Elizabeth Brundage on Being a Writer and Holding Hope

Elizabeth Brundage on Being a Writer and Holding Hope
Photo: Edward Acker

I touched base recently with Elizabeth Brundage, author of 5 novels; one of which was made into a Netflix movie. She’s also a fantastic teacher. I had the pleasure of learning under Elizabeth in her juried in “The Craft of the Novel” workshop co-sponsored by the New York State Writers Institute at the University at Albany last year. It was a great workshop with wonderful writers, and since then, Elizabeth has been generous in her ongoing encouragement of my own writing. I’m flattered and thrilled that Elizabeth will be joining us at Women At Woodstock this year for an afternoon of discussion about all things writing and publishing. I’m so looking forward to meeting her in the flesh!

These are the novels that Elizabeth has authored:

This is the movie that Netflix produced, “Things Heard & Seen,” based on All Things Cease to Appear:

And this is Elizabeth:

Elizabeth is a human. Just like you and me. When she wrote her first novel, she hadn’t yet had a novel published. But she wrote it, and then it got published. We know she has talent. We know she has perseverance. But still, we’d like to know how she kept going and kept up her hope and her belief in herself. Read Elizabeth’s Q&A below. And come to Women At Woodstock in October and meet her yourself. There, we’ll have a much deeper conversation and you can add your own questions to the mix. I can’t wait until that day!

Q&A With Elizabeth Brundage

1. Which of your novels are you most proud of, and why?

 Maybe pride isn’t the right word. Truthfully, the word that comes to mind when I finish a novel is relief. Pure, unadulterated relief. Because you have this idea in your head that you are trying to see through and the whole time (often several years) you have this lurking sense of doubt. Doubt is always standing there, arms crossed, shaking its head. You are trying to convey something that’s important and meaningful on a very deep and personal level. You are making a story that is a feast for the reader. And every sentence is in some way a reflection of your own particular insight and perspective. You start out with an amorphous idea and try very hard over time to shape it into a work that is both accessible to the reader, and intensely compelling.

My most successful novel is probably All Things Cease to Appear – but my own personal favorite and the one that was hardest to write is The Vanishing Point, which drew upon a family history of addiction and explored the nature of competition between artists and all that goes with it. It tells the story of a love triangle between three photographers who meet in their twenties in an exclusive workshop and follows their lives to see how they turned out, with one character’s envy for another roaring through. To understand what it was to be a photographer, I did quite a lot of research and began taking my own photographs. I was interested in considering, in our visual age, how we each have a totally unique vision of the world and how that vision informs each character based on their life experiences and existential circumstances.

2. How much do you base your novels (on average) on pure fiction and how much on real life?

 All novels reflect real life and I think it’s inevitable that one’s experiences, ideas, fears, etc., ultimately season the work. But as you become more skilled as a novelist you learn to develop characters who fully serve the narrative and vice versa. All my novels come from my life to some degree – but are entirely fictional. For example, I’m married to a doctor – but he’s not an OBGYN like my character in The Doctor’s Wife. In my second novel Somebody Else’s Daughter, a baby girl is given up for adoption – I too am adopted, but it’s not my adoption story. My third book A Stranger Like You takes place in Los Angeles, where I lived and worked for several years in the film industry, and attended the American Film Institute which was the basis for “the Conservatory” in the novel, but none of the things that happen in the book happened to me (thank goodness).

My fourth book, All Things Cease to Appear, is loosely based on the true murder of a Rochester, NY woman which had been a cold case when I discovered it back in the 90’s when my husband was a resident in that city, and we had rented a house in the suburb where the murder took place. I couldn’t get that story out of my head for years, then one day came across some newspaper articles about the case and decided to go ahead and write about it. I used the real facts of the murder as the architecture of the novel but invented everything around it – the setting, near to my home in Albany, the characters, based on people I knew in our small town, the old house where the drama took place, based on a house we had rented that had ghosts – I basically changed everything but used the details of the murder as a structural rubric. (The book was published in 2016, around the same time the FBI reopened the case with fresh DNA evidence and, in 2022, the husband was finally convicted.)

3. What’s your “life as a writer” like? Do you have set hours each day to write, or do you go through spells without writing at all, and then write madly when an idea or event strikes you with inspiration?

Inspiration can be hard to come by and is unreliable. The only way to get a book done is to work on it every single day. Writing a novel or a book of stories requires focus, devotion, and discipline. Finishing a novel is the hardest thing in the world to do. I like to say it’s like digging out of prison with a spoon.

When I’m working on something I wake up every morning, make coffee, and sit down at my desk. Some days are better than others. I might write three or four pages one day and the next write only a paragraph. Or maybe only a sentence. It’s hard to predict. When I’m not able to write for whatever reason, I have learned to be patient, to trust that the work is still going on in my head. And then one day suddenly it comes. Every time I write a new novel it’s like starting all over again from scratch.

4. Before you were first published, did you feel sure that you would become a published writer? What contributed to your most positive thinking? Your most negative thinking?

I have always wanted to write, beginning when I was ten years old. I started as a poet because I fell in love with language, with words. I had an ear for language. I knew I was going to be a writer; I didn’t want to be anything else. And I was very serious about it. I studied other poets and read poetry incessantly.

In college, I worked with outstanding teachers. Then – in my sophomore year I became interested in film. I took my junior year at NYU and, after graduating, intent on making films, I attended the American Film Institute in Los Angeles where I learned how to write screenplays.

Screenwriting is a lot less precious than writing poetry, and writing scripts taught me how to tell a story that appeals to an audience, and how to build a character with pictures. Think about that for a moment. Building characters with pictures. It may help you to figure out how to show your reader what a character is going through as opposed to explaining it to the reader, which is boring. Characters, of course, are the essence of stories, and that’s around the time I figured out how to combine characters with language – fiction.

I wrote my first short story when I was 25. That eventually led me to Iowa where I earned my MFA and started teaching. You build your career by putting in the time and the work and in doing so you begin to trust yourself, that you can do it. The more you read, the more you understand what you’re doing, or trying to do, with words and sentences and paragraphs. At Iowa, I learned not to be afraid of criticism. And to use it to get better.

Writing is solitary work. I always tell people that if you don’t have to write, then please don’t. Because there is too much pain and suffering involved. There is a lot of rejection and disappointment, and you have to find a way to keep going. And somehow, maybe because it comes out of your brain onto a page, it always feels personal. You have to be able to handle that and believe in what you’re writing. And to keep working to make it better. You will never stop doing that. You know when it’s good and when it’s right. It’s an instinct you develop over time. And it rarely fails.

5. How and why did you give yourself permission to “be” a writer? Was your path a straight line from childhood toward a writing career, or did you consider or pursue other ventures or professional identities along the way?

 You don’t need anybody’s permission to write. But I understand that it can be difficult to keep going without any professional acknowledgment. It can be difficult to feel like a “real writer.” The truth is, you are a writer long before you publish. Publishing is important – of course it is – but it’s really the writing that matters, and what’s at stake for you in it. What it means to you. I think it’s important to grapple with that question. I think the stories that come across to publishers do so because they are authentic. Because they are honest and true. And because they truly matter to the writer.

Ask yourself why you are writing? If your answer is to make money or to be the next best-selling author, stop right now. But if you feel you have something to say about this world and the people in it, then you might be able to do it. There are few original stories, but there are many original voices. Be one of those.

6. What’s your advice to writers who’ve started late in life without an MFA or contacts in the publishing world?

In my most recent novel, one of the characters says, “connections were like gossip, they guaranteed nothing. It all came down to the work.” And that is what matters most. The work. Contacts in the publishing world are meaningless – unless the work is remarkable. And if the work is remarkable, it will find a publisher.

And what do I mean by remarkable? Think of all the people you have known in your life who have told you stories. That person on a plane who doesn’t even tell you their name but by the end of the flight you feel like you know them – and I mean really know them. Or that person who tells you something – something private – something that changed them. These are the stories that never get old. Every time we hear a story like that, we think about it, it moves us. If your character isn’t honest – isn’t true – then your novel won’t be either. It may take time and several revisions. Or it may take writing another book. As writers we learn as we go. To some degree writing is about practice. I have learned so much from every novel I’ve written. And you will fail. You. Will. Fail. And failure is as important as success. But – if you are determined – you will succeed. And there is nothing better.

It is a deliberate, thoughtful, and often mysterious mission, to realize your destiny as a writer. An MFA is time…a gift of time to write and to revise. Time to better understand your own singular voice. Time to get to know your characters. Time to understand the story you are telling. But not everybody has time for graduate school, and it is certainly not mandatory. But education is essential, and you can teach yourself. How? Read. Read and read some more. That is really the best way to learn how to write. Also – nurture your brain, your imagination. Go to museums. Take a cooking class. Read Ulysses. Get out into the world and observe. Watch people. Listen. Then start writing as if you are telling that story to a stranger on a plane. A story that absolutely must be told. If you can do that, you have a very good shot at being a writer.

Most writers start publishing in their early 40’s. There is no age limit whatsoever on good writing. The only limitations are the ones you set for yourself. Be realistic. Be critical of your work. And don’t talk about what you’re writing. And for goodness sakes don’t show it to your friends and family. It’s yours. Protect it with your life.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *