Deana Luchia chats with Amy Susan Brown about her latest project.
Q: Can you remember the first story you ever wrote? How old were you and what was it about?
A: I wish I could. I would need to ask my mother! I suspect as someone who devoured words at an early age I would have used long and difficult words of which I was perhaps not entirely sure of their meaning. I used to read the dictionary—literally read it, noting down words that delighted or intrigued me and write them down on index cards that I would stare at and memorize as I walked to school; it’s a wonder I never tripped and fell while studying the meaning of “invidious quidnunc,” which I thought would be a perfect insult for my younger brother. One of my favourite elementary school assignments was to be given a list of vocabulary words to weave into a story; giving me a wide space for my creativity within a certain frame. In a way, that is how I like to write today—not entirely by the seat of my pants, but with some idea of where I’m going—even if the path veers off now and then, I can still see an image of my overall vision, like a mirage in the desert.
Q: What are your favourite types of characters to write about and why?
A: I enjoy writing about young female characters, girls at age 12, 13 or 14, at that difficult time of coming of age, trying to figure out their place in the world, pushing for independence but at the same time craving the reassurance of peer acceptance, of familial bonds and unconditional love, even when they behave badly or make the unwise choices we all do in those searching years. I am also moved by the sorrow and strength of motherless daughters, and that was a theme of my first middle-grade novel. Sadly, the idea came out of the sudden death at age 46 of my best friend, leaving two adopted daughters, ages 5 and 9, to cope with that unfathomable loss (a double maternal loss, essentially). I was, and am, close to the girls and spent time with them shortly after their mother’s death. I wanted to understand as best as I could what they were going through, so that I might better help them manage their emotions and their needs. I read the wonderful book Motherless Daughters by Hope Edelman. There is a happy ending to their story—their father remarried a wonderful woman who is a loving and supportive stepmother and their father was always there for the girls—unlike the distant father in my novel who didn’t allow his daughter an outlet for her grief. As a mother of two daughters, going deep into that space of mother loss as I wrote my novel, Mormor’s Piano was hard, but it was a journey that helped me process my own grief for the loss of my friend and feel even more compassion for her daughters. I think all writers have an internal age they can tap into—mine is somewhere between 13 and 15 years old. I can access the teenager’s inner angst and wavering self-esteem juxtaposed with the irrepressible optimism, romanticism and natural selfishness of youth.
Q: What do you think makes for a perfect short story?
A: A compelling central character(s) is the most important ingredient, a character with something to lose—there have to be stakes, a conflict and then an incident or self-revelation that brings the conflict to its climax (ideally with some suspense) before a resolution that feels natural to the character and the arc of the story. It should be vivid in its language and descriptions but economical; in a short story we don’t have the luxury of a few hundred pages to spin out a tale. It needs to be specific and yet universal in its humanity; unique to the writer’s world but recognizable to the reader who enters that world.
Q: As someone who’s been a judge recently please could you share with us what was the best part and worst part of being a judge?
A: The best part of being a judge was the opportunity to encourage others in this difficult, soul-baring, occasionally soul-withering life of writing; it’s like opening a vein, fervently hoping the pain is all worth it. My main objective was specific, constructive criticism, balanced with honesty, but always erring on the side of kindness. The worst part was framing my criticisms or suggestions in a way that would be helpful and not make the writer cringe, cry or worse, give up. Worst of all was having to put a numerical score on each category and then an overall score; how does one possibly do that? More experienced judges helped me figure that out. Having been a recipient of generous, helpful judges’ critiques for my own entries, I can only hope the anonymous writers whose work I judged came away feeling encouraged to keep going.
Q: Did being a judge inspire your own writing at all?
A: Yes, the other wonderful aspect of being a judge was learning more about my own writing; one can’t help thinking about one’s own characterization, plot, dialogue, opening sentences or use of language when analysing how well another writer managed these aspects of their work. It also opened me up to reading genres I normally don’t read, like fantasy and science fiction, reminding me that a good story has essentially the same elements, no matter the genre
Q: How do you think writing competitions help a writer?
A: They help in many ways. Putting your work out in the world for assessment by qualified professionals and comparison to other writers is not easy but definitely rewarding and makes one a stronger writer. Entering competitions also has the benefit of deadlines to complete a new work or polish an already finished work for the outside world’s assessment. Hopefully, it becomes a platform for reaching new readers for your work, if published, as was the happy fate of one of my short stories submitted for a contest. It can also help you in the search for agents and publishers, as it shows you are willing to put your work forward, that you are actively learning and working at your craft.
Q: What are you working on at the moment?
A: I am working on a young adult novel set on the island of Malta that features four young girls, age 14, who meet at an international boarding school. They come from very different backgrounds and cultures but share the same struggles of needing to figure out who they are and their path in life—a journey that is not crisis-free, in this year that changes everything. I lived on Malta for four years and my two daughters attended an international school there so I look forward to recreating that world with my fictional “daughters.” I see the novel as Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (Ann Brashares) meets Bloomability (Sharon Creech)—two favourite novels of my daughters (and role models for my own writing).