One of my local spies told me the popular Lifetime Sunday series, "Army Wives," is based on a book by a former Western New Yorker.
Lifetime recently announced that "Army Wives" is the "most-watched series in the network's 23-year history.
Tanya Biank, a former Heim Elementary School pupil, wrote the book upon which the series is based, "Under the Sabers: The Unwritten Code of Army Wives." (It's currently in stores in paperback under the name "Army Wives.") The show stars Kim Delaney, Catherine Bell and several other lesser-known actors.
Biank lived here from about age 7 through 11 when her father, Lt. Col. Sam Biank, was transferred to Western New York in the late 1970s to teach military science at Canisius College and head up the ROTC program.
She hasn't been here in years, but she plans to come in October when one of her husband's buddies is getting married in Tonawanda. Then she'll get together with my spy, her Heim classmate Tina Pilkey.
"I am an Army brat," explained Biank by phone from her home in Alexandria, Va. "We moved quite a bit." Her mom went back to school and graduated from Canisius. She said her parents are big Canisius supporters and bought their first home in Buffalo. She added she gave her dad a basket of products from Buffalo for his birthday last year.
"My parents have said if it had not been for the Army they would have remained there," said Biank. "They enjoyed it that much."
Biank, 35, wrote the nonfiction book after covering the military for a newspaper near Fort Bragg, N.C., in 2002 when four Fort Bragg soldiers murdered their wives and an officer's wife killed her husband.
"It happened in six weeks in one summer in one Army town," said Biank. After covering the story, she was approached about writing a book.
"I didn't really want it to focus on the murders," she explained. "We already had this tragedy here and I thought it would be equally tragic that the public might have a skewed perception of military life based on just the murders. There was more to military life and military community than these murders. That was really the story I wanted to tell. I didn't just want to tell a true crime book."
Married for three years to Lt. Col. Michael Marti, an intelligence officer at the Pentagon, Biank is raising their 8-month old son, freelancing for five military publications and blogging every Monday on the Lifetime series.
"It is kind of funny. When I wrote the book, I wasn't an Army wife," she explained. "It is an example of life imitating art for me. I met my husband the same week that I decided to do the book."
Of course, she understood military life very well since her father served for 30 years and she has an older sister, Maria, who is a lieutenant colonel in the Army. Biank is a military consultant on the show, which is setting records for Lifetime.
"I answer any questions the producers or writers might have or the wardrobe people," she explained. "Sometimes I'm asked about dialogue, protocol, the military acronyms."
The book is a nonfiction narrative, one reason that Biank never thought that it would become a fictional TV series. A Hollywood film agent got his hands on the book proposal and thought it had the potential for movie, miniseries or TV show before the book was written.
"People who have read the book will recognize the characters," she said. "But the book is non-fiction, the show is fiction. I can definitely see my real-life characters in these fictional characters. But things were changed also. It's a drama."
Of course, some of the soap opera elements in the script have been criticized as unrealistic. In one plot line that some chat room participants have found unreal, an Army wife became a surrogate mother to earn money for her financially-strapped family.
"It's been embellished on the show, but that is in the book," said Biank. "That is actually something that did [happen]."
Similarly, a plot line in which a teenager beats up his mother (Bell's character) is taken from real life. "Again things are exaggerated," said Biank. "But yeah, it happened."
There were dramatic inventions. A plot line in which a female officer's marriage is threatened because she is suffering from post-traumatic stress isn't in the book.
"I think it is a nice addition to have a male spouse whose wife is the one serving because that is realistic," said Biank. She adds a female character who plots to get her husband a top job also is a contrivance.
"At the same time, my book does cover the politics, the gossip. Things that can go on not only in Army wife circles, but in any office. Even any church group has that element of backstabbing and gossip. In the show, those are some of the funny elements. But I bet they probably strike close to home for some people watching."
Overall, Biank believes the show captures the spirit of the book.
"I think they've done a really good job," said Biank. "I don't look at my book as entertainment. And the show is definitely entertainment. It is not a docudrama of Army life. It is not a reality TV show about Army life. It is drama. At the same point, while the show is fiction, it deals with some real things from Army life. Disappointment, the separation, the danger, raising children in the military and living in an environment where you are in a constant state of readiness for war. How does this all relate to being a spouse?"
The series is timely because so many husbands and wives are dealing with similar things as their spouses serve in the Iraq war.
"There is a lot [of interest] because of the timeliness factor," agreed Biank. "But even if we weren't in a war, our service members are still serving and they're still going to places like Bosnia or Korea or the Middle East. They are still going to dangerous places."