Interview with Rebecca Brown

We caught up with Rebecca Brown, author of AMERICAN ROMANCES (Citylights Publishers), on a warm and rainy afternoon and she was kind enough to set aside some time for us. Here’s some of what he had to say:

Where and when did writing begin for you?

I studied lit in college, writing and lit in grad school. My first book, a collection of stories that had made up most of my MFA thesis, was published in the UK in l984. Those stories, called THE EVOLUTION OF DARKNESS, weren’t published in the US until l992 in ANNIE OAKLEYS GIRL.

I always wanted to be a writer – since I was a kid, like in grade school.  I remember in third grade taking a vocabulary lesson and, instead of just writing sentences as we were assigned to, writing a ‘story.’  I don't remember the story I wrote, but I do remember that two of the vocabulary words were catastrophe and disaster.  “Wanting to be a writer” was pretty constant for me, all through junior high and high school, where I wrote copious diaries and journals, bad poetry, etc.  I had a brief period of being like, “I ought to do good in the world,” as in not be an artist but a storefront lawyer for good causes, but I couldn't stick to it.


Can you talk about your growth in becoming the writer you are today?

Here I am in my early 50s, a dozen books behind me, and I have to say that the things that have kept me writing, when many of my old pals have quit, are persistence, the support of friends and whatever degree of success I have had. 


You mention success. Any comments on failure?

One develops a bit more of a thick skin to not be so devastated by the rejections (and there are still MANY!). Also, of course, there is nothing else I can do, really.  I mean, I am an OK housekeeper and a good wife to my partner, but really, all I can do is read and write and teach and that is where most of my heart is, in the world surrounding books and art.

A few months ago, I was talking with my friend Carla Harryman, who is not only an amazing and inspiring writer, but also a pretty breathtaking teacher. She had invited me to do a visiting writer gig at the University where she teaches and we were talking about our histories as writers. She kind of came of age and came to herself within a milieu of West Coast new narrative, experimental writing, language poetry, etc. and that really formed her professionally and personally. I didn’t have a similar community.

I was an out-lesbian writing out-lesbian work in the early 80s, so the mainstream in the US would have nothing to do with me.  And I was writing this work not in one of the big centers of queer work, like NYC or California. Most importantly, though, my work was not like the realist narratives expected of me. Fortunately, I had a good friend from grad school who had found success in the UK, where the lines weren’t so sharply drawn in lit circles, and he was able to steer me to places that would like my work.  


Where did you ‘grow up’ and how much of your childhood experience makes its way into your writing?

My dad was military so we moved every three years – California, Texas, Kansas, Spain. I saw a bunch of different places and got comfortable with the idea of travel. This has remained hugely important to me.  Plus, I have written a lot about different places I grew up and that peripatetic life in my novel THE HAUNTED HOUSE and in the autobiographical pieces of THE END OF YOUTH. Some, too, in AMERICAN ROMANCES.


Which writers do you admire most?

I can talk an infinitum about writers I admire, writers whose works and whose daring, have inspired and moved me, made me want to be a writer. Stein, Woolf, Barnes, Kafka, Beckett. Also, more traditional writers like Cather. I am also kind of nuts about Hawthorne, as evidenced in AMERICAN ROMANCES, for which he is kind of a guiding spirit. I have recently been rereading Poe and before that a bit of a Melville phase. Japanese lit, Soseki’s TEN NIGHTS OF DREAM, Kawabata’s eerie surreal realism.... I’m also a big Hemingway fan, despite what a mess he was about women. But some of his sentences – just beautiful!  And, of course, he learned from Stein, too. 


What inspired American Romances? What is your favorite part? 

American Romances grew out of a few essays I had written in recent years without any sense of if or how they might fit together. But then a year or so ago, I got the chance to go away on a two-week retreat at Hedgebrook Cottages and took all this stuff I had written in the past years that had not been in a book yet, and read it... and lo and behold! I found that many of the pieces had this overriding idea of “American-ness,” which then set me off to write some more pieces exploring that idea and finally, I came to see them as a book.  Hawthorne, as I mentioned before, has always been a hero of mine, so those quotations from him were a natural way to organize and define the project.


In reading your work, you are fearless. You say things people are often too uncomfortable to say or ask or think and, particularly in American Romances, you couple them in ways that are unapologetic. How are you so fearless? Is this a conscious decision? If so, how does one sit-down and approach the page fearlessly?

I’ll take that as a compliment! On the one hand I have strong feelings about a lot of things, things I think are right and wrong, that I don’t want to lie or prevaricate about. On the other hand, I can’t abide preachy art, so I was nervous about getting into anything like that.  But when I really looked at why I felt afraid about some of the things I was saying, I had to admit that to not say them would be cowardly... Then I thought, what harm am I gonna do - no one who is gonna be pissed off reads my stuff anyway...


A hundred years from now if someone were to remember you based on what you’ve written or will write, what kind of writer would you want to be remembered as?

Well, you used that word “fearless” – I can’t think of a higher compliment than that.  I have also had my work described as emotionally intense and I would like that to be true, too. Also, careful – in terms of the art/artifice of it. The care I put into sentences, paragraphs, sound. The precision of the craft.


For up-and-coming authors, authors who have novels that haven’t yet been picked up, writers who are looking to start that first book, what advice do you have, or perhaps more specifically, what would you like to say to them?

Write what you want to write! Don’t try to write for some supposed abstract audience or editor ‘out there.’ Write what you need to write and if you don't need to write, don’t bother. Also, find one or two artist pals you trust to be your readers and cohorts. You really need the human support of other writers, which is one of things that going to grad school can get you –  finding those pals. And it’s one of the things I like about teaching at Goddard the most, it’s the real friends I have made there.


Rebecca, we'd like to thank you for letting us interview you. Hopefully, we can chat again when your next title is due out.

You're Welcome! I'd really like to thank you guys for what you do and would love to talk with you guys anytime. I look forward to reading the issue.

(Interview by Shokry Eldaly)

See our review of Rebecca Brown's American Romances

- For more on Rebecca Brown and American Romances visit: Citylights Publisher: Rebecca Brown