Interview – Brass Ankle Blues

What’s Brass Ankle Blues about?

The simple answer is that it’s a coming-of-age novel—the story of a teenage girl’s struggle to come to terms with the disintegration of her parents’ relationship, while she begins to embark on romantic explorations of her own. It’s also a story about family, and how the shape and structure often changes as time goes on, and how each member reacts to that change. It’s a book about fathers and daughters, about first love and family loyalty, and ultimately, it’s about forgiveness. Forgiving yourself as much as forgiving another.

Is it autobiographical?

In some way, I think everything I write is autobiographical. Everything is filtered through me, so a part of every character is me—or maybe a part of me is in every character. If the real question is, “Did this happen to you?” the answer is No. Yet some aspects of the story—many locations, and some of the narrative framework—are based on real places and experiences. But the plot is entirely fictional.

Did you always want to be a writer?

As a child, I didn’t have the audacity to want to be a writer. At different times I wanted to be a truck driver, a judge and an architect. But writing was something I always loved, telling stories that I would want to read, so I always came back to it. As a teenager, I used to try to imagine a life with a real job, like being a fireman or a librarian, and I would always start to imagine what could happen, how I could make it more interesting, and the next thing I knew I was outlining a story about someone else who was living that life. That was a pretty clear sign that I needed my job to be in a creative field, because I would use my imagination whether or not it was necessary.

How long did it take to write?

It began as a short story I wrote in grad school. It was the first thing I published and the characters stayed with me for the next few years. As their stories continued to grow in my mind, I took a lot of notes and eventually decided to expand the story into a novel. At that point I was working full-time at a non-profit, and writing plays and poetry when I had the chance, and I never seriously thought about writing a novel. I didn’t think I could sustain a story that long, or create a dense plot. But a friend kept reminding me, “one page at a time,” and the next thing I knew I had a 30 page outline and had expanded the characters from three to twenty. I was fortunate enough to get a fellowship to Yaddo at that point, and I took a leave from work to go. When I came back I had 100 pages and a sense of confidence. I continued to work on the manuscript and completed the first draft a year later. So I guess the actual writing took about 18 months.

Where did you grow up? How did that influence the stories you want to tell?

I grew up in and around Providence, RI and in rural Minnesota. I spent more time in Providence, but I felt equally (if not more) connected to the Midwest. Much of my extended family is still there, and I feel a sense of belonging when I go back, even though the culture is quite different than my regular city life. I guess that paradox is something I try to examine in my work. What it feels like to be comfortable in a place you don’t really belong, what it means to belong anyway, and who decides what that is? In these times, I think very few people have a rigid sense of their geographic identity, we live in a world where that’s constantly changing, and I find that interesting. We are born in one place, raised in another, go to school in a third, and often settle in a fourth, if we settle at all. That kind of constant relocation has to have an effect. We’re good at adapting, this generation, but we lose something as well: that sense of walking the streets where your grandparents walked, seeing the same architecture, eating the same food; we have lost those connections, and that changes the legacy. So the writer in me starts to ask a lot of questions: What do we inherit from our ancestors, if not the land, the food or the customs? What is lost in that new inheritance? Is anything gained? Searching for those answers is what fuels my work.

Did you have any mentors?

I had a lot of good teachers, going all the way back to high school, and those relationship meant a lot to me. I sought out older people, or people with life experiences quite different than my own, and I’d get to know them and their stories. I was a story collector as much as a writer in those days. But when I did start writing, I looked to my peers more than anyone. I learned as much from the other students in grad school as I did from most of the professors. Maybe that’s not the right thing to say, but that was my experience. And I don’t have any regrets, I learned a lot from them. I also learned how to write from readingbooks. The library was the real classroom for me, and the kitchen table while I was growing up. Listening to my father lecture us was an education my brothers and I are still digesting. That was a real gift, the kind you don’t even know you’re getting.

What are you working on now?

I just finished the first draft of my second novel, This Side of Providence. It’s quite a relief, to be working on the next project as the first one comes out, because it’s so easy to tie your future to the success of one thing. I needed to prove to myself that I could do it again, and that I have more than one book in me. After the next book, I want to focus on another genre. I think I’ll try my hand at adapting Brass Ankle Blues into a screenplay, and perhaps write an original script, or maybe a play. I just want to keep moving, to keep testing myself and expand my work. I’m at the beginning of what will hopefully be a long career, and I need to pace myself and always keep it interesting, for myself as much as for the reader.

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