Thursday, January 03, 2019

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Laura Brown

Laura Catherine Brown’s second novel, MADE BY MARY, launched with C&R Press in June 2018. Her debut novel, QUICKENING, was published by Random House, and featured in Barnes & Noble’s Discover Great New Writers series. Her short stories have appeared in several literary journals, including The Bellingham Review, Monkeybicycle, Paragraphiti and Tin House; and in anthologies with Seal Press and Overlook Press. She has been awarded support from The Byrdcliffe Colony, Djerassi, Millay, Ragdale, Ucross, Vermont Studio Center, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She currently serves as creative committee co-chair of the Millay Colony for the Arts, and assistant fiction editor of the literary magazine, Newfound. She lives in New York City where she’s writing a third novel.

1.      How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

My first book changed my life because I had realized a dream of getting a novel published. But in some ways nothing changed. My agent told me not to give up my day job. In terms of process, my first novel drew from my life. The second was largely invented. I love having books out in the world. But I still have my day job.

2.      How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?

I think, actually, I came to poetry first, and to journal-writing. But my love has always been stories, ever since I learned to read.

3.      How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?

I love starting new projects! The initial impulse is so much fun. Possibilities are endless. Then it’s all about revision. The original impulse provides the raw material and the rest is a process of discovery.

4.      Where does prose usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a “book” from the very beginning?

It’s never a book starting out—too intimidating! Everything begins short and grows, often voluminously. I’ve tried creating outlines but they develop a life of their own, like working on two separate pieces. My challenge is to shape a mass of material by sifting through an figuring out what I need.

5.      Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

Although I get nervous, especially if I’m reading something new and untested, I think public readings are invaluable. There is nothing like falling flat to jolt you into a major revision. Also, preparing for a reading can be instructive: illuminating repetition or deadness. I feel a responsibility to the audience. I don’t want to squander their attention.

6.      Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

I love elegant sentences, startling images and turns of phrase. It may be all I ask of any piece of writing. I find myself drawn to outcasts, misfits and seekers; people whose ambitions and dreams are much larger than the scope of their lives or their resources. I think the current theoretical questions as I see them are: Whose stories get told? Who gets access to the cultural levers? This is more about publishing and recognition. Creativity is unbound by theories.

7.      What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

I think writers have an obligation to be true to their own artistic vision. I have no interest in “beach” reads. I’m with Kafka, who said, “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.” I also noticed that one of your previous authors referred to that phrase—a kindred spirit! Writers should be readers. We should engage with literature that makes us uncomfortable. The role of the writer is not to succumb to despair. But that’s a role for every human being.

8.      Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

I love getting notes on my work! I’m totally open to feedback. Editors are absolutely essential. We’re all blind to our blind spots.

9.      What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

Remove all “filler” words. Take every nod, grin, shrug, squint or any vague gesture, and replace with language or gesture that deepens character, moves narrative or illuminates perspective. Otherwise, cut. Also, another piece of advice: Read your work aloud.

10.  How easy has it been for you to move between genres (short stories to the novel)? What do you see as the appeal?

Both my published novels and my current novel-in-progress grew out of short stories that became peopled with way too many characters for a short story to contain. I aim for short and things get out of hand.

11.  What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

My writing routine has been thrown off kilter recently because my job has been very demanding, plus my book came out a few months ago. But, in an ideal world, I write every day, and I write in the morning. On days that I work at my job, I might get an hour of writing. On days I don’t have to be at work, I’ll put in several hours of writing. I try to make a point of visiting my manuscript every day, or the connection can become tenuous. Annie Dillard said, in her wonderful book The Writing Life, “A work in progress quickly becomes feral. It reverts to a wild state overnight… If you skip a day, you are, quite rightly, afraid to open the door to its room.” I believe that.

12.  When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

I read. Poems inspire because they remind me it’s not all about word count. Language, rhythm, image, patterning, sound, these can start my mind percolating. Lately, I’ve been reading Mary Oliver. I also leaf through old journals and can usually discover some good bits that open up associations and stories. Yoga helps. Taking a walk helps. Surfing the internet and social media never help.

13.  What fragrance reminds you of home?

What a great question! The smell of wet pavement after a summer rain. Also, nag champa incense. Also, patchouli.

14.  David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

I’m a visual person. I attended art school and earn my living as a graphic designer. I often look through art books and love going to museums. Immersing myself in art always generates ideas. I think of Paul Klee, Joan Mitchell, Dali, Niki de Saint Phalle, Egon Schiele, to name a few that immediately arise. There’s a scene in the Mary Poppins movie where they leap into a chalk drawing, and suddenly they’re dancing through that world. It’s like that for me with visual inspiration.

15.  What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

I love to read spiritual books: The Heart of Yoga by T.K.V. Desikachar, Light on Yoga by B.K.S. Iyengar, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism by Chogyam Trungpa, The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton to name some examples. I find solace and inspiration reading about the intricacies of the mind, the breath and human emotions. I’ll read anything that will help me live in a way that lends meaning to my life and to the lives of those around me. I’ve read more self-help books than I care to admit.

16.  What would you like to do that you haven’t yet done?

I have so many unfinished stories I want to complete. Also, I would love to write a play. And I’d love to go to Pune, India and study yoga at the Iyengar Center there.

17.  If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

Well, I did pick another occupation, two others, actually. I currently work as a graphic designer. I also taught yoga for a number of years. A common thread among these three pursuits--writing, yoga and graphic design—is that they all require practice, dedication and constant, ongoing surrender.

18.  What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

At one point I wanted to be an artist. I loved painting. But painting requires supplies and space, whereas writing can be done anywhere. And I think writing helps me make sense of the ongoing stream of chaos that is my life. I still write longhand for rough drafts. I love hanging out with other writers (the AWP conference is amazing for that reason!) and I love reading & talking about books.

19.  What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

The last movie I saw in the theater was Spike Lee’s BlacKKKlansman, which I thought was brilliant. The last book I read was Joan Silber’s Improvement, and I loved it. The novel’s structure links several characters, passing the pov from one to the next in a way that’s both seamless and startling, in spare elegant prose.

20.  What are you currently working on?

I have another novel in progress, currently entitled, INVISIBLE HAND, about an artist, Polly Jamson, who longs for recognition but feels trapped both by her day job in a bank and by the financial and emotional needs of her mother, a “failed artist,” and her sister, a yoga teacher living hand-to-mouth. When a controversial hedge funder/art collector begins to buy her artwork, Polly comes to hope he can catapult her past conventional art-world gatekeepers into artistic success. Instead, she gets dragged into his chicanery. I’ve been circling around a major revision.

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