“They experience 9/11 at the academy, and their lives are changed forever. And they have to go on and face war and marriage and life after college with just a lot more challenges than the typical 24-year-old person has to face.”
Novelist Claire Gibson discusses Beyond the Point with host J.T. Ellison on NPT’s A Word on Words.
J.T. Ellison: Claire, welcome to A Word on Words.
Claire Gibson: Thank you for having me. This is incredible.
Ellison: I’ve been wanting to have you on the show forever because this book is absolutely amazing, and I think our viewers are going to love it. Will you tell us a little bit about Beyond the Point?
Gibson: Sure. So Beyond the Point is a novel based on true stories of women who attended the US Military Academy at West Point during, what I call, “The 9/11 years.” I interviewed about 25 different women from the year 2000 to 2010 who were at West Point. And this novel is really close to my heart and it follows these three women as they start in the year 2000, and then they experience 9/11 at the academy and their lives are changed forever. And they have to go on and face war and marriage and life after college with just a lot more challenges than the typical 24-year-old person has to face.
Ellison: Let’s start at the end with your author’s note. You mentioned that this is based on a true story, that’s a story in and of itself. So can you tell us a little bit about how the book came to be?
Gibson: Sure. It really is an amazing story. I grew up at West Point. My dad was a professor. So I very much lived in the shadows of everything that was happening all around me. I got to see young people running around campus and jumping out of airplanes and blowing things up. And as a kid, it was a really magical place to be. And my parents were very involved with the cadets on campus, as many faculty that live at West Point are. And when I became a writer, I was always really fascinated with what happened at West Point and wanted to write a story about West Point, but I didn’t attend West Point. So I felt a little bit like an imposter. If I were to write something about a place where I actually wasn’t a graduate. But then in 2013, I received a phone call from a dear friend who was a graduate of West Point. And she had seen some of my freelance writing, my journalism, and she asked if I would be interested in interviewing her and her friends about their experiences at war.
And originally, I thought it would be, a newspaper article or an essay, and the more I talked to them and the more people I interviewed, the more, I just felt like this has to be a novel because I really want people who aren’t connected to the military, or maybe don’t think they’re interested in the military, to feel connected to these women and to see themselves in this story. Because I think so often the media can portray particularly women in the military as this distant, very stoic kind of personality, and the women that I know that are in the military aren’t that way at all.
Ellison: No, they’re very cool. It’s funny because you said, you asked yourself questions before you started. How could I write about the barracks that you’ve never slept in? How could I write about wars I’ve never deployed to? How can someone with no class ring touch the Long Gray Line? What is the Long Gray Line?
Gibson: The Long Gray Line is the phrase used to describe all of the graduates of West Point from the very beginning, until now. And so that includes great generals. You know, Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee, and it includes Presidents, Eisenhower and business leaders. And it includes these women that I interviewed. And many, many more that are just a huge part of our nation’s history and the sacrifices they’ve made. I’ve always really respected the people that have made the choice to serve. And that was really important to me to honor them with this story.
Ellison: And you’ve done it. Your research was absolutely impeccable.
Gibson: Thank you.
Ellison: I loved it. I got to say, reading this was a rather surreal experience because I started it just as we were drawing down and leaving Afghanistan. And the story is of course centered around September 11th and how their lives change when… They’re at West Point… Obviously they’re in the military, they’re going to go to war. They know this. But then it becomes a very tangible thing that is about to happen. Did you have any dislocation as the writer having written about the beginning of the war, watching the end of it? And have you heard from any cadets who were affected by it?
Gibson: Yes. These last few weeks, as we’ve been pulling out of Afghanistan, it’s almost difficult to put words to how it’s felt for me. And for many of the people who have served in that theater in particular. I think I’ve always felt very clear about why we went to Afghanistan in particular. And I felt that there were parts of this book where I really grappled with our military is never going to do things perfectly ever, and that’s always a problem. And we always need to follow up on cases where there’s been misconduct. But for the most part, the people that I interviewed that served in Afghanistan really had a heart for the people of Afghanistan, and to see so much progress that was made in so many lives that were changed while America was there trying to give peace to the people just go away in an instant was heart-wrenching.
And to know people who died and lost their lives trying to create a peaceful and safe Afghanistan and to rid the country of terrorists that do want to attack our country. It really has been just hard to fathom. And just to think how many people who aided the American mission, who wanted peace for their families, for their daughters, for their wives. And now many of those people were left behind. There were Americans who were left behind. I felt really hurt by the way that the whole mission was handled. And I think a lot of the folks that I interviewed for this book I’ve talked to since then, and have felt similar sadness, grief, relief that the war is over quote unquote, but also just great dismay.
Ellison: You always want a war to end.
Gibson: Right. Right.
Ellison: You want the war to end.
Ellison: You just want it to end well.
Gibson: Yeah. And one of the things that I… You always want a war to end and we have an all-volunteer army. And so the burden of this war has fallen very heavily on the shoulders of very few people. And that’s another reason I wrote Beyond the Point, because I really wanted people who maybe aren’t connected to the military to understand the invisible costs that come with the service required to serve our country. So…
Ellison: That’s a great segue into this next question. West Point is not a typical college experience.
Ellison: There’s a great example. They’re in class, and they’re talking about Socratic justice while studying Plato’s Republic, which is a favorite of mine. I actually pulled it back out while I was doing this. I’m like, “Oh yeah, I remember that.” This isn’t rhetorical study for them at all. The cadets are being taught how to go to war, how to take orders, how to develop their conscience. Quote: “Unlike those kids at other schools, you’re going to be leading soldiers and making decisions that could have life or death consequences. We must believe justice is a concrete, definable concept.” Can you talk a little bit about how the students are different and why they choose to take this kind of seriousness into their lives?
Gibson: Sure. I do think West Point is an incredibly challenging environment. It draws a very particular kind of kid who is 18 years old and interested in that kind of challenge. And when I interviewed all these different women about their experiences, one of my very first questions was, “Why would you choose a place like West Point?” And the answers definitely fell across the spectrum. But I would say that they typically fell into one of three categories, which shows up in my book. There’s three main characters, Dani, Avery and Hannah. And Dani joins the US Military Academy because she’s a strong athlete. She’s a strong student. She’s always excelled. And for her West Point becomes this challenge, this bar that she wants to see if she can jump over. And for her, it becomes this sort of physical and mental difficulty that she wants to see if she can achieve.
Other people that I interviewed had service in their family. So maybe their grandfather was in the Army or went to West Point. And there’s this legacy in this sense, baked into their family structure. That service is important. That was definitely the case in my family. We were always told just how important it was to be serving your neighbor and looking out for people in need. And military service was a huge part of that duty that my family taught us about.
And then the last character Avery, she is really motivated to go to West Point because it’s a free education. So she’s also very athletically gifted and also very smart, but West Point offers a totally free ride, free tuition, for its students in exchange for military service. And so not only are you getting this really rigorous experience, but you’re also not walking away with any debt. And so for many students at West Point, that bargain is a really attractive deal because not only do you get to serve the Army afterward, but you get to maybe go to really cool places like Italy or Hawaii. These stations that are interesting.
And I have many friends who went to medical school and the army will pay for medical school or for you to get a PhD. And so there are a lot of benefits of military service that I think draw students in as well.
Ellison: Were you ever tempted to go?
Gibson: One hundred percent. I was. This book honestly was… I’m a person that deals sometimes with regret. And so, one thing in my life that I often look back on and wonder is what would my life had looked like had I decided to go to West Point? And that’s not something that they… They don’t invite 35-year-old women to come back to West Point and so that was not an option. But I… By writing this book and interviewing these women, I felt like I really expelled that regret from my experience because now I feel like I… I mean, I spent more than four years writing this book and I felt like it was my own experience of facing challenges. Really embodying what it felt like to go to war, doing the research. And obviously I didn’t do any of those things, but it felt like it was my gift to the Long Gray Line by writing this book.
Ellison: Well, I couldn’t agree more. Philosophy aside, this is a really deep story about the power of female friendships against the most unimaginable backdrop of an impending war. Dani, Hannah and Avery are so different. They’re brought together… And they’re not even really friends to start. They have to find common ground and find respect for one another. And I think that’s hugely important with female friendships. And of course, basketball. Having student athletes in this environment that it’s got to be 10 times harder and then to be women to boot
Gibson: That’s right. You know, I think at West Point, many students are athletes. So there’s a physical requirement to attend West Point at all. You have to do a physical test. And so many of the student athletes that are there are interested in competing on the Division One level, but also they’re surrounded by other students that are physically capable. And so for these three girls in this book, Dani, Hannah, and Avery, basketball is this way that they cross paths. They’re in practice together. They have a coach that is pretty terrible and difficult to deal with. And so together they have to find a way to survive, not only the rigors of what’s going on at the barracks, but also what’s happening on the basketball court. Pat Conroy is a huge influence of mine as a writer. So I loved reading some of his work about basketball, and I am not an athlete about basketball.
I played lacrosse. And so that was my wheelhouse. But basketball is a great sport too, that evens the playing field between men and women. And that was important to me in this book, just to show that these women really could hold their own in an all-male environment or a very male dominated environment. And they have grit, you know, athletes have a lot of grit. And I think that that’s something that women we’re told often in our culture to hustle and to work hard and to look pretty while we’re doing it. And these girls… especially when I was a kid growing up, I just loved watching them be themselves, whatever that looked like. They didn’t… They weren’t trying to follow some prescribed notion of what it meant to be a woman. They were being who they were. And that was really attractive to me.
Ellison: It’s also a story of loss in many ways, for all three of them, and the power of loss making us into our best person. I loved that. The grief in this is mournful and beautiful and visceral and raw. And I’m curious how you tackled that without making it so maudlin that we want to put the book down. I mean, just absolutely beautiful.
Gibson: I hope it’s not so maudlin that we want to put the book down, but it is a book about war. And I lost many friends, many cadets that we served to these wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. And I’ll just never forget where I was on those days when I got the phone calls about Tim Cunningham and Ryan Dennison and Laura Walker and the names… there’s a lot of names. And for me, I couldn’t tell the story without talking about what these cadets faced day in and day out, even while they were still at West Point. These girls in the book graduated from West Point in 2004. And I received many interviews about hearing on campus about a student that had died that was already graduated. And they would do these night vigils for people that were just in school with them a few years earlier. And so for me, I went through a lot of grief during the years that I was writing this book.
I tapped into a lot of those losses that I was experiencing on very different battlefields, I will say, but grief is universal. We all lose people that we love. Sometimes it happens in very unexpected ways. And even if you’re going to war, no one thinks they’re going to be the one that doesn’t come home. And so this book does open up with the knowledge, you open up with a prologue that says someone has passed away. But there is sort of a mystery during the process of the book of who it might be. And that was important to me too, because everyone that goes to war is at risk of losing their life. And I wanted you to feel as a reader, that tension and that fear, and that possibility. It could be at any turn. And so that was my hope with how I wrote the book.
Ellison: Dani in particular… I got really upset for her.
Gibson: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Ellison: She experiences racism, microaggressions. You don’t shy away from the Social Justice issues that all of the women there are experiencing. You go from racism to #MeToo Movement. And I’m wondering, is it harder for women at West Point and women in the military in particular to get the same kind of justice?
Gibson: Short answer is, yes. I think, although I hope that’s changing. Dani McNally in the book, she’s an African-American basketball player, star athlete. Comes to West Point and faces right away these expectations that maybe she’s not a great student, or maybe she’s only here because she’s a basketball player. And I think black athletes across America in colleges face that judgment, and it’s wrong. Something I learned from the black women that I interviewed for this book was that they’re constantly facing that problem of being the exception. Well, “You’re good, but everybody else like you is not good”, and that’s just… It’s wrong and it’s a form of racism that happens every single day. And I think as a white person writing her character, I struggled sometimes. I worried about being able to do it justice. And then I would go to my friends who I interviewed for this story. And they would say, “No, we trusted you. You can do it. Please go, do it.”
And so that really helped me, pushed me toward doing my best to tell her story, because there are more and more black women in the military. In fact, as a demographic, there are more black women in the military than any other demographic. And so it’s very important that we have black female officers in the Army as well. And that’s what Dani wanted to do. Her story has loss involved, and I won’t spoil that. But her career did not go the way she planned. And that also has been something that I’ve heard a lot from readers that helped me just feel that I did something with this story. People who thought their career was going this way and they lost that career and they had to make a new one. And that’s a grief that many people have to face that feels very ambiguous.
Ellison: Normally I wouldn’t ask a woman about her family life and her writing and how they affect one another. But I want to in this situation because I know a little bit about your background and I think it’s fascinating. So if you could touch on… you’ve mentioned the grief, how hard this book was to write for you on a personal level and how it led to the family that you have now?
Gibson: Sure. Thank you for asking about my family. I’m proud of my family and I’m grateful to be a mom. And I think that’s a huge part of who I hope to be as a writer, someone who champions what it means to be a family. And when I was writing this book, my husband and I were in the midst of a long, protracted infertility situation and battle. And the grief that I experienced while writing this book had to do with miscarriage and just constantly delaying this thing that I wanted so deeply, which was to be a mother. And those losses really stung. Also by the grace of God, not being a mother gave me a lot of time to pour into this book, which I was very grateful for in the end. But at the end of writing this book, just before it, it was sold to Harper Collins, my husband and I made the decision to adopt.
And that was a long road to get to that decision. We decided to go through foster parenting training, and we learned so much about how many… There’s 120,000 waiting children in the foster care system right now that need to be adopted and are waiting to be adopted. And so we pursued that. Within our church, we also helped other people who were pursuing foster care. And then in the end, we decided to pursue infant adoption. That was the right thing for our family. Now we’ve adopted twice. So we have two amazing birth moms that are a part of our family now. And they entrusted us with their children. We have two sons, one is named Sam and one is Benjamin and they’re incredible. They’re four and two years old and they’re both biracial and they are crazy. They just put me through the ringer every day, but I’ll never get over the fact that it’s a gift to be their mom and a gift that we get to be a family.
Adoption’s very different today than it used to be. We have very open relationships with their families, their biological families. For some people that makes them really curious. They have a lot of questions and I’m always really open about it because we live in a world that sometimes can hide things that feel difficult, and it is difficult. You can’t get around that. But there’s also beauty to it. And our boys are incredible and they light up every room they walk into. And I’m so proud of them.
Ellison: Well, your book and your life are good examples of how our lives don’t necessarily go the way we think they’re going to go.
Gibson: One hundred percent. They don’t. And I think these three women in Beyond The Point, they have to figure out through the friendship that they have together and through faith and through learning who they are. To decide what kind of life am I going to have now that the life I thought I was going to have is not available to me? And that has been my life, tried to make the most of it.
Ellison: How did you come to be a writer?
Gibson: Great question. I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I was that kid in middle school who had the lined paper out and a pencil, and I was writing little stories and stapling them together and passing them to kids in the cafeteria. And then in college, I kept a blog for my college… which before blogs were even a thing. And helped write stories for my university and wrote for the university newspaper. But for some reason I never really thought it could be a career. Partly because growing up at West Point, you think the only way to be a successful person is to join the Army or be a politician or change the world.
And I spent some years chasing that, but writing was always in my heart. And a few years after school ended for me, my college experience was over. I just kept hearing the call back to the page. And I just tried to listen and writing this book, as you know, for a first-time author, it can be very scary because you’re spending a lot of hours at the computer with no promise that it’s going to end up bound or published or in a bookstore. So for me, the gift of actually publishing it and sitting here with you, I mean, this is all incredible and icing and not what I expected, but I’m grateful for it, for sure.
Ellison: What’s next? What are you working on now?
Gibson: That is the question. I’m working on another novel, slowly.
Gibson: I have two children now. So it’s a little bit of a different writing process. But adoption, like I just mentioned, is such a huge part of my story the last few years. And I’ve received a lot of sometimes unsolicited stories about other people who’ve had adoption stories or reunification stories. Now that DNA testing is so available and I’ve heard a few that have really piqued my interest. So the story I’m working on right now is about a family. It’s a family saga. Stretches back all the way to World War II, Italy, and then into modern-day America. And it’s about an adoption that happens in the 1950s and an adoption that happens in modern-day times and the differences between those two experiences. It’ll take me a while, I think, to write it and really do it justice, but it’s important for people to hear from all voices within the adoption, “triad”, it’s called. You know, birth mom, adoptive mom, adopted child, and to see the difficulties of that relationship, but then also some of the beauty of it too.
Ellison: Claire, thank you so much for being here today.
Gibson: Thank you for having me.
Ellison: Keep reading.
Claire Gibson Recommends
Revival Season, by Monica West
Florence Adler Swims Forever, by Rachel Beanland
Peace Like a River, by Leif Enger