Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Apocalypse Now: An Interview with Trish Doller, Author of SOMETHING LIKE NORMAL

Happy Book Birthday to Trish Doller, author of SOMETHING LIKE NORMAL. I devoured this book in two days and couldn't wait to chat with Trish about how she came to write such a moving and authentic portrait of a young marine.

But first, a quick summary (from GoodReads): When Travis returns home from a stint in Afghanistan, his parents are splitting up, his brother's stolen his girlfriend and his car, and he's haunted by nightmares of his best friend’s death. It's not until Travis runs into Harper, a girl he's had a rocky relationship with since middle school, that life actually starts looking up. And as he and Harper see more of each other, he begins to pick his way through the minefield of family problems and post-traumatic stress to the possibility of a life that might resemble normal again.

Did you know much about PTSD before writing this book, or did you have to do a lot of research?

I was working as a staff reporter for my hometown newspaper back when the war in Iraq began. When the first wave of Marines came home, I was assigned to do a story about a local guy's first Christmas after battle. I went to his mom's house and as I sat across from him in the living room, I was struck by how young he was and how much he'd experienced that his high school friends could never imagine, and that idea stuck in my mind for years afterward.

When I started working on Something Like Normal, Travis was meant to be physically wounded, having lost a leg in an IED blast. But the logistics of getting him from point A to point B in every single scene started feeling really overwhelming. I wanted to tell the story of a damaged boy, but it wasn't until I read a Marine's memoir of his own struggle with PTSD that I realized there was an alternative to physical damage.

My research was pretty extensive. Not only did I do a lot of reading about PTSD, I read books about boot camp and Afghanistan. I studied hours of YouTube videos of Marines deployed to Afghanistan, both in combat and just having fun. I visited a Marine parents forum to see how they cope while their sons are deployed. I downloaded dozens of pictures for reference. And I followed the news of a specific battalion--the 3/6 Marines--who were deployed while I was writing the book. By the time they came home, I was so invested in their welfare, that I literally sobbed--not only for the guys who made it home safely, but for the guys they lost in Afghanistan.

In your acknowledgements you thank a variety of military personnel for their contributions. How did you find them, and how did you get them to open up about their experiences?

I "met" most of the guys in my acknowledgements on a Marine forum called Terminal Lance. I lurked for a long time on the site, reading through the threads, and then finally decided to register. I was honest with them from the start, letting them know that I was not a Marine and that I was writing a book. Most of the guys (and girls) were friendly and when I felt like we were comfortable enough around each other, I got permission from the forum owner to start a thread for my research questions. The guys were quick to answer and they walked me through basic stuff without making me feel stupid.

Then, the coolest thing happened. One of the Marine of the 3/6 joined the forum and started talking about his time in Afghanistan. I asked him if he would be willing to help me color in the details and he agreed. His input helped me make the book richer and deeper, and I feel so lucky to have found him.

Since the book has been finished, I don't spend as much time on the forum as I did. The great part, though, is that I've become friends on facebook with some of them, so we still talk regularly and I'm hoping to see some of them when I have my launch party.

It's tempting, as writers, to include everything we learn or discover in our research, regardless of whether it informs the plot or moves the story forward. How did you decide which information to use and which to discard?

I wish I had a clever answer for this. I think I just kept it in the back of my mind that it wasn't just a book about PTSD or just a book about the Marine Corps or just a book about Afghanistan. Too much of any of those things would have tipped the balance and worked against my goals. So I looked for the bits of information that were most relevant and most interesting. And funny.

The novel flows incredibly well, seamlessly tying together Travis' recent past in Afghanistan and his present story, on leave in Florida. How did you decide where to insert flashbacks to Travis' time in Afghanistan?

This is kind of a difficult question because I don't think I really thought much about it. I tend to write in a linear fashion, so the flashbacks, nightmares, and memories popped up where I thought they should go. I just got lucky that they ended up where they're supposed to be.

The guys' banter feels completely real. Did that come naturally to you, or did you have to work at it?

I sometimes joke that I was probably a guy in another life, but I think it comes naturally to me because I have a son who is just a little older than Travis. Over the years, my son's friends have been regular fixtures at my house, so I've had the chance to listen to them and watch the way they interact with each other. They were not band geeks or sports heroes or honors students, but just regular guys--guys we all know--and I knew I wanted Travis and his friends to be like them.

Did you get any push back from your editor or publisher regarding the language or the sex scenes?

The sex wasn't as much an issue as the language. When I turned over the manuscript to my editor, it was loaded with profanity. It might be a generalization to say that Marines swear a lot, but the ones I met do. So it was really important to me not to lose the authenticity, even though I knew there would be people offended by the profanity. That said, we scaled way back on the language, but not so much that the realism was compromised.

Without giving anything away, I'll mention that the conclusion of the book is satisfying yet doesn't tie up every loose end, which I found very realistic. Was that always the plan, or did it simply happen that way when you reached the end?

I'd love to say I planned it that way, but it wasn't until I was nearing the conclusion that I realized not all the loose ends would be tied. I knew how most of Travis' relationships would play out, but there was one that was still up in the air--and remained that way when the book ended. While I had a couple of early readers say they wished for closure, I wouldn't change it. Both Travis and the other person are still very young, and time has the power to change.

There's a romance at the heart of the book, but the combination of military story, PTSD, male friendships, the complex sibling rivalry, and parental issues gives the story broad appeal. Both genders can find a lot to enjoy. Was that a conscious goal? Did you envision a particular audience, or was the idea to reach as wide of an audience as possible?

I was kind of shooting for a John Green-style audience of both boys and girls. I am in no way comparing myself as a writer to John Green, but I think his books have elements that appeal to everyone--including a little romance--and that's ultimately what I wanted for mine. I think my book might be slightly more romantic, but none of my early male readers (including Marines) complained. So I'm hopeful Something Like Normal will find its way into the hands of anyone who might be interested in reading it, regardless of their gender. Or age. Or military affiliation.

How are you celebrating your release day?

I'm going to Islamorada in the Florida Keys for a few days to drink beer and snorkel on the Hen & Chickens Reef. But not at the same time.

Since we're the Lucky 13s we have to ask: do you have any superstitions or lucky charms?

I'm not one for superstition, but I do have a weird set of rules when it comes to fortune cookies:

1. You can't have a fortune cookie if you don't order a meal.
2. If there is more than one cookie from which to choose, the "first instinct" cookie is the right one.
3. You don't get more than one, but if you want to eat another cookie, only the first fortune counts.

About Trish:

I've been a writer as long as I've been able to write, but I didn't make a conscious decision to "be" a writer until fairly recently. For that you should probably be thankful. I was born in Germany, grew up in Ohio, went to college at Ohio State University, got married to someone really great, bounced from Maine to Michigan and back to Ohio for awhile. Now I live in Florida with my two mostly grown kids, two dogs, and a pirate. For real. I've worked as a morning radio personality, a newspaper reporter, and spent all my summers in college working at an amusement park. There I gained valuable life skills, including counting money really fast, directing traffic, jumping off a moving train, and making cheese-on-a-stick. Also, I can still welcome you to Frontier Town. Ask me sometime. These days I work as a bookseller at a Very Big Bookstore. And I write.

Where to find Trish:



Barnes & Noble

This interview was conducted by Lucky13s member Sarah Skilton, whose Contemporary YA novel BRUISED will be released Spring 2013 from Abrams/Amulet Books. The interview is part of an ongoing series of interviews with The Apocalypsies -- YA, MG, and children's book authors debuting in 2012.


  1. Um, okay. After reading this, let's just say I'm pretty much headed to the bookstore TODAY to buy SOMETHING LIKE NORMAL, which sounds incredible on so many levels. Sarah, thanks for posting this interview. I hope Mandy enjoys tremendous success.

  2. I was thoroughly surprised and shocked when I realize that I was 78% into this book without noticing! u get so captured in this book, u don't notice anything else. a really surprising and good read. u just wanna hold Travis and love Harper! I couldn't ask for a better read! it's not your normal romance or war book. it's something like great!

    Zaira Lynn (Skagway Fishing Charter)