"I Do It Because It Keeps Me Alive..."
An Interview With Elizabeth Brundage

Elizabeth Brundage is the author of three novels:  A Stranger Like You, Somebody Else’s Daughter and The Doctor’s Wife.  She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and was the recipient of a James Michener Award. 

Before Iowa, she was a screenwriting fellow at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles.  Her short fiction has appeared in Witness, New letters, and The Greensboro Review

She is currently visiting Writer in Residence at Skidmore College and lives with her family in upstate New York.


Do you think your personal writing style has changed through the process of writing three novels? Does the process of writing a novel get easier with each one you write?

Writing is never easy, no matter what.  In fact, I keep waiting for it to get easier, but that doesn’t seem to be happening.  You are always faced with the blank page.  At first, your mind is bursting with disparate images and made-up facts that may seem unrelated – but somehow you know they are connected.  A writer is like a medium; a pathologist; a detective; an historian; an archeologist.  You are trying to make sense of something – something very essential – and you must chip away at it until you discover what it is.  The process of writing is about discovery.  Writing to discover something about a character – about something that happened to him once – about something that had a life changing effect on him – and as you bring this person to life on the page, he evolves, much like a relationship with a new friend or acquaintance deepens, and you realize things about him that you didn’t anticipate at first.  Writing is about building a character, a life, from scratch.  The process can be frustrating, exhilarating – liberating.  Why do we do it?  Why do we tell stories?  I think storytelling is in our DNA.  We are, fundamentally, communicators.  Telling stories is a way of keeping our history in play.  We write, we read, we reflect.

To answer your first question, I like to think my writing has improved since the first book.  As in most things that are important to you, and that you work at with some level of diligence, you hope to improve. How do I define improved?  The fiction is unhindered by the language and by the weight of ideas.  There is less artifice, less of a barrier between the characters and the reader.   I want to try new things, to experiment.  I want every book I write to be something entirely different from the one that came before it.  In my third novel, I simplified my sentences and wrote a character from the second person point of view.  In my latest book, I’ve become interested in writing simple sentences that gain in momentum as the story unfolds, attempting to engage the reader somehow on a deeper, almost impulsive level.  

In your novels, your characters deal with real issues - societal impacts of war, abortion, adultery, society's defined roles regarding gender and marriage. While writing about people and how they deal with the issues that we all face, has your opinion or thoughts about any of these issues changed dramatically? If so, how?

I wouldn’t say my opinion about any of the issues I’ve written about has changed.  I believe in human rights.  Equality.  I like controversy – I like a good argument.  Issues like abortion are difficult and I like to write about difficult problems, however they present themselves.  There are good strong arguments on both sides of that issue and I can embrace aspects of both.  I like trouble – it’s like a big ugly knot you have to figure through.  You have to take your time, pull this one thread, then that.  Suddenly you’ve discovered one strong thread – one direction.  I’m not interested in nice and pretty and easy.  I’m not interested in writing books that go down easy like a forgettable meal.  We’ve got problems in this country; we’ve got to look at them.  We’ve got to think about our behavior.  We’ve got to think about the choices we make.  We’ve got to start at the beginning, not at the end.  Mistakes are the staples of fiction.  It’s what we do as human beings – we mess things up.  And eventually – hopefully – we find a way to resolve our problems.  That coming-to-terms process for a character can make an interesting, meaningful story for a reader.  

Considering all of your novels, which character do you feel you identify most with? Why?
On the one hand, I identify with Annie Knowles of The Doctor’s Wife, because I am married to a doctor – in that novel I tried to explore the complicated dynamics of a “medical marriage.”  So I was able to vent a lot on the page.  On the other, I strongly identified with Willa, who is adopted, in my novel Somebody Else’s Daughter.  I too am adopted and wanted to explore some of my own feelings about adoption within the context of a larger story about identity.  At first glance, I might not have much in common with the protagonist of my third novel, A Stranger Like You, because the character is a bitch-on-wheels Hollywood producer – but – deep inside of her is a woman not unlike myself – a vulnerable person who wants to be loved for exactly who she is.  So in each book there is more of me than I would like to admit.

What is your favorite time to write? What are your ultimate writing conditions - do you need quiet? Music? How important of an influence to your writing is the time and place where you do the work?

It’s very important to have a place to write.  A writer deserves this place.  It will never be perfect – there is always something disagreeable about it – too small or too large, too light or too dark, too hot or too cold, it smells funny, it’s noisy, it has ghosts, it is not really a room just a space, an alcove, a hallway.  There are always compromises, that is the rule of life, but they drive you to the page.  A writer needs a good desk, a good computer, and a wall to put things on – pictures from magazines that remind you of your characters; photographs; drawings; inspiring images (whatever they may be).  Poems.  And a writer needs books.  A writer needs to have books on the nightstand – books by all kinds of fiction writers – books by dead writers – especially books by dead writers – poets – philosophers – journalists – books about art and artists – books by people you’ve never heard of – books you bought at a tag sale – books you stole, books you borrowed.  Books by people you think suck – books by people you’ve been told are incredible – you have to make up your own mind – you have to read them; figure it out, decide.  A writer must have books on the floor by the bed, by the toilet, scattered on the staircase, in the knapsack or pocketbook, a writer must have a place to sit to read to think to look out the window and a refrigerator with nice things to eat and a few sweets and some good wine.  Wine is important.  A writer must have a friend to have a drink with now and then.  A writer must have (perhaps) a pet to talk to.  A long walk is necessary when taking a break from the work.  It is always good for a writer to walk.

For me, I wake up thinking about the book I am writing; I get washed; I get my son off to school; I feed the dog, make the coffee, walk the dog, clean up the kitchen, make the beds, put in the laundry, then go into the room.  I bring my coffee.  I sit down.  I decide which character needs me most.  I go to him or her.  I try to listen.  Sometimes they are very quiet.  I am easily bored.  I am easily distracted.  The phone rings; that’s it.  It’s over.  Sometimes it is my mother.  Sometimes it is one of my daughters.  Sometimes it is someone selling something.  Then – I am out of the zone.  I have to take a break.  I do; I walk the dog; eat some pistachio nuts; get the mail.  Then I go back.  I ask a new character for some help.  They may be willing.  They may even be loquacious.  There is no guarantee how it will go.  And then, after about four hours, I stop.  Print.  Leave the page.  Usually it’s just one.  One page, single spaced.  I leave it there.  And that’s the end of the day.

I may go in later, around five o’clock, with a glass of wine, to look over the page.  Usually I am unimpressed.  Usually, I am disappointed that I didn’t work harder.  At night, I read other writers; poets; or books about subjects I am writing about.  Usually I fall asleep reading, and wake in the wee hours with the light in my face and stagger like a drunken ghost to my room and my bed.  I close my eyes thinking about the book I am writing.  And when the alarm goes off, I lie still for a moment, thinking about the book I am writing.  Another ordinary day in a writer’s life: the practice of writing fiction.  

The current state of the economy has caused hardships for nearly everyone, including the publishing industry. Have the rules of publishing changed from the writer's perspective? How should a writer seeking to be published approach the process now?

It can be very difficult for all the wrong reasons.  Unfortunately, publishing is a business, while writing fiction is an art.  The internet seems to be opening up new opportunities for writers to publish their work – so that’s exciting.  It will be interesting to see how it evolves.  I think it’s important to think about why people read.  Readers want to escape, to be entertained, to be thrilled, to learn something new.  As a writer, it’s important to remember this if you want to sell your work.  In our century, you cannot write in a vacuum, you must consider your audience, whether it is small or large, esoteric or universal.

I think the best advice I can give is this: write the best material you can.  Surprise yourself at how hard you can work.  Read as much as possible.  Teach yourself how to write.  Then teach yourself how to write better.  It can be very difficult.  If it’s not difficult there’s a problem; you probably shouldn’t be doing it.  Read your work again and again until it gets difficult.  Until the sentences break down and you can see them for what they are.  Because the work is never as good as you think it is.  

Then – after this process – after you’ve endured this kind of joyless, often tedious preparation – if you like what you read then you can trust it.  If you like it then, you may have something.  Don’t try to write like anyone else.  Find your own way of saying it.  We all say the same thing over and over – now find your particular voice.  And use it.  

What advice would you give to the person who says they have always wanted to be a writer, but they can't seem to find time for their writing aspirations due to family, job, etc? How have you managed to balance the time between writing and other life commitments?

I would say to the person who can’t seem to find the time to write to do something else.  Make a garden.  Be a cook.  Take up sewing.  Start running.  Raise a child.  Volunteer for a cause you believe in.  Work at a coffee shop.  But don’t write.  Don’t.

If on the other hand you must write – then do it.  BUT do it.  Don’t say: “Well, I’m not really any good at this, but I’m writing a novel.”  No.  Say: “I’m going to kick ass with this book because I’ve got stuff to say here; I’ve got things to discuss!”

Writing is my work.  It’s a priority.  I find the time because I have to do it, just like I have to brush my teeth and eat a meal.  I do it because it keeps me alive.

What do you think one must be willing to sacrifice to become a successful writer? Are the sacrifices different for female writers than they are for male writers?

I think a writer sacrifices time for friendship.  It’s important to have time to work and it can be difficult to have regular friendships that depend on time with others.  That’s the biggest sacrifice.  If you want to write and publish you have to work like a dog and you have to be determined to not only create characters that live and breathe on the page but to finish telling their stories.  This can take time.  It doesn’t always happen the way you want it to.  I’m not sure if the sacrifices are different for men than for women….

Regarding female writers, in 2010 VIDA released data revealing that a number of major magazines tend to publish material authored by men far more frequently than by women. Why do you think that is and what do you think could be done to change that?

As a female novelist, the only person I am competing with is myself.  Period.  I have no control over magazines and publicity and in the long run you come to realize that you’re not doing it for the review – you’re doing it because you have to.  You’re doing it because you’ve got something to say and you happen to be good at putting words together and you respect the craft, the power of words.  You are making a kind of music.  You are making the lives we live, however problematic, make sense, have meaning.  You are making good use of yourself; your intellect, your empathy, your love for humankind.  That’s why you do it.  Writing is at once a celebration and a condemnation of who we are.  

I know there are disparities in the real world in terms of the attention writers get – I know this is a very real problem and it’s not fair – but you can’t let that distract you because ultimately it’s the readers you are trying to reach and their response to your work is most gratifying.  This also speaks to what I mentioned earlier about trying to find out for yourself what your strengths and weaknesses are in terms of your work, to be highly critical of it – then there is no discussion.  Some people will like it, others will not.  What matters is if you did it justice, if you tried your very best.  You are an advocate for your characters – did you fight for them?  

You have to ask yourself: would I change this if I could?  If the answer is no – then you are ready to put it out there – no matter what the response is – you are ready to move on. When books don’t do as well as we’d like – when you have received yet another rejection – don’t let it defeat you.  It is all part of the process – your evolution as a writer.  Yes – it is painful.  But it goes with the territory.  So too if your work is heralded as genius – you are no more a genius because someone called you one than you were an idiot when someone called you an idiot.  You have to trust yourself.  You have to know your own work.  You have to take good care of yourself because it’s rough out there – you will be hurt – and you will get stronger because of it.  

What sort of books by other authors do you enjoy? What are you currently reading?

I am currently reading books on farming because I am writing about farming.  Last night I read a bunch of John Cheever stories.  I like to have a lot of books around to just pick up and start reading.  One day it may be Robert Frost; the next Deborah Eisenberg; the next Bernard Malamud; the next Dickens – lots and lots of Dickens.  There are so many writers worth reading.

Is there a new novel in the works? What are your plans for the next year or two?

I’m working on a new novel that is giving me a hell of fight.  I have decided to just be patient.  I am being very, very, very, very patient.


For more information about Elizabeth and her novels, visit her website.

A Stranger Like You can be purchased online at the following places:

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