Award-winning public relations executive Rita Dragonette’s debut novel, The Fourteenth of September, expands on her work related to telling women’s stories with a very personal twist.
The fictionalized account of her own personal journey during the Vietnam War, set amidst the student-led anti-war movement on a college campus, The Fourteenth of September follows one female student during her personal reckoning, and allows readers to grapple alongside her with the choice to follow what she believes in or fall in line. In the process, Dragonette expertly, and with nuance, unpacks the sexism of the times and the continued urgency of speaking out against injustice.
Dragonette is currently at work on three other books: an homage to The Sun Also Rises, another historical fiction novel and a memoir in essays.
Ms. spoke to Dragonette about the relevance of her own personal narrative in the age of Trump, today’s rising youth activists and how women got erased from the history of the anti-war movements of the sixties.
What was it like writing a novel that was so closely based off your own experiences as a student on campus during the anti-war protests? What sort of process did you go through as a writer?
As I was experiencing the actual events, I remember thinking: these are incredibly significant things that are happening, and we can’t forget them. On any given day, any girl here can be worrying about her brother going off to Vietnam to die in the morning, and in the afternoon wonder if she should give up her virginity to her boyfriend that night—and both of those issues had equal weight. This was a juxtaposition that threw me.
I vividly remember walking back to the dorm after hearing the TA say the life expectancy is Vietnam under fire is six seconds and thinking, we’re teenagers, we shouldn’t know statistics like that. Many of the things that happened, I just tucked away in my head—and the reason it stayed with me this long is because of the scene with the veteran [in the book]. That’s incredibly fictionalized, but I was in a meeting like that. There was a vet, they did go after them, that was the first time and the only time that I ever felt like I was a coward because I wanted to stand up for them and say: “This is the antithesis of what we should be doing, going after a vet. We’re trying to stop the war for people like him.” I did not stand up, because I thought, I’m a girl, they won’t listen to me, they might ridicule me—even the vet might ridicule me. The story never left me.
The process of writing was very hard because in the beginning I was stuck in what really happened. That was very confining, because real life doesn’t work itself out in a dynamic narrative arc. I knew I had to divorce myself from the reality of the action, without losing the authenticity. I was able to let myself out of the real story and just looked upon everybody as a fictional character: What would Judy do, not what would I do. What happened to me is not relevant to what happened to Judy, and that’s the separation that you have to go into when it’s something that has to do with your life.
Wil was not based on a real person. I made him up because I needed someone to do what he needed to do in the story. I had to create the character around him because Judy needed somebody who was her alter ego, the other side of the chromosome coin that was not interfered with by sexuality. And yet, Wil resonates for me above the other characters every time I read the book. I actually knew somebody who said—and I’ll never forget it because it was so absurd—“I wrote the words ‘let it be’ before the Beatles did.” And I just thought, oh my god I’m never going to forget that line, it’s so good. And I gave it to him.
It was an amazing experience trying to create a mother character that was not my mother. That was very difficult. In the beginning it was very, very close to reality—I certainly made her a WWII nurse like my own. But I made her really vicious in an early draft, and I had to soften her up because she wasn’t believeable.
I had to completely surrender at a certain point, and my characters became “real” people, regardless of who they were based upon. I can see them in my head as looking like the people who inspired them, but they’re different. Not even Judy. I love Judy, I empathize with Judy, but Judy is not me. In the end, I’ve so fictionalized the story that it’s hard for me to remember what really did or did not happen. However, I’m completely confident that everything that happens could have happened. It’s made up but authentic—historical fiction.
This novel is told from Judy’s perspective—a woman who has joined the anti-war movement, despite the fact that she’s actually a PFC in the army and in college on a military scholarship. How is her story relevant to our political and social climate today?
I feel there is a direct line between Judy Talton and Emma Gonzalez. The school shootings are similar to what we faced during the Vietnam War. We were young people without power. We couldn’t vote until we were 21, and yet guys were being drafted at 19; we used to question why they were old enough to die, but not old enough to vote.
If you look at the #NeverAgain movement—those are high school students, also dying and not being able to vote. I’m not necessarily saying that high school students should vote, but they’re in exactly the same circumstance. In our day, to protest we hit the streets; they are hitting social media. (If we’d had social media, the war would have been over much faster.)
The whole political climate today is uncannily parallel. What’s changed for the better is that women aren’t being told that they can’t understand the issue because their lives aren’t on the line. Everyone’s lives are on the line.
Can you explain more about what you saw personally to be the important roles and actions of women and how that has been left out of the dominant narrative of Vietnam war protests?
If you think about it, can you think of a single book that was written by a woman about Vietnam?
There are very few. There are memoirs by nurses that were in combat, which is very different, and there have been books about Emily Harris- type figures, who went underground and were found years later, which are exciting, and, of course, homefront stories—but I didn’t feel there was anything visceral enough to communicate what women went through side-by-side in those explosive months around the lottery, right here at home on my college campus.
It was really a battlefield, on a different “front.” There was a huge concentration of draft-age men, and their situation affected everyone. There was tremendous fear about the lottery—your number could determine whether or not you were going to die, and as a woman, you’re sitting right next to a guy in class, the exact same age as you are, who, like Wil in the book, has exactly the same birthday you have. With a flip of the chromosome coin this could be you. There’s an affinity that happens in such a circumstance and there’s no way you could pretend you were not part of it.
Women at the time were faced with so many things. Above all there was survivor guilt, sort of anticipatory survivor guilt. You knew you wouldn’t be selected to go to Vietnam, but you were surrounded by and felt the fear and the anxiety. That’s why so many women were involved in organizing the anti-war activities. We can’t end up going there, but we can do everything we can here. You may not have been in the actual fog of war, but you were certainly in—and felt—the blood, sweat and tears of war, because you had friends and boyfriends who were, and who were terrified.
And they were doing reckless things and saying things to you like: “I’m gonna go ahead and just try heroin because I always wanted to do that and why shouldn’t I?” “I’m either going to die in the jungle or I’m going to die here.” And you would sit there and try to find a reason for them not to do that.
So you were in it, as they say. We were there—mopping up vomit and wiping tears and offering physical comfort. That’s what I’m trying to show in the scene when Judy is talking Wil down from a trip where she is totally bonding with the experience—in her mind, she was in one of the tunnels, and was just as scared as he was. She really could understand.
In actuality, there was no way to really separate gender. The Vietnam War affected a whole generation, not only the men. It influenced women differently than men, as all war does. I’m very interested in that point of view.
I’m really interested in the character of Vida, too. I thought she was really fantastic, and it was really incredible how she was written to be this antithesis of the status quo—she defies social norms, she breathes life into this campus resistance movement. I’m just interested in how you wrote this character.
Originally, I wanted the whole book to be told from the point of view of three women. One would be the woman who had this dilemma with the army, which would be Judy. And then one would be this very powerful, confident organizer—that was definitely an example of what happened in those days, there were a lot of women that surfaced as leaders—and that was Vida. The third one was going to be somebody who just got involved inadvertently; that was Marsha. Then the characters took on lives of their own.
I first got involved in the anti-war community because there was a woman in my dorm who was just like Vida. She actually said the words: “are you apathetic?” That was her best way of getting somebody into the movement, and she was so infectious and exciting that people just followed her around like the Pied Piper—again, natural leader. She also kept everybody on track, always asking: Why can’t we just stop cooperating and make this war go away?
I wanted to exemplify the leadership that was in women during that time. Vida was an amalgam of two people. One of them looked just like Vida, because I needed her to be absolutely stunningly attractive but yet not what you’d expect. I put them together, and then Vida just jumped off the page.
Vida, I thought, was a perfect exemplification of a woman of the times. She was a foil for David, but so much smarter. She galvanized people after Kent State—when she’s running back and forth between houses and serving as a liaison between factions. That’s what women did: they supported and rallied people. And yet David is the one who’s acknowledged as the leader.
When David accuses Vida of not knowing what it’s like to really be in danger, and therefore not be fit to lead the anti-war demonstrations, we see the sexism of this movement.
There were many situations where, as a woman, you were told you didn’t have enough at stake. You weren’t going to go to Vietnam. You weren’t going to die. It was hard to not be acknowledged for your contribution, as well as not taken seriously.
Part of it was good old sexism—women just aren’t going to be as good at this as men are. David undermines almost all the women in the book. With Judy, he’s trying to force her into making this big decision as if it’s the choice of what to have for dinner on Tuesday. He simply doesn’t understand the ramifications for her, yet is quick to always point out that she and other woman can’t possibly understand that the men are going through. With Vida, who could very easily take over, he’s more cautious. Vida does what many women did at the time, which was to admit, I may not be on the front lines, but I’ll make sure that everybody rallies behind us—there’s that one scene where the guys are sitting together and talking about the lottery and not doing anything, and Vida’s encouraging everybody to make banners and armbands—to actually get things done.
What’s also important to remember about that timeframe is that these characters, like those subject to the lottery, are teenagers. They’re just past childhood, yet in a very rarefied environment of the campus where there’s virtually no parental authority, only J-majors are reading newspapers, there is no Internet and they can’t have TVs in their rooms. Every once in a while, a teacher influences them, but mostly they get information from each other, like a game of telephone, and they end up acting on what they hear because they believe it.
David wants to be the big organizer, but he’s getting there by trying to be big man on campus—and if that means that he’s not going to pay attention to girls, that’s what he’s learned, that’s what guys did with girls. Its like: You can follow around behind us, you can do this, you can do all the things that we don’t want to do, but we’re the leaders. And Vida clearly should have been the one leading everything.
Now, I’ve come to learn since my own experiences, many women were acknowledged as leaders by the movement. I’d say that some of us broke through and others were affected more profoundly by the sexism in these early feminist days. What’s ironic is that Judy’s story is actually one of growing leadership. Her friends see it in her before she does. And, in the end she has to fully embrace being a leader in order to save herself.
You describe the process that Judy goes through as a coming of conscience, where she’s trying to reconcile with the world that she was raised to believe in versus the world that we actually live in. How do you hope that her story will guide people who are today navigating the world as it is versus the world as they wish it could be?
Coming of conscience is a deeper transformation than coming of age.
In the latter, a young person goes through an experience or experiences that changes and prepares them to function as an adult. Judy’s dilemma involves that, but also mirrors what the country was going through. Who are we if we stay in this war that no longer makes sense? What are we if we leave? Do we have the fortitude to say that we made a mistake? Judy has to decide who she is based upon the choice between two life directions. She feels that the decision she makes will determine her character for the rest of her life.
Coming of conscience is defining your character. A coming of conscience decision, and I made up that phrase, is when integrity trumps consequences. We’re all going to have to go through it. We may not have to go through anything as profoundly as Judy does, when we’re 19 years old; hopefully, we’ll be older and have more skills.
A classic example is the Saturday Night Massacre during Watergate, when two attorney generals refused to fire the prosecutor and Nixon fired them. So it’s like, am I going to stay? Am I going to lose my job? What’s going to end up happening to me? I think everyone has coming of conscience moments.
To really highlight that, I am now, as part of the book promotion, funding a Coming of Conscience scholarship at the school that is the basis for the fictional Central Illinois University setting of The Fourteenth of September, and it’s all about encouraging personal responsibility and social activism. In order to compete for the scholarship you have to write an essay that explains your understanding of the concept: How do you see it in your life or in your country? How do you see things that you would like to see happen? And if you’re awarded the scholarship, how are you going to use that point of view to change the world?
I’m trying to encourage more Judys.
I feel like that’s something that we all go through, but didn’t have a name for yet.
Which is so perfect. I’m hoping people feel that way. I think it’s very clear that the country is crying out for a coming of conscience moment. Everything is polarized, just like it was in ‘69—people have forgotten what democracy is.
This is my personal soapbox: Democracy is compromise; two sides come together and agree on what becomes common ground. If you don’t compromise, there’s no democracy. If everyone’s strident, and says, you agree with me one hundred percent or I don’t talk to you, nothing will get done. That’s why the country is stalled and we can’t move any farther.
A coming of conscience moment will be when some political leader decides that it’s not going to be the next election that’s the important thing—it’s going to be “we have to stop this,” don’t worry about the consequences, do the right thing. #MeToo is like that. The first #MeToo story had a lot at stake.
A coming of conscience has to do with personal courage. Judy had to decide: Who is she if she stays in the army, what is she if she leaves? If she stays in the army, you could make a perfectly good case for the fact that she could be helping soldiers. That’s what Pete keeps trying to tell her—you don’t have to do this, no one has to do what you’re putting yourself through—but Judy is a person of integrity, aAnd that’s what I want people to think about when they read it. I want them to consider: What would I have done in Judy’s place?
That’s why it’s a book for everyone. It’s a book for my generation, who went through the war, and for those who like in historical fiction—but also for anyone interested in the journey of a coming of conscience.