Whitney Terrell ’91 works on a war novel

Hodder Fellow Whitney Terrell ’91 is mining the views of students and professors as he drafts sections of his novel, set in Princeton and Iraq.
Hodder Fellow Whitney Terrell ’91 is mining the views of students and professors as he drafts sections of his novel, set in Princeton and Iraq.
Courtesy Whitney Terrell ’91

When Whitney Terrell ’91 decided to write a war novel set in Iraq, he knew that he couldn’t create convincing characters and the trials they faced without seeing the war up close. So in 2006 he embedded with Nate Rawlings ’04, at the time a 1st lieutenant in the Army stationed at Camp Liberty, west of Baghdad. In October, Terrell sent the latest draft of the novel to his agent, who told him that he liked the Iraq sections, but the parts set at Princeton — the other locale in the novel — needed work.  

It’s a good thing Terrell is embedded at Princeton this year as a Hodder Fellow, which provides a year of leisurely study without teaching responsibilities, enabling him to mine the views of students and professors and immerse himself in the Princeton landscape.  

The novel, explains Terrell, opens at Princeton in the spring of 2004, just as sophomore Dixon Fowler, an electrical engineering major, decides to head to Iraq for the summer after landing an internship through a Princeton alumnus working for the National Security Agency. Ostensibly, Dixon wants to get work experience, but in truth, he goes in search of his sister, Emma Fowler ’03, an Army officer in an engineering company who is stationed in western Baghdad.  

Emma is assigned to “harden” a checkpoint that had been bombed. As her team is building concrete walls and securing the location, it comes under fire and one of her soldiers disappears — setting up the rest of the story, says Terrell. Eventually, Emma is reassigned to “recovery,” which, says Terrell, is “the towing service” for disabled or blown-up vehicles. In carrying out her new duties, Emma tries to find the missing soldier.

Terrell, an English major at Princeton and today the New Letters Distinguished Writer in Residence at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, has penned two other novels. He had Princeton friends who fought in the first Gulf War and returned irrevocably altered by the experience. In his latest novel, he explores how the war affects students and why, with so many opportunities in front of them, they would join ROTC and enlist.  

Since being on campus Terrell has rewritten the beginning of the story, drafted scenes set in Cottage Club, and developed one of his main characters, Dixon’s adviser (unnamed as of mid-January). The professor isn’t based on any one teacher at Princeton, though some University faculty members — notably English professor James Richardson ’71 — provided inspiration for the character. Terrell has discussed the Iraq war with students, and this spring will sit in on engineering classes to help him draft sections on Dixon’s work in Iraq.