(You can see my review of The Widow's Season here.)
Laura Brodie , author of The Widow's Season, could not be nicer. You can read her full bio here, but I'll just tell you that she lives with her family in Lexington VA, which is one of the loveliest places in the world. Random fact and personal anectdote: It's home to both the Virginia Military Institute and Washington & Lee University. I traveled to WLU to present my senior undergrad thesis at a conference and was told the two schools (literally down the road from one another) are jokingly referred to as Athens and Sparta.
Anywho. Today Laura is talking with us about husbands who fake their deaths, her long road to publication, and why she's blonde on the outside and Poe on the inside - my kind of girl.
Plus at the end of the Q&A you'll have the chance to win your very own copy of The Widow's Season! IMO, it's the perfect fall/winter read.
Anna Claire: You've lived in Virginia for the past 20 years and I have to ask: what's your favorite Southern food?
Laura Brodie: I grew up in North Carolina from ages 8 through 18, in addition to all my years in Virginia, so I’ve eaten my share of Southern food. I love hush puppies, sweet potato biscuits and shrimp and grits.
AC: OK. Now that we know the important stuff...just kidding. You wrote your Ph.D dissertation on widows in English literature. The Widow's Season was inspired by your favorite chapter from the dissertation, which examined husbands who fake their deaths in order to spy on their wives. That is just so awesomely creepy. Was this historically a common occurrence in real life? In literature?
LB: It was common in 17th-century plays, but not in real life. In the plays, husbands wanted to preview their deaths to see how their widows would behave. Inevitably, the women took new lovers and were planning to transfer the property, when the husband would jump from the wings and say “Aha!”
I’ve seen variations on this in a few 20th-century plays, and I’ve read works from the past five centuries that encourage widows to imagine that their husbands are watching—in order to discipline their desires. But I think the fake deaths were mostly a 17th century phenomenon, because there was a lot of anxiety back then about the rise of the middle class, and big shifts in wealth. In ghost stories from that period you get a lot of dead men who are worried about their money.
AC: Do you think women today are still encouraged to see their husbands (alive or dead) as omnipresent in their lives?
LB: I asked that question online at the WidowNet bulletin board, and I was told that most widows feel that they are discouraged from holding onto their husbands’ presence in any strong way. Today’s society just wants them to move on, which they often resent. And those who believe in their husbands’ spiritual presence often find that they can’t share their feelings without being attacked in some way. Because our culture is more accepting of independent women who control their own finances, you don’t see clergymen and teachers today presenting husbands (dead or alive) as a punitive force in women’s lives.
AC: What was your path to publication like?
LB: It was a long, slow process. The novel took about four years to write, since I was working and raising three daughters with my husband. I did most of my writing during the summers, meeting at a local bar to share chapters with a few friends who are also aspiring novelists. When the first draft was almost complete, I got a boost from winning the Pirate's Alley/Faulkner Society's 2005 prize for Best Novel-in-Progress. That helped me to get my agent, Gail Hochman, and she pushed me to keep revising for another few months. We sent the manuscript out to lots of editors and got lots of rejections—mostly from readers who loved the writing and premise but weren’t sure that they could sell it. Some were dissatisfied with the story’s original ending, where I didn’t tell whether the husband was alive or dead. I then wrote the current ending, which gives the novel more closure, and we were able to connect with my wonderful editor at Berkley, Jackie Cantor.
AC: Would you recommend aspiring authors enter contests as a way to increase visibility? Any other advice for writers trying to become published?
LB: For fiction writers, it’s very helpful to enter contests and submit stories to literary journals. If you have any success, you can use that to attract an agent. Even with another person peddling your book, the likelihood of publication is small, since the market has gotten terrible over the past few years. Non-fiction is easier to sell. Ten years ago I sold my first non-fiction book to an editor at Pantheon without having an agent. It was a book about the transition to coeducation at the Virginia Military Institute. But in retrospect it was a mistake not to hire an agent, since I’ve learned that they can be a valuable part of the promotion process, long after a book is sold.
AC: Tell us about when you found out your book would be published - when you got "the call."
LB: It was a complete surprise, because I had decided to stop trying to sell the novel for a while. We’d gotten a lot of rejections over the course of a year, and I told my agent to pause before we burned all of our bridges. I would go back and revise some more, and we would try again in a few months.
But then I got the call saying that Jackie Cantor at Berkley had just read the book after having it in her pile for three months, and she loved the story. She later told me that she was planning to read two pages and reject it. She figured she should look at the opening because she is friends with my agent, and she felt guilty that she had neglected the book for so long. But once she read the initial pages, she was hooked—which goes to show how critical the opening pages of a manuscript are, and how hard it can be for a new writer to get a complete reading of her work.
AC: I love that point about how critical the opening pages are - in your case, they hooked me immediately. Other than having great first pages, what's your best piece of writing advice?
LB: Revise, revise, revise. Try to make time to write and rewrite every day, and expect a lot of rejection. The successes are the exception to the rule.
AC: What's one surprising, weird or otherwise unusual thing about you?
LB: On the outside I look like a cheery blonde Southern Mom; on the inside I’m more like Edgar Allan Poe, with a sense of humor.
AC: Have you ever had a supernatural/ghostly encounter?
LB: No, but my husband once saw something in our house that he couldn’t explain—a white figure passing through the hallway. We live in a quiet rural area in a farmhouse nearly 100 years old, and he was standing in the kitchen, looking toward the doorway to the hall, when something walked past. Maybe it was a trick of the light, but he saw it very clearly, and it wasn’t frightening—just an oddity.
When he came into the living room and explained what he had just seen, my first response was “Why did you have to tell me?” He was leaving town the next day for the weekend, and after I put the kids to bed the next night, I went to that hallway with all of the lights turned on, and I stood there stupidly and said out loud “So, if there are any kind of spirits in this house, I just way to say: I’m OK, you’re OK.”
AC: Yikes! So what's next on the horizon?
LB: In April I have a memoir coming out with HarperCollins called Love in a Time of Homeschooling. It’s about one year when I gave my oldest daughter, Julia, a break from her public school routine, which was making her miserable. I wrote about the experience in an article for Brain,Child magazine that got a lot of great responses: http://www.brainchildmag.com/essays/spring2007_brodie.asp.
Julia and I learned a lot about the world of homeschooling, and had some wonderful experiences together, but the book speaks honestly about the downsides as well—the arguments and ugly scenes that can arise when you try to teach your child at home. Still, I’m very glad that I spent that special year with her.
I’m also just beginning to write a new novel, since the response to The Widow’s Season has been terrific. I feel grateful to all the readers who have been willing to take a look at a new, unknown writer—they’ve given me this opportunity to keep writing fiction.
AC: Thanks Laura!
And now, on to the contest! To win a copy of The Widow's Season by Laura Brodie, leave a comment on this post describing your own personal ghostly experience. Or if you're like me and have unfortunately never had a ghostly encounter, you can just tell us your favorite ghostly/spooky book or movie. (Mine is 13 Alabama Ghosts and Jeffrey by Alabama storytelling legend Kathryn Tucker Windham.)
Get another entry by linking to this contest on your blog or via Twitter! Just leave a second comment below letting me know you did.
I'll leave the contest open until 11 p.m. Monday, CST. On Tuesday morning I'll randomly select one winner. US and Canadian residents only, please!