Conducting interviews with authors has allowed me to come in contact with some of - not just great literary talents - the finest human beings currently living. Rosellen Brown epitomizes and exemplifies that point.
Q) What was the defining moment or event that sparked your desire to become a published author?
A) I can’t speak for others (about anything I have to say!) but I certainly didn’t think of publishing when I began writing – I was a child and I loved reading; it felt natural to want to do that thing myself. I suppose that later I showed my writing to others and enjoyed the strokes I got for it, which I suppose you could call a kind of publishing. Actually, the whole idea of publication as a motivation is one of the things I like least about the current literary world: Too many people think “Oh, I can become a famous and maybe even a rich author” instead of writing to satisfy an internal need. For “real” (at least what I’d call serious) writers, writing is a necessity, not a career option.
Q) You have one husband, two daughters, two cats, and too many books (read and unread). Your life appears to be as unordinary as the next-door neighbor’s. Yet your novels of life are filled with anger, bewilderment, doubt, and ethical principles in relationships - and masterfully so I might add. Where do you draw inspiration for such inner turmoil?
A) Good question and thank you for the compliment. I’ve always thought I dream up those terrible situations so they won’t happen to me – sort of, sacrificing my characters to the gods so that they’ll think, “Oh, yeah, she already experienced this… if only in her imagination.” Seriously.
I also, of course, find the conundrums that arise in many lives simply interesting because those moral questions are challenging and people’s responses are difficult, unpredictable, not necessarily pleasing; I only hope that I can report them realistically. Saul Bellow said about one of his less admirable characters, “I came to represent him, not to recommend him.” Because my people don’t always react as my readers might like, I find that I have to defend them very often (and, of course, since I made them, I have a kind of sympathy for every one of them.) “Do you recognize this response?” I ask. “I didn’t ask if you approve of it, only if you think it’s plausible under (whatever) the circumstances.” Readers, of course, tend to think their behavior, even under duress, would be impeccable.
Q) In Street Games your voice is powerful and Anglo, Puerto Rican, African-American, male, female, parent, and child. The Chicago Tribune calls it “An American classic.” Who are these characters? You gave them life, but they obviously were not born from you.
A) I lived on a block like that one in Brooklyn for a few years and found myself fascinated by my neighbors there. I didn’t “study” them to write about them, only discovered – mostly – after the fact, after we’d moved away, that many, in vastly different form, might generate stories. I’m very bad at coming up with plots, so a lot of these are really more about the small ways in which people make themselves known to others and to themselves. Only one arose identifiably out of a real person and because I made up a lot so that my character was an amalgam of real and imagined, I felt I needed to beg her approval. (She was highly amused and gave me her blessing.) Usually as close as I get to anyone real is as a stimulus: I sort of narrow my eyes to make someone really blurry and then I fill in my own details. As for myself – I never write about my very unremarkable self; I like to be transparent. Of course everything that gets down on paper has gone through my head – into and out of it! – but you won’t learn anything more about me than what I’ve concentrated on.
Q) Because your writing is so strong, so relevant, and so contemporary, would you be willing to come to a community such as Freeport and meet with fans at either the library or bookstore?
A) Yes, absolutely. In fact my favorite part of any reading I give (you obviously know that we do a lot of those at colleges and bookstores) is the Question and Answer time at the end when I get to really engage with my listeners, who often surprise, delight and enlighten me with their insights and observations. There are a lot of myths about writers being too lofty to “relate,” but you’re right to want to prove that we’re actually ordinary folks who (as you said, lacking either intelligence or sanity!) work to make something very difficult look simple.
Q) What advice can you give to a struggling writer trying to become published?
A) Sometimes I think the only question struggling writers want the answer to is “How do I get an agent?” and though I don’t want to mock the difficulty of breaking into publication, I have to go back to my first answer: If you don’t write for yourself, and learn your craft before you take it to “the market,” you’d better be okay with the fact that you’re going to be rewarded for doing what somebody else has already done. There are “genre” writers – purveyors of romance, mysteries, police procedurals, etc. which can be done by following a pattern, and that’s okay if that’s what you’re interested in; there are some terrific books in all those categories. But for what’s called “literary” writing, which I’d compare to a hand-tooled piece of furniture as opposed to something extruded from a machine (except at its best), there are no shortcuts: read a lot, imitate your betters (purposely, knowing that you’re imitating) and take your time. Find a reader who is willing to be honest with you and not just love you as a friend or spouse. Find a mentor if you can. Find a group that will also enjoy what’s working in your writing but crack it open and look inside, challenge you, demand revision, etc. There are plenty of ways to connect, these days, with helpful peers and mentors. And when it looks most discouraging – because the publishing world has been torn to pieces by many forces – take notice of all the books by new writers that nonetheless continue to emerge. Many of the best of them come from small presses your mother will not have heard of but that doesn’t matter; try to get the work between covers when it’s ready and keep on moving toward the next story or book or poem and the next and the next. Publication ought to be a reward, not a lure, and when you’re writing it shouldn’t take up more than an atom of space in your brain.