On the surface, Awaiting Orders (Idylls Press, August 2006, paperback, 236 pages) is the story of young men, waiting for life's next move. They have assembled together in what appears to be a paradise situation - recent graduates of military institutions, they have nothing more responsible to do than lounge around in beachfront living, awaiting their next military assignment. Given today's military situation, is seems hard to remember that the era surrounding the first Persian Gulf War was a time of cutbacks and troop stand downs.
In the book, we meet a cast of characters who are developed wonderfully by Catholic author Farrell O'Gorman. Although the majority of the story is told through the eyes of Wes, we quickly see how his story line is interwoven with that of his friends, both male and female. It is these relationships that are at the core of Awaiting Orders. This is not a war story, or a book about the military. Although it does contain tactical information and is well based in its historical context, the characters and their interactions are truly at the heart of this book.
In the end, it becomes apparent that it is in fact a less noticeable character in the story that truly drives the message of the book home. John, Wes' roommate, seems to operate at times on the periphery of the storyline. However, John's relationship with Wes and with so many of the others in this book is really the focal point. A second and closer reading of the book brought me to the perspective that John is ultimately, in his own quiet way, leading each of his friends in a unique fashion to his or her own vocation or calling in life.
Set in a time so different from today's military climate, this book caught my attention from the first page and kept me glued to it until the very end. I am pleased to share the following interview with author Farrell O'Gorman and to give Awaiting Orders my highest recommendation.
Q: Farrell O'Gorman, author of Awaiting Orders, thank you for your participation in this Book Spotlight. Would you please briefly introduce yourself and your family to our readers and tell us a bit about yourself?
A: I teach American literature in the English Department at Mississippi State University. I'm originally from South Carolina, finished my undergraduate degree at Notre Dame on an NROTC scholarship in 1990, then served four years in the Navy before beginning graduate study at the University of North Carolina. That's where I met my wife, Natasha. We've been married seven years and have a daughter, Anna Clare, who's 5, and a son, Jack, who's 3.
Q: I understand that Awaiting Orders is your first novel and that it follows your published work on Flannery O'Connor and Walker Percy and other scholarly pursuits. How did you find the venture into fiction?
A: To put it simply, I admired O'Connor and Percy--along with certain other authors, not necessarily Catholic--so much that I wanted to emulate them, to the best of my limited ability.
The basic idea for the novel had been in the back of my mind for almost ten years before I really sat down to write it. I'd tried to begin it earlier, before I entered graduate school, though it was only a longish short story then. The truth is that it's for the best that I didn't get too far with it at first. It ended up being a much better novel when I wrote it in my early thirties than it would have been if I'd written it earlier, both because I'd lived more and because I'd read more.
Q: Please share a bit about your own faith journey and how your faith has impacted upon your writing.
A: I'm a cradle Catholic, but sometimes I feel like a convert because--despite the fact that my parents did a good job of keeping me grounded in the faith--the larger culture that I grew up in told me that faith and reason, faith and intellect, faith and the arts had nothing to do with one another. In rural South Carolina, the people I knew who talked loudest about faith steadfastly preferred the "blind" variety, and at the suburban public high school I ultimately attended the smartest people tended to reject religion altogether. Maybe that divide is stressed more in the South than in other parts of the country, but it's really a national problem. Anyhow, in my undergraduate "Great Books" major at Notre Dame we read many of the classics of Western civilization--philosophy, theology, literature, and more--and in transitioning from the writers of the ancient world to those of a newly Christian Europe, it struck me for the first time what it meant for Christianity to be a NEW idea, as opposed to an old idea. I could go on about this for a while, but the point is that I underwent a kind of intellectual re-conversion to Catholicism in college.
At the same time, I know that faith is not a function of the intellect alone, that it has to shape one's entire life. One of the things I admire most about Walker Percy is that he could see writing as his vocation yet at the same maintain that "the living of life is not to be found in books, neither the reading of them nor the writing of them." This plays into my novel, in a sense: reading the right books helps John grow in his faith, but books are finally no substitute for faith in action, and he enters into that action at the end.
Q: Given your military background, I must ask how much of Awaiting Orders is based upon your own history or that of individuals you may have met in your life. With which of the male characters do you identify most closely?
A: The novel does draw on my knowledge of the Navy and of southern California, where I was stationed. And the basic situation the characters are in is not entirely fictitious: this whole strange business of potential pilots "awaiting orders" for up to a year did actually occur in the early 90s, though they were waiting in Pensacola, FL, not California. And I was never in that situation--I served aboard ships--but some other officers I knew were. One Annapolis grad who ended up in my ship in '92 or so had been killing time in Pensacola for over a year and finally gave up on flight school, requested shipboard duty just to have something to do.
Which male character do I identify with most closely? There's some of me in John, there's some of me in Wes, and there's even some of me in Cullen, but I'm not identical with any one of them. I'd say each one of them might represent some part of myself blended together with other people whom I've known, either in life or in books.
And despite the fact that there's some of me in Wes, I envisioned him as a deeply flawed character from the beginning--he definitely differs from me in his faith that the military can give ultimate meaning and order to his life, which I never believed-- and the whole novel can ultimately be read as a critique of his point of view.
Q: I wanted to compliment you on the authenticity of your female characters in the book. How were you able to find and resonate their voices and personalities so clearly?
A: Thank you--I've been pleasantly surprised by the positive responses I've heard from female readers. Thanks to my wife, I've learned a lot more about women than I knew ten years ago! But I really don't know how to answer the question except to repeat what I said above: the female characters are blends of people I've known, either in life or in books. And maybe there's a little bit of me in Cynthia, whom I certainly admire.
More generally, the women in the book simply face the same kinds of questions about identity and purpose that the men do. But it's not the military which has created these questions for them: I suppose it's the collapse of traditional gender roles and notions of courtship and the like. The fact is that all of the characters, female and male, simply don't know what to do with themselves in a society which seems to offer them no sense of mission, only an aimless and empty "freedom."
Q: Ultimately, John seems to be the character at the focal point of the book even though this doesn't become apparent immediately. Could you please discuss your decision to enable John to be the vehicle to healing for so many of the characters in this book?
A: You're absolutely right that he's the focal point: if it weren't for John, I wouldn't have bothered to write the book. He's meant to serve as both a kind of subtle counterpoint and a mostly silent companion to Wes from the first chapter on. While he's unobtrusive and doesn't speak much unless spoken to, he's really the beginning and the end.
At the same time he's a human being who's not so steady in his own faith at the beginning of the novel and manifests it most clearly at the end, just when other people need him to be a sign to them. I'll also say that, while John is--again--not based on any particular person and has some things in common with me, I don't think I could have fully realized him as a character had it not been for a friend of mine who, much to the surprise of many others who knew him, chose about ten years ago to enter the priesthood.
Q: Given your success with Awaiting Orders, are you planning additional works of fiction at this point?
A: I've been working at some short fiction--I have a story in the latest issue of the journal IMAGE, which is a really great publication your readers might be interested in: www.imagejournal.org. Some people assume short stories are easier to write than novels but I'm finding that's not necessarily the case. Anyhow, I hope to complete a collection of stories sometime.
Q: Farrell O'Gorman, thank you so very much for offer your time and talent and for writing such a fabulous book. Are there any additional thoughts or comments you would like to share with our readers?
A: I'd just like to recommend that interested readers take a look at my book's web page at Idylls Press. Here you'll find links to more information about how I came to write the book, plus discussion questions: