Suspend Your Disbelief

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Keeping the Faith: An Interview with Amy Brill

"I had a very clear sense of what her world looked like and what her actions were, but it took many, many drafts to get to the point where I knew what she was feeling and thinking and could articulate it on her behalf. " Novelists and writing buddies Amy Brill and Allison Amend discuss the lives of their long term projects.


Amy Brill (c) Christina Paige

Amy Brill has pulled off a magic trick—a highly literary novel that manages to enthrall even as it educates. In her debut The Movement of Stars (Riverhead), Brill’s protagonist Hannah is an amateur astronomer (inspired by real-life scientist Maria Mitchell) living on Nantucket in the 1840s. Her observation of the stars is about to end, though. Her father is moving off-island and as an unmarried woman in a strict Quaker religion, she has to follow him. Complicating matters is her new Azorean navigation student, Isaac, who draws her in as her community rejects her for her individualism. Lyrical to the extreme, Brill’s prose brings to life a remote time and place, engaging us so that Hannah’s passions become our own.

Amy and I met at Paragraph, a New York writing space where we both worked. But I’d known her for years peripherally, the way emerging writers in New York tend to appear at the same events. She had published stories; I’d published a collection (Things That Pass for Love, 2008) and a novel (Stations West, 2010) from small presses. We formed a writing group along with Leigh Newman four years ago. Leigh was under contract for her fantastic memoir Still Points North (The Dial Press), and Amy and I had completed first drafts. A few years later, earlier this spring, all three of our books would be published within six weeks of each other, including my novel A Nearly Perfect Copy (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday), which has to do with the world of art auctions and forgeries.

The Movement of the Stars is the product of over ten years of research, writing, and revising. Amy stole moments at the stairwell in the gym (there was free childcare for an hour) and in the early mornings before work, and she wrote in her mind when her hands were occupied. This passion and dedication shows in her craft, her tightly constructed narrative, and, above all, the book’s evident heart.

We interviewed each other via email over the course of a month this spring while both of us were touring with our respective novels. For anyone whose life gets in the way of her writing, Amy, as well as her protagonist Hannah, serves as an inspiration and a lesson in perseverance!


Interview:

Allison Amend: We both did a lot of research for these new books. For you, that research included 19th century society, astronomy, and religion, as well as speech, comportment, and daily life. Whew! What do you do with the mounds of research you acquired? I have had the privilege of reading earlier drafts of Movement of the Stars and know that a lot of what you learned didn’t make it onto the final pages. Can you talk about the paring or pruning process?

Amy Brill: Paring and pruning is a great phrase. I started this book long before google existed, much less google books and google scholar. So my mountains of research physically retreated as more of my files became digital rather than pulp-based. Of course that also meant that I could spend entire days sleuthing out arcane details of 19th century life that would never even make it into the book. Such is the nature of Internet research—it is a vortex inside a rabbit hole. I sort of packed everything into my first draft and spent the next ten drafts paring it down to serve the story. You helped with that immensely, though I remember getting to a certain point and giving it to you and another reader, Jennifer Cody Epstein, and you said, “Too much astronomy! Too much with the Quaker stuff! I don’t need to know all this.” And she said, “I want more astronomy! More Quakers!” And I thought, well, maybe I’m done…

Speaking of research—your grasp of the art and auction world sounds quite authentic, at least to me. As far as I know you don’t have a fine art background. What drew you to that realm, and how much did you feel like you had to know about it in order to do the story justice?

Of course you listened to me and and not Jennifer, right?

I don’t have an art background at all above an appreciation level. I was interested in the criminal world of art forgery: why would you want something forged, and who would forge something? I, too, learned a lot—for example, about the chemical processes behind art authentication—and then decided that it was too hard to explain (or even, really, to understand if you’re not a chemistry PhD). So I jettisoned it all and focused on forgery of drawings, which is much easier. If you buy me a drink, though, I’ll tell you all about it!

I’ve long said that the best place to do research is in middle school libraries—there’s quality information there, but none of it too scholarly. You have to know a lot to write research-heavy fiction, but very little of it has to be in the manuscript for it to be convincing.

Speaking of your ten-year saga (and I conceived of my project in 2001, though did not start writing it in earnest until 2006 or so), how did you keep the faith in your project? And… what took you so long?

I split the difference and cut some of the astronomy (but not all). My editor took it further. If I had another go at it now, I’d probably cut even more of all of it. The more I read it and read from it, the more I feel the desire to cut. It’s like the words themselves begin to arrange themselves as a challenge, a puzzle in which the most that can be conveyed in the least number of words starts to look like the best possible arrangement. I can’t explain it. I actually love language. It’s like a post-novel aphasia.

In terms of keeping faith in my project, I think a lot of it had to do with not wanting to embarrass myself. Or, to put it another way, I felt as if so many other people had faith in my project, even when I didn’t—I’m thinking about all the fellowships and artist residencies and research opportunities I’d been given—and I just didn’t want to let them down. So I can chalk up my perseverance to ego, in part. As to why it took so long… you mean besides lack of time, lack of confidence, over-reliance on research, need to make money, and the addition of two children? I guess I missed the “how to write a novel” memo back in 1998.

Movement of StarsSpeaking of how we write… this was my first book, but your third. Your first book of stories, Things That Pass for Love, dealt with contemporary relationships, sex, bodies falling out of the sky… and your second book, the incredible novel Stations West, took place among badass Jewish settlers in mid 19th century Oklahoma. Now you’ve come back to the present, though A Nearly Perfect Copy explores different issues entirely, at least on its surface. Are there any thematic bonds among these seemingly disparate stories and characters? And how do you tend to arrive at your subjects—does each begin, for you, with one character, or with a scene from which a novel germinates, or do you start each time with a fully-formed narrative arc in mind?

That’s like five questions, but I’ll answer them in order!

First of all, I do think there are thematic links between my pieces (even if their styles and subject matters are wildly disparate). All have to do with the notion of family—the people we choose and those who get handed to us by the vagaries of genetics. I’m interested in what people will do to obtain and maintain these ties. I also like to push my characters—how strong do their desires have to be that they’ll compromise their ethics in order to pursue them?

My process changes each time. In the case of the stories, most came from character: “What if I wrote about a _______?” The novel came from my fascination with my mother’s family’s history. Stations West is ultimately not about my family, but it is a story of the underbelly of the American west. A Nearly Perfect Copy began with what one should not begin with—a social issue, namely that of the nature of authenticity. Eventually I jettisoned that in order to tell these two protagonists’ stories. My next book is another historical novel, this one set in the early part of the 20th century. I’m a masochist!

What was the most difficult part for you in the writing of this story? If that’s hard to pin down, what challenges did you have getting inside the head of Hannah, who, though she might share certain feminist characteristics with you, was unable to express them? How about Isaac?

The most difficult part, for me, was certainly getting inside Hannah’s head. It took years. She is so reticent by nature, and by nurture so swift to shut down any unruly feelings, that writing from her perspective was maddening at first. I knew that she had very strong feelings about the constraints she faced as a woman in a male-dominated world—and by that I mean the professional and civic world as well as the culture at large. The Victorian ideal of the passive, uber-feminine “angel at home” was anathema to professional accomplishment. But her inner world—how she really felt about other people, how she regarded herself, what she longed for—that was hidden from me for a long time. I had a very clear sense of what her world looked like and what her actions were, but it took many, many drafts to get to the point where I knew what she was feeling and thinking and could articulate it on her behalf. It felt like a mighty, and often overwhelming task, voicing Hannah. But as the years went by and I began to understand her better, to see her vulnerability as well as her rigor, it enabled me to get closer to her.

As for Isaac, this is counterintuitive but he was much easier to write. I mean, I did plenty of research on his background and his life and what it might have been like for him living in different places, like Philadelphia, or on a whaleship, and what the Azores were like then, and what the history was there. I loved writing him. In fact, at least one earlier draft of the book vacillated between their two POVs. It gave me a lot more freedom, but it was really distracting. Ultimately this book had to be Hannah’s story. So his whole backstory was cut down, as well as some secondary characters attached to him that were in earlier drafts of the book.

I’m often asked if I’m going to write a sequel to this book, and the answer is a resounding no. But I am definitely going to write the story of Isaac’s first whaling voyage, on the Valiant, one of these days. In all my spare time.

Speaking of feminism… I was happy to see a dog on the cover of your book. No, really. Because while (for me at least) Elm is the heart of the book, and her issues—dealing with grief and the new shape of her family after the loss of her son, grappling with the implications of her choices, navigating via her flawed moral compass—could be construed as female-centric, there’s no girl in a flowing dress on the cover of your book. Were you pleased with this choice as it pertains to the potential male or female reader of your book? Are you sick of hearing about “women’s” fiction, girls-on-covers, and the VIDA count? Or can we not evade such issues if we are talking about being female authors of ostensibly literary fiction? Discuss.

That’s a very good question. I am not sure I’ve thought about it in the in-depth way many authors have, though certainly I don’t like the idea that women were being pulled out of “American Novelists” on Wikipedia and put into “American Female Novelists” (especially because it was all spearheaded by that weirdo who spams my Facebook profile). What I don’t like even more is that I’m not included in either entry but that’s a different question….

I’m of two minds about this. There does seem to be an old boys’ club (I call it “Dick Lit”), which likes to stroke each other’s… egos. But I’m not sure we women should even want in that club. My non-writer friends (intelligent, educated women with little time to read) are apt to buy a book with a woman on the cover, because it looks to them like something they might want to read. But there is a way in which this harkens back to the censuring of literature that women could “handle” in previous centuries.

I love the dog on the cover. They had to talk me into it initially, but I’m so glad they did. I wanted an artsy-fartsy cover, which I think would have inhibited its sales. (Amazon reviewers said they bought the book for its cover. Ok by me!) I would have been annoyed if, say, they’d wanted a woman staring into the ocean for the cover. But why? Because it looks like a less literary book? Because then no men would buy a book with a woman on the cover?  This seems to me to be insulting to men as well.

A Nearly Perfect CopyAlso, I sometimes forget that publishing is a business (or, at least, it used to be). Publishers are in it for the money, or they can’t continue to publish books. I believe their metrics are flawed and they certainly don’t really understand how to get the pubic to buy books, or the industry wouldn’t be in so much trouble. But I do have confidence that they know what sells better than I do. Sometimes that’s at odds with writers’ goals for books. (I mean, I want it to be a runaway bestseller with movie deals and so forth. But if that’s not going to happen, then I want critics to acclaim it and other writers to praise me. That’s not publishing’s first priority)

Does that make any sense? What are your thoughts? In general I’m glad people are talking about it.

It does make sense, and I feel much the same. At the same time, I don’t know a lot of men who will pick up a book with a woman in a flowing dress staring out at the ocean, and think, “Ooh, this looks like it will be FASCINATING.” I think in general people gravitate toward what seems to speak to them, and publishers believe, based on their possibly-flawed-but-the-best-they’ve-got metrics that women respond to books that have a woman on the cover, gazing out to sea, preferably wearing flowing clothes, like a sort of literary “Calgon, take me away!” moment during which they decide they simply must read that book. And women are the big book-buyers. So from a business sense, it makes sense to them to proceed that way. In my case, I know that a lot of thought went into the cover of my book beyond that—comparisons to similar, literary-historical novels, whether to go with something photo-realistic or abstract, and so forth. I don’t think any publisher wants authors to be miserable. I like my cover—I think it is elegant, appropriate, and attractive.

It does bother me, though, that said cover is potentially off-putting to male readers simply because it is presenting itself as being for women, because it is primarily about a woman. The larger issue, I think, is the idea that men don’t want to/won’t read books that feature women protagonists. I’m pretty sure that is not an across-the-board truism, but a combination of cultural conditioning, marketing, and a literary press that, at it’s ostensibly “highest” echelons, remains abysmally skewed toward male writers and reviewers (Tin House and Poetry being notable exceptions—thank you, VIDA count!).

I guess my last question is the one I always hate, but what everyone always wants to know: what next? Do you feel inclined to go back to writing short stories now, or do you feel wedded to the long form? Historical or contemporary?

One more note on the Calgon novel: I was getting my nails done in the West Village when two twenty-somethings began to discuss what to read on their vacations.  One said that she was, like, in two book clubs, and wanted something lighter to read. I steeled myself for a “Chick Lit” moment. But her friend recommended Chad Harbach, Louise Erdrich, and Elizabeth Strout. So readers are alive and well! (I considered approaching them to pitch our novels, but I was soaking polish off at the moment, and it seemed not quite appropriate.)

Ok, on to what next: I don’t mind this question, actually. It’s a relief to talk about something new! I’m halfway through a novel about American spies in the Galapagos Islands in the 1930s, based loosely on real-life characters. I swore I would never write another historical novel, but the topic was too good to pass up!

I write very few short stories these days, and I want to explain why, because I think it’s an interesting phenomenon. I wrote stories because I liked them, they were easier to workshop when I was in graduate school, and they were good for “getting my name out.” Now that I’m no longer in grad school and my name is “out” (sort of), it seems like a bit of a misplacement of resources. I have so little writing time (and I know you do too!) between my full-time teaching job at Lehman College, and my part-time faculty status at the Oklahoma City University Red Earth MFA (it’s a great program, check it out!) that I need to be working on a project that will really help my career. I hate to couch it in these terms, but writing is a career, and should be strategized as such. I think a lot of writers don’t like to talk about anything but the art, but the truth is that we need to eat. Of course, occasionally I’ll get a really great idea for a story and will sit down and write it, but mostly I plug away at my longer projects.

How about you? You worked so long on The Movement of Stars that it must feel a bit like you’ve sent your baby off to college. Have you managed, amidst family rearing, publicity, and daily life, to think about the next step?

think about the next step all the time, and I do take a variety of steps (mincing, prancing, sashaying) in a variety of directions (short stories, essays, a’s to q’s) on the three days a week that I get to work. Having two kids under five (and not being independently wealthy) has definitely impacted my ability to dig into a next novel while simultaneously promoting this one. Unlike you, though, I’ve found great pleasure in the short story during this between-books period. I think I didn’t fully trust myself to write them before now. I never got an MFA and haven’t had a regular writing group since the mini-one we were part of together while finishing these books, and I was always very hesitant about them. Now that I worry less about everything being perfect, I’ve found myself really drawn to the form—short stories feel like great places to experiment and navigate new literary terrain, as well as recover from working on the same 400-page thing for over a decade. For my next novel, I’m torn between a story I really want to tell—something to do with the Jewish migration to Argentina at the turn of the 20th century, during which my maternal grandmother was born—and a contemporary or even post-contemporary novel that I can’t describe yet. Maybe I should crowdsource the topic of my next novel. Now that would be modern.

Seriously! I do admire the short story for all the reasons you mentioned—they are great places to try things out. I hope to go back to them someday! Independent wealth really is the dream, isn’t it?

I’ve so enjoyed talking with you about our work! And for those of you who do not know Amy’s excellent novel, go out and purchase it immediately. Make sure to fuel up first, though, because you won’t want to put it down for anything!

Ditto A Nearly Perfect Copy. It’s not every day that you get to read a novel that deals with art, money, death, love, marriage, and a cloned dog, but still somehow manages to be moving, funny, and a page-turner all at the same time. What am I talking about? You’ll never read that book unless you read Allison’s.


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