Guest Q&A: Eleanor Brown on her new novel, The Weird Sisters

by Ruby on March 25, 2011

Eleanor Brown, author of The Weird Sisters, sent us a great Q & A about her new book! Check it out, then join us for her event tonight at 7pm!

Eleanor BrownWhat inspired you to write this novel?
I got serious about writing a novel the year I turned 30.  I said to myself, “Self, this is the year you either do it or give up the dream forever.”  So, I wrote some really terrible novels in all kinds of genres that helped teach me a great deal about the craft, and finally I thought of a story I’d played around with years before, and that became The Weird Sisters.

The core of the story – three very different sisters and their belated coming-of-age – had been with me for a long time, but they were never quite the right sisters and it was never quite the right time.  When I’d written absolutely everything I wasn’t meant to write, I finally sat down and let the Andreas sisters in.

How did the title of the novel come about? What is its significance?
For a long time, the working title of the book was “Trinity.”  I really wanted to focus on the importance of the number three, and religion was going to be a bigger part of the novel.  But when I created the father and the family began to take shape around the form of his devotion to Shakespeare, I knew I was going to need a different title.  There’s a portion of the book where the sisters explain that “weird” didn’t mean to Shakespeare what it means to us – the three witches in Macbeth are really the three Fates.  The Andreas sisters are quite tied to the idea of destiny, and part of the story is their learning to accept what their fates really are, rather than heading grimly down the path of what they think they ought to be.

The novel offers a vivid portrait of the conflicted relationship between sisters. As one of three sisters yourself, how much of the novel is based on your own sibling experience?
I don’t know anyone who has a purely positive relationship with his or her family – I think it’s impossible to be that close to anyone and not have moments where your family drives you absolutely crazy.  And that’s what the Andreas sisters have – they don’t hate each other, and they share a wonderful family history that binds them whether they like it or not, but they’ve never bothered to discover what they love about each other.  I think the core of what’s difficult about having three siblings – someone always gets left out, the competition for family “roles” – is something I experienced, but the Andreas sisters are all their own.

The novel is in part an homage to books and reading—the Andreas family is one of compulsive readers. Their love of literature is a large part of their familial bond. What role did books play in your own life growing up?
My parents raised my two older sisters and me in a house full of books, where the most important life lesson we learned was never to go anywhere without taking something to read, and no dinner conversation is complete without the consultation of at least one reference book.

Reading was – and is – the center of my life.  I was lucky to be raised by parents who considered reading the most important thing we could do.  We took weekly trips to the library, filling canvas bags with books until they overflowed.  I was allowed a half hour of television per week, and at the time I chafed at that, but now I’m incredibly grateful.  I’ve always been a daydreamer, and books let my imagination run wild in the most delightful ways.

The father in the novel is a renowned Shakespearean professor, and Shakespearean verse is woven throughout the book. How did this element of the book come about? Is the Bard a personal passion of yours?
The beginning of this book came about when I was in graduate school, getting my Master’s degree, and some of my professors were encouraging me to go for a Ph.D.  And my immediate and visceral reaction was – I don’t want to know that much about any one thing.  But people who do want to know that much about one subject fascinate me, and I wondered what it would be like to be in a family with someone who was so completely obsessed with a single topic.

I’m not a Shakespearean scholar, though I did take a wonderful course on Shakespeare in graduate school with a professor in whose memory the father is named – James Andreas.  I’ve read and seen a number of the plays, but definitely not all.  I did an enormous amount of research while writing the book, but a lot of that fell by the wayside as I wrote, because what I realized is that when you live in a world so focused on one thing, it becomes part of the landscape.  The verse the family quotes to each other is absolutely stripped of any context or meaning; they’ve long ago had all the deep thoughts about Shakespeare that they’re going to have.  But the sheer volume of Shakespeare’s work, as well as his continuing prominence, made him the natural choice.

The novel is written in first person plural, narrated from the collective perspective of the three sisters. How did you make this stylistic choice? What is its effect?
Like any writer, I have done a lot of playing around with different styles and voices, and I noticed that while there were people doing first and third, and even, rarely, second-person narration, almost no one did first person plural.  When I mentioned I was working on something in this voice, a professor and friend of mine mentioned Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily”, and I immediately went and read it.  It’s a tricky voice, and I had to devise a lot of rules for how to use it – how to make it readable and noticeable without its being disruptive.

I chose it because this is a story about family, and one of the ideas I wanted to raise is that we carry our families of origin with us always.  They helped form the way in which we see the world, for better or worse, and no matter how we may feel about them now, they are part of us.  Even though Rose and Bean and Cordy are not close, they cannot separate themselves from their common history.

What was your process of writing this book? How long did it take you?
The seed of it started years before I ever actually produced The Weird Sisters as it is now.  I had a number of fits and starts on a story of three sisters, but when I finally got serious about it, it took me about a year to write the first draft.  Writing for me starts slowly, and then I hit a point where I just fall in love with the characters and absolutely cannot stay away from them, to the point that when I’m not actually writing, I’m wondering what they’re up to or what they’re going to do next.

What writers have inspired or influenced your work?
Like the Andreas sisters, I will read anything that lands front of me: shampoo bottles, grocery store flyers, short stories, magazine articles, but novels are my favorite form of storytelling.  Jodi Picoult’s work taught me how to manage multiple narrators, and to write not just what I know, but what I am willing to research.  Maeve Binchy’s writing taught me how multiple storylines can weave together and support each other, and the importance of writing lovable characters, even if they’re not nice people.  If I can ever produce one sentence half as beautiful as what Alice Hoffman and Pat Conroy write on their grocery lists, I’d die happy – they are two of the most lyrical prose writers I’ve encountered.

I’m a big fan of Steve Almond’s writing, and a class I took with him crystallized some really important things about writing, lessons I took back to revisions of The Weird Sisters and the next novel I’m working on.  I’m tremendously grateful to him for that.

What do you plan to write next?
I’m working on a novel about love and weddings and marriage and divorce, and what happens when they all intersect.

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