April 02, 2019

Claire Gibson

“Writers get to take readers on an emotional journey, but the writer has to take that journey first.”

In Claire Gibson’s moving exploration of grief and friendship, you don’t know what’s coming. This is the book’s genius.

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Some readers might be wary of picking up a book like Beyond the Point. Much of the story is set at West Point, so you probably think you’re going to slog through pages of endless boot camp and gung-ho teenagers. That the story begins in those golden months before 9/11 only adds to this. You know what’s coming; the grind and tedium of military school followed by the horrors of wars fought by kids who came to the Point thinking they will deploy to Tuscany. But in Claire Gibson’s moving exploration of grief and friendship, you don’t know what’s coming. This is the book’s genius.

The novel centers on three friends. Hannah is sweet, dutiful and pious. She and her husband, Tim, even wait until they’re married to have sex. Dani is whip-smart, ambitious and tough as she navigates both the nonsense that comes with being a female cadet at West Point and the subtle and overt racism that comes with being a woman of color. Avery is a mess. She’s frequently a fair-weather friend and consistently picks men who mistreat her. Life takes each young woman to unexpected places, and it is and is not because of 9/11. We asked Gibson to share her insight into West Point (where she was born and raised), her characters and the nature of female friendship.

What was the inspiration behind this book?
I began freelance writing full time in 2012. I loved writing for newspapers and magazines, but I couldn't kick the gut feeling that I was supposed to write a novel, and every time I imagined writing a novel, I kept thinking about my childhood home, West Point, and the incredible women there. In 2013, a group of women West Point graduates asked if I’d be interested in interviewing them for a possible story. I started with four interviews, which quickly blossomed into more than 20. And the more women I spoke to, the more confident I was that I was meant to write their experiences down as a novel—something that every person could engage with, whether they were familiar with West Point or not.

What was it like to be born and raised at West Point?
West Point is a small, tight-knit community located on the Hudson River in upstate New York, just 50 miles north of New York City. A prestigious four-year college, it also doubles as a training ground for the U.S. Army’s next generation of officers. The buildings look like castles. West Point began admitting women in 1976, so by the time I lived there, women were very much a part of the student body, albeit still a minority. Those women became my mentors and friends, and I looked up to them so much. They took time out of their very busy schedules to know me and to tell me that they cared about me. I’ll never be able to repay them fully.

What did you hope to capture through the stories of the three women in Beyond the Point?
The first few pages of Beyond the Point might seem to follow a normal “college” storyline, as Dani McNalley, Avery Adams and Hannah Speer forge an unlikely friendship which they nickname the “cult.” But that’s where the similarities to other college tales ends. The rigors of West Point are unlike any other college or university, and after the tragedy of 9/11, the women must face down enemies both external and internal as they adjust to life after college, which for them includes the ordinary stresses of career, love and heartbreak, along with the added pressure of war. My hope is that readers connect with these three women and feel that, in the end, they could be a part of the “cult.”

Friendship is such an important theme throughout Beyond the Point. Did your writing of this novel affect your own friendships with the women in your life? If so, how?
Writing this novel definitely impacted my friendships. First of all, over the course of the four years it took me to write the novel, I became extremely close with many of the women that inspired its pages. I knew those women when I was a child, but now am so privileged to call them friends as an adult. Perhaps more importantly, seeing how they supported one another during the most challenging years of their lives has helped me be a more intentional friend. I have learned the power of being present, available, and offering concrete help when things are hard. I’ve also been a grateful recipient of that help.

Why is the story set just before and after 9/11? And as a self-described “Army brat,” how did 9/11 impact your life and family?
It’s so hard to talk about 9/11, because it’s a tragedy that struck every American in so many different but equally horrific ways. At West Point, there was an eerie sense of calm and purpose that settled over our community in the days after those attacks. Even though I was only 15 years old, I knew that everyone we loved—every cadet my father taught and my mother fed at our house—would eventually be heading to war. As I went on to college and beyond, and the wars continued raging, many men and women we knew were killed in action. I think most Americans can operate without really thinking about the military or our currently conflicts. I am always thinking about service members—not because I’m more patriotic. Just because many of them are still my family and friends.

What was the hardest part about writing Beyond the Point? What was most enjoyable?
For me, the greatest challenge was learning to tell my own critical voice to step aside. You need that critical voice when you’re editing—but you don’t need it while you’re writing. One time, my counselor encouraged me to close my eyes and to tell the critical voice, “Thank you for what you’re trying to do. I know you want this to be really really good. But I don’t need you just yet. Step aside, and I’ll call you back when I need you.” Then I could actually get to work writing. It was kind of woo woo, but also kind of revolutionary. The most enjoyable part was writing scenes that left me in tears, staring at the computer screen. Writers get to take readers on an emotional journey, but the writer has to take that journey first.

What do you hope readers will take away from Beyond the Point?
I hope readers love the story, love the characters and walk away feeling deeply connected, grateful and inspired by the power of female friendship.

 

Author photo by Lindsey Rome

Get the Book

Beyond the Point

Beyond the Point

By Claire Gibson
William Morrow
ISBN 9780062853745

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