who were discovered as though they were prostitutes. As more women’s stories came out in the years following the war, there seemed to be an acceptance and respect in the general public. However, over time Victorian sensibilities seemed to twist and change these women’s honorable service into something shameful that should be hidden away and the women were forgotten. I also must mention that there is no way we will ever know the true number of women who served because they died without ever being discovered.

The plan is for this interview to be posted just prior to Veterans Day. Is there a message you’d like to send/tell any veterans that may be reading this?

Thank you for stepping up when the huge bulk of the rest of us didn’t, or won’t. We owe you our freedom, our safety, our lives. I am in awe of your sacrifice and honor, and I am so grateful for you.

I’ve been told that many former military members, women, in particular, do not self-identify as veterans, for several reasons. If you are one of these people, know that I may not know you or know your story, but I am still so very grateful for you and you have my undying respect. Thank you.

What’s currently on your nightstand?

Three Women by Lisa Taddeo; The Scent Keeper by Erica Bauermeister; The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot by Robert Macfarlane; and numerous magazines.

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

I was never one to read anything more than once because I was always (and am still) hungry to dive into the next story. When I sit and think about books that had an impact on me as a kid, though, I think of Heidi by Johanna Spyri, the Paddington Bear series by Michael Bond that my mother ordered through the mail for me as a surprise, The Ghosts of Departure Point by Eve Bunting, and as a teen, all of the Sweet Valley High series by Francine Pascal.

Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?

Yes, every romance novel that I snuck off my older sister’s or mother’s bookshelves or ordered from the library. I knew my parents would tell me I was too young to read them, so I read them in secret and adored every single story of these strong and courageous women. I lived in a rural community and ordered books from the library that came through the mail, four at a time, in a canvas zipper bag with a zip tie closure. I always ordered romance novels and made sure that zip tie was fastened securely before handing it to my parents to be returned!

Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?

Every time I’m asked, this list will likely change. Today it is Susanna Kearsley, Nora Roberts, Kristin Hannah, Cheryl Strayed, Diana Gabaldon.

What is a book you've faked reading?

Anything by Jane Austen. I simply cannot stay awake. Sorry!

Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?

The Map of Salt and Stars by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar. It is still on my TBR pile so I can’t yet say if I love it, but the cover is so intriguing. The title is in big cream-colored letters and behind them, very faintly in blue, are Arabic words that I assume is the title. All of this is against a starry night sky framed by a doorway. Along the bottom we see a girl wearing a t-shirt and shorts with her back to us standing on sand dunes and staring into that sky. I want to be in that world.

Is there a book that changed your life?

Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay. I loved this book so much that, after reading it, I decided to try my hand at writing a dual timeline novel. That effort earned me my agent and became my first published book, The Girl Who Wrote in Silk. I’m still writing dual timelines!

Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?

Not one book specifically, but all romance novels. The genre gets bad-mouthed all the time, usually by people who have never read one or haven’t read one since the 80s. Historical Romances taught me a love of history (and helped me ace all of my school history exams). Paranormal Romances show how love overcomes seemingly insurmountable differences. Time Travel Romances prove that people in history are really not that removed from us at all, and we need to know the past because it is still impacting us today. All romances end hopeful, and hope is something we can all use more. The women in romance novels are strong, brave, intelligent, and in control of their lives. Seriously, if you haven’t read one in years, pick one up!

Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?

I can’t think of a single one because, as I said above, there are so many new stories to discover!

What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?

THE perfect day would start early (which really makes no sense because I love to sleep in) with a huge mug of Earl Grey with sugar and soymilk. I then do something active outside like hiking or kayaking, followed by lunch alfresco. The afternoon is spent writing, and, of course, the words are flowing and my page goal is met quickly. I then would laze in a lounge chair in the shade with a good book while sipping an Arnold Palmer until I’m called to dinner where a delicious three-course vegan meal that I didn’t have to cook is laid out before me and a gathering of loved ones. As the sun sets, fairy lights are turned on and a fire is lit. I watch the stars come out as I talk with my friends and family late into the night.

Or, alternately, the perfect day would be packed full of exploring someplace on the planet that I’ve never visited before and learning all about its history, culture, food, and people. Let’s just make it a perfect weekend and have one day of each!

What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked, but never have been? What is your answer?

“Can I pay for your vacation anywhere in the world that you’d like to go?” The answer is yes. Absolutely, yes.

What are you working on now?

I’ve learned not to be specific when answering this question until I have a contract in hand, so I’ll just say that I’m researching a few different ideas and hoping one of them becomes my next dual timeline novel.

Book cover for Today We Go Home
Today We Go Home
Estes, Kelli

Kelli Estes tells parallel stories separated by 150 years: one of a woman’s struggle to get into the US Army to fight in the Civil War, the other of a young woman’s efforts to navigate the aftermath of serving in Afghanistan. While both of the main characters are Estes’ creations, they represent real women and the very real trauma inflicted on them while, and after, serving our country.
Today We Go Home is a fascinating and gripping read about the women, both past and present, who serve our country.