An interview with Ashlee Cowles, author of “Beneath Wandering Stars.”
Ashlee Cowles grew up an Army “brat” and lived all over the place as a result, but Colorado Springs is where she made her earliest and most recent memories. Ashlee holds graduate degrees in Theological Ethics from Duke University and Medieval History from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, and currently teaches writing, literature, and philosophy at a classical high school and community college.
As a student, Ashlee studied abroad in Spain and walked part of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route, which inspired her debut novel, Beneath Wandering Stars (Merit Press, 2016). Learn more at http://ashleecowles.com/.
1. This story captures the experience of someone who has grown up in the military. It embraces the tensions and benefits and otherness that many families who grew up in the military have experienced. You grew up in the military, correct? How much of Gabi’s experience mirrors yours? How did your experiences shape the story?
Yes, my father was a career officer in the U.S. Army, so we moved eight times by the time I was 18. I definitely used a lot of details from my personal experiences growing up a military brat when I developed Gabi and her world, but all the characters in the book and most of the events are completely fictionalized. I did try to give Gabi many of the qualities I’ve witnessed in my fellow brats—resilience, adaptability, and an ability to persevere through difficult circumstances, along with a strong sense of duty to something greater than one’s self. Gabi is also a lot smarter than I was at her age, though!
Yet like her, I spent some of my high school years on an army post in Germany. At first I hated it and wanted to go back to the States, but I don’t think I’ve ever cried as hard as I did when we had to leave three years later. Being able to explore another culture as an adolescent—but with a group of friends who shared my own background—was a powerful, formative experience. It’s one of those period of life where the memories are still crystal clear and I can recall the intensity of that chaotic array of emotions that comes with being a teenager. Also like Gabi, my dad was reassigned (to Fort Carson, Colorado) right before my senior year. I was pretty bitter about it, so it was easy to draw on those feelings when developing Gabi’s character.
However, my military experience was different from Gabi’s in one very significant way: my dad’s twenty year career in the Army came to a close a few months after 9/11. That was also the year I graduated from high school, so he never had to deploy to a war zone and was never away from us for longer than six weeks. So in many ways, I feel I lived through a kind of “golden age” between Vietnam and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, where we experienced many of the benefits of a military life—the travel, the close-knit community, the sense of mission and service to one’s country—without as many of the challenges. Military kids today have to deal with a lot more hardships and loss, so I tried to highlight this in Gabi’s story, while also celebrating what I believe to be a very special, privileged childhood.
2. When did this story come to you? How long was it in the making? Which characters came to you first?
I suppose aspects of the story have been with me for as long as I’ve been writing fiction. My husband and I spent the first year of our marriage working at a ski resort in the Bavarian Alps that’s run by the U.S. Army (I always told myself I’d live in Germany again one day!). Because our humble hotel jobs were only part-time and I’d always wanted to try to write fiction, I started working on a novel in the mornings before my shift. It was a historical novel for adults set on the Camino de Santiago, and it will probably never see the light of day (that first novel is almost always practice, as well as the best way to learn how writing fiction works). When we returned to the U.S. and I started attending writers’ conferences, Young Adult fiction was all the rage—it seemed to be what every agent and editor was acquiring. I hadn’t really considered writing for teens (historical fiction and fantasy are my first loves), but when I thought about writing for this age group, there was really only one YA story “burning” inside me—a story about a military brat (surprise, surprise). There are millions of people who have grown up in the military, but not many novels (that I’m aware of) that dive deep into this unique subculture and life-long identity, which was why I was so enthusiastic about writing from this particular perspective. I typed the first words of Beneath Wandering Stars after an inspiring day at IMAGE journal’s Glen Workshop in June 2013.
For this particular story, I’m not sure if it was the characters who came first, or the story concept. My imagination tends to be inspired by two main things: travel experiences (all the stories I most love to read and write have strong sense of atmosphere, often influenced by places I’ve lived or visited), and classic literature. Around the time I was working on this story, I was also reading the Odyssey and the Iliad for the first time. I was struck by the timelessness of these ancient portrayals of warrior life, so I included elements of both epics in Beneath Wandering Stars. I have another finished novel that incorporates themes from T.S Eliot’s Four Quartets, and I’m currently working on a Young Adult retelling of Dante’s Divine Comedy. I suppose I’m someone who believes that humans are drawn to a few primal plots and they’ve all been done a million times anyway, so I’m most interested in “translating” aspects of these classics for a contemporary audience. I suspect Virgil, Milton, Shakespeare, C.S. Lewis, and J.K. Rowling (all influenced by Homer) would agree that this is a valid approach to storytelling!
3. How did you pick the Camino de Santiago as the setting? Have you walked the Camino? Have you done any other pilgrimages? How has this influenced the story?
Yes, I walked about 225 km of the Camino de Santiago with two friends in May 2011, and that experience definitely helped me write Beneath Wandering Stars with the kinds of details (the insane snoring in the pilgrim hostels, for example) that were necessary for making Gabi and Seth’s journey feel real. My love affair with pilgrimage began a lot earlier, though. As an undergraduate, I spent a semester abroad in Madrid, Spain and took a course on pilgrimage during the Middle Ages. Every weekend, the professor drove me and eight or nine other students to a different section of the camino to visit significant historical sites (if you read my novel, you’ll encounter a pair of very special chickens who live inside a church – yeah, they actually exist). After that experience, I was hooked and continued to study pilgrimage in graduate school, both in its medieval and modern forms. Scottish pilgrimage was the focus of my degree in Medieval History at the University of St. Andrews, since the St. Andrews Cathedral was one of the most popular medieval pilgrimage sites in Europe after Rome and Santiago de Compostela. During the year we lived in St. Andrews, my husband and I also walked part of the St. Cuthbert’s trail to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne off the coast of northern England.
I think one of the reasons I find the concept of pilgrimage so fascinating is that it can be found in most religions and cultures, which tells me there’s something very human and true about the experience. I’m also enamored with the Celtic notion of “thin spaces”—physical locations of spiritual significance where the veil between Heaven and Earth feels more solvent. I believe I’ve experienced thin spaces—the mystical encounter Gabi and Seth have at the Templar chapel of Santa María de Eunate is one such location (this also happens to be my favorite scene in Beneath Wandering Stars). Pilgrimage got a bad rap during the Reformation because of some of the abuses associated with it, but I think we’re seeing a renewed interest in it now because it is a spiritual practice that pushes back against the Gnosticism that has a tendency to creep into Christianity in every age. We are physical beings as much as we are spiritual beings, and it makes sense that our most cherished beliefs long to be expressed in tangible, physical, incarnate ways. Like I wrote in an earlier article for Humane Pursuits, there’s something about pilgrimage—about walking in general—that makes you feel wide awake and alive to the present moment. Among many culturally-aware groups in the U.S. there seems to be a lot of emphasis on “place” in response to the nomadic, no-strings-attached lifestyle so prevalent in our society right now. And I get it – I get that to live without responsibilities, commitments, and the restraints imposed by a particular community is to essentially remain in a state of perpetual adolescence. But at the same time, there is something to be said for the creative insights and inner awakenings that come from wandering with a purpose. After all, the Western Tradition is one whose pages are populated by monastics and pilgrims. We need both St. Benedict and St. Francis.
As a side note, I also think pilgrimage—or just walking for long distances—is one of the best practices writers and other artists can cultivate. Something magical happens when your thoughts are allowed to roam without restraint. I’m pretty sure I wrote an entire novel in my head while walking the Camino de Santiago (ironically, it wasn’t Beneath Wandering Stars!).
4. What do you hope readers come away from your story feeling, believing, or hoping?
I hope people who read Beneath Wandering Stars will feel the earthiness of the camino, along with the inner ache and sense of longing that Gabi experiences. One of the most memorable bits of feedback I’ve received recently was from a young reviewer I’ve never met who described the story as one of longing. That is it – that is exactly what I hoped readers would be left with. Many of the characters I encountered on the camino were as quirky, unorthodox, and beautiful as the ones Gabi meets, which not only provided me with a lot of great writing material, but says something significant about our culture’s relationship to spirituality. The fact that there is such an interest in pilgrimage in so-called secular Europe is significant, as it suggests that humans have an innate desire to encounter the sacred, no matter the current state of organized religion in a society. Thousands of people still walk to Santiago de Compostela each year – why? Sure, it’s kind of a trendy travel experience at the moment, but I don’t think that’s all there is to it. What are these people really seeking? Those questions and this prevalent sense of longing are why I wrote a story set on the Camino de Santiago.
I also hope that through this story, American civilians who do not have a direct connection with the military will gain a deeper insight into the lives of military families and the struggles our returning soldiers often experience. There are more veterans committing suicide than there are dying in battles overseas—a national tragedy that seems to be at least partially connected to the fact that we don’t really feel the weight of war collectively as a society anymore. Besides Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, two modern books that really influenced my portrayal of Seth Russo—a young soldier on R&R from Afghanistan and Gabi’s walking partner—were After War: Healing the Moral Wounds of Our Soldiers by Nancy Sherman, and The Moral Treatment of Returning Warriors in Early Medieval and Modern Times by Bernard J. Verkamp. There’s a lot of talk about PTSD at the moment, but both of these books take a slightly different angle by focusing on the moral wounds of war—what happens when decent, honorable people are put in wartime situations where they must make split-second decisions that sometimes result in the violation of one’s moral beliefs. Verkamp’s book focuses on purification rituals that were prevalent in earlier societies (e.g. the Sacrament of Confession in medieval Europe), which alleviated the warrior psyche and served as a way of welcoming soldiers back into peaceful society—rituals we don’t really have anymore. I would love it if Gabi and Seth’s story sparked more conversations about how we might bridge the civilian-military divide in our communities, so that, like Odysseus, more soldiers are able to “return home” spiritually and mentally, as well as physically.
Order Beneath Wandering Stars on Amazon.