Some years ago, I returned to Miami, where I spent the early Nineties eating Cuban and sexually humiliating myself. I was there to teach a seminar, the subject of which was –- if I’m remembering this correctly -– How to Never Sell More Than 1000 Copies of Any Book You Ever Write.
It was a friendly group of aspiring failures and I was happy to share the secrets of my own commercial implosion, gems such as Insult Book Reviewers as a Population Constantly and If You Can’t Think of the Right Word, Make One Up.
Unfortunately, there was one rotten apple, as there always is. This was a woman named Eleanor Brown, who, when it was her turn to introduce herself, announced in a humble manner that she had a novel coming out with Amy Einhorn Books.
The question from my end was obvious: Why are you taking a class with someone unable to actually write a novel?
It was my hope that Eleanor would be a problem student, someone prone to correcting my grammar and perhaps telling me not to say “cocksucker” so much.
Alas, she listened patiently, produced remarkable work during in-class exercises, and responded to my constant emotional hectoring with senseless grace and dependable insight. In short, I feared an overachiever in our midst.
The publication of The Weird Sisters, her debut novel, has borne this out. The tale of three troubled sisters who return home to help their Shakespeare-obsessed father care for their cancer-stricken mother, has won a passel of starred reviews and become a surprise bestseller. It’s the sort of book that sucks readers in with clever prose and plot twists, but packs a real emotional wallop. I tore through it, in other words. But I never felt cheap.
First things first, Eleanor. Congratulations on all your success. Are you freaking out?
I think I’m more happily surprised than freaked. Before The Weird Sisters was published, I would say to my editor, “Two people are going to read this book: my mom, and your mom.” The fact that so many people other than our moms are reading it and -– even better -– finding something of themselves in it is beyond anything I ever expected, and I’m hugely grateful and not a little bit stunned.
One of the things that’s great about your book is how you manage the Shakespeare stuff. The women use quotes as a sort of private language, and there are obvious parallels between each sister and her namesake characters, but you never let it become a gimmick.
Ooh, that’s so good to hear. You’re taking a risk whenever you invoke such an important writer, and I was trying to accomplish some pretty specific goals by using Shakespeare as a layer in the story.
You know, every time I sit at another family’s dinner table and observe the way they communicate, I’m amazed by how much I learn about them. There are words and phrases they use all the time that have a history, and there are patterns in the way they communicate that say a lot about their relationships.
So one of the major things I was trying to get at with the Shakespeare quotations was how this particular family communicates. They fall back, especially when things are emotionally tough, on the words of a man who’s been dead for four hundred years and isn’t around to explain himself, and that doesn’t really work for them as they try to move forward. But, man, do they have some snappy insults.
I also loved that the book was about siblings, and the idea that you can love someone without really liking them. Have your siblings disowned you yet?
Oh, they disowned me ages ago.
Family makes all kinds of strange bedfellows (um, not literally, because eww). As a culture, we’ve got this ideal that even if your relatives are hateful people you wouldn’t spit on in the street, you have to maintain some kind of relationship with them because you share genetic material. Yet I see these fierce bonds between family members, especially siblings, who don’t like each other at all, but are each other’s staunchest defenders and proudest advocates. It’s curiously wonderful.
The book also deals with birth order, which is a psychological factor that I’ve always felt (as one of three brothers) tends to get short shrift. How much did you research, versus writing from your own experience?
I think birth order is fascinating, and you and I come from families that can be perfect pressure cookers for its effects: three siblings of the same gender. Certainly my interest in the subject was sparked because I grew up in a family where, at least when we were younger, we fell rigidly into stereotypical birth order roles: a successful, Type A oldest, a charming but somewhat lost middle, and a spoiled and flaky (but of course brilliant and beautiful) youngest.
When I was a psychology student in college, I did a major research project on birth order and I’ve continued to read on it ever since. What I wanted to do in the novel was take those stereotypes and ask what happens when they are challenged – for instance, if you’ve always been the responsible one, what happens when you’re asked to do something daring? To me, good fiction is about change, so I took those personalities and put them each in a situation where they were forced to grow.
I’m not going to ask you what’s next, because that would make me feel like a big cheese-ball. But I will ask if you’ve read any hot sex scenes lately.
Sadly, no. But then it’s been a while since we had a new Steve Almond short story collection, right?