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Laird Hunt says that war is perhaps the greatest destroyer of lives and dreams.Cliff Grassmick

Laird Hunt's latest novel, Neverhome, is one of the year's most stunning pieces of fiction. The story of a woman who passes as a man in order to fight in the U.S. Civil War, it is an indelible exploration of identity, loss and conflict. Here, the American author reflects on this breakthrough book.

You've written about the origins of your remarkable protagonist, Ash Thompson, who was inspired by your reading about the untold history of the Civil War, especially the 400 or so women who passed as men to fight in the conflict. But how did you come to create this particular character – her origin, her circumstances, her dimensions? Was it a gradual process, or more of a lightning strike?

I am no Zeus but Ash did seem to spring fully formed from my head. I had been thinking off and on about women actively fighting in the Civil War for a decade and a half when this happened, though, so clearly there was an aspect of long-term gestation. But when her voice hit me, it hit me hard (Ash-style) and I more or less had to just get back up and hang on.

Untold history, of course, is still history. What challenges were presented by setting your novel within the broad historical framework of the Civil War?

It was my goal from early on that the surround be neither too vague nor too precise – that the war should of course be there, glowering and crashing its great hammers onto shields, but that it should have entered, as Ash describes it, into the palpable indeterminacy of memory. It is felt, it is present, but it is not every moment, not every thing. Ash after all has lived a good number of years since its conclusion and she is not telling her tale to spin a yarn about war. That's not her primary concern. Keeping this in mind, I worked hard to hold the battle cry of information at bay. I think we tend to imagine that the young soldiers, buffeted and badly hurt by war, marching along with many thousands, had a preternaturally comprehensive knowledge of the conflict – knew where generals were and how many men fought under them and what kinds of rifles each company was equipped with. Certainly the diaries and letters home that I read don't bear this out. These boys often knew next to nothing, on a day-to-day basis, about what they were up to. They were told to go and they went. And it simply seems deeply unlikely that they all or even anything like a majority would have come home from that hell and taken up the measured study of the subject. So when Ash was generally specific about her immediate circumstance and generally vague about the larger contours of the conflict, that seemed to make sense. It didn't let me off the hook – and I read widely and deeply and with great satisfaction in Civil War literature – but there was no reason for my knowledge to infect Ash's.

I was again and again struck by the power of your writing, especially in the battle sequences, which unfold simultaneously as these grand, gale-force winds of horror and small intimate moments of recognition and identification. What was it to try and represent something as terrifying as a massive battle in prose? How do you translate something both so human and inhuman into words?

Words can be weapons of great power. They can also, we all know this, soften and soothe. To read Homer is to understand this. Whether The Iliad or The Odyssey. In reading the already mentioned war diaries and collected letters home of numerous common soldiers, I was struck time and again by how obliquely actual battle could be referred to, how cunningly language could be used to evoke horror or mask it ("There was a big brawl yesterday"). I didn't want to avoid description of battle (set it offstage, Shakespeare style, though that has its own useful affect), neither did I want it to spill forward for pages and pages. The battles and various bits of conflict in the book are there because they form essential parts of Ash's story. Everything goes through her. She is our optic, our filter. So they are fierce and compact. Potent: That was at any rate the goal.

Early in Ash's wanderings she passes a maple tree with 'nothing but ladies names gouged into it. Jesamine, Turqoise, Apollonia, Marybeth, Ginestra, and so on.' It strikes me that this book is in part about reclaiming the story of the countless women whose wartime narratives have been overwritten by the dominant historical record – both women who fought, and women who didn't but whose contributions are still lost amid the lists of names of generals and so on. (As Ash reflects late in the novel while remarking on history books she's subsequently read about the conflict, 'There aren't any women holding guns in this pile of books I have.') Do you consider the novel an act of historical recovery? What makes fiction a useful tool in that kind of work?

There is in fact in that list a double act of reclamation – "Ginestra" is the name of the protagonist of my previous novel, Kind One, and so I am reclaiming on a personal level and also on the larger historical one that you evoke. After The Road was chosen by Oprah for her club, Cormac McCarthy, perhaps thinking of unprepared readers, said something along the lines of: You need to be careful what you let into your head. And this is because stories stay with us. And they work on us. We all have friends who have great heads for facts – who know the names of all the bands and all their albums and all their songs (I have a few such friends), but most of us, past youth, have sieves for heads and factoids fall hard and fast away from us. Stories though, whether they are welcome or unwelcome guests, stick around. Or, once entered into our skulls, take longer to leave. And there they weave webs of beauty and horror that can and do change the way we see the world. I would like to imagine Neverhome will get stuck in some of its readers' minds and play a small part in broadening the sense we have of who has contributed to our great narratives and what they contributed. The true stories are not the ones we have told ourselves. Not entirely, not yet.

At one point, a character known as the Colonel reflects on his life before the war: 'I cannot remember. Or if I can, it seems like a life that belongs to some other and I do not credit it.' Has your understanding of how war changes people evolved as you've studied and written about it?

I tried in taking up this story set during a great conflict, even one that was ended almost 150 years ago, to be very careful about drawing conclusions about war and its effects from a distance. And even though I am a citizen of a world alight with never-ending conflict, by various accidents of history and personal circumstance I have not yet myself experienced it firsthand and so have tried not to infer much beyond the obvious: that war is both terrifyingly general and monstrously specific. It is a great destroyer, maybe our greatest, of lives and of dreams. It is something horrifying that we do to ourselves. And that positives (like improvements in medical technique) can come out of it does nothing to change this. Ash has war to think about and she also has her own secret to attend to. Like so many of the soldiers whose words I studied, she starts out with some jaunt in her step and then that jaunt falls hard by the wayside.

Neverhome is also a loose recasting of The Odyssey. What drew you to that text, and what fears or anxieties or concerns did you have in reworking it?

It was only in the writing of it that I realized that this tale of battle and return offered the possibility of the kind of recasting you refer to: Penelope, not Odysseus, goes to war and gets herself lost, badly at times, before making it back to her Ithaki, a rural Indiana farm. Once I saw it, I worked very hard not to overdetermine the linkage. I had no interest in helping this complex tale of fear and guilt to get swallowed up – by myself as writer, or by others as readers – by some game of spot the parallels.

Near the book's end, Ash takes cover under a lilac bush, which doesn't end up providing much cover. 'There is shelter and then there is the idea of shelter. Shore up under the second all you want. You still get wet,' she argues. Neverhome makes this point again and again – every bit of shelter Ash is offered turns out to be just the idea of shelter, whether through the deceit of others, or her own yearning to move on. Are we to understand that the only true shelter is to be found within one's self?

I wonder if in fact the only shelter – one shot through with great gaps and long silences – where we catch our internal breath, is the voice, the one that gets to speak afterward, that gets an afterward. The voice that weaves its web of words and silences. Then sits in the centre, or scuttles off to the side, and waits to see what, if anything, will come along.

One of the things I loved about this novel is that it seemed truly out of time: removed from the fashions or trends of contemporary literary culture, somehow timeless. You teach creative writing: What habits do you observe among your students or younger writers? And what correctives to those habits would you prescribe?

I am almost constitutionally incapable of being timely in my writing, which of course has nothing to do with whether or not I am writing so-called historical fiction: I am just as "out of step," productively I hope, when I write about the East Village or Barcelona as I am when I take up 19th-century America. I have simply never "gotten" it, never had any useful intuitive sense when I'm working (I don't mean when I'm reading or looking at paintings or talking Minecraft with my daughter or watching videos on my laptop) of what the culture thinks it wants or thinks it needs at any given moment. This doesn't mean I don't often have a healthy respect for writing that manages, whether or not by design, to intersect with what is current, as that of my students sometimes does. I do counsel them to attend to their inner imperatives first and the external ones second. If the external and the internal are in sync, then more's the better. I also try to communicate – and they are almost always receptive (we have great students) – that just because the writers du jour, whether of the mainstream or experimental variety, are doing it a certain way doesn't mean that they have to try to, and so crash their gifts on the rocks of alien or infelicitous infrastructure. You would think that would go without saying but it never fully does.

I understand that a film is in the works. What is your involvement with it? What excites you most about the project?

It is early days and technically there is "just" an option – but the reason we (my agency, Aitken Alexander) and I went with Element Pictures is that they are dedicated to actually making the film and not just holding an option. They all read the book and connected with it and the project starts from that initial deep excitement. While I can't go into specifics, their initial, general ideas are fabulous. In Toronto last month, I had dinner with Ed Guiney (who runs Element) and Lenny Abrahamson (who will direct), and we really hit it off. The tone of the conversation was terrific and I am looking forward to continuing it and to being involved in whatever way seems appropriate and interesting.

This e-mail interview has been condensed and edited.