Interview with Gayle Brandeis

brooke gayleGayle Brandeis is the author of Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write, the novels The Book of Dead Birds, which won Barbara Kingsolver’s Bellwether Prize, Self Storage, and Delta Girls, and her first novel for young people, My Life with the Lincolns. Gayle teaches in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Antioch University and is finishing up a two year appointment as Inlandia Literary Laureate.

I met Gayle at the UCLA Extension Writers Studio. She was my instructor! I learned so much in that program and I would recommend it for any writer, new or seasoned.

What inspired you to start writing? How long have you been writing? What about your latest book/story?

I have been writing since I was four years old, and my memories start when I was four years old, so I don’t remember ever not writing! I’m sure I was influenced by all of the stories my parents read to me, and I’ve always had a leaning toward words–I taught myself to read when I was 3.

My latest traditionally published novel, Delta Girls, tells the story of two women: a young mother traveling the fruit-picking circuit with her 9 year old daughter and an Olympic track pairs figure skater, whose lives eventually collide (if you can’t get enough skating this Olympics year, check it out!) It was inspired by a few things–my friend’s stories about growing up on a pear farm in the Sacramento Delta, news stories about a mother and baby whale who took a wrong turn up the Sacramento River, and persistent dreams about figure skating (which had been a huge part of my life until I was 13.) Funny how stories become a sort of patchwork quilt of all of our obsessions. Even when we don’t think we’re writing about ourselves, our fears and enthusiasms come flying right off the page.

BookOfLiveWiresCover2I also published an ebook in 2011, The Book of Live Wires, a sequel to my first novel, The Book of Dead Birds. I actually wrote Live Wires over 10 years ago, during National Novel Writing Month in 2002, the year my first book Fruitflesh was published, and the year I found out The Book of Dead Birds had won the Bellwether Prize and would be published the following year. This was all so exciting and affirming, but getting recognition for my work sent me into my first case of writer’s block ever; I suddenly wanted everything I wrote to be worthy of Barbara Kingsolver’s praise, and I froze. I wrote Live Wires as a way to get back into my own writing flow, to break through the crippling expectations I had set for myself. I never thought I’d publish the story–I wrote it for myself, to reconnect with my characters and my own creative process–but so many people asked about it, I decided to put it out into the world.

What events in your life have influenced the way you tell a story? (early events, education, friends, family, mentors)

Right now, I’d say my writing is most influenced by women who throw themselves completely open when they write–especially Lidia Yuknavitch, Cheryl Strayed, Emily Rapp and Jennifer Pastiloff. They have taught me great courage, and also how to write raw material in an artful way. Other writers who have left a stamp on my work with their own work include Barbara Kingsolver (who showed me how to weave together art and social responsibility), Rainer Maria Rilke (who showed me it’s possible to write in a way that’s both sensual and spiritual), Sharon Olds (who gave me permission to write the truth about my own body), Diane Ackerman (who encouraged me to be deeply curious about the world) and too many other writers to name, plus great mentors like Ralph Angel, Alma Luz Villanueva and Diane Lefer, and writer friends like Laraine Herring, who urges me to keep pushing my own envelope. I also know I’ve been deeply influenced by my dad, who taught me that words are fun to play with.

How do you approach the art of writing? 

I squeeze writing into my life when I can. I teach, and edit, and parent, and am involved in the community, so I have to fit writing into spare moments here and there. I wish I was able to have a more set writing practice, but life has taught me to be flexible and adaptable with my process. As for tips, I’d say find the process that is right for you, whether that’s writing at a certain time, or giving yourself a daily word count, or doing what I do and just catch as catch can. Play around until you find what works for you; every writer needs to find her own best process.

What do you read for pleasure? Growth? Latest recommend? Favorite author?

I read as widely as I can (and find that most books lend themselves to both pleasure and growth–I learn from every book I read, even if I don’t like it; sometimes especially if I don’t like it.) I just finished reading All is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost by Lan Samantha Chang, a novel set in the world of academic writing programs, and loved the little observations it offered on the writing life (like “…a wasted writer is one who spends his life pursuing false work in the hope of hiding from his own secrets. The luckiest writers cannot hide from them.”) The book that most recently blew me away, though, is Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada, which was written in 24 days in 1947, after the author was released from a Nazi-run insane asylum. It is based on the true story of a couple who wrote postcards declaiming the Nazi regime and is a sweeping and deeply human story of resistance. As for favorite author, take a look at the list above of the writers who’ve left their mark, and you’ll see many of the authors whose work I hold closest to my heart.

Your books really touch tender points in the lives of your characters. Do you have a favorite scene or excerpt to share with the blog readers?

Thank you so much! Your word “tender” made me think of a scene from Delta Girls that includes a very tender pear. This takes place in the home of the owners of the pear farm where my main character Izzy is working with her young daughter Quinn in tow. Izzy and Quinn have been living in a houseboat in a slough on the property, and were invited to stay in the house after the boat was damaged. Ben is the son of the owners, and a potential love interest:delta girls cover-2

I felt disoriented when I woke on a stiff tall mattress with a wrought iron headboard, a bumpy chenille spread. The light coming through the windows looked different from the light in the houseboat, thinner, brighter. Quinn was still sound asleep as I got up to brush my teeth, use the bathroom. I could smell coffee wafting, so I threw a sweatshirt on over my pajamas and padded downstairs to finagle a cup.

Ben was in the kitchen, still in his pajamas, too, leaning over a bowl of pears. The thin cotton pants rode low on his hips; as he bent forward, his shirt rode up, exposing a strip of his lower back. His skin looked so smooth; I clenched my hands to keep myself from reaching out to touch it.

Ben turned around, cupping a pear with his palm.

“You know,” he said, as if we were already in the middle of a conversation, “Emerson said ‘There are only ten minutes in the life of a pear when it is perfect to eat.’”

“Nice quote,” I said.

“This pear I have here?” He held it out in front of him. “This pear is perfect.”

I walked across the room, leaned toward the fruit. Its scent was sweet as rain.

“Take a bite.” He grinned mischeviously.

“Really?” I asked.

“We only have a ten minute window.” He held the pear closer.

I touched my lips to the skin, warm from the sun through the window, and could feel it give slightly, like a sigh. I pressed harder until juice flooded into my mouth. The skin of the pear curled against my nose as my teeth went deeper. Ben took a bite from the other side. My eyes met his. He pulled back slightly.

“Melting flesh,” he said, his lips wet.

“Yes,” I said, my whole body turned to liquid.

“That’s what you look for in a pear,” he said. “Melting flesh.”

The pear’s flesh was perfect, ambrosial, melting like butter on my tongue. He took another bite. I took another bite, bigger, my mouth open a bit wider. Our lips moving toward the slender, thready spine, our cheeks covered with juice, chins dripping.

“Eema.” Quinn walked into the kitchen. “There are enough pears. You don’t have to share one.”

I jumped back and laughed nervously, wiping my face with the collar of my sweat shirt.

“I was just teaching your mom the proper way to eat a ripe pear,” said Ben. He lifted another from the bowl. “You should try.”

“I know how to eat a pear,” said Quinn, and took it from his hand.

 What are you working on now?

Right now, I’m working on a memoir about my mom’s suicide and writing occasional essays (my latest is here: http://themanifeststation.net/2014/01/15/how-dare-you/ It was a scary essay to write and publish, but I am committed to being as brave and open and honest in my work as possible.)

Any upcoming events?

I’m speaking at an Author’s Luncheon in Oxnard on February 10, teaching a free community writing workshop at the Blood Orange Info Shop in Riverside, CA on February 23, giving a reading in Seattle as part of the AWP conference on February 28, speaking at a Federally Employed Women conference in Riverside on March 6, and giving a reading at Sierra Nevada College in Incline Village, NV on March 7. (If anyone wants further info about any of these events, feel free to contact me at gaylebrandeis@gmail.com.)

Final words of wisdom?

Write what you are most afraid to write; that’s where the real juice is. And don’t forget you have a body–it can be easy for writers to live fully in our heads and forget to drop down into the body as a deep source of inspiration and material. Our stories are there in our muscles, our cells–all we have to do is unlock them.

Thank you, Gayle.

Be sure to check out Gayle’s website: http://www.gaylebrandeis.com

You can click on her books for direct links.

 

 

 

 

Comments

  1. I love this interview. Makes me want to read her books.

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