© Marta Stephens 2010 all rights reserved
Please join me in welcoming mystery author Elizabeth Brundage to Murder By 4. She holds an MFA from the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she received a James Michener Award. Before attending Iowa, she was a screenwriting fellow at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. Her short fiction has been published in the Greensboro Review, Witness, and New Letters. Her first two novels, Somebody Else’s Daughter and The Doctor’s Wife, were also published by Viking. She lives with her family in New York State.
Q. Elizabeth, please tell us a little about yourself and your writing journey.
A. As a child I loved telling stories. I loved making up grand stories for my babysitter, an elderly widow who wore her long gray braid coiled in a bun, and pushed her tissues up the sleeves of her cardigan sweaters. She took me very seriously -- I adored her. As a child, I enjoyed playing with dolls and creating complicated scenarios. I suppose my characters were “alive” to me even then. In high school I discovered poetry. I had a wonderful, incredibly cool English teacher who encouraged me to write.
My parents were also very story-oriented. My mother has always loved reading the newspaper, fascinated with the stories of people’s lives -- we’d talk about people and their lives at the dinner table, the problems people had -- and often, when we’d go to the movies, she’d always wonder aloud what the next scene would have been if it hadn’t ended. I grew up in New Jersey. My dad worked in Newark and I worked a few summers at his office in the Iron-Bound section and I loved the small city, the intricate, crooked streets, some of which were cobblestone, the diner on the corner where I’d order buttered toast wrapped in wax paper, and the excellent Portuguese restaurants with their crisp white table clothes and earnest waiters. This was the seventies -- things were happening -- the world was evolving in mysterious new ways.
My older brother had serious problems that twisted my family’s existence into a tightly wound knot. I would lay awake trying to figure out how to fix things; I couldn’t. But the problems compelled me and lingered and, gradually, I began to write about them.
I studied poetry and film in college, and went to film school out in Los Angeles where I began writing screenplays. I felt I had things to say -- this is, perhaps, where every writer begins. I started writing scripts on spec for people who paid me in cash under the table -- it was scandalous! Then an agent read a script I’d written and suggested I try writing fiction -- she said she liked my sentences. I decided to take her up on it and fell in love with writing fiction -- I suppose I found my voice. From then on, I focused on writing stories, and ended up going out to Iowa where I had the opportunity to devote myself to writing for two glorious years -- little did I know that within the first week of the program I would discover that I was pregnant. My husband, to whom I had been married to for less than a month, was in medical school in another state -- well -- we worked it out and that put an end to my drinking escapades in Iowa City, leaving me home to write and eat buckets of ice cream.
Q. Why A STRANGER LIKE YOU? What prompted you to write it and what do you hope your readers will get out of it?
A. This new novel is a bit different than the first two, more pared down and straight forward. I was interested in pursuing a linear narrative, while developing complex characters. I was also interested in attempting to create, in fiction, the elliptical time sequences that are more prevalent in screenplays as a way of reexamining the same scenes, the same periods of time, through different points of view -- something easily accomplished with a camera in film. For me, the book is really about film in so many ways. I wanted to explore the pervasive media-culture we live in and its ultimate effect on the way we live and behave as individuals. I hope readers can identify with some of the complex problems that I tried to explore.
Q. Tell us a bit about your protagonist, Hugh and how he came about.
A. Hugh is really a little bit of all of us. He represents the lost opportunities many of us have in our histories. Hugh is the sort of guy who has never really been taken seriously, and over the years it has chipped away at his identity. I named him Hugh Waters -- not a full color, transparent. Someone who isn’t quite sure who he is and what he is capable of. In the novel -- he finds out. I think many of us are capable of violence when provoked a certain way. For Hugh, when Hedda rejects his script, it’s the last straw for him and he snaps. Even though he’s married, he feels out of synch with his wife; he feels as though he has nothing to lose. There’s a wild freedom in that -- a kind of reckless expression that reminds me of terrorism. I tried to make that link in the book.
Q. Please share with our readers a little about the plot, the characters, the setting, of your novel.
A. The setting is Los Angeles in 2005, just two years after the invasion of Iraq. The world is off-balance, insecure. Hugh Waters, an insurance underwriter and film aficionado, takes a screenwriting class at a community college in NJ and remarkably succeeds in selling in to a small film company that specializes in raunchy B movies. But when the producer who acquired it dies suddenly, Hedda Chase, a young Ivy League hotshot, steps in to take over and dumps his project claiming that the script is violently implausible and misogynistic. Hugh’s dreams of Hollywood fame instantly disintegrate, and he decides to track Chase down and prove her wrong.
This is the architecture of the novel, but it’s really a character study of three individuals whose lives come together because of a car -- a vintage BMW -- and what becomes of them as a result. I wanted to explore various points of view. I wanted to write Hedda Chase in the second person to get the reader into her head -- to let the reader fully understand who she really is underneath her powerhouse exterior. Hugh is somewhat detached from everything he does -- he’s desensitized as a cyber character in one of those Xbox games -- and so he’s not really affected by his own actions. He has, in short, stopped feeling. Denny, an Iraqi war veteran in the throes of PTSD, is desperate to find redemption somehow and becomes the unlikely hero of the book. Each of the characters, for very different reasons, comes to a point of no return -- where everything they know in their lives must change. I wanted to see what would happen if I brought these three characters together, and how it would alter their destinies.
Q. Please describe the greatest challenge you faced in writing this book, why it was difficult, and how you resolved it.
A. The greatest challenge was having the courage to write about some of the subjects in this book -- the war in Iraq and some of the startling psychological effects it has had on many of our soldiers -- sexism in Hollywood -- the disturbing indifference to women in Iraq, and the pervasive culture of violence that has become routine in our own country. It can be difficult for a variety of reasons when you write about controversial issues, which I have done in all three of my novels. For this particular novel, I drew upon my experiences as a film student at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles, as well as the various, mostly insignificant jobs I had just afterwards, trying to work my way up in the film business. I wanted to explore a female producer’s perspective on the stories we tell -- the stories we have become all too familiar with -- and what might happen when one of those stories plays out for real. It was also a way to consider the theater of war -- the vast expensive production of it that cost so many lives. I’m interested in looking at what’s presented to us as the truth, and what’s authentic and real.
Q. How much and/or what kind of research went into writing this book?
A. Most of the research I did was about the Iraq war and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I interviewed several veterans and a nurse at a VA hospital who specialized in PTSD. I also researched the ways in which the lives of Iraqi women were jeopardized by the war, the tragedy of their continual victimization, both for religious reasons and as a result of collateral damage. I read an incredible book called War and the Soul: Healing Our Nations Veterans from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, by Edward Tick, and interviewed a very special marine named Sean who shared his story with me.
Q. What do you find the most difficult part of writing in general and what do you do to overcome it?
A. That’s a good question, because there are a lot of difficulties when it comes to writing and being a writer in our culture, in our times. As a novelist, I’m interested in trying new things, in developing my work in new ways, in pursuing a fresh, original voice. I’m interested in process. To some degree, I like “big picture” stories, attempting to incorporate many aspects of life -- many levels of contemplation, throughout a story, designing several character “tracks” that, although seemingly unconnected, lead in the same direction, to the same ultimate destination. I don’t think my novels are necessarily easy to read, even though some have called them page-turners. In my work, I am equally concerned with story; language; character; context, as I am with inspiring the reader to turn the page. I try to create an entire world. The hardest thing about being a writer is that you spend a lot of time alone, working very hard on something that requires a great deal of thought and sacrifice, and you are never certain of the outcome. With no small degree of speculation, you relinquish your work to the world -- the readers -- who each interpret it in their own way. It is never easy to predict how readers will react or how it will sell. It’s important to recognize the fact that, apart from writing and the creative process, publishing is a business, and when you link matters of the heart to matters of money, someone always comes out short in the end.
Q. How do you balance your time to make time for writing?
A. Writing is my profession; I treat it like a regular job. When I’m working on a novel, I write every day, usually from 9am-2pm, hopefully without fail. Some days are better than others. I think it’s very important to be disciplined and strategic about your work and sometimes, when you’re really on to something, you have to leave the beds unmade, the laundry undone, until you get it down on the page. As a result, your house may be a bit messy, and you end up eating a lot of pasta -- but routine is really the nuts and bolts of your practice as a writer -- because that’s what it is, that’s what you’re doing -- practicing. There is no perfect writing. You try things, you experiment. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t.
Q. What impact would you say completing A STRANGER LIKE YOU has had on you personally and on your writing?
A. It’s still too early to tell what impact this novel will have on me. I will say that I think it’s taken me to a new level in my work and I’m proud of that because I want to grow as a writer and continue to grow. I’ve begun working on something new that I’m really excited about.
Q. Who has been the greatest influence on you with respect to encouraging you to write and become a published author?
A. My parents -- that’s easy. They have encouraged me all my life. They have never said don’t. They have always made it seem like anything I wanted to pursue in my life -- anything at all -- was possible, not because of circumstance, necessarily, or comfort, but because they instilled in me the notion that I was capable of doing it. I think that’s the most important thing you can give your kids. That sense of strength. That it is possible to achieve your dreams -- that if you work hard enough eventually you will get to a new destination -- it might not be the ultimate dream destination, but at least you continue to move forward and your life is the adventure it should be. Possible, not impossible.
Q. With respect to your writing, please give us some insight into your writing process. In other words, did you outline the chapters? Did you think about the plot for a while before writing it? What steps did you take before you wrote the first sentence?
A. This novel grew out of a short story I had written a few years before. Then, one night I was over at a friend’s house and she had this old blue vintage BMW out in her back yard and I think a spell came over me and I started thinking about the car and all of its previous owners. It wasn’t the same car that I wrote about in the book, but it was very inspiring. So that’s pretty much where I started and the structure fell in line after that. I knew I wanted to write about Hollywood, the film industry. I liked the idea of considering the war in Iraq as a kind of Hollywood production for a variety of obvious reasons. That got me to Hedda, the fierce, ornery, Ivy League producer who turns out to something else entirely. When I revised my short story -- the first chapter of the novel -- I fleshed out the character of Hugh and began to understand him better. Then I started writing Hedda in third person as well -- this one night I just started writing her in second person and it felt right. From that point on the book really poured out for me. It’s a character driven novel -- the characters push the narrative forward. It didn’t end the way I thought it would.
Q. What are you working on now? What's next?
A. I’m working on a novel that’s set back in NY State, not far from where I live -- that’s about all I can tell you right now.
Q. Any words of wisdom and advice to aspiring writers?
A. Write. And read. Read everything you can get your hands on. Go into the library and read one first paragraph after another, just pulling random books off the shelf. Try to figure out why writers do what they do. Don’t make assumptions about writers who happen to be popular. Don’t make assumptions about writers who are not. Make up your own mind. Read them all. Write about something you care about -- write your passion whatever it may be. Don’t try to be too neat and careful. Life isn’t neat and neat is boring. Don’t worry about publishing. Worrying about publishing is a distraction that keeps you from writing. Eventually, if it matters enough to you (and I mean this sincerely), you will get published. But don’t expect your life to change. You are still that lonesome writer sitting all alone in a room facing the white page. Every time you start something new, you will come right back into the little room, re-inhabiting that persona -- your knees weak, your hands trembling, your back aching. The life of a writer stinks. Don’t think it doesn’t. Writing is an ordeal. You are a slave to your work. You do it because you must. Because there’s nothing else that quite makes you feel the same. It is a kind of sustenance. You do it because you have a voice -- you learn to use it -- you sing, you howl, you scream, you laugh -- and you want everybody to hear it. And do the same along with you. You are an artist. You are presenting your point of view. Your hopes, your fears, your dreams. Your work is a journey the reader takes. You take it together, writer and reader. You hold out your hand and say: Come.
Visit her website http://www.elizabethbrundage.com/ and the A STRANGER LIKE YOU Facebook page.