Thursday, January 5, 2012

Gayle Brandeis talks about The Book of Live Wires, writing, bellydancing and more

Poet. Novelist. Activist. Wife. Mother. Friend. Bellydancer. How many people can claim all those things? Gayle Brandeis can and does. I first met Gayle Brandeis at BEA at a Readerville reading. We had emailed back and forth before and I just instantly felt a connection. Gayle's the kind of person you could call at three in the morning if you had to and she'd sit and listen and console you. She's had an amazing life, which she's navigated with grace and heart. She's also a brilliant writer, which brings us to The Book of Live Wires, available for e-readers, the sequel to her beloved Bellwether Prize- winning novel The Book of Dead Birds. I'm honored to have her here. Thank you so much, Gayle! (And be sure to visit Gayle's wonderful blogs, Mama, Redux, and Fruitful. And read her other wonderful books, Self Storage, The Delta Girls, and My Life with the Lincolns.)

What sparked the writing of The Book of Live Wires? And how is it connected to your prize-winning novel, The Book of Dead Birds? What was it like to revisit the characters? Did anything surprise you?

I wrote The Book of Live Wires back in 2002, during National Novel Writing Month. I had just had the most exciting year of my life as a writer; I honestly doubt I’ll ever top it, thrill-wise. My first book, Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write had just been published that spring, and while I was on my book tour, I got a call from Barbara Kingsolver saying that my novel-in-manuscript, The Book of Dead Birds, had won the Bellwether Prize, judged by herself, Toni Morrison and Maxine Hong Kingston, three writers I revere. Of course this was all so mind blowing and affirming, but it ended up having a strange effect on me as a writer: I got writer’s block for the first time in my life. I started to worry that every word that came out of me needed to be worthy of Toni Morrison’s praise, and this made me freeze. I felt like a total fraud because I was still touring around with Fruitflesh, talking to people about the writing process, and I wasn’t writing at all, myself; I was avoiding it, in fact, and had actually become quite afraid of it. When I heard about NaNoWriMo, I realized it might be just what I needed to get out of my own way--and it was.

I had always had the sense that my characters were out living their lives after the first book ended, but I wasn’t able to access them until I started to write The Book of Live Wires. It was wonderful catching up with them--like a month long family reunion. The thing that surprised me most, I think, is that Darryl wanted to be the narrator. He was the love interest in Dead Birds (which had been narrated by Ava Sing Lo), and a few readers had told me that he seemed a bit too good to be true, and they couldn’t quite get a real sense of him. I suppose this book was Darryl’s way of making himself known, and making himself much more complex. He made some decisions that definitely shocked me. 

There is a great deal about the secrets we hide from others, and the truths we refuse to believe. Can you talk a bit about that?

Oh golly--it’s hard to know where to begin. It can be hard to be truthful, to face truth, as a person and my characters certainly wrestle with this. Darryl and Ava are both good human beings, but they are also in a bit over their heads--they are dealing with their baby’s illness while they are still getting to know one another, plus they are each working out some of their own internal issues, and this (along with sleep-deprivation, I imagine) leads to some questionable, not very honest, actions.

I suppose I still struggle with this a bit, myself--growing up, my loving and wonderful family had a tendency to always say that everything was okay even when it wasn’t, and this made it difficult for me to face and voice my own darkness. It led to a lot of secret keeping, a lot of denial. I have gotten much better at acknowledging when things are troubling me, but it is still a challenge. I am slowly learning to be more and more brave in my life (writing helps--somehow it is easier for me to be brave in my writing.)

What was the whole writing process like? Were there any surprises? (Ah, surprise again..)

I wrote the book so long ago, it’s a bit hard to remembert he actual process of it (other than the fact that NaNoWriMo got me writing every day.) There were definitely surprises as I revised the book last year, however I should mention that I never thought I would share this book--I thought I had written it just for myself, to slip back into my writing process, but I’ve mentioned its existence over the years at various book events, and readers have always expressed curiosity. I finally decided to take a look at the manuscript last year (I hadn’t even glanced at it all this time) and was surprised to see how much life was inside it--there were even some passages that may be among the strongest I’ve ever written. What was especially surprising to me, though, was how much in the novel resonated with my current life. Darryl was in a new second marriage with a new baby--so was I (and both of us got married during the pregnancy.) Darryl was dealing with tremendous grief--so was I (although of a different kind; he lost his first wife to cancer. I had recently lost my mom to suicide and then my mother in law to a sudden heart attack four months later.) Darryl is Jewish, yet baptized his baby for non-religious family reasons; so did I (you can read about that here: It was really kind of eerie how many coincidences popped up. When I wrote the book, I never could have anticipated that these storylines would be part of my own life in a few years.

Revision was a fun process--I had enough distance from the manuscript that I had no compunction about striking out whole scenes, etc. (although I found myself making less changes than I thought I would need to. The manuscript felt surprisingly whole for being written in one white hot month.)

You are also a prize-winning poet and a belly dancer! Can you tell us how those two things infuse your work and change it—and you?

Poetry and dance have been a central part of my life since I was a little girl; I wrote my first poem at four, and have been dancing as long as I can remember. My BA is in “Poetry and Movement: Arts of Expression, Meditation and Healing”, a concentration I created through the Johnston Center for Individualized Learning (now named the Johnston Center for Integrative Studies) at the University of Redlands. I remember telling myself in college that I wanted to figure out how to write with the muscularity of dance and dance with the articulation of language. This is still a desire of mine. I have to say I am more of a passionate dancer than a precise one--technique has never been my strong point. It makes me happy that I wrote about a couple of my dance influences--Isadora Duncan and Josephine Baker--in The Book of Live Wires (they both go unnamed but are hopefully recognizable); their example gave me permission to be wild and free in my dancing as a young woman, and it feels good to honor them this way. Poetry definitely continues to feed my writing, too, makes me acutely aware of word choice, how words sound and feel when they rub up against one another; I think it helps keep my prose fairly economical, as well.

I am super grateful for belly dancing--when I separated from my first husband, a friend invited me to be part of her troupe; I hadn’t belly danced for 15 years at that point, and it was a way back into my body, back into joy. Writers have a tendency to live in our heads, I think, and belly dancing helps keep me grounded inside my skin.

The world of publishing is changing dramatically, which brings us to our next question. Why go to Smashwords to publish your novel? How is and was the process different than with your traditional publisher?

I did this as an experiment. I had been feeling freaked out by all the changes in the publishing world, and had been really resistant to the idea of ebooks. I eventually realized that it is quite amazing to be part of a shifting culture, and I decided to embrace those shifts rather than fear them or run away and stick my head in the sand. I felt comfortable doing the experiment with this particular book because I felt I had nothing to lose--the novel’s just been sitting in my computer for all these years...might as well give it some air.

I do hope to continue to publish traditionally--I still am in love with physical books, plus I love the storied tradition of the publishing world, and it’s great to have a whole team of people working to get your book into readers’ hands--but there is something satisfying about making all the choices yourself, from cover image to platform. I chose Smashwords because it makes the book available to the widest variety of e-readers--you can download it in just about any form (and once you’re approved for their Premium Catalog, they list the book at B&N, the Apple Store, Sony, Diesel, etc. They don’t have an Amazon connection, though, so I uploaded it through Kindle Direct Publishing, as well). Once I deciphered the Smashwords style guide, it was really quite easy to format the text. I also uploaded the novel to Google Books because I learned that several independent bookstores are selling Google e-Books to their customers now, and I want to do whatever I can to support beloved indies (my one major hesitancy about this experiment was worrying about how ebooks will affect brick and mortar stores, and I don’t want to contribute to their decline.) It’s exciting to me that there are so many tools now to help writers take publishing into our own hands if we choose to go that route.

What’s obsessing you now?

Right now, my two year old’s temperature, I’m afraid--it spiked to 105 a couple of days last week, and has been fluctuating since then. The doctor thinks it’s just a virus, and he is really doing fine now (his temp is down to 99.5) but I can’t help but obsessively take his temperature. This sweet little guy reminds me to be joyful about my obsessions (other than this thermometer-related one)--I love seeing how he takes such pleasure in trains and clocks and rocket ships and pretending to be a cat. He gives himself over to them so fully and openly--a great reminder to throw myself into my own enthusiasms with abandon.

One of the things that obsesses me right now is the collective voice--I have been so inspired by the power of people rising up throughout the world, and am eager to see where the Occupy movement will go next. This has also translated into a fascination with non-linear, multiply voiced narratives.

I recently saw the stunning documentary Bombay Beach--I thought it would be good research for the piece I’m working on about the Salton Sea for the Los Angeles Review of Books, but it ended up being much more than that for me. It’s an intensely lyrical, beautiful, painful film chronicling the lives of three people in the Salton Sea area (one of the poorest regions in the country--it’s where The Book of Dead Birds is set, and The Book of Live Wires spends a bit of time there, as well). It does something no documentary I’ve seen ever do before--the filmmaker was able to get her subjects to do these dreamlike, surreal, moving choreographed dance numbers, and I found the mix of honesty and artifice incredibly energizing. It made me wonder how I can do something similar in my writing, find that balance between improvisation and directed vision, truth and art.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

I suppose you could have asked about my kids.  In addition to my cutie-pie toddler, I have two full-fledged adult kids now, which blows me away--my firstborn son is 21 and will graduate from college in June, and my daughter just turned 18 and is poised to start college soon, herself. They are super cool people; I feel lucky to know them, and even luckier to be their mom


Cindy said...

I love Gayle! And I love Caroline! You are both so talented and amazing. XO

Romalyn said...

Me too. I love and admire these women and find so much inspiration. Can't wait to read more!

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