Anushka Shiell

the author of A Box Full of Darkness

Date:

Anushka Shiell is a full-time nonprofit professional and independent novelist. She studied Rehabilitation Counseling and Disability Studies at the University of Arizona and Gerontology at Oklahoma State University. A Box Full of Darkness is her debut novel. She lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota with her husband.

TBE: A Box Full of Darkness blends elements of military fiction, political drama, and an incredibly intimate emotional narrative. What inspired you to take on such an ambitious, genre-blending story?

Anushka Shiell: Each of the elements you mentioned are themes that I deeply enjoy and appreciate within stories, for different reasons. Politics and the military are closely interwoven in the United States. Strong personalities and personal stories often play a key role in politics as well. I wanted to explore the ideals that drive people like Tessa and Ryan to enter the world of politics and rise to the top.

TBE: The novel’s portrayal of urban warfare in Iraq feels so visceral and immersive. Did you draw from any firsthand experience or accounts in rendering these scenes?

Anushka Shiell: I’m not a veteran, so I relied on accounts from veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, found online. I also read news articles from 2003-2007 describing the US military activities and engagements in Baghdad and the surrounding areas specifically. This was one of the most eye-opening and emotionally difficult pieces of research I had to do for this novel, especially when I researched the scope of the civilian casualties.

TBE: Tessa Halifax is such a remarkable, resilient character. What were some of the biggest challenges in depicting her journey through trauma, PTSD, and the aftermath of her service?

Anushka Shiell: I felt strongly that I didn’t want the depiction of Tessa’s trauma or PTSD to be sensationalized, or a “cheap” source of drama or emotion in the story. I wanted to depict her emotions with respect, sensitivity, and realism, as though she was a real person struggling with trauma and PTSD—not “just” a character who underwent these things as a plot device to inform her future decisions and actions. I also wanted to give readers an insight into why the things she saw and experienced were so traumatizing, while not showing violence in gratuitous or upsetting detail. All of this involved striking a balance, and I hope that it came across well.

TBE: The relationship between Tessa and Ryan has a slow-burn quality that simmers for years before igniting. Why did you choose to let their romantic connection develop over such an extended timeline?

Anushka Shiell: It would have been so much easier for Tessa and Ryan if they had realized their feelings for one another years earlier than they did. I wanted them – and the readers – to feel a sense of frustration and loss over, the question of, “Why didn’t they just realize their feelings (or act on them, in Ryan’s case) in college?” Ryan effectively let his chance with Tessa slip in college, and I think that many readers can relate to the frustration and loss of a chance missed. The intervening 10+ years allowed their friendship and trust in one another to continue to deepen. By the time they finally began their relationship, they had a rock-solid foundation of friendship, trust, and platonic love and devotion.

TBE: Your handling of Owen’s traumatic brain injury and its impact on Tessa’s marriage is rendered with such sensitivity and nuance. What kind of research went into ensuring an authentic, empathetic depiction?

Anushka Shiell: I spent a lot of time learning about the physical, emotional, and psychosocial impacts of traumatic brain injury, specifically on TBI in veterans, and the impact of TBI on relationships. Again, I didn’t want Owen’s TBI to feel like a “cheap” plot device in order to bring about the ending of Tessa and Owen’s marriage.

The symptoms that Owen experiences, such as anxiety, poor emotional regulation, aggression, trouble with executive function, and forgetfulness, are all common struggles after experiencing a TBI.

TBE: The romance between Tessa and Ryan is sensual yet incredibly emotionally vulnerable. How did you approach striking that balance between love and emotional intimacy?

Anushka Shiell: Several years ago, I read a piece of writing advice about writing intimate situations that really resonated with me. The advice suggested putting the primary focus on the emotions felt by the characters, rather than the physical actions. I find that much more interesting to write. I love getting into the characters’ heads, imagining what they are thinking and feeling.

TBE: Themes of duty, public service, and America’s legacy of military intervention are woven throughout. Did you go into the writing process with the intention of exploring those ideas?

Anushka Shiell: These came hand-in-hand with my initial goal of writing a story about the military, politics, and people’s motivations for military service—and their motivations to become part of the system of American government. One of the most interesting parts of writing this story was how and why Tessa and Ryan became disillusioned with America’s invasion of Iraq and involvement in the Middle Eastern wars.

TBE: What were some of the biggest creative rewards and challenges in structuring the novel across its sweeping timeline from 2006 to 2028?

Anushka Shiell: Undoubtedly, the most difficult part of this was factoring in timelines such as the US election years in 2012, 2016, 2020, 2024, and 2028. I also had to work out what months and years campaigns would start (often more than a year prior to Election Day), how long Ryan’s political terms in both branches of Congress lasted, what month and year Tessa graduated from college, etc. I also researched to line up specific time periods, such as Operation Phantom Thunder in Iraq, in June 2007. At times, it felt like working on a puzzle.

The biggest creative reward was getting to see Tessa grow and mature over the years, from a high school senior in 2006, to an accomplished political operative in 2028. I loved seeing Ryan grow from a young soldier to the soon-to-be President of the United States.

TBE: Tessa’s bond with her service dogs Spencer and Leo is so beautifully rendered. How did you go about capturing the profoundly healing connections between handlers and their canine partners?

Anushka Shiell: Tessa’s close relationship with Spencer and Leo, the love she has for them, and the companionship and comfort they provide her, was inspired by my relationship with the beloved pets that I’ve had in my life. Animals can be so uniquely soothing and empathetic.

TBE: By the end, Tessa emerges as such a powerful emblem of resilience and the perseverance of the human spirit. What do you hope readers take away from her cathartic journey?

Anushka Shiell: Tessa reminds me of a favorite song lyric – “Knock me down nine times, and I’ll get up ten.” I hope that readers are inspired by her resilience. Another important lesson that Tessa learns is to take the love and support that are offered to her by her friends (her chosen family), and her therapist. I hope readers can lean on the people that love and care about them, too.

TBE: Are you currently working on your next novel? If so, can you share any early details about the story you’re looking to tell?

Anushka Shiell: I am excited to be working on my next novel! Early details: The story will follow a humanitarian aid worker with an international organization. I hope to be able to share more soon!

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A Box Full of Darkness by Anushka Shiell
  • Publisher: ‎Self-published
  • Genre: Contemporary Romance
  • First Publication: 2024
  • Language: English

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