Interviews | March 01, 1994
An Interview with Rosellen Brown
Interviewer: Can you tell us about your background, your family, and early influences?
Brown: I think my beginnings as a writer were not unlike those of a good many others. I was feeling particularly cast out at a certain point. I was nine, and the writing was a comfort. We had just moved from one coast to the other and I was very lonely in a new school, so I started taking along a secretarial notebook in which I didn’t so much confide as create friends for myself, and play with language, right out there on the playground where I thought at the time I was being ignored by the real kids. I’ll bet that endeared me to them, this girl sitting under a tree writing conspicuously in her little notebook. Interestingly this was the same year I felt it necessary to re-name myself. I was being called Rose Brown by a teacher too inattentive to notice that my name was actually Rose Ellen. So I began writing it as Rosellen, which has led, instead, to a lifetime of mispronunciation—but that’s another story. My sense of who I was or wanted to be was up for grabs, clearly, in this new place, and I can see now that I did an unprecedented, and unrepeated, job of self-creation. A thorough makeover.
Interviewer: Would you subscribe to the “writer-as-outsider” theory?
Brown: It’s always been pretty clear to me that most writers are slightly mismatched to their surroundings. Nothing original in that; it’s the sand-in-the-oyster theory. Whether the discomfort is that of personality, class, family situation, sexuality, whatever, very few seem a perfect fit. So writing begins, very often, defensively. It fills a void. I was a pretty decent artist when I was a kid, and a good musician, with an older brother who became a jazz drummer. Why the writing stuck I can’t say. To be honest, I often wish I’d become a musician. I’d rather be doing something nonverbal, something for which you didn’t have to be smart so much of the time. My intuition is better than my intellect.
Interviewer: But in the end you chose writing over music.
Brown: The thing that fascinates me about writing in my own life is that I don’t tend to think of myself as very daring or aggressive or even ambitious about anything else. Yet obviously it takes not only a sort of public boldness but a private, deeply held conviction of one’s talent and of the world’s need or desire to hear your particular voice to make you persevere against so many odds and so much silence. It is my single anomaly, this conviction that I must and would write, and that I would make myself heard. Just think of—oh, I don’t know, choose anybody—Flannery O’Connor, Philip Roth, Virginia Woolf, Muriel Spark, Donald Barthelme—I’m intentionally naming very mixed company. It isn’t hard to account for the certainty of their calling and the endlessly opinionated vigor of their writing: those are all people full of convictions. But my own fascination with the voices of others, and the pleasure I take in making them up and delivering them before live audiences, are mysteries. I sometimes think it’s just that I so enjoyed reading, early on. Although you don’t exhaust a book by consuming it, I still thought I needed to try to replenish the well a little with my own words. I’ll never understand this uncharacteristic self-assertion any better than that.
Interviewer: What kind of reception did your first books receive?
Brown: I remember that the editor for my book of stories sent me some yellow tulips on publication day. As a friend said recently, I didn’t know enough to realize they were the book’s funeral flowers! I had a two-book contract. My first advance was $5,000 for the two, and I was delighted with it. I had been a poet and it never occurred to me that I’d make any money at all.
Interviewer: What was the process that brought your first novel, The Autobiography of My Mother, into print?
Brown: It was a pretty typical deal: Doubleday would do my collection of stories, Street Games, if I’d commit myself to write a novel. It happened that I wanted to write one, so this was not an unwelcome form of coercion. If anything, it got me organized and kept me going when I felt like throwing in the towel. I suppose I could have reneged on the novel. It never occurred to me.
Interviewer: Were you surprised at the good critical response to that novel?
Brown: I’ll never forget receiving a telegram from my editor saying, “Congratulations, this is a wonderful book.” People think I’m exaggerating but believe me, I can hardly reconstruct my utter amazement. If I’d actually been aware of how little I knew, I’d have been even more astonished and grateful! Then the critics went on to educate me about what the book was about. It was beautifully reviewed by everyone but Anatole Broyard, who had also disliked my stories. But he was the only one who went into ‘print about it. It won the Great Lakes Colleges Association prize for the best first novel of the year. Of everything I’ve ever written, this was the book I knew least about and was most in need of help with, but the help came after the fact. It restored my faith, in a funny way. It assured me that I could write even on automatic pilot. True, pure writing in the dark. Such innocence! It will never happen that way for me again.
Interviewer: You say the help you needed with Autobiography came after the fact. Did you have help before that, with your poems and stories?
Brown: I had a couple of mentors. In college, the poet Robert Pack taught me a lot of things, the most important of which was to sit back down and write it again. And again. And again. When I finally found the right word, I knew I’d never have done that on my own. And the late George P. Elliott, a very dear man and an undervalued writer, had a good deal to say about compassion, about not judging one’s characters, about treasuring patience and neutrality. It’s cause for concern that, gender politics having become the abiding preoccupation it has, many women these days will only value instruction they get from other women. Yet the two men I’ve just mentioned, and another who was my journalism teacher in high school, took me and my talent very seriously and taught me lessons that transcended gender. Of the three teachers who most affected me in my hope to be a writer, only one was a woman, my freshman English teacher. What she did was simply to ask me if I intended to teach college. Since neither of my parents had gone to high school, it had never crossed my mind that such a thing might be possible for me, so that was an extraordinary encouragement.
Interviewer: You’ve worked in a variety of genres—fiction, poetry, essays. Have you ever written drama?
Brown: I’ve actually had a little experience with drama. The first theater piece I did was in 1983. A children’s theater in New Hampshire, where we lived for eleven years, until ’82, commissioned a musical, and a composer friend and I adapted that beloved classic The Secret Garden. We couldn’t market the play because of some unexpected copyright problems, and in the meantime Marsha Norman came up with her six-million-dollar Broadway version. Ours cost something like $250 to stage, and we did get our money’s worth! I’ve never had such a good time. Having collaborators—especially, I suspect, if you’re not working on your own book but on an adaptation of someone else’s—is an extraordinary experience for a writer who’s lived in that terrible isolation of her own mind for so long. To have set builders, costumers, a director and earnest, hard-working actors all putting their art into what you’re used to thinking of as your own fantasy is sheer pleasure. After The Secret Garden, my husband and I collaborated on a sort of documentary drama, featuring Isaac Babel as narrator, which gathered together testimony about anti-Semitism in Russia starting in the tenth century. The play, “Dear Irina,” was produced in Houston, where I live. I learned a few things about theater from it, but it was more agitprop than art, and intended to be so.
Interviewer: Not all fiction writers can write drama. Henry James is the classic example of a great novelist whose plays flopped. In your mind, how different are the two genres?
Brown: My most recent novel, Before and After, actually began as a play. I had an idea that felt too easy, too familiar, to render as a novel, and that coincided with my curiosity about whether I could write a decent original script. So I wrote an act of it, just enough to get into the meat of the story but not out the other end. I’d sent it to a director friend to ask if it had any promise and he entered it in his theater’s works-in-progress competition and it won! So more or less by accident I got to see my one act, my half-play, in a semi-staged reading and get a sense of how it worked as theater. There I discovered, as I had even with the children’s play, that the popular idea that writing good conversation has anything to do with creating viable theater is resoundingly wrong. Making visible equivalencies to what’s on the page—finding dramatic climaxes, tangible symbols—all that makes theater very different from fiction.
Interviewer: How did the play metamorphose into Before and After?
Brown: It happened that I had just put a failing novel away so that I could get a little perspective on it, and I was hungry to have another large project going. So I took the play and sort of wrote around it—transformed it into narrative. To be honest I think the novel begins much more cleanly than it would have had I begun it in my usual wordy way; you might say it “cuts to the chase” a lot faster than it would have. A few reviewers called the book “cinematic,” some as a compliment, some to give voice to their suspicion that, since the galley copy advertising had given out the word that the movie rights were already assured, I must have been thinking of it as a film all along. Not true, but I was seeing it as a play initially, so things move cleanly early on, uncluttered by too much authorial expansion.
Interviewer: What are you working on now?
Brown: I’ve gone back to writing poetry, not only to clear my head but to announce, to anyone who cares to notice, that I’m going about my business doing whatever presents itself as needing to be done. My favorite of all my books is a sort of novel-in-the-form-of-eighty-four-poems called Cora Fry that I published in 1977. I wrote that after The Autobiography of My Mother, literally to restore silence in my mind. Now I’ve gone back to visit Cora fifteen years later, to see how she’s doing in middle age.
Interviewer: How did the first book of poems about Cora “restore silence” for you?
Brown: Actually, silence was only half of it. In fact, I saw it spatially. After the very gray pages of the long mother/daughter argument that constitutes Autobiography, I needed spare, laconic, controlled speech, with a lot of empty white space around tiny little utterances. And that’s what I gave myself: the poems in Cora Fry are syllabic, tightly measured out. Cora is New Hampshire born and bred. I wanted a kind of analog to the rigorous speech of a native New Englander.
Interviewer: How does the sequel differ from the first book?
Brown: This time, having established Cora’s personality and her family and situation way back then, the challenge is in finding a new voice that’s still recognizably hers, yet shows the inevitable changes that have taken place. The problems and their solutions are as much technical as they are spiritual or emotional: no more syllabics, a looser, more variable line, a more expansive kind of prosody. I’m having a fine time doing these poems, which I hope will succeed because I love the character and many readers have been wonderfully devoted to her over the years. Farrar, Straus and Giroux is publishing the two books together next year.
Interviewer: You just called Cora Fry a “novel-in-the-form-of-poems.” Even when you work in other genres, you seem to have a novelistic sensibility. Is it a natural form for you?
Brown: I may or may not have begun with a “novelistic sensibility,” but I’ll say that in my experience, after you’ve written a couple of them you develop a novelist’s muscles—by which’ I don’t mean strong, I mean stretched! It’s gotten very hard for me to go back to small forms, which now tend to feel puny to me. As a reader I really prefer the short story to the novel, and a good story or poem already achieved doesn’t feel at all slight. I’m only talking about what it feels like to embark on the writing of one. The long forms are so spacious and the speed with which details accrete is so leisurely compared to the story, that it takes real discipline, and more flexibility than I think I have, to meet the demands of both genres simultaneously. Yet, I love the outcome of that discipline far more than the novel, which can and must accommodate so many imperfect choices. I appreciate the compression of stories and poems. A good story is like a jack-in-the-box: open it and be prepared for something surprising to leap out!
Interviewer: Your story collection, Street Games, could also be described as “novelistic.” The stories are linked through setting and characters.
Brown: The suite—the collection of interrelated stories or poems—is one of the wonderful compromises available to us. You can be the architect of something larger than its parts: The cumulative effect makes the payoff far more satisfying than the individual small work. I think a lot of short story writers who’d like to write a novel but haven’t much interest in, or skill at, the creation of plot have found that the way to make their work cast a larger shadow is to build it in small increments that, taken together, weigh more than they would individually. There needn’t be a long, intricate arc of plot, only the kind of path you can make out of modest mosaics. This is, to overstate it a bit, Chekhov’s answer to Tolstoy—a very contemporary pleasure.
Interviewer: How deliberate was the decision to link the stories in Street Games?
Brown: I had already written about half the stories when it occurred to me to join them into a kind of confederation. This was at a time when there weren’t a lot of those linked story collections out there. By virtue of my concentration on the neighborhood I was living in, I had been unintentionally painting a kind of portrait of the place. Once I had the concept, I was able to fiddle around the edges of a few stories to make those people seem like plausible neighbors, and then I generated such an endless list of other characters and emotional and sociological situations that I could have written a book twice as long before I exhausted it. The same is happening to me now with the “update” to Cora Fry. Every day I sit down to my notebook wondering what Cora has to tell me today. I have a list of possible—what should I call them?—complications.
Interviewer: What kind of complications?
Brown: Complications with implications. Wrinkles in the fabric of her life. At the rate they’ve been leading from one into another, I can see that I could probably write a poem every day forever. The momentum is thrillingly liberating. Out of it certain directions take shape, just as they do in fiction: To create a character we can understand and sympathize with, I have to find actions to elicit her re-actions, and that’s essentially a fiction writer’s strategy; this is a hybrid form. I can indulge my desire to make large gestures at the same time that I have the pleasures of extreme condensation, the pressure I can put on the word, the line, the stanza.
Interviewer: Do you have a sense of message, of purpose, as you write?
Brown: A lot of my fiction, and my poetry too, has been fueled by a sort of displaced political energy. My first book of poems, Some Deaths in the Delta, and my novel Civil Wars concern themselves with civil rights era Mississippi. Street Games, my short story collection, is about the diverse group of people who live on one block of Brooklyn, a very mixed block racially and economically. That, too, engages political questions, some head-on, some obliquely. Cora Fry is the voice of a woman very tentatively finding herself. And my most recent novel, Before and After, turns out to be far more political in its implications than I had originally expected it to be. A “safely” middle-class boy murders his small-town, working-class girlfriend, and many questions inevitably follow, not only about morality in general but about class and small-town chauvinism.
Interviewer: Where did the political energy originally come from?
Brown: I grew up in a somewhat left-leaning family, though no one had done much besides vote for Henry Wallace back when he seemed a wild radical to many, and send angry telegrams against the execution of the Rosenbergs. My mother used to tell us proudly that she was what was called a YPSL back in the twenties—that’s the Young People’s Socialist League. But I suspect hers was more idealistic, and social, than active participation. We were a rather typical family of a sort that included a majority of Jewish New Yorkers who were always liberal and committed to what we’d have called “progressive” political ideals. Voting Republican would have been as foreign as interterrestrial travel.
Interviewer: Civil Wars is probably your most political novel. Where did the material for that book come from?
Brown: In 1964, just at the point when my husband was finishing his graduate degree, I received an invitation from the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship people who had paid my way through my master’s degree, to teach in a “disadvantaged” college in a program they had just begun. The colleges were mostly in the South, mostly, though not solely, black. I remember we looked at each other and said, “How can we not?” This was just before the summer of ’64 and there was an urgency to the call that we couldn’t ignore. We were eager to do our bit in what we thought was the relatively protected setting of a college rather than a Freedom House; we hadn’t really intended to walk right into the heart of the action. But when we were given a choice of postings, we ended up in Mississippi and, there in our first jobs, at the college and in the early poverty program, we had our lives turned around. My husband, who had just gotten his Ph.D. in clinical psychology, never became a practicing psychologist, but pursued more community-related work. And I found not only the subject matter for two of my books, but got what I think of as an initiation into the realities of American political life. People are lucky, sometimes, to be swept up by interesting times—though under a cruel star they can be ruined by them. We didn’t have to go looking hard for an experience that gave us heroes and heroines, ideals and some of the means of addressing them.
Interviewer: Do you consider yourself an activist?
Brown: I’ve spent a lot of time wishing I were of the turn of mind that makes for activism. I admire Grace Paley and Tillie Olsen and dozens of others tremendously, but I have no talent for public life, either organizationally or emotionally. So I’ve resigned myself, not without a searing sense of guilt, to chronicling some of the inner landscape that’s shaped by political realities. I felt least momentarily exonerated when an anonymous reviewer in New Republic took me to task for saying somewhat defensively on the back of my first book of poems, Some Deaths in the Delta, that “poems are not action nor action’s substitute.” Someone told me the writer was Robert Coles, whom I unabashedly admire. Whoever it was, he or she said that good poems are events, and that their utility perhaps lasts longer than many of the acts that could be done by any one of a thousand soldiers for change. I know what the reviewer meant, but I still wish I were a more flexible and efficient person so that I didn’t feel I continually have to make a choice between a life in the world and a life at my desk.
Interviewer: How deliberate is your choice of political themes?
Brown: Much of what I’ve written has more than incidental political implications, and all the way back to the time when I lived in Mississippi in the mid ’60s I’ve felt that the activism I wasn’t very competent at could be sublimated in my writing. But I have to search for those subjects; they don’t seize me and demand to be
given voice. I work at figuring out how to embody other people’s voices, not all of them aggrieved. I find myself wishing I didn’t have to feel defensive about starting, not with an agenda, but with that elite-sounding motivation, a love of words; or, pardon the expression, “art.”
Interviewer: Would it be fair to say, though, that political themes contribute to the success of your work?
Brown: I think they do. I don’t know if people read me as political, with the possible exception of Civil Wars. But I’ll tell you that from the Mississippi and Brooklyn poems in my first book, to questions about history and about personal versus public duty in The Autobiography of My Mother, to many of the stories in Street Games and on into the present so-called family novel, I’ve thought my work political, though not with any didactic intention. I don’t have a particular constituency—race, gender, whatever—on whose behalf I write. I also tend to raise more questions than I want to answer, so I think it wouldn’t occur to some to think of me that way.
Interviewer: Would you agree with the notion that all art is political?
Brown: Yes, all art is political. Thinking it’s not is a political stance in itself. It was very strange and disquieting that one of the approaches taken by a lot of interviewers when Before and After came out last year was to invoke “family values” as a background against which to talk about my book. At best, after I’d disposed of the right of any political party to appropriate such values and to assume it represented the only “truly American” ones, it gave me a chance to talk about the question that lies somewhere near the heart of that novel: are we obligated to love, that is, to protect, other people’s children as well as our own? The family is a tribe, and if we are ever going to get beyond the most primitive concern only for “our own,” then we need to see our responses as political even if they don’t seem on the surface to have any ramifications beyond the “home and hearth.” This of course can be extended to neighborhood, to ethnic group, to nationality and race.
Interviewer: While we’re still on the subject of politics, you sometimes come down hard on a certain kind of liberal. Sarah and Michael Rappaport, for example, indulge in “fashionable mercies” and “knee jerk charity.” Do you see such characters as symptomatic of a larger impulse?
Brown: I suppose I find attractive—I wouldn’t call them “targets,” exactly, but “tokens” of certain kinds of contemporary earnestness—in characters like Sarah and Michael, though I tried not to caricature them. They are decent, concerned, the “best kind” of liberals out there, doing the best they can from their comfortable place in the scheme of things. I’m not unsympathetic; in fact I’m similar in some respects, except that I may see myself more clearly, and thus more harshly, than they do. At the far distant end of the same spectrum I have made characters like Gerda Stein in The Autobiography of My Mother and Teddy in Civil Wars, who are so passionately involved in their political and ideological pursuits that they lack many “merely human” and domestic virtues—common sense for one. That’s clearly a stance I don’t recommend, either, so I don’t know that I challenge the pious simplifications of my “liberal” characters so much as I try to show that, viewed from the perspective of anyone who’s radically troubled, their pleasant solutions are simply inadequate—wishful thinking.
Interviewer: One of your more impressive characterizations is Jacob Reiser in Before and After. Can you talk a little bit about how that character developed?
Brown: Readers are always curious about how characters develop. I have to admit that I display the same somewhat naive curiosity about the books I like. But how does anything in a book develop? How do we combine the things we “know” with the things we “guess” or “intuit,” and how do the demands of a particular work shape our knowing? The answers are all extremely specific. In Before and After, for example, I had to make Jacob into what I needed for the circumstances. Disappointingly mechanical as this might sound, he was a “what” before he was a “who.” The situation was simple at the outset: What stimulated me to write the book was a murder case, an intriguing component of a case, here in Houston. A seventeen-year-old boy was accused of a terrible murder and when it came time for his parents to give their testimony to the grand jury, they refused, on the grounds that the same privilege should extend to parents that protects spouses from having to bear witness. They went to jail rather than give evidence against their son.
Interviewer: How close is your story to the actual case?
Brown: The details bear no relation to the ones I ultimately invented. I began with the absolutely un-fleshed out premise that if a boy were accused of murder, his whole household would be thrown into wretched disarray. This is a family crisis—the catastrophe would befall all of them. Period. The first thing I thought of was to move the action to a small town. Someone else might have seen this as a quintessential big city story but I knew that I didn’t want to write that story. Here I was driven by my own obsessions, which in this case include not only my knowledge and love of small-town New England life, but also the sense that the effects of such a crime would cast a firmer shadow, full of social and psychological implication, across a village of five thousand than a city the size of Houston. Then I started building backwards, in a sense: What kind of family might this be, to precipitate the greatest dramatic conflict?
Interviewer: Jacob, the teenage murderer, is amazingly convincing—especially considering you’re the mother of two girls. Would you say he’s a normal kid?
Brown: I wanted him to seem a more or less regular kid with a few kinky, inexplicable habits. I have two older brothers but I can’t say they were really my models. After all, they were teenagers in a different generation. Living in the world, you sop up a lot of things you don’t even realize you’ve taken in. My husband teaches high school kids; some of our friends have boys—teenagers—who slouch and mumble and terrify their parents into wondering if they’re pathological or normal. I remember Anne Tyler saying once that she was grateful for all the pop culture her daughters dragged in across the doormat. A lot of those details aren’t as gender-bound as you might think. So the little fragments of Jacob’s life were cobbled together without much difficulty. As for his soul, his offstage inner life—it’s kind of up for grabs, isn’t it? I don’t see him as terribly disturbed. I wanted him to live on a continuum not too far from where boys live, with better luck, who don’t fall into the pit of their own worst possibilities. Where my real concentration lay was in the construction of the parents’ sense of loss as their children grew up and began their hidden lives. Any parent could write those scenes, provide his or her own sad and happy little details. Really, all I wanted to do was try to build a more or less ordinary family life and then make it run askew, but not so askew that my readers wouldn’t see themselves watching their children’s lives as they recede into privacy and mystery.
Interviewer: You say you don’t see Jacob as terribly disturbed, yet you make a lot of his “kinky inexplicable habits,” and of his temper.
Brown: Jacob’s temper is his father’s, visited upon him out of Ben’s unresolved problems. But even Carolyn is finally compassionate about Ben’s anger. She says to their lawyer, what is a person to do with problems he’s tried his best to solve? Ben’s had therapy, he’s done as well as he could. But, she says, “Children taste what their parents swallow.” Try though one might, children will feel those effects, but what is to be done? Should we give our children up? Should we be prevented from having them until we’re perfect?
Interviewer: The scene in which Jacob stones a dog is especially disturbing. Why did you choose that action?
Brown: I’m not sure I should have chosen anything quite so alarming as the stoning of that dog. I’ve given it a lot of thought since I’ve published the book and heard how many readers are practically ready to have Jacob committed for this act of random cruelty. What I was really trying to do—and it might not have been calibrated quite perfectly—was to show a boy still unformed, trying out his capacity to give pain. At one point his mother thinks of how she’s watched him trying to look a little sinister in his black and red and yellow parka. He’s a boy on the edge of manhood, uncertain of what constitutes masculinity. In fact, though it turns out that she suffers violence at his hands—an act of passion, not of intention-he has been very decent to his girlfriend, Martha. He has not been brutal. He’s even been careful and thoughtful in their sexual relationship, about making sure she doesn’t get pregnant. And she accuses him of being a wimp, because she has another boyfriend, the one who has made her pregnant, who wasn’t as controlled and mature. She uses this against Jacob.
Interviewer: A fair amount of Before and After revolves around the workings of the criminal justice system. What role does research play in your work?
Brown: Most books take some kind of research. Even when you’re in an arena you know well, there are always specifics you need to learn. That’s one of the pleasures of trying to go far afield from your personal experience. Most writers don’t know enough about other kinds of work. It does us good to turn our attention outward, away from the subjectivity we invest in our characters. The major danger of research is that you don’t want to stop to begin the writing. I did a lot of talking to lawyers to help me straighten out procedures, not to mention legal attitudes, for Before and After. One of my terrors was that somebody like Scott Turow would embarrass me in public—in a Times review, say—for making some egregious legal error. It was a great relief to get a note from him telling me that he envied me my book! I also got a note from Perri Klass, who’s a pediatrician and a writer. She seemed to find my pediatrician sufficiently convincing. You breathe a real sigh of relief when you hear that from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, especially because, unlike Tom Clancy who learns all about tanks, or Michener who has a staff of researchers, you want your research to be discreet. You want to keep it in perspective and not let it get the upper hand.
Interviewer: What about Tender Mercies? What research about quadriplegics did you do to create Laura?
Brown: For Tender Mercies I had some wonderful cooperation from a woman I realized, when I was about a third of the way through the book, I’d read about in an old Ms. magazine. She sounded very much like my character. Both were quadriplegics, and their similarity sprang from their particular brand of irony that’s not surprising under the circumstances. I searched her out, and she talked with me quite candidly and let me watch certain procedures when the “handlers” in her nursing home came to take care of her. She was able to do that without embarrassment because people whose bodies have become objects have buried their sense of self. Watching her helped me locate what was left to my character, Laura, and her husband Dan. As the body becomes a burden, no longer a pleasure, one seeks elsewhere for the soul.
Interviewer: Would you recommend a writing career to your children?
Brown: I do happen to have a daughter who’s pursuing the writing life, but she never asked me what I thought of the idea. I don’t think anybody can give useful advice about becoming a writer. It’s one of those things, like dancing or acting or any number of chancy, expressive things about which vocational counseling will not avail. If you’re not passionate about it, the question will soon enough answer itself. The one thing I do say to people who think they want to do this is that they probably ought to major in something other than English in college. Even now, with a very congenial teaching schedule, I wish I were doing something else besides the endless dissection of other people’s head-work. But by now I’m stuck with it—though this isn’t to say I don’t enjoy it a lot of the time.
Interviewer: What would you tell a young writer about the financial unpredictability of the profession?
Brown: It’s gotten hard for this generation to live with the uncertain financial situation that writers have put up with in the past. There are too many well-worn paths to fellowships, teaching jobs. If others have them, why not themselves? Understandable enough: it’s hard to go barefoot when everybody else is wearing good shoes. I’m saddened, often, to see our students graduate and stop writing because they think they need to maintain a certain standard of living that might be more negotiable than they dare imagine. They’ve grown up without much patience for penury. For the children of the middle class it feels outdated. I hate to sound self-righteous about this, but the fact is that early on, my husband and I lived mighty close to the bone because I didn’t have a paying job. I was home writing; that was my apprenticeship. Would-be writers need to recognize how many of what they think are rock-bottom needs are really choices, within their control.
Interviewer: What effect have the opinions of others and the pressures of the marketplace had on your choices of subjects and genres?
Brown: I don’t think I’ve been much influenced by others’ expectations in choosing, or letting myself be chosen by, genres, subjects, level of accessibility. Partly this comes of starting out as a poet, with no expectations of commercial success. And of being a poet, and then a fledgling short story writer, at a much more innocent time. Though I didn’t write in a vacuum, I was pretty isolated from any group of knowledgeable writers. For a little while in New York I used to get together with Erica Jong and Norma Klein, old college friends, to look at each other’s work—we were quite near the beginnings of our publishing careers—and talk about this cottage industry of ours. Then I moved to New Hampshire, where I didn’t really know many writers. What I remember is that I had pretty modest ambitions: I wanted to publish in the little magazines. Of course I wanted a book, but unlike my graduate students these days I had no idea what any of that actually meant or what I might dare demand. They are jealous very early of other people’s publications, advances, reviews, visibility. In my innocence, I truly didn’t have a clue that any of that might be mine—I just wrote, sort of dumbly. Now I work with students who’ve taken the pulse of every writer out there. The poets, especially, are avid analysts of career, reputation, rising and falling stars. I’m not sure I could have withstood this competitiveness—this sense of writing as a profession with a job description and salary demands, and a timetable.
Interviewer: You’ve made it in the profession now—you’ve written a best-seller. What demands are made on the author of a commercial success like Before and After?
Brown: Well, I have to say I think of it as a pretty stingy success: lots of praise, a place on the best-seller list, a dream set of reviews, many other fantastic, unimaginable commercial things happening to it, but none of it enough to make me exactly a household name. Before this, no one had much bothered to market anything of mine as far as I could see. In the case of Before and After, I finally had an invitation to the dance—the exhausting, exhilarating, frequently preposterous business of the book tour, the endless readings, the tedious, earnest questions—for which I’m not ungrateful. That’s what you get, or rather give, when you finally have an audience.
Interviewer: Would you say it was a valuable experience?
Brown: I learned a lot about marketing this year. It’s very interesting, but it’s in the hands of the publicity department at your publisher and you’re pretty passive if you’re willing to play the game. I will say that being available for all the self-promotion takes a lot of time. I don’t know how people manage to rise to it book after book. It’s a great way to keep you from writing for months at a time. But once in a lifetime—it was a terrific ride!
Interviewer: Now that you have gone back to poetry, do you worry about losing your new audience?
Brown: I’m sure that the next thing I publish, which will be as uncommercial as my other seven books, will disappoint my new readers, but I consider the “marketability” of Before and After a happy coincidence of subject, marketing and luck. I don’t expect to repeat it, nor do I even want to try. The only reason you keep your audience in mind when you write is to help your work make the best possible sense it can make, on its own terms. The charge you give yourself is self-fulfilling, self-delighting. You are shaping the best story or novel or poem possible. Part of that imperative might demand a certain lucidity, or a certain mood, or a certain playfulness. The point is that the command comes from within the work. Hack writers aren’t writing for themselves, they’re cutting their fabric to a pre-existent pattern that they know is selling well that season. All serious writers are their own audiences, with all the books of the past looking over their shoulders. If our readers’ pleasure coincides with our own, that’s all the better.
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