Interviews

Interview with Gayle Brandeis

Gayle Brandeis grew up in the Chicago area and has been writing poems and stories since she was four years old. She is the author of Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write (HarperOne), Dictionary Poems (Pudding House Publications), the novels The Book of Dead Birds(HarperCollins), which won Barbara Kingsolver’s Bellwether Prize for Fiction in Support of a Literature of Social Change, Self Storage (Ballantine) andDelta Girls (Ballantine), and her first novel for young readers, My Life with the Lincolns (Holt). She released The Book of Live Wires, the sequel to The Book of Dead Birds, as an e-book in 2011.

Gayle’s poetry, fiction and essays have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies (such as Salon.com, The Nation, and The Mississippi Review) and have received several awards, including the QPB/Story Magazine Short Story Award, a Barbara Mandigo Kelley Peace Poetry Award, and a grant from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund. Her essay on the meaning of liberty was one of three included in the Statue of Liberty’s Centennial time capsule in 1986, when she was 18. In 2004, the Writer Magazine honored Gayle with a Writer Who Makes a Difference Award.

Gayle holds a BA in “Poetry and Movement: Arts of Expression, Meditation and Healing” from the University of Redlands, and an MFA in Creative Writing/Fiction from Antioch University. She has taught at universities, libraries, community centers and writing conferences around the country; she is also on the national staff of the women’s peace organization CODEPINK and is a founding member of the Women Creating Peace Collective. Gayle lives in Riverside, CA and has two adult kids and a toddler.

When you sit down to write, what does that feel like?

It depends on the day. Sometimes I can feel a lovely urgency bubbling up in my belly and chest, words that can’t wait to shoot out of my hands. Other days, a sense of dread feels like dead weight in my lungs and I am almost scared to open up whatever file I’m working on. Then other times, it feels like no big deal, as if I’m doing something simple and ordinary, like peeling an orange.

Is there a certain mood you have to be in?

Not really. It helps to feel inspired, to feel that urgency, but it’s not necessary. As long as you move your fingers, the words will come.

What about editing?

I love editing. This was not always the case–I used to be afraid of revision; I was so scared I was going to drain all of the original juice out of my work. But now I see it’s an opportunity to make the work stronger, to concentrate that juice into something delicious and clear. I have no compunction now about hacking away sentences I love.
Editing is a much more conscious activity for me than first draft writing. I try not to think too much when I’m writing a first draft; I want to stay out of my own way and let the work come from a deeper place. When I edit, I try to turn my brain back on. So if I’m feeling especially sharp, it’s probably an editing day instead of a writing one!

If you could put a desk anywhere on Earth to work from where would it be?

Gosh, that’s a tricky one–do I want it to be someplace gorgeous, so I could look up and see beauty all around me (like the mountains, perhaps, or a Greek island) or do I want it to be just a plain room with no windows so I’d have nothing to distract me as I write? I suppose I’d rather choose a place where I could gain inspiration from the world around me when I’m not writing–a place where I could step outside and go for a walk and be surrounded by the amazing buzz of life.
The nice thing about writing is it’s portable, so it can happen anywhere!

Is there a specific time of day where you feel the best writing comes out?

Nighttime has always been my most creative time, and continues to be a fruitful time for me, but I’ve found I can’t stay up as late as I used to. I have had to sort of retrain myself to be able to write at all hours.

As both a poet and a novelist, do those personas ever conflict?

I don’t think of my poet and novelist self as personas–it’s all me. Sometimes a poem wants to emerge, sometimes a novel, and of course there are different craft considerations, but it’s all language, and all starts somewhere inside my skin.

Where does the writing come from?

Now that’s a good question. I wish I knew, but I also like how mysterious the process is. Sometimes I feel it being born in my belly. Sometimes an overheard snippet of conversation will trigger a poem or story. Sometimes an image will send me on a wild goose chase. But whatever the inspiration, it has to move me somewhere in my body. If something resonates in my bones, I tend to want to write about it.

What was the process like getting your first book published?

Quite a journey. My first book was Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write. When my first agent (a dear friend) sent it to publishers, we were told that it was too academic, that there needed to be more of a personal connection to the subject, so I rewrote it and included more of my experience. That draft went out, and we were told there was “too much of the author” in the book. I was very confused at this point, and set the project aside for a while, but eventually had an epiphany about how to rewrite the book. At that point, my agent had health issues and decided to shutter her nascent agency, so I took it upon myself to write to the editors who had expressed interest in earlier drafts. A wonderful editor at HarperSanFrancisco asked to see the revision, and ultimately said yes.
When I first got a copy of the book in the mail, I was so overwhelmed, I thought I was going to throw up or pass out. It was a very emotional experience. I ended up with writers’ block for the first time in my life, which I hadn’t expected–it was as if I had been writing in a state of innocent bliss pre-publication, and once I started to be more aware of audience, reviews, etc., it made me freeze for a while.

Was the process easier or harder with the following books?

A little of both–I knew what to expect, so that helped. I am worried that it is going to be harder from now on, though–none of my books have been huge sellers, and because of the economy, I know that publishers aren’t as willing to take a chance on an author who’s not guaranteed to bring in big profits. I hope I’m wrong about this; we shall see.

After publishing multiple books with various publishers, you self-published Book of Live Wires, the sequel to The Book of Dead Birds (HarperCollins 2003). How was that process?

An interesting experiment, for sure. With the publishing industry changing so rapidly and dramatically, I thought it would be good to know how to take publishing into my own hands. I never thought I would publish The Book of Live Wires–I wrote it during NaNoWriMo in 2002 to help break through the writer’s block I mentioned earlier (thankfully, it worked!). I thought I had written the novel just for myself, but people had asked about it over the years, so I decided to dust it off and put it out there in celebration of NaNoWriMo and the forthcoming 10th anniversary of the Bellwether Prize (The Book of Dead Birds won the prize in 2002, when it was still in manuscript form; part of the prize was publication). It was very interesting being in charge of every aspect of the production, from copy editing to cover design to figuring out different ebook platforms (I went with Smashwords and Kindle). I’m glad I did it, but don’t feel the need to try the process again anytime soon.

What advice can you give aspiring authors in their quest to publish their first book?

It can be so tempting to send out a book length manuscript as soon as you’ve finished it, but you need to be patient. Set the work aside and revise it after you’ve gained some needed detachment from the project. You want to make sure your book is edited (both for form and content) before you send it out–make sure it’s as tight and shiny and error-free as you can get it; it helps to have other trusted eyes look at it before you submit, too. And then do your research. Send your work to agents and publishers whose tastes resonate with your work. And keep writing. I’ve learned that the pleasures of publishing are fleeting; it’s the pleasure of the actual creative process that will ultimately sustain you.

Relatively recently, you became Inlandia’s Literary Laureate. Could you tell us about that?

This is such an honor. The Inlandia Institute is a regional literary organization that names a laureate every other year, for a two year appointment. I see myself as a literary ambassador of sorts, gathering the stories of our region and sharing those stories with the wider world. In the first year of my laureateship, my focus is INnerLANDIA, getting people to explore the connection between place and self in creative writing. The second year, my focus will be OutLANDIA, encouraging people to set their imaginations free. I look forward to seeing what stories will emerge.

Is the outreach done through workshops?

As Laureate, I will teach workshops and offer readings in various locations, with the hope of reaching a wide, and often underserved audience. I’ve taught a couple of workshops already, through our partnership with the Riverside Art Museum, and have been so touched by how willing the participants were to dig deep and take creative risks. I will also continue to write my own place-based pieces for the Inlandia Literary Laureate blog (http://inlandialaureates.wordpress.com)

Could you give us insight into upcoming projects?

I recently finished a draft of my new novel for young people, Seed Bombs (a somewhat-dystopian novel set in Redlands), and am awaiting feedback from my agent. I’m also working on a memoir about my mom, who committed suicide almost three years ago. It took me a while to be able to write about her, but I guess I needed to be ready to dive in deep. It’s still a hard, scary process, but I’m learning so much about her and myself as I move forward with the writing. It’s already transformed me, and I know it will continue to do so. In many ways, this feels like the most important thing I’ve ever written.

Thank you for sharing.

Gayle Brandeis’s books are available online at Amazon, BarnesandNoble.com, Powell’s, Indiebound, and Smashwords. A full list is available at http://www.gaylebrandeis.com/ 

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