Last month I had the pleasure of sitting down for lunch with Heather Means. We talked about everything from Atlanta traffic and the 500 roads named Peachtree, to raising little girls, to getting ready for Halloween, to being a Northern transplant in the land of sweet tea and collard greens, to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Heather is not just a debut author. She’s an interior designer, a mom and a military widow. Heather wrote her novel, My Special Force, about her late husband, Ryan P. Means. It’s a heartbreaking but inspiring memoir, a modern day tale of love and war. It’s the story of Heather and Ryan’s relationship and the lifelong impact he made on those around him. Heather wove together letters and emails they wrote to each other over the course of their relationship to tell their story.
Ryan lost his best friend in the September 11th tragedy and joined up with the Special Forces, which is where he meets Heather while in training. Over multiple deployments, through two lonely pregnancies, Heather must summon unthinkable reserves of strength when Ryan is given 30 days to live after being diagnosed with a rare form of cancer just weeks before the birth of his second child. In this universal story of patriotism, courage and what it means to truly be changed by the person you love, we get the devastating yet inspiring story of one single mother’s remembrance of what it means to have known and loved a warrior
So on Veteran’s Day, as we honor the military men and women who sacrifice their lives for our freedom and protection, I thought it was fitting to honor the wives, husbands, and children they leave behind. Thank you for your continued strength, courage and sacrifice.
With gratitude and respect,
Jennifer Smeth: Obviously your late husband, Ryan, was the inspiration for MySpecial Force, but what made you decide to write the book?
Heather Means: Ryan Means really was a true force of nature. You just don’t meet people like him every day. And you SHOULD. Not only because he had this innate programming that drove him to seek and find what he desired for his life, but because this zest for life was totally contagious and it just made everyone around him a better person.
I guess that answer is more consistent with why I chose to publish and share the book. As far as roughly writing the initial book, I just felt like it was the best therapy for me- a way to get my thoughts together and make sure I had a record of all that just happened- most importantly something to refer to when my two daughters started asking questions about their father and what exactly happened.
My Special Force is written around your personal memories and correspondence between Ryan and yourself. Were you nervous putting your relationship out there for the world?
There are two answers to this: Yes, is my first and stronger answer- because anytime you put yourself “out there” you run the certain risk that people are going to judge. And that’s difficult to deal with- especially when the subject matter is personal. This isn’t fiction.
And, No- because it is a really is a raw and true account. I didn’t attempt to make the writing flowery or dramatize the situation, therefore I feel like if people just don’t like me or how I lived my life, well then, I just need to not take it personally. For everyone that judges the lack of a grandiloquent writing style in this book, there may be another person that heals from the message and that makes “keeping it real” totally it worth it.
I must add this- now that I’m receiving reviews and I made it past my first “bad” review” I’m learning that not every criticism is going to be constructive once you’re nationally published to the masses. Which is actually a really cool thing to get a grasp upon and use as a tool to understand that not all readers want to focus on what happened in real life- they are looking at the book as entertainment. For instance, one girl said that she basically hated it because she is already depressed and this made her feel worse because Ryan dies in the end. But, I get that- when I finally read Nicholas Spark’s Notebook while my future husband was awaiting his first Special Forces assignment and thought maybe it was best to leave me behind due to his career….. I hated that damn book but I couldn’t put it down because it was really touching my heart. And I also didn’t like anything touching my heart. So by giving me 1/5 stars for depressing her- well, I’m just going to take it as a compliment. You can look at the cover and know the ending of this one- it doesn’t take a genius. But she still read to the end and it evoked some serious emotion.
What would you like readers, widows and military widows to take from your story?
Through reading about Ryan, or at least the part of his life that he shared with me, I would hope that people would realize that every day is a new opportunity to make your life what you dream it should be, even if it’s on a small scale and not necessarily the level of which Ryan took certain things his life. I love the phrase- What you do today is important because you have just exchanged a day of your life for it. And that day may have had the opportunity to better or change your life. ALSO, for anyone who has suffered the loss of a loved one, I’d say: In three words, we can sum up life: IT GOES ON.
Facing your husband’s deployments while raising your daughters and then facing his medical diagnosis required in my eyes a great deal of strength. Do you see yourself as being strong? Who are strong women that inspire you?
I really don’t know if strong is the right word for how I see myself. But, I do see myself as resilient and adaptable. I think a lot of military wives can describe themselves as such–‐ because if they were not, they wouldn’t be able to be military wives, quite honestly.
There are many women that have inspired me. And by listing them all or not giving enough attention to certain ones, I’d likely get myself in trouble. But, I can say that my grandmothers on both sides have always been strong and independent women after their husbands passed away and I grew up observing how they were able to take care of themselves and their children and grandchildren with very little resources. Yet, everyone was always happy.
I also have to say that my Army wife friends continue to inspire me. Now, looking from the outside I wonder how I really did that for a few years, and there they are, still dedicated.
When will you let your daughters (Elizabeth and Sophie) read My Special Force?
I read them little bits and pieces already. But, I can’t answer that without knowing how mature they will be at a certain age.
Let’s talk about your writing process. How did you sit down to write My Special Force?
There wasn’t too much of a planned process. I had years of emails and letters and medical records to organize and then I had to ﬁll in my story. I sat at Starbucks for 4-‐10 hours some days, right after Ryan’s death, just writing in order to really piece together what just happened in the prior 5 years.
What is easier, in your opinion, designing a room (or house) or writing and publishing a novel?
Writing. Most definitely. Not publishing. In my case, the publishing part was almost accidental. I’ve experienced that publishing is really really hard without having money and/or connections. But writing comes very easily to me when I have internal conﬂict or even just random thoughts and I feel like I need to sort out my head. It is what some receive from talk therapy. My problem is that I don’t do it enough because, let’s face it, it’s not paying the bills right now and I have two kids. So , I set it aside…like working out! Also, I’m best in the ﬁrst person (or so I think) because I’m naturally uncensored. People might love that or hate it. But it does come easily if I have the topic. The only issue is that my topic usually involves other people I care about and most of them probably have no desire for me to make our lives some reality reading blog.
Designing a house is a fun and never ever ever ending task, sometimes of trial and error. It involves a lot of money and a lot of time and I ﬁnd many people don’t value that time or knowledge/experience, don’t realize how much what they want really costs, and certainly the respect that I once had as a Doctor of Physical Therapy is lacking…. at least it is in my position as a relatively new to the ﬁeld and not yet famous designer. And that gets frustrating.
Both jobs do require pleasing others though…and when you hate disappointing people you naturally put a ton of pressure on yourself to go above and beyond and I ﬁnd that sometimes I’m just stretching myself too thin. But, I’m sure there are a million other people in other jobs that feel the same.
Do you remember the ﬁrst book you fell in love with and why it affected you?
There are so many. My grandmother and my Great-‐Uncle were such enthusiastic readers and constantly read to me. But, I guess I would say the Giving Tree and The Missing Piece were the ones that I found on my own that always stuck with me through the years. I think it is because I just can’t master the concept of brevity and these two books do an incredible job of seeming to be simple but really relay a profound message. Anyone at any age can fall in love with them.
I have to add that I love “A Prayer for Owen Meany”……and “Confederacy of Dunces” is also just a work of art as far as writing fiction goes-‐ at least in my opinion.
What is next for you? What are you working on next?
I honestly don’t look ahead too far anymore. Some of my greatest life choices were made on a gut feeling and they were somehow never in line with what I had consciously mapped out for my life.
If, when I was living in my home town of Pittsburgh after college, you told me I’d marry a solider, have a child in Nashville and another in NYC and then be widowed three weeks later at 31, and proceed to move to Atlanta and become a published author after spending so much money, time, blood, sweat and tears on a Physical Therapy degree…. I’d say you were nothing shy of insane.
But one chance meeting in a hotel parking lot changed everything I planned for my life. Therefore, I just don’t see the point in mapping out the future. I’m really going with the ﬂow right now because ﬁghting it is senseless. I just try to give my best to everything I that I do.
As far as what I’m working on next-‐ I’m going to try to conquer my usual inability to be brief here and say this: I’m working on being honest and true to myself and being the best mom that I can be for my two girls.
I am giving away a copy of My Special Force and since it’s Veterans Day, I would like to give it away to a member of our military or their family member. This giveaway is open to U.S. residents and military members/families stationed overseas. To enter is simple. Please provide your branch of military and why you’d like to read the book. Thank you. Deadline to enter is Sunday, November 25 at Midnight EST.