Sid Balman talks his newest novel and the people, places and anecdotes that inspired it

Image courtesy of Books Forward / Murmuration is the second book by Sid Balman, and the sequel to 2019’s Seventh Flag.

ALPINE — Many journalists would tell you they’d never dream of navigating the muddy waters of fiction writing, but for Pulitzer-nominated journalist and Sul Ross State University writer-in-residence Sid Balman Jr., the progression from journalist to novelist was only natural.

“One of the really interesting things about fiction as opposed to journalism is that journalism is your best, truest, presentation of history as it is unfolding, whereas historical fiction, to me, is looking at history in the rearview mirror,” Balman told The Big Bend Sentinel.

He spent “the best years” of his career covering diplomacy out of Washington, D.C. and armed conflicts around the world, and last week the fourth-generation Texan visited The Sentinel to chat about his career and his newest novel, Murmuration.

The sequel to his 2019 novel Seventh Flag, Murmuration tells the fictional story of a Muslim-American U.S. Army sniper named Ademar Zarkan and her friends and associates — Somali translator Charlie Christmas and Jewish Army captain Prometheus Stone — as they traverse war and famine in East Africa as well as white nationalism on the homefront.

Spending the nineties meeting world leaders and going on overseas missions with influential U.S. officials helped shape Balman’s ideas on religion, politics and money — “the unholy trinity”–– which both Seventh Flag and Murmuration focus on. Playing poker with former President Bill Clinton, and rubbing shoulders with Secretary of State Madeline Albright and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher all form colorful anecdotes for him.

“Travelling on the same plane with these people, you get to know them in ways that nobody gets to know them,” said Balman. “The flip side of that was then going to the field and seeing the impact that just the fewest words from a leader can change things.”

He recounted the Rwandan Genocide, in which armed militias targeted the Tutsi minority ethnic group, resulting in a death toll of up to 800,000 civilians after the country’s president, Juvénal Habyarimana, was assassinated and a local radio program blamed the minority population. Balman described it as one of the worst things he’d ever seen covering military conflict.

“You would go to the river and it would be clogged with bodies,” he said. “I sometimes wonder if these people in power even realize the impact their words have.”

Late in his career, Balman changed course and dove into behavioral communications. He eventually joined Creative Associates International in 2014, an international development firm, where he developed a division dedicated to mitigating security issues like violent extremism on behalf of governments and nonprofits. This eventually fizzled under the Trump administration. However, it was through this work that he began to see similar manifestations of violent radicalization in the U.S., where he found connections between white supremacists and police departments in Minneapolis years before the murder of George Floyd — something Murmuration deals with as well.

“That’s what I wanted to write about; the unholy trinity and the radicalization of America,” he said.

While the factual descriptions of high policy and diplomacy behind these conflicts make Balman’s storytelling robust, many of the most touching and memorable moments in Murmuration depict the characters living ordinary life in West Texas when they’re not charging through violent conflict on foreign soil.

Much of Murmuration takes place in Dell City, a small community located just outside of El Paso where Balman spent time researching the first book. From football to farming, ranching to West Point, Murmuration seeks to tell the story of modern-day America and what it means to be an American, exploring the classic staples of the country’s culture when seen through the eyes of immigrants.

Balman’s West Texas pride never comes at the expense of nuance, however. Through characters like Charlie, who suffers from a split personality disorder, the author also chooses to examine the difficulties of dual identity that come with being an immigrant in both a literal and figurative sense.

“The first thing we do with an immigrant in many cases, is we change their name, or they change their name wanting to blend in,” said Balman, who himself is the great-grandchild of European immigrants. “Second generation immigrants are particularly sensitive to identity. That inner conflict and inner kind of duality interested me a lot.”

“I kinda think of it as a pentimento,” he added, referencing the Renaissance technique of whitewashing used canvases and painting over them. “Once they’d finish their work, the old painting would start to bleed through.”

Balman also cited Ademar Zarkan, the Muslim tomboy-turned-U.S. sniper, as his favorite character in Murmuration thanks to her inner conflict, determination and strength.

“In the last couple of years, particularly writing the second book, I’ve come to really deeply examine my idea of feminism and femininity in this magical character,” said Balman. “I love that she’s such a powerful person — such a determined person and yet still secure enough to contemplate her insecurities and come to terms with them.”

Although he called writing her a “revelation” in exploring themes of gender, sexuality, femininity, masculinity and religion, he credited women like his publisher Brooke Warner as a catalyst for how the character came to be.

“When we started talking about the second book, she said, ‘You know, Ademar’s a really cool character. She could really be a generational figure … but you don’t go anywhere deep enough with her,’” he explained.

It was at her request that he read A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf’s famous essay in which the author recounts renting a room so that she can have a space of her own to write. This ended up lending itself to some intertextuality in Murmuration, when Ademar cites the famous essay after being asked why she became a sniper. Aside from quite literally being able to call the shots, being in that headspace behind the trigger is like having a room to herself.

Future plans include a final book to round off the trilogy. This next installment, which Balman has described as a “post-Trump, post-apocalyptic kind of thing” akin to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, will take place 30 years after the Capitol insurrection, with the characters Ademar and Charlie well into old age, and the United States, Mexico and Canada as a collection of self-ruled fiefdoms with no electricity, no computers or automatic weapons.

“My publisher’s really pushing me for this, but it’s gonna take a couple of years,” he laughed.

Front Street Books will host a launch party and book signing on July 30.