Wednesday, June 19, 2019

#51 Inside the Emotion of Fiction's THE FOURTEENTH OF SEPTEMBER by Rita Dragonette

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*****Rita Dragonette’s The Fourteenth of September is  #51 in the never-ending series called INSIDE THE EMOTION OF FICTION where the Chris Rice Cooper Blog (CRC) focuses on one specific excerpt from a fiction genre and how that fiction writer wrote that specific excerpt.  All INSIDE THE EMOTION OF FICTION links are at the end of this piece. 

Name of fiction work? And were there other names you considered that you would like to share with us? The Fourteenth of September. This was actually a working title, first suggested by my Certificate of Writing Instructor from the University of Chicago Graham School Gary Wilson as September 14 We quickly changed it to The Fourteenth of September to avoid confusion with September 11 and it held through a lot of other options that were just too silly, ie "Judy's War," "All the Way Gone." 
     In the end, it was clear this was the pivotal concept of the book. I gave my female character this birthday, which was also the birth date of the #1 in the first Vietnam Draft Lottery.  With a flip of the chromosome coin, my main character Judy could have been #1, off to Vietnam at a time when support for the war was nearly gone and the life expectancy under fire was as low as six seconds. That double meaning of the title exemplifies the premise of the novel--a female dilemma equal to that of the men of the time. 

Fiction genre?  Ex science fiction, short story, fantasy novella, romance, drama, crime, plays, flash fiction, historical, comedy,  etc.  And how many pages long?  It's historical fiction, literary. Vietnam is now at the 50-year point that qualifies it as historical.

Has this been published? And it is totally fine if the answer is no.   If yes, what publisher and what publication date? The novel was published on September 18, 2018 (we tried for September 14, but books are only published on Tuesdays !!) by She Writes Press. (

What is the date you began writing this piece of fiction and the date when you completely finished the piece of fiction? I formally began writing the book in January of 2003 and finished the draft accepted by the publisher in April 2017. The final draft was turned in for publication in August of 2017. Prior to August of 2016 I was not working on it full time.
Where did you do most of your writing for this fiction work?  And please describe in detail.  And can you please include a photo? Because I started a business at the same time I started the novel, I was working out of both my home office and a series of residencies at the Ragdale Foundation (, an artist's retreat in Lake Forest, Illinois, where I did most of the writing.  At annual Ragdale residencies I was able to totally focus and get months of work done in a few weeks. Writers are given a room with both bed and desk in a communal environment with other artists who all support each other in maximizing this sanctuary of time. Ragdale is the former summer home of the turn-of-the-century Chicago architect, Howard van Doren Shaw. The two main buildings have a b&b feel. The grounds are spectacular--the last piece of undeveloped prairie in the prairie state. Artists work in their rooms/studios or anywhere on the grounds and in the public rooms. It's very conducive to creativity and process.    
     Once I folded my last business (August 2016 when the manuscript was essentially finished) I kept my former office (Below) (a condo next to the one I live in) in an historic building in downtown Chicago. 
     I bought it once I expanded beyond my tiny home office in the original condo, where I worked as a part-time consultant after selling my public relations agency.  I wanted a big space that I could mess up and then just close the door, separate from my living space so I would mentally transition to a formal writing mind-set without distraction, that was comfortable (huge desk, ergonomic chair, lots of shelf and storage space), and inspiring (it's filled with art and "music"--ie a wall of album covers). It's also full of light with large windows and a floor to ceiling bookcase. It's everything I wanted in a comfortable, creative space. It makes me feel like a writer.

What were your writing habits while writing this work- did you drink something as you wrote, listen to music, write in pen and paper, directly on laptop; specific time of day? I started my career in journalism/public relations and was trained to write as if in a newsroom, meaning you can't think if you aren't typing. I work off a personal computer with a big screen and separate keyboard. I've found this is most comfortable. It also addresses issues I have with my neck after sitting for a long time and with my handwriting (nerve damage after a car accident has made my handwriting illegible, even to myself). 
     I can't do anything distracting while writing, like listening to music. And, I try to keep my desk as clutter-free as possible from non-manuscript related pieces of paper (ie all the marketing tools). Otherwise, I have a tendency to want to start with my to-do list and turn to the writing later, when  I'm not as sharp or energized.
     My eternal goal is to come to my writing each morning for a minimum of three hours after coffee, papers, exercise, around 9-10 am.  I've yet to be that disciplined and often am pushing myself later in the day to just sit in the chair and DO IT. When I do, things happen and I get lost for hours. It's usually my neck that tells me I'm done. My New Year's resolution each year is to do the morning three hours. 
     I'm fueled by coffee, diet coke and, if it's in the evening and I'm coaxing myself into a writing session, wine.

What is the summary of your fiction work? On September 14, 1969, Private First Class Judy Talton celebrates her nineteenth birthday by secretly joining the campus anti-Vietnam War movement. In doing so, she jeopardizes both the army scholarship that will secure her future and her relationship with her military family. But Judy’s doubts have escalated with the travesties of the war. Who is she if she stays in the army? What is she if she leaves?
          When the first date pulled in the Draft Lottery turns up as her birthday, she realizes that if she were a man, she’d have been Number One—off to Vietnam with an under-fire life expectancy of six seconds. The stakes become clear, propelling her toward a life-altering choice as fateful as that of any draftee.
     The Fourteenth of September portrays a pivotal time at the peak of the Vietnam War through the rare perspective of a young woman, tracing her path of self-discovery and a “Coming of Conscience.” Judy’s story speaks to the poignant clash of young adulthood, early feminism, and war, offering an ageless inquiry into the domestic politics of protest when the world stops making sense.

Please include excerpt and include page numbers as reference.  The excerpt can be as short or as long as you prefer.  Excerpt is included as attachment below.  Page numbers are 242-246.

     They had decided they would all watch the lottery drawing at David’s dorm, since that’s where most of them lived. However, after his outburst about women, Vida suggested the girls stay together, and they all agreed, except Marsha. Howie wanted her to be with him. So Judy, Vida, RoMo, Sheila, and a few other women took places early, along the wall in the back of the north TV room. Judy watched David and the others take over the front row as the rest of the ecumenical crowd gathered, letterman jackets and army-surplus fatigues. Greeks and freaks together, everyone in jeans. Denim and the war, she thought, the great levelers. As the room began to fill, the guys practically walked over the women, pressing them toward the last-row seats, then taking over the standing room.
“What about space in the back?” an irritated voice called out.
“That’s girls,” someone said.
Judy felt a wave of shame and grabbed Vida, pulling her by the sleeve.
A blonde she didn’t even know looked up as they left. Judy jerked her head, motioning her to follow as a look of recognition and guilt came over her.
 “I didn’t think,” the blonde said, once they were out of the TV room.
“It’s all right,” Judy said, “me neither.”
“Wait up,” Marsha called. “I told Howie I couldn’t take up a seat. He’s sitting with David. I think he’ll be fine.”
They joined a crowd of women in exile in the adjacent student lounge. They waited.
“Ron’s been a mess,” one girl said, furiously twisting her ring. “He looks at me, and it’s like he wants me to say something, but I don’t know what.” 
 “Al, too,” another said. “And no matter what I say, it’s not what he wants to hear. He can get real mad.” She bowed her head. “It scares me.”
 “I’m going to leave,” Marsha said. “I can’t take this.” 
“Stay,” Judy said, holding her by the arm. Marsha sat down as Judy continued in a whisper, “Later won’t be any better.”
“What if—” Marsha began.
 “No, don’t,” Judy said, “not yet.”
They waited in silence, prayer, and concentration. Hair was twisted, lips bitten; fingernails wouldn’t make it through the night. They smoked, even if they didn’t. They played with their pieces of paper that had birth dates of brothers and cousins and boyfriends at other schools. Even RoMo knew that Wizard’s birthday was January 30.
  “I want to scream,” Marsha said, grabbing her hair with her hands and holding her head between her knees. The smell of fear, something like sulfur, thickened the air.
Sounds filtered through from the TV room like little pockets of pressure, exploding as they called each number. Sometimes hoots of relief. Sometimes the hiss of a loud, disbelieving expulsion of air. Snap, crackle, pop, dud, silence. They couldn’t figure the code for the noises. No one came out.
At one point, Judy could no longer sit still. She went to stand just outside the TV room. The guys had turned off the lights, and she could see the strobe effect over them as the images changed on the television screen. A flicker, and she saw baby faces so tender she wanted to fold them in her arms and take them home to be safe. Another flicker, and she saw hollow eyes prematurely aged with fear. She shrunk down, lost her balance, and backed off.
Suddenly, Fish was running to her. He picked her up and spun her around, as if it were VE Day on the Champs-Élysées, then planted big kisses, wet as hell, all over her face. “I’m 327!” He fell to his knees with a beatific look on his face and a huge smile. “I love you! You know how much I love you?” He stretched his long arms wide. “I love you this much.”
Judy laughed nervously as he turned to RoMo and called out, stretching his arms even wider.
“I love you this much,” he repeated, “on the map!”
She was confused. If Fish was 327, they must be almost done. Could it mean that everyone she knew had a high number? Could they possibly be that lucky?
Achilles walked out somberly, and she held her breath.
“Ninety-six,” he said.
“That’s almost a hundred, Achilles. You’ll be safe.”
“Yeah, great.” He walked past her toward the elevators. “I’d rather it was just nine. At least I’d know. Now I’m in no-man’s-land.” He stepped into the elevator, and she heard his voice die as the doors closed. “Fucking no-man’s-land.”
She heard Marsha shriek and turned to watch Howie come out, skinny and smiling.
“Take me to McDonald’s,” he said, then engulfed her in a bear hug. “Three forty-three,” he yelled with a clenched fist in the air and his old guitar-playing grin on his face.
David walked out slowly but deliberately, his gaze fixed at a spot on the floor, about three feet ahead of him. Judy could feel her fear rising, her heartbeat so intense it seemed to be coming out of the top of her head. She wasn’t breathing. She would not cry. She could not cry. She touched his arm and he stopped his march.
“Two thirty.”
She burst into tears and moved to hug him, but he pulled back.
“But David, that’s nearly halfway. You’ll be safe.”
“Yeah, lucky me,” he said and headed to the elevator.
“Don’t follow me,” he called back at her.
“But . . .”
Judy turned in circles as others walked out of the room, not sure what had just happened with David. She strained her neck looking for Wil, Wizard, Meldrich.
“We have a Number One!” she heard someone say, followed by a chorus of disembodied voices.
“Number One. September fourteenth.”
Judy sat down in the middle of the floor, jelly legs giving up. “My birthday, too,” she said out loud to people who weren’t listening.
The post-lottery pandemonium went on above and around her. Someone just walked over my grave, she thought, and then had the sensation of dropping, like a heavy stone, accelerating. She tried to steady herself with her hands on the floor. In my family I was supposed to be a boy, she thought. It was to be a boy first and only then a girl.
“September fourteenth is my birthday, too,” she said out loud again to stop her fall.
 Judy felt she should find the Number One and tell him that were it not for a flip of the chromosome coin—one extra more or less—she would be in his place, random, just like the lottery. She really could understand.
She tried to picture herself in a uniform, a helmet, but the closest she could get was to see her little brother, the same hair, blue eyes, and freckles. She tried to envision him older, so she would know what a male version of herself would look like. She couldn’t make it work. All she could conjure up was the image of a small man in fatigues with the familiar face of a seven-year-old. This face and figure froze in her mind as she felt the digit 1 burning into her forehead like a private scarlet letter. This had to mean something.
     She wandered outside. It was December. The cold hurt. She took her hands out of her pockets and forced them down at her sides as the icy air coated them, penetrating in daggers of pain to the bone. It was the least she could do.
Can you give the reader just enough information for them to understand what is going on in the excerpt? It's December first, 1969, about an hour before the drawing of the  first Vietnam Draft Lottery, which will determine the order of draftees going to Vietnam.  The previous night the group of friends featured in the book have had a fight about if women can possibly understand what the men are going through. 

Why is this excerpt so emotional for you?  And can you describe your own emotional experience of writing this specific excerpt? The point of the book is about women in war. Their experiences aren't the same as men, but they can be equally important, critical, horrible, and patriotic. Virtually no one has fictionalized the subject of the women in the Vietnam anti-war movement. It was a time, on campus, when women were working side by side as hard as the men to organize, support, etc. and yet, at any moment they could be marginalized with a cruel comment:  "Why do you care, your life isn't on the line?"  "You're a girl, you don't/can't possibly understand?" 
     It reminded me of when my mother, who was overseas for three years during WWII, would be cut off if she talked about her war experiences (which were considerable--Patton's Army, liberating a POW camp in Germany) by being told "You were just a nurse." 
     The intention of the entire book is to present a female dilemma that is as close as possible to the decision the men had to make at the time. (ie if drafted to decide to go to Vietnam or Canada).  To equalize the playing field, if you will.  This scene shows how the women were treated that critical evening of the draft lottery and how they (in those early feminist times) felt and reacted to being shoved off to the side and told they "didn't get it," when, of course they did.  This scene also explains why the book is called The Fourteenth of September. 

Were there any deletions from this excerpt that you can share with us? And can you please include a photo of your marked up rough drafts of this excerpt. Per our conversations, I was drowning in drafts for many years and didn't save the early work.

Other works you have published? I was in public relations for most of my career. My writing was not under my byline and was primarily business oriented.
     There are articles I've written as part of the book launch in the Media Tab of my website  
I'm also working on three other books which are described in my bio.

Anything you would like to add? Yes, your title is "Inside the Emotion of Fiction."   Though highly fictionalized, my novel is based on personal experiences I had during the same time frame as my main character and some of the other characters have back stories based upon real people.  Turning actual events into fiction--particularly if you're involved as well--is probably one of the most difficult emotional tasks of a writer. Though essentially most work has the writer in it in some fashion and first novels are typically heavily biographical, it's still traumatic.  
     The very urge that compels you to tell the story is born of some type of pain. You worry about how characters still living might react, how people will assume you are the main character and try to figure how what is true, and you start pretty locked up in a real story. I hated the thought of writing the scenes with the mother, for example. I spent years trying to break out of "reality," and running into roadblocks because, as we know, reality doesn't progress in a clear narrative arc. It was at a residency at Ragdale about ten years ago that I finally let reality go. It was liberating, and at that point it also became an actual fiction novel.

          I still cry over certain scenes, remembering the germ of emotion that led me to them, like the excerpt I've included here. At the same time, I sob hardest over the death of a character who was made up full cloth.   

       Rita Dragonette is a writer who, after spending nearly thirty years telling the stories of others as an award-winning public relations executive, has returned to her original creative path. The Fourteenth of September, her debut novel, is based upon her personal experiences on campus during the Vietnam War. The novel, which came out from She Writes Press in September 2018, went into a second printing in January 2019. It has been designated a winner for Women’s Fiction in the 2018 Beverly Hills Book Awards, a finalist for two American Fiction Awards by American Book Fest, a finalist for two National Indie Excellence Awards, and has received an honorable mention in the Hollywood Book Festival. She is currently at work on three other books: an homage to The Sun Also Rises about expats chasing their last dream in San Miguel de Allende, a World War II novel based upon her interest in the impact of war on and through women, and a memoir in essays. She lives and writes in Chicago, where she also hosts literary salons to showcase authors and their new books to avid readers.


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