Family Secrets: Three Generations traces six years in the life of Ellen Brodsky from nine to 15. She struggles with a mother who doesn’t know how to parent effectively and a father who remains detached from his family until a scandal causes a major rupture. Ellen turns to someone she feels will provide the love and stability she craves, her dead grandmother, Hannah. Their relationship offers Ellen the support she needs to weather family dysfunction and the rigors of early adolescence. The survival of all three generations of women in this family depends on their relationship, and while the family contains the usual number of secrets, Grandma Hannah’s is the whopper that ties it all together.
- Why did you choose a girl and a grandmother as your main characters?
I felt Ellen could best tell the story since she faced the greatest challenges. As I sought someone who could fill the gap left by inept parents, no one seemed more appropriate than her dead grandmother. They have a special connection from the outset. Also, the contrast between life in the 50s as Ellen experienced it, with her grandmother’s reality during the 1920s and 1930s, provided a sub-theme that I wished to explore. So many of us can relate to a grandparent who influenced us as we grew up.
- So true. Both of my grandmothers lived long lives but not my grandfathers. How much of this novel is drawn from real life?
That’s a question that has caused some consternation among my family members. I’ve had to remind them that this is fiction. What is real is the 1940s and 1950sNewark,New Jerseysetting. It’s a composite of several places where I lived as a child. I’m sure Ellen’s voice sometimes sounds like my voice. Friends have told me so. There are aspects of her personality that are very different from my own, however, and the mother and father in the story are not at all like mine.
I grinned, Lissa, when I asked that question because family members often see themselves in my fiction.
- What was the hardest part of the book to write?
This is my first attempt at writing fiction. I’ve written non-fiction my entire life. Since there’s a large element of fantasy in Family Secrets, I had to work hard to leave the concrete world of my previous works. Once I broke through, it was great fun and very liberating.
First and foremost, I have to credit genetics. Several people in my family are writers, including my mother who wrote a book that never was published. From my earliest days I took great pleasure in writing. In the days when long distance phone calls were reserved for grave emergencies, I wrote letters to family members who lived far from us. Over the years I’ve had several friends tell me they’ve saved my letters in case I get famous. The encouragement I received from my mother and a few teachers and my early success writing for school newspapers convinced me I should pursue serious writing.
- Describe your writing space and schedule.
I wish I could say I’m disciplined about writing. I’m not. I can go for weeks and not feel impelled to write. Then, when the mood hits I will write for hours at a time, hardly wanting to stop for meals and other necessities. If I’m forced to allow life to interfere with my writing during one of those periods, I feel frustrated until I can get back to my work. I’ve become a master of the 20-minute meal, paring the preparation time to the barest minimum so I can get a meal on the table and still not lose precious writing time at the computer.
My desk is cluttered with stacks of papers and books, but I usually know where things are. I have a clear view of the mountains off to my right, and I can see the deer eating our garden if I look out the window to my left. Despite the two windows, I sometimes am shocked to look out and realize it’s gotten dark and the day is gone. That’s when I know I’ve been lost in my writing world.
- What advice do you have for beginning writers?
Surround yourself with other writers and listen to them. If you can, join a writer’s group. When you get conflicting advice, rely on yourself to choose the right path. I’ve never felt compelled to take writing classes, but some beginning writers do and benefit from them. If you have to ask yourself what to write about or feel stuck much of the time, forget about writing for other people and just write for yourself. You’ll know when it’s time to put it out there for other writers to critique. When you do ask for feedback from other writers, take in what they have to say and remember it’s your work they are critiquing, not you.
Great advice, Lissa. Also, congratulations on being President of High Country Writers this year. It’s a wonderful writers group in Boone, NC, that’s been around since 1995.
8. Why did you start writing short stories?
I was dragged kicking and screaming to the short story genre. I’ve never even liked reading them. My writer’s group embarked on a project that required me to write a short story, so I wrote one. We’re planning to include the stories in an anthology. My story was well received, and I wrote another. My personal collection now includes 26 short stories that I might publish one day. I actually have found that writing short stories suits my personality. I tend to be impatient and like to finish something at one sitting.
- How did your past careers help with writing?
I spent several years in marketing and public relations, both of which demand writing skills and the ability to write quickly without the benefit of time to do rewrites. I’ve edited newsletters, written speeches and ghost written articles and chapters for elected officials and corporate executive. I learned to write quickly when I worked on political campaigns and had to dash off news releases while rushing from one event to another late in the evening. I also had the good fortune to work with some excellent writers from whom I learned a lot.
- Tell us about where you live. We love to travel.
I’m a former city dweller who settled into a remote holler in the far northwest corner ofNorth Carolina. I left behind apartment living with multiple locks on the door to live in a log cabin that rarely gets locked. I have a beautiful view of the Blue Ridge Mountainsfrom my deck and after nearly six years, I still haven’t tired of the view. I love to hike by rivers and streams and don’t have very far to go to do that. It’s great being able to watch deer, wild turkeys and other creatures enjoy the fruits of our labor, even though it means we almost never get to see the red holly berries against the snow. They’re long gone by the time the snows arrive.
By the start of spring, our garden resembles a salad bar after a vegetarian convention.
- What is your favorite southern expression?
That’s an easy one. Nothing so captures the enigmatic nature of southerners as well as “Bless your heart.” It took me a while to figure out when somebody was saying that and meaning, “You poor, dumb Yankee,” but friends have tutored me in the special intonation used when “Bless your heart” is an insult. Now I can pick it up and toss the Yankee equivalent, “Thank you for sharing that,” right back at them. It’s taken me some time to tone down the directness that I learned in my nativeNew Jersey. Having tools like “Bless your heart” at my disposal is a big help. I love to practice using it when I meet tourists from up North.
- What’s next in your writing life?
I always have an ear open to an opportunity to write a humorous essay. Funny things surround us, and I am a sucker for an irresistible springboard. I’ve begun a series of short essays about mischievous things I did as a kid and might compile them into something along the lines of “The Way it Really Was When I Was Your Age.”
On a more serious note, I’ve been troubled by the things adults do to children that cause great harm. Thinking about what I might do to make people more aware, I began a novel about a young gay boy who suffers terribly at the hands of people in his life who ought to be shielding him from harm. I’m about halfway through the first draft, and if I don’t run out of tissues I might finish it in 2012.
Visit Lissa’s website www.lissabrownwrites.com