Author Eleanor Brown Talks About The Weird Sisters, Writing in First Person Plural and Sticking to her Guns

I read The Weird Sisters this spring — and then my friend, CP and fellow women’s fiction (and other things) writer Pamela Toler and I met author Eleanor Brown at The Printers Row Lit Fest in Chicago!  That makes welcoming her to Women’s Fiction Writers even more fun for me!  I’m sure you wanted to see that photo again so I included it (I never want to disappoint! 😉 ).

The Weird Sisters is an impressive book built around the lives of three sisters as they converge on their childhood home (ok, one never left) and revisit their relationships to each other, their parents and the town.  I found the book to be complex (the way I like books to be) but not overly complicated.  It is super smart but not at all stuffy.   Add some Shakespeare and stir.  Voila!  A great read.  

Spending time with Eleanor (and Meg, thankyouverymuch) in Chicago showed me once again how generous authors are to each other and to those of us wagging our tails behind them aspiring to be counted among them.  

Please welcome Eleanor to Women’s Fiction Writers!  

Interview with Eleanor Brown, Author of The Weird Sisters

ASN: The Weird Sisters is written in first person plural — meaning, the three sisters share the first person point of view simultaneously.  Was this your first choice for how to write the book? Did you come up against any resistance? I found that once I was into the book and reading, it was easy to understand and natural.

EB: As a reader and a writer, I’m very interested in voice and point of view. I discovered first-person plural long before I started writing The Weird Sisters, and wondered why it wasn’t used more often (I now know the answer – it’s really hard!) and what kind of story it would work for. When I was building the idea for the book, I thought about the way that, when we tell stories about our families, that “we” is always in there: “When we were little, we went to Disneyland.” I thought it was the perfect way to underscore one of the ideas in The Weird Sisters, which is that no matter our relationships with our families, they are a part of us. So the three sisters narrate together in one voice.

There were some agents and editors who either didn’t like the voice or worried about its marketability – I had one agent tell me point-blank that she would represent me, but only if I rewrote it in simple third person. But I believed in what I was doing, so I stuck to my guns.

By the way, first-person plural is rare, but not unheard of – William Faulkner’s short story “A Rose for Emily”, Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides, Joshua Ferris’ And Then We Came to the End, Hannah Pittard’s The Fates Will Find Their Way, and Lauren Baratz-Logsted’s The Sisters Eight series all use that voice.

ASN: Were you a Shakespeare expert before you wrote the book? Which hearkens back to — should we write what we know?

EB: Nope, and I’m still not. I came late to Shakespeare – it wasn’t until I was studying abroad in graduate school and had the chance to see a number of his plays performed in amazing settings that I really fell in love. But I did a lot of work and a lot of reading to learn more about the works and their interpretations, which leads me to the second question. I believe in something I once heard Jodi Picoult say at a reading, “Don’t write what you know. Write what you are willing to research.”

ASN: Depending on how the wind blows on any given day is how women’s fiction is perceived.  What’s your take on the whole “feminine tosh” issue.  I also know you write “about families” and I bet if you were a guy — no one would say your work is women’s fiction, they’d say it was a family story — which it is.

EB: I’ve been thinking a lot about this and am discovering that is a really enormous question, that I can’t even attempt to scratch the surface of here. I do know that great writing is not dependent on gender, and anyone who reads exclusively works based on something artificial like that is limiting themselves to a sad extent.

ASN: The Weird Sisters is complex and intricately woven — yet at its core it’s the very basic relationship of sisters — to themselves, each other, their parents and their world(s).  I think that’s what makes it relatable.  How did the idea to tell this story in this way come to you?

EB: I can’t say it was complex when the idea came to me, but thank you! I have always been interested in birth order theory, and the idea of writing about three sisters (so there would be a clear oldest, middle, and youngest) was something I played around with for years. And then other ideas started to attach themselves to that core – what it means to be an adult, the ways families communicate, whether there is such a thing as destiny – and the characters filled out as they explored those questions. I use writing to puzzle out answers to questions I’m wondering about, and all those ideas were ones that were on my mind as I wrote.

ASN: What was your writing process for The Weird Sisters?

EB: I’m what the romance-writing community lovingly calls “a pants-er”, that is, I fly by the seat of my pants – I don’t plot, I don’t plan. I did do a lot of reading and research on topics in the book (like Shakespeare and birth order) and sketched out ideas, but mostly, I just put my butt in the chair and wrote. No routine, no specific time of day, no special tea flavor! I do try to do a thousand words a day, but if I can go beyond that, it’s great.

ASN: Can you tell us about your journey to publication?

EB: It’s really not a very sexy story! I published some shorter pieces and entered contests so I had a writing resume. I wrote some terrible novels that I knew were terrible. When I wrote The Weird Sisters, I knew it was better, so I researched agents, sent out about 100 queries, found an agent, and while she looked for a publisher, I went back to writing! It took a while for the book to sell, but it finally ended up at auction and I was thrilled to end up at Amy Einhorn Books.

ASN: Are you writing a new book? Can you (will you) tell us a little bit about it?

EB: I am! And I am superstitious and don’t talk about my writing while I’m doing it, so I’ll just say it’s another story of relationships, but this time more about love and marriage and divorce. That’s about all even my agent and editor know!

ASN: What is your definition of women’s fiction?

EB: This is another issue I’ve been thinking a lot about. I think the market describes it as “book club fiction”, character-driven stories about relationships, usually with an all- or mostly-female cast. But I think that’s an awfully big tent, and that’s a good thing, because there are a lot of stories to be told.

ASN: What is your best piece of advice specifically for aspiring women’s fiction authors?

EB: Read widely. There are things to be learned from your favorite women’s fiction authors, but also from non-fiction, thrillers, mysteries, romance, anything you can get your hands on!

Eleanor Brown is the New York Times and national bestselling author of The Weird Sisters, hailed by People magazine as “a delightful debut”, and as “creative and original” by Library Journal.  Chosen as a Best Book of the Month by Barnes & Noble and Amazon, and an Indie Next Pick,The Weird Sisters was also selected as a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers title and is scheduled for release internationally.

Born and raised in the Washington, D.C. area, Eleanor lives in Denver, Colorado, with her partner, writer J.C. Hutchins.

Having Advocates (and snacks) Within the Women’s Fiction Community

Friday night I took my almost sixteen year old daughter to GLEE Live (I’ll spare you the 96 pictures).  She screamed. I screamed. She jumped. I jumped.  She fist pumped. I fist pumped.  Our ears were ringing at midnight when our heads hit our respective pillows.

I couldn’t think of anything more amazing.

But, then I went to the Printer’s Row Lit Fest in Chicago. To the Ladies of the Write panel. Now that, my friends, was like writer’s crack. Beat GLEE by a mile.  And, there was no screaming.  A double-bonus.

I went with my in-real-life, good friend Pamela Toler, a non-fiction and fiction author is an all-around awesome sport.  She knows I am not only a reader and writer but a total author fan.  So when Kristina Riggle, Cavanaugh Lee, Beverly Jenkins and Meg Waite Clayton were a few feet in front of us in a classroom, Pamela just let me revel in their awesome authorness.  She may have told me to close my gaping mouth, I don’t remember. If she did, I’m sure it reopened and hit the floor when Meg mentioned that Eleanor Brown was also in the audience.  Pamela and I had just finished talking about Eleanor’s book, The Weird Sisters, about a minute before. (No fear, Eleanor is scheduled to be on the blog soon!)

For about thirty minutes the women on the panel bantered on the definition of women’s fiction, V.S. Naipaul, their writing process, where they get their ideas, how they find their voices when writing from multiple points of view and they gave great advice to any aspiring authors about persistence and perseverance.  They shared the metaphorical stage with generosity, grace and humor.  I doubt Naipaul would have handled himself with nearly as much, if any, class. Nor would he have rocked the awesome accessories and jewelry with such flair.

Frankly, these women were so funny they could take their show on the road.

But within the boundaries of the advice and hilarity, I realized that these articulate women not only wrote books for us to read with characters we could relate to, but as writers of women’s fiction — or however you want to describe their books — they are our advocates.  Of course their books are read by men too — but in having female protagonists in fiction they showcase the breadth of life experience women have, the intensity of emotion, the unequivocal joie de vivre and propensity for action.  They have proven it can be done.  These books sell.  These women (and male authors who write female protags), by writing the books they do, have become advocates for those of us who want to do the same thing.

And in life, we all need advocates.

A close friend reminded me recently that we all really need advocates in our careers — a person who knows you and your abilities, someone who sees your strengths and understands your weaknesses and will not only encourage and push you, but go to bat for you.  That really made sense to me.  So I thought about it.

How do we find an advocate in the women’s fiction community?

Of course, an agent and/or an editor is your advocate. 100%!  But what about an advocate within the writer and author realm? Writers need other writers, right?

I believe in order to have an advocate, you must first be one — without an agenda, without a motive other than to help.  Clichés might not belong in fiction, but on the blog, they’re fine and dandy. 😉  You get what you give. What goes around comes around.  Don’t blog because you want readers, blog because you have something to say. Don’t critique a manuscript because you want to be critiqued, do it because you want to help someone be a better writer.  Don’t push someone to help you, help someone else and when you least expect it, someone will be there to help you. And don’t put the cart before the horse.  Pay it forward.

Generosity of spirit breeds generosity of spirit.

Forget about yourself sometimes.  That makes people remember you.

For example, Meg was kind enough to mention the blog and her interview here, and also that the interview is going to be included in the paperback edition of The Four Ms. Bradwells, which I knew and am over-the-moon about.  I also feel lucky that Pamela and I got to hang out with Meg and Eleanor after the panel (Kris headed home :-().  If you have never been to Panera Bread with one of your favorite friends and two of your favorite authors, I highly recommend it.

What struck me as we sat and chatted and other authors came by, sat a spell and left, is that these folks have each other’s backs and read each other’s books.  They certainly work their tushes off on their own books and promotion but when surrounded by their colleagues and peers it was all about the other person.  No one was the better-selling author.  In a small group, there was little distinction between published and not-yet published for most of us.  Experiences and comments and questions were equal.

As authors steps ahead of me, they have paved the way.  They are my advocates simply by doing what they do and by being generous with their time and energy and insights on this blog.  And you know what?  We are their advocates by reading and buying and talking about their books.

Of course, Pamela, who allowed me to stand next to both Eleanor and Meg in the photos, and to giggle (without admonishing me) as she took my arm and led across a busy street and to the train, clearly wins the prize.

Pamela Toler, Me, Meg Waite Clayton, author of The Four Ms. Bradwells, The Wednesday Sisters and The Language of Light

Pamela Toler, Me, Eleanor Brown, author of The Weird Sisters