WATERTOWN — Cara Hoffman set her acclaimed new novel in Watertown mainly for the area’s fighting spirit in face of economic adversity.
“I thought it was a perfect setting for the book metaphorically and in reality,” she said.
The book’s main character joins the Army to help her economically distressed family, but comes out of the service with an emotional deficit fueled by post-traumatic stress disorder.
The Clay family in “Be Safe I Love You” is the new American working poor, she said — educated people who must live very frugally.
“The family is the kind of family where it’s paycheck to paycheck, and if one little thing goes wrong, then everything goes wrong,” Ms. Hoffman said in a phone interview from her home in New York City.
Ms. Hoffman said there are many such families, a view reflected last week in a survey released by a Bankrate Inc. It said twice as many Americans are less comfortable with their savings compared to a year ago as those that are more comfortable. The survey also said that 36 percent of Americans have not saved any money for retirement.
But “Be Safe I Love You,” published by Simon & Schuster, is more than about economic survivors. It’s about a soldier who must find a way to blend in with civilian society and to survive after coming home to Watertown following a combat tour in Iraq, a tour punctuated by one incident that leaves an emotional wound the soldier tries to hide.
The soldier, Lauren Clay, faces struggles quite different from her male comrades’.
Ms. Hoffman said the novel was inspired by the fact that she has not seen much fiction about women veterans.
“I feel that people don’t quite understand what the experience is for women veterans,” Ms. Hoffman said. “People assume that women who serve in the military aren’t seeing combat or aren’t doing the same kind of job as men. I wanted to show that they are and also that they have different experiences when they come home.”
“Be Safe I Love You” has received glowing reviews. London’s Sunday Telegraph named it one of the five best books in modern war fiction. A reviewer for the New York Times, Alissa J. Rubin, said the story is “written with such detail it’s hard to believe the main character is an invention.”
“I think that people don’t understand the kind of pressure that women veterans, in particular, are under,” Ms. Hoffman said. “Unlike men who serve in the military, women are often coming home expected to be caretakers or go right back to being the primary caretakers of children and things like that.”
In the novel, Lauren’s parents have divorced and their home faces foreclosure. She joins the Army mainly for the signing bonus.
“There’s a cascading sense of things being out of control,” Ms. Hoffman said. “It falls upon Lauren to change that and make it better for her family.”
But she is hobbled by a particular experience in Iraq. Things aren’t the same in Watertown for her.
Lauren’s friends and acquaintances notice something is wrong, but they don’t mention it to her. Such flawed assumptions that no help is needed, Ms. Hoffman said, can cause returning female veterans to be treated with less compassion than men.
Bringing a sense of lightheartedness to the book, and hope for Lauren, is Danny, Lauren’s school-aged brother, who signs his letters to her with “Be safe, I love you.”
“Danny is a smart kid, and I’ve known a number of smart kids throughout my life,” Ms. Hoffman said. “I channeled them to write the way he would write.”
Sibling relationships, Ms. Hoffman said, are important and something she likes to write about.
“They can be very positive, and they help us understand one another better in general,” she said.
As part of her research for the book, Ms. Hoffman consulted with her brother, J. Howard Shannon, an Army veteran who served two tours in Afghanistan.
Ms. Hoffman didn’t want to give away any spoilers but said she hoped “Be Safe I Love You” would illustrate that people can recover from PTSD. The path to recovery, her novel shows, can include such powers as the beauty of music.
“There’s a great deal of resilience for human beings,” she said.
Ms. Hoffman has been pleased with the reception of the book and the message it’s spreading about female combat veterans. But the bigger message is about PTSD. She quoted figures from the Department of Veterans Affairs that say 22 veterans take their own lives in the U.S. each day.
“I think it’s incredibly important for people to understand that and to be able to recognize signs of PTSD and be able to support their friends and family when these things are going on,” she said.
“Be Safe I Love You” is Ms. Hoffman’s second novel. Her first, “So Much Pretty,” released in 2012, is set in rural New York state and concerns the disappearance and murder of a teenage girl.
The author grew up in the Southern Tier and did not graduate from high school. In her late teen years she moved to Europe, settling in Athens, where she did odd jobs. After returning to the States in the 1990s, she got a job in distribution at a small weekly newspaper in New York state, which she declined to name. The job mainly involved delivering bundles of newspapers.
“I really wanted to write for this paper, but obviously I didn’t have any clips,” she said. “I kept asking the editor if he would let me write.”
One day, when the paper was short on staff, there was a walkout at a factory. The editor turned to Ms. Hoffman and asked if she’d like to cover it.
“Of course I did,” she said. “I was thrilled.”
She was eventually put on staff and then went to work at a couple of other newspapers as her fiction portfolio grew. She became a guest lecturer at Cornell University, Ithaca, and SUNY Cortland. Ms. Hoffman said she also had a stint working as a copy writer at a public relations firm that took her to such cities as Watertown and Rome. She declined to name the firm.
Ms. Hoffman, who does not have a bachelor’s degree, earned a master of fine arts degree in creative writing in 2009 from Goddard College, Plainfield, Vt.
She has been a visiting writer at Goddard and at St. John’s University in Queens; Columbia University in New York City; and Oxford University, England. Ms. Hoffman now teaches “about every other semester” at Bronx Community College.
She said she hasn’t been to upstate New York for several years but would be open to the idea of visiting the north country to help raise awareness for veterans issues, especially PTSD.
“But I haven’t pursued that,” she said. “But if the circumstances were right, it’d be fun and interesting to do.”
“Be Safe I Love You” by Cara Hoffman (Simon & Schuster, 289 pages, hardcover, $26)