Denver writer Eleanor Brown’s winning first novel, The Weird Sisters (Amy Einhorn Books, 336 pages, $24.95), was published in January, and since then it has received glowing reviews from NPR, People, the New York Times and the Boston Globe, and it has impressed the people who matter most—readers—who propelled it onto the New York Times Best Seller list this week. The Weird Sisters tells the story of three Midwestern sisters, Rosalind, Bianca, and Cordelia (better known as Rose, Bean, and Cordy), named after Shakespearean characters by their Shakespeare scholar father. The sisters return home to a quaint university town in the midst of career, romantic, and financial struggles when they learn their mother needs treatment for breast cancer. The family often communicates through quotations from Shakespeare, and much of the book is narrated in the charming collective “we” voice of the sisters. I interviewed Brown via email about the Denver literary scene, her Shakespearean research, and her unique narrative voice. Brown will discuss the origins of her book at the Lighthouse Writers Workshop’s “The Story of a Book” on February 19 at 910 Arts in Denver (910 Santa Fe Blvd., 7 p.m., free), along with Harrison Fletcher, Jackie St. Joan, and me. Next month Brown’s book tour will continue with stops in Washington, California, Colorado, and more.
New West: How long ago did you move to Denver, and what brought you here? Do you have any impressions about the literary scene in Colorado?
Eleanor Brown; [Writer J.C. Hutchins and I] moved to Denver in September of 2010, so just a few months ago. Having lots of friends in the Denver area, we had been visiting for years, and I’d wanted to live here since the first moment I stepped on the soil. The weather, the views, the kind, friendly people—it was just the kind of place I’d dreamed of. Add to that a thriving literary community personified by Lighthouse Writers Workshop and Tattered Cover, and it was a natural fit.
When I first got here, I was alone in an empty apartment for a few weeks while J.C. wrapped things up in Florida. Nearly every night, I found myself at a reading at one of the Tattered Cover locations. The goal was to get out of the house and have somewhere more comfortable to sit than the floor, but I found myself repeatedly impressed by the authors who were coming through, the crowds they drew, and the conversations that were had. I felt instantly at home.
NW: Have you set any fiction that you’ve written in Colorado?
EB: I’ve written two novels set in Colorado. I think capturing the majesty and beauty of this place are a challenge I’ve never entirely been able to meet, so they’re both in the proverbial desk drawer for the time being.
NW: You’ve said that you tried writing books in several different genres before you wrote The Weird Sisters. What genres appealed to you?
EB: I will read just about any genre, and I tried writing whatever I was loving at the time—creative non-fiction, romance, young adult, even a horribly misguided attempt at a thriller. While none of those turned out to really make my heart sing as a writer, I certainly learned a great deal about writing from reading—and writing—widely.
NW: Did you know Shakespeare’s plays well enough that the lines your characters quote would occur to you as you were writing, or did you search through his plays to find lines that would work in particular scenes?
EB: Before I started writing, I did a lot of research—re-reading and re-watching the plays, reading criticism, and taking copious notes, including a ridiculously long list of quotes I wanted to use in the novel. I figured out early on that I couldn’t write a scene just to use a quote, so it was more that I would hit a point where I needed one and either I’d remember something from the list (I generally tried to avoid the most obvious ones) or I’d have to start from scratch looking for something appropriate.
NW: Several novels have been inspired by the plots of Shakespeare’s plays, notably Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres, which won the Pulitzer Prize. The Weird Sisters is the first that I can think of that has instead found inspiration in Shakespeare’s characters. Did you aim to make the plot Shakespearean as well?
EB: Not really. As a reader, I’m far more interested in plot as a convenience to push the characters towards change, which is what I really love. And though I started out basing the characters on Shakespearean counterparts, I found as I wrote that they veered away from their templates and so at the end I felt like their struggles were all their own.
NW: I was intrigued by your interpretation of Cordelia. I always thought of Shakespeare’s Cordelia as this shining paragon of truth and love. Your Cordelia is a charming hippie drifter, and you write of Shakespeare’s Cordelia, “Everything happens to Cordelia; she never makes anything happen.” But I think her refusal to tell Lear how much she loved him was a radical and brave decision; she accepted the dire consequences of this, and she always struck me as anything but passive. Did you base the characters in The Weird Sisters on your own analysis of Shakespeare’s characters, or did you read what scholars had written about them?
EB: There was definitely an enormous amount of research that went into the background of The Weird Sisters, but as you know, for every interpretation in one direction, there’s an interpretation in another, so I had to choose views that worked for where the book was heading. I adore Cordelia, and find her love for her father deeply moving, so I’d be more likely to come down on your side personally, but I’d never purport to speak with any scholarly finality on any Shakespearean interpretation, especially for a play as complex and rich as King Lear.
NW:Your use of the first-person-plural narrative voice in “The Weird Sisters” is charming and fresh. You said that you worked out some rules about how to employ it consistently—what were those rules? Sometimes the sisters speak as one “we,” other times the book goes into what seems like third person for a while, then the “we” returns. Sometimes the “we” narrator knows secrets that one sister has not yet revealed to the other sisters. Does this imply that they know each other well enough to guess at what the others might be up to, even if they don’t know the particulars?
EB: I’m so glad to hear you appreciated the voice—it was definitely one of the trickiest parts of the book. I know one of the rules was that when there were two sisters in a scene, I would use the collective voice to narrate action, but that rule could be broken if it didn’t sound right—which it occasionally didn’t. Since the book is past tense as well as first-person plural, I got to be a little sneaky, so the collective narrator can speak to the past, which is the practical explanation of how they seem to know each other’s secrets. Mostly I needed to make sure I was consistent across situations and that it added to but didn’t disrupt the story, which is why it often switches into third person unless it’s really necessary for the sisters to be speaking together.
NW: I think my favorite scene in the book is the beautiful flashback where the girls take the car out for ice cream when their parents are away and they are too young to drive and end up crashing into a deer. It was so vivid and it movingly conveyed this shared experience and their nostalgia over it. What inspired that scene?
EB: That is one of my favorite scenes, too. It was a combination of memories I had, both general and specific—of the unbelievable freedom of childhood summers, of seeing a state trooper shoot a deer that had been hit by a car, of being allowed to drive on a private road long before I was sixteen, of the way soft ice cream stands come alive in small towns on summer nights. I wanted to put those things together into a scene that was pivotal in the sisters’ relationship – how the time when they were closest was also a time that helped drive them apart.
Interestingly, that was also, in earlier drafts, the only scene narrated in traditional first person by each of the sisters in turn.
NW: I love the part about how the Shakespeare scholar father relishes attending bad Shakespeare productions. You mention one particularly egregious nude production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that the sisters are subjected to. I too, have seen an awful, overly creative interpretation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. What is it about this play that provokes community theater groups to go nuts?
EB: Ha! What a great question. Maybe just because it’s hard not to love that play—it’s absolutely hilarious, but totally sweet, and it doesn’t have to be complex to stage. The apparent simplicity of it may seem to cry out for something to make it a little deeper, but it actually does just fine on its own.
NW: A major issue that faces the sisters in The Weird Sisters is what they choose to do for a living, how well they are able to perform their jobs, whether they can stick to them, and whether they are happy with where those jobs are located. What is your day job, and did you face similar struggles with finding the right job for you?
EB: I’ve had a lot of day jobs, some of which I was lucky enough to love, but finding those has been a long, hard road, as I think it is for many people of my generation. Work consumes an enormous amount of time, so should it also define who we are? Or should it be something that simply literally feeds us, but doesn’t have to feed our souls? That’s been something I’ve wrestled with for years and still don’t know if I’ve entirely found the answer.
NW: You’ve mention that you studied with Steve Almond. Did you study creative writing in grad school, or did you attend summer workshops? Were these workshops helpful to your writing? Do you participate in a critique group?
EB: I love taking writing classes. I took a few creative writing classes in college, but didn’t pursue them seriously, and didn’t take any at all in graduate school. I’ve taken online courses, done workshops at the Florida Center for the Literary Arts (that was where I worked with Steve Almond—I was editing The Weird Sisters at the time and it was exactly what I needed—he’s amazing), and am now so glad to be in Denver where I can regularly take classes at Lighthouse Writers Workshop. I’m taking one right now with William Haywood Henderson, who’s just a wonderful, thoughtful writer and teacher.
I don’t participate in a critique group, but I do know people who find them enormously helpful. I think the most important thing is writing regularly, and whatever it takes to get you into that habit is great.
NW: You’ve said that you wrote for a long time without trying to get anything published, because you wanted to wait until you were ready. How did you know when you were ready? Did you publish any short fiction before writing this novel?
EB: I knew I was ready because I finally wrote something I was proud of. It’s easy to be proud because it’s finished, or because it’s better than what you’ve done in the past. This was different—I had absolutely no questions in my mind about whether it was worth asking someone else to take precious time to read it. I knew it was worth it.
I published short fiction and essays in anthologies, magazines, newspapers, and journals. That was great not only in terms of keeping my writing sharp and fresh, but in building a resume that I could use when I sent my work out to literary agents.
NW: What are you working on next?
EB: I’m terribly superstitious about talking about works in progress, but I will say that I’ve been working on a novel that’s about love and marriage and divorce and how those things don’t line up as you might expect.
Eleanor Brown will discuss The Weird Sisters at the Lighthouse Writers Workshop’s “The Story of a Book” on February 19 at 910 Arts in Denver (910 Santa Fe Blvd., 7 p.m., free), along with Harrison Fletcher, Jackie St. Joan, and Jenny Shank.