Ten years, multiple drafts, thousands of pages and countless headaches went into the making of UNH alumna Elizabeth Marro’s debut novel, “Casualties.” Marro, of the class of ’78, is returning to New Hampshire on a book tour for the story she’s dreamt of sharing with the region of her roots since beginning her writing process in the early 2000s.
On Thursday, April 21 at 6:30 p.m., the RiverRun Bookstore in Portsmouth is hosting Marro for a reading of her novel, followed by an open-ended interview conducted by local poet and UNH Professor Emeritus Andrew Merton.
While her work has appeared in The San Diego Reader, The Gloucester Daily Times, Literary Mama and elsewhere, “Casualties” is Marro’s first novel, published in February by Berkley, an imprint of Penguin Random House.
Significantly, “Casualties” is also the first published novel exploring the aftermath of the Iraq War from the point of view of a mother, according to a press release.
Marro’s protagonist, Ruth Nolan, is a business savvy, single mother determined to see her troubled 19-year-old son, Robbie, through college. Before she has even had the chance to show him some college brochures, Ruth’s world is sent spinning when Robbie unexpectedly announces his intent to join the Marines. As an executive at a military defense contracting company in San Diego, Ruth should have been spilling over with pride. Instead, she was filled with dread.
Upon Robbie’s return home after his second tour in Iraq, Ruth believes she may have a chance at a do-over. A workplace scandal tears Ruth away and is soon followed by tragedy ––her son’s death. Replete with guilt and regret, Ruth packs up Robbie’s ashes and flees eastward, desiring unattainable absolution.
But one reoccurring message Marro makes clear throughout “Casualties,” is that “it’s all one life,” and the past cannot just simply be left behind. Moments that cannot be undone are what lead people to growth, according to Marro, because they have to live with the consequences of every decision.
Since its release less than two months ago, critics nationally have praised “Casualties.”
According to Kirkus Reviews, “this is a tortured novel and yet a redemptive one. It isn’t a happily-ever-after story, but Marro casts a ray of hope that a good life can be lived after terrible tragedy.”
New York Times bestselling author Caroline Leavitt, said “Casualties” is “moving and full of heart.”
David Abrams, author of “Fobbit,” said he became so invested “that by the end of the novel [he’d] forgotten they were fictional characters.”
Now a resident of San Diego, Marro grew up in rural Jefferson, New Hampshire where her family moved from Connecticut in the ‘60s. She graduated from UNH in 1978 with a degree in English/Journalism and went on to gain her MBA from the Rutgers University. Marro started her first job at The Gloucester Daily Times as the Rockport reporter, after interning at The Peabody Times and Boston Magazine. She also spent some time editing a small-scale magazine called the Summer Sun.
Marro became aware of the extensive repercussions associated with modern warfare several years into the Iraq War. “Whatever happens in a war zone doesn’t stay in a war zone. It has a ripple effect in families, towns, communities— everywhere,” she said.
Moving from the Northeast to San Diego heavily influenced Marro’s writing. “Coming here, this is a military town,” she said. “Everybody thinks of San Diego primarily as a tourist destination —which it is, it’s huge— but one of the biggest economic factors here is the military. It’s a big, big part of San Diego, so it’s much more visible.”
“My family doesn’t have any connection really to the military. We’re part of the 99 percent that leave it up to the volunteers, and that perspective can be daunting. It’s a daunting place from which to try to write a book like this but I think that also makes it even more important to try to do it,” Marro said.
Marro describes “Casualties” as the product of imagining a worst nightmare scenario influenced by the ongoing Iraq War. “For me, the worst nightmare would be losing a child by whatever means,” she said. Starting with the basis of a mother losing her son, Marro said understanding how that would happen came to be the second piece of the story.
The technical writing skills Marro learned as a journalism student at UNH have transferred both positively and negatively to writing fiction. Experience, editing and critique has lead her to develop a “thicker hyde,” but has also trained her to get things done quickly, which doesn’t always coincide with novel writing.
Marro’s advice to current UNH English/journalism students and aspiring young writers is not to wait, and not to be afraid of making mistakes. “I was a chicken. I was also overwhelmed as a young mother and as a student getting my first job…I wrote, but I was very afraid of failure for a long time and it kept me back,” she said.
“If you want to do it, just do it. Even if it’s an hour a day, do it.,” she continued. “Don’t be afraid of what comes out. Don’t be embarrassed. Just put it all down…Let it be awful. Ugly.”