An Interview with Jillian Danback-McGhan

  • By Carr Harkrader
  • February 27, 2024

The Navy veteran talks Admiral Farragut, military women, and the inherent eeriness of midwatch.

An Interview with Jillian Danback-McGhan

Jillian Danback-McGhan was always scribbling. During her tours as a U.S. naval officer, she filled notebook after notebook with stories, anecdotes, and plot outlines. “My subject more or less found me through lived experience,” she says. Midwatch, her debut story collection, looks at the lives of female service members in the post-9/11 military. Through the eight stories, readers meet new enlistees, missile-strike team leaders, cadet instructors, and recent veterans. 

Since the nation’s founding, women have been writing about their experience serving in America’s conflicts. But rarely has their writing received the same recognition as male authors writing about war. “It actually quite frustrated me early on how difficult it was to locate titles written by women authors or books about women in the military,” says Danback-McGhan. “And part of it was the reason I decided to start writing now, because this is a perspective that I feel obligated to convey.”

You talk in the book about how midwatch is spent entirely in darkness. As I was reading the collection, I started to get a sense of how many hidden but essential expectations are placed on women in the military. How did you think about that while writing?

Part of it is just seeing how women are often — both in the military and in civilian life — caught between these irreconcilable tensions. And they constantly have to occupy this middle space. They’re neither anything fully. I think a lot of it is because of those expectations that are placed on them. On top of that, there is something intrinsically haunting about the midwatch that I have always loved. It typically falls from 10 p.m. [to] 2 a.m. You do have that experience of spanning both day and night. It is a bit of an eerie transition, but it’s a necessary transition. As I was writing the stories in Midwatch, this theme of being stuck in that liminal space kept coming back. And it wasn’t until I fully embraced it that I realized, “Ah, okay, this is the title! This is really the essence of what binds together all of these stories.” 

In the story “Dearest,” you have this very strong image of the David Farragut statue in DC, and it is almost a character itself. What do you see as a connection between the institutions of the armed forces, symbolized by the statue, and how individuals are shaped by them?

In a way, the military is the perfect breeding ground for the best of humanity and the best-intentioned individuals. But it can also take, subvert, and convolute those good intentions. The choice to use Admiral Farragut in “Dearest” was deliberate for two reasons. Number one, because I was actually on the USS Farragut in the Navy. And when I took a job in Washington, DC, my office just so happened to be in Farragut Square. Life just gives you gifts sometimes like that. But secondly, there is a tradition in the Navy that there is always a ship named after Admiral Farragut. He’s the first admiral in the U.S. Navy. And I wanted to call out the fact that negative attitudes towards women and disbelief of women is something that has become normative to the point of tradition in the military. There have been efforts as of late to correct these behaviors, but a lot of them are already embedded. I think most of the characters within Midwatch are confined by, and products of, the institutions that shape them.

Especially as you recognize that there’s not a ton of writing about women in the military, did you ever feel pressured to present more positive portrayals of the female service members in the book?

That was absolutely a risk I was taking on. A motivating factor behind writing stories about female service members was the fact that they were often portrayed as super women or saintly folks. And I think that came from a good place from most authors. Yet that’s such a disservice because what that does is create unrealistic expectations that if you are experiencing weakness, or some of your lesser moments, sometimes that sends the message that the character is lacking personally…And I really wanted to fight against that depiction. Simone de Beauvoir said she doesn’t depict women as they’re meant to be, she depicts them as they are, and that’s very much what I wanted to do with this collection. Give them the freedom to be their worst selves.

In December, Senator Tommy Tuberville finally lifted the hold on military promotions that he’d put in place over a policy involving servicemembers’ accessing reproductive care. The ban was covered heavily, but not its real-world impact on women. Why not?

The politicization of gender in the military isn’t anything new. It has been going on for as long as women have been serving. In fact, one of the first women who served in the American Revolution served under the guise of being a man, and that was eventually discovered. She wrote a memoir about it and was compelled to talk about how she was a proper young woman the whole time. So, in a way, it was very performative. She felt compelled to defend her honor to the public to make her service palatable. In fact, with every new milestone that women overcome in the military, there is significant pushback. Some of it is immediate, and some of it is delayed. 

The purpose of art is really to showcase the emotion behind the facts that we know to be true. And I think what we know to be true, in this case, is that society has always been uncomfortable with women’s service in one way, shape, or form. A lot of that is changing, but we’re certainly not there yet. And in many cases, this tacit approval, with reservations, creates a lot of friction because opposition isn’t always overt, and a lot of women are often left wondering whether someone is supporting them because they have to or giving support because they believe it’s actually the right thing.

Carr Harkrader is a writer and book critic in Chicago. You can follow him on X at @CarrHark.

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