The Penmen Profile: New Novelist Siobhan Fallon

by Kristin Duckworth

Siobhan Fallon’s debut novel, “The Confusion of Languages,” takes place in the American embassy community in Jordan during the Arab Spring – a setting Fallon knows well, having been stationed there with her husband. Fallon drew on her own experiences and observations to tell the story of two very different women, examining the miscommunications and misunderstandings that can occur not only between cultures, but even within friendships or marriages. Booklist, in a starred review, called it “an incisive examination of friendship and betrayal and a skillful mingling of cultural and domestic themes.” This isn’t the first time she’s used her own history to inform her work. Fallon’s previous book, “You Know When the Men Are Gone,” a short story collection centered around military wives dealing with their husbands’ deployments, was the 2012 winner of the PEN Center USA Literary Award in Fiction. Fallon has also been published in The Washington Post Magazine, Woman’s Day, Good Housekeeping, Military Spouse, The Huffington Post and NPR’s Morning Edition, among others.

What’s your process in developing your storyline and characters?
Usually I’m inspired by some small moment from my life, a snippet of conversation I overhear at the mall, the odd cast on the foot of a uniformed soldier crossing the street, some misunderstood act of kindness that has an unpleasant ripple effect. An image will stick in my mind, a sort of splinter. I try to work it out, wondering why this small thing, of all the small things that happen to me every day, three hundred and sixty-five days a year, suddenly feels significant, and that’s how it moves from reality into fiction. It becomes something completely different, becomes a puzzle with characters and plot, relationships and motivations.

What has the road to publication been like for you?
I’ve been writing since I was a little kid. I wrote a lot of science fiction and fantasy after I graduated college, a few of those stories were published in tiny magazines (and I interned at quite a few magazines myself, leaning the ropes and reading the slush piles). Then I got my MFA in Creative Writing in 2000, and had a handful of short stories published in more established literary magazines. In 2008, my current literary agent, Lorin Rees, read one of my short stories in the great literary magazine, Salamander, and contacted me. I was working on the stories that would make up my collection, “You Know When the Men Are Gone,” and Lorin was excited about the material and signed me before I’d finished all the stories. He had great faith in me. Then he found my first editor, Amy Einhorn, who published my collection, and that collection paved the way for my novel, “The Confusion of Languages,” also published by Penguin/Putnam. So I always recommend that writers send stories to literary magazines and especially to literary magazine competitions. I also highly recommend that writers read and BUY literary magazines so that we continue to have literary magazines!

What do you wish you knew when you first started writing?
Write lots of crap. It’s OK. Everyone struggles with this craft. And it should be hard or everyone else would be doing it. The most important thing is to just do it. Do it as often as possible, letters to the editor, journal entries, poems, flash fiction, rants, whatever, and like anything you want to be good at, the more you do it, the better you will get. But don’t think that will make it easier. It will never be easier. Lucky for you, this is an art form, and unlike medicine or mathematics, art doesn’t have to be perfect. So get back there and keep writing.

Who are the authors that have inspired you most, and how have they inspired you?
I’m always heartened by the story of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. I mean, we are talking 1816, and here was this motherless teenager, running with these big shot Romantic poets (Percy Shelley and Lord Byron), and after a night of telling ghost stories she begins writing the iconic Frankenstein that, in 2017, still resonates in regards to modern society and the advent of technology. She overcame poverty, illness, depression, the death of her beloved husband and three of her four children, and her politics, social views and gender made her an outcast. Yet we still recognize her name, we recognize her ‘monster.’ She should be an inspiration for everyone.

If you could keep just three books in your library, which would you choose and why?

  • “The End of The Affair” by Graham Greene. I’m not someone who likes to reread books, there are so many fine books out there I have yet to get my hands and mind around! But this novel is my absolute favorite. You have two narrators telling very different stories, you have people in love tearing each other apart, you have bombs descending on London and you have sacrifice and grace and transformation. Every time I read it I find something new and wonderful, I figure out something about myself and I cry my damn eyes out.
  • “The Book of Common Prayer” by Joan Didion. Funny, I didn’t realize until just right now how much “The End of the Affair” and “The Book of Common Prayer” have in common, which probably explains why I love them both so much. Again, you have unreliable narrators telling different stories about the same events. Again, you have an unstable political situation (in “The Book of Common Prayer” you have a rebellion in a small South American country). Both novels concentrate on the disconnect between human beings, how even in our closest relationships we are unable to communicate what we really feel. Considering that those are two of the more prominent themes of my novel, “The Confusion of Languages” — also a story told by two unreliable narrators, also set in an unstable region: the Middle East during the Arab Spring— it’s not a surprise that both novels had a tremendous influence on my own work.
  • “The Collected Works of William Shakespeare.” Because if you are only allowing me THREE measly books, one of them better be really, really big, right? Are we talking apocalypse here? So, yes, the Bard uses a lot of words that could keep me busy for a couple of years while zombies rage at my door. And, of course, I love Shakespeare. Everything is in his plays. The whole savage, beautiful history of the human race.

For more information on Fallon or her writing, you can find her at her website,, Facebook, or Twitter at @SiobhanMFallon.