In his latest novel, Before We Sleep, Vermont author Jeffrey Lent tells the story of how one man's experience serving in World War II shapes not only his life, but that of his wife and daughter. Lent spoke with Vermont Edition about his writing process and why stories from the past preoccupy him.
In languorous prose best read slowly, Before We Sleep opens in June 1967 as 17-year-old Katey Snow releases the hand brake on her father's old truck, puts it in neutral and eases silently out of the driveway of her family's central Vermont home.
Armed with the unsettling knowledge that the father she has known her whole life is not her biological dad, Katey sets off to discover what she can about the man who is.
As the novel unfolds, we learn more about Katey's parents, Ruth and Oliver, and how Oliver's experience fighting in Europe in World War II changed both of their lives and shaped their daughter. Lent tells Vermont Edition that his own childhood was shaped by growing up in the shadow of WWII; so many of his generation's parents had served.
"Also just the whole idea that that particular generation went off to fight the good war and won it and came back and pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and went on," Lent says. "I wanted to write about the other side of that a little bit, the ones who had a harder time.
"Because as kids, we all knew, like, the one guy that was a parent of friends – you knew that you never approached him from behind without making noise, humming or letting him know you were there. It wasn't a huge, big deal; it was just sort of part of what we knew to do. And of course ... there were other people who were much more damaged by what they experienced and what they saw and perhaps by what they did. And I wanted to write about that a little bit."
Lent has two teenage daughters and his keen observation of their transition from children to young women shaped the dynamic between Katey and Ruth in Before We Sleep. The mother-daughter relationship is a key theme of the novel.
Five years ago, when Lent was sketching out the plot of the novel, he overheard one of his daughters complaining to her mother about books: "I just wish someone would write something with two strong female characters," she said.
"And I thought, 'Well I can do that!'" Lent remembers.
"I became [an] observer of that mother-daughter dance that goes on," he adds.
Lent's writing is complex and dense, not easy to speed-read. Lent is keenly aware that this infuriates some readers.
"And others just really get caught up in the rhythm of the language," Lent says. "I know, from hearing from people, I'm somebody that you have to read slowly and sometimes have to reread. And that can be maddening, I'm sure."
But for those who enjoy that pace, Before We Sleep takes readers into an America changing rapidly between WWII and the Vietnam War, and explores how those foreign wars indelibly changed Vermont and the Snow family.
Listen to the interview above. Broadcast on Monday, June 12, 2017 at noon; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.