Valerie Patterson tackles a tough subject with thoughtfulness and perseverance. There is no shying away from the truth: war is hell and people die. And living on a military base, like Jess, you are surrounded by that reality. But there is also no shying away from hope and kindness and determination. Jess decides to help by starting Operation Oleander, a campaign to send supplies to an orphanage in Afghanistan where her father and her best friend’s mom are serving. Not everyone thinks it’s such a great idea, especially after the orphanage is bombed while U.S. soldiers are delivering her supplies. And Jess’s dad is critically injured; worse, her best friend’s mom is killed. How hope and relationships survive in the midst of such tragedy make for a sensitive book that raises questions about what makes us human and humane. Thank you, Val!
So, I asked Val and her editor, Daniel Nayeri (who is also an author), to talk to us about this book, their process, and more. I think you’re really going to enjoy this:
Daniel, what attracted you to Val’s story, given that it’s very unlike your book, STRAW HOUSE, WOOD HOUSE, BRICK HOUSE, BLOW?
The glib answer is that if I only published books that I, myself, would have written, then I’d be fired by now. But the real answer is that editors are professional-grade manufacturers of curiosity. The core of the job is to be a curious person (this is probably why so many of us are cat people). It’s actually how I narrow down applicants for editorial assistants.
OPERATION OLEANDER is Val’s second book with Clarion—both were acquired by another editor, but this second came to me when she left. When I read Val’s first draft, there were so many fascinating elements that I was dizzy. Val has the artist’s gift of mentioning some small detail or a short scene, with such a sense of purpose, that as a reader, you think, “Wait, I want to stay there and hear more.”
For me, that moment was Jess standing in front of the TV, watching a tragedy unfold on the other side of the world, and realizing that she might have had a part in it. I wanted to know everything about that moment. So I wrote my editorial letter and asked if Val would be willing to explore that a bit more. That was my entry into the story.
Val, what’s it like working with an energetic, dynamic, out-of-the-box thinker such as Daniel? How does he approach the revision process?
Daniel is amazing. He inherited me when the editor I had worked with on my first book left publishing. Inheriting a writer you didn’t select or being inherited by a new editor could be unsettling. But I was very fortunate in that Daniel gave me his full attention just as if he had selected my book out of the slush pile. I’m quieter, more introverted than Daniel is, but his enthusiasm is contagious, and he made me feel at ease from the first moment I talked to him. His editorial letters asked me questions and made suggestions but also left space for my ideas to germinate. He tried to guide me toward understanding Jess better, rather than prescribe pages and pages of specific direction. Maybe this meant it took me longer to finish but it also meant that the revisions were more organic.
Val & Daniel: What do you each hope a reader might take away from this book?
VAL: I hope a reader might take away more questions than answers from this book. Maybe a reader might be prompted to think about what the unintended consequences might be from their own actions. I wouldn’t want them to be stymied from acting, but rather be stimulated toward thoughtful action. Too often we see the world in simple black and white when there are many shades of grey. What does it mean to be compassionate? To love our neighbor? Who is our neighbor anyway—the homeless person down the street, children in a far-away war zone?
DANIEL: I hope they dig into the question at the center of this story. I think Val presents a perfect example of a consequentialist dilemma. Is an act of kindness worthwhile, even if we know it can come to ruin? If we can’t foresee the consequences in such complex situations, should we do nothing? If God is in the picture, how should that change our behavior? “The Lord sees the heart,” after all, so are we only beholden to having good intentions?
I would love to see young readers discussing these things, and asking how they would behave, if put in Jess’s position.
Val, what inspired this book?
I haven’t told you this before but your book QUAKING played a direct role in this novel coming about at all. Your novel about a foster child who ends up living with anti-war Quakers (I also come from a family with a long history of being part of the Society of Friends) sparked in me an idea of exploring the impact on war of a child who lived in a military family. How does that change or challenge his or her world view? What stresses do children of military families face that children in non-military families don’t? I confess I had a hard time finding the heart of Jess’s story. I wrote several drafts of this book before Daniel ever saw it. The very first version used Jess’s dad’s deployment as a device to have him absent, but the rest of the story didn’t stay connected to him or to military families. Even at the point that Daniel was expecting the last major revision, I called him just before it was due to say the voice wasn’t there. I had written the book in third person and I still felt too distant from Jess. Instead of sending Daniel that version, I started over in first person. I sent him a new first chapter in first person. Only then did I feel I had channeled into Jess’s voice. Daniel agreed, and I rewrote the entire novel over again in that POV.
Kathy: Wow, Val! I’m touched that QUAKING could have anything to do with the very beautiful OPERATION OLEANDER! You are very kind to give it a nod.
Daniel, if you were to phrase this story as a folk, fairy or classic tale in one sentence, what would it be?
Wow. This is a very difficult question for me. I suppose I’d say the story is about a young girl who sees suffering in faraway village and wants to help however she can, but doesn’t yet understand the complexity of charity in a world full of tribalism, opportunity cost, and fear.
Did that even address your question? I guess it’s about how an act of kindness can be misperceived or possibly misdirected.
Kathy: Yes, that’s a beautiful answer to a very bizarre, even mean, question! Thank you.
Val & Daniel: What’s your next book?
VAL: I’m revising a fantasy novel, my first foray into that genre. I also have a thriller idea that keeps interrupting me, until I break down and jot notes for a future novel. I’m still exploring genres and forms. There always are more story ideas than I have time to write.
DANIEL: I’ve just finished a MG historical comedy set on the Silk Road in the 11th century, where a huckster merchant goes village to village swindling people.
Kathy: Val, I’m intrigued and looking forward to what we’re going to see next. Daniel, I cannot WAIT for the Silk Road huckster!
Val & Daniel, what’s a story you’d like to tell or think needs telling?
VAL: I’d like to write a story about the children of undocumented immigrants who live here in the US. I have an idea for one but it’s still germinating.
DANIEL: I have lots to read already, so I’m not sure the industry needs my help to come up with great work. But if I had my way, I’d like to see more ambitious stories, from someone who doesn’t even know what’s trending right now. Stories with more formal invention. Stories that are more than just “a few hours of escapism.” There’s nothing wrong with escapism, I’m just not sure we’re lacking for it these days.
Val & Daniel, what’s something fun or surprising you’ve done that people might not know about?
VAL: I was a foreign exchange student to Denmark with the American Field Service—the same year that Laurie Halse Anderson was. In fact, we briefly were roommates at our in-country orientation. Only years later did we meet again and realize we had been exchange students at the same time.
DANIEL: I used to skydive a lot, until this one time, when the signals got crossed really badly, and we had to pull the chutes well past a safe altitude. When we landed, my instructor—a 6-foot-6 ex-paramilitary soldier from the Eastern Bloc–walked over to me trembling and said, “Another second and we’d both be soup.” That was the last time I went skydiving.
Wow!! Thanks for the interview, you two! For more information about Val and her books, please visit her website. To learn more about Daniel, you can visit his website and the one he shares with his sister, Dina, for the books they’ve written together (ANOTHER FAUST, ANOTHER PAN, and ANOTHER JEKYLL, ANOTHER HYDE).