How did the idea for The Heart You Carry Home originate?
Growing up in the nation’s capital, I spent every Memorial Day visiting the Rolling Thunder Motorcycle Rally on the National Mall. From a young age, I was curious about these seemingly brusque, intimidating biker-vets: why such a deep love of motorcycles? And why, decades after the war, did Vietnam remain so central in their lives? In my twenties, I was finally able to immerse myself in their world on a two-week journey from California to DC. The stories of the men who carried me across the United States on their Harley-Davidson’s and Hondas formed the basis for this novel, about a young woman struggling to understand how Vietnam and Iraq has shaped the men in her life.
How did your own experience traveling with the Rolling Thunder in 2005 influence the novel? Can you tell us a little bit about the Rolling Thunder organization?
Rolling Thunder is a national organization that advocates for veterans’ rights. Among their accomplishments was the bill requiring all federal buildings to fly the POW-MIA flag. The name Rolling Thunder comes from the US bombing campaign over North Vietnam between 1965-8. As the members like to say, the sound of 200,000 bikes descending on Washington, DC each Memorial Day sounds like a bombing offensive. On my journey with 25 Rolling Thunder vets, I was given an intimate window into post-war lives of Vietnam Vets, with all of their frustrations and anger and unshakable pride. As a young, Jewish, liberal woman without a direct military connection, I was very much an outsider in their world, comprised heavily of middle aged, conservative Christian war vets. Even though Becca is a military brat, she too is an outsider, with little knowledge or understanding of how the war has affected her father and why his motorcycle is central to his life.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder plays a big part in the book. How did your research and reporting on war veterans incorporate into how you wrote these veteran characters—many of whom are ravaged by PTSD?
In addition to reading widely about soldiers and vets with PTSD, I wrote a series of articles for The Christian Science Monitor about how vets from Iraq and Vietnam have struggled to cope with war-induced trauma. I took a particular interest in relationships between vets from different wars, who returned home struggling with the same demons—and how they learned to support one another. I also reported on alternative healing methods for Post-Traumatic Stress, especially Native American spiritual practices and traditions out of ancient Greece. These inspired the world of Kleos—the mysterious desert compound where my characters are forced to confront their worst fears and, hopefully, lay some of their ghosts to rest.
What do you hope readers take away from your book?
I hope this book gives readers a more nuanced understanding of bikers and biker-vets in particular. The vast majority of these men and women are not what they appear, sheathed in leather, revving their engines. Most of us would be surprised by their kindness, generosity of spirit, and passion. I also hope that The Heart You Carry Home will give readers a deep understanding of what it really means to “support the troops.” There are thousands of vets in this country, old and young, who are ignored, overlooked, or otherwise disappointed by a bureaucracy that isn’t giving them the care they desperately need.
What are you working on now?
A forthcoming investigative feature about religiously-based treatment centers for mentally ill young women.
JENNIFER MILLER’s reporting on vets for the New York Times and the Christian Science Monitor inspired this novel. She writes for the Washington Post Magazine and Marie Claire, among others. She teaches at Columbia University and lives in Brooklyn.