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Laura Catherine Brown

Laura Catherine Brown’s second novel, Made by Mary, launched with C&R Press in June 2018. Her debut novel, Quickening, was published by Random House, and featured in Barnes & Noble’s Discover Great New Writers series. Her short stories have appeared in several literary journals, including The Bellingham Review, Monkeybicycle, Paragraphiti and Tin House; and in anthologies with Seal Press and Overlook Press. She has been awarded support from The Byrdcliffe Colony, Djerassi, Millay, Ragdale, Ucross, Vermont Studio Center, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She currently serves as creative committee co-chair of the Millay Colony for the Arts, and assistant fiction editor of the literary magazine, Newfound. She lives in New York City where she’s writing a third novel.

Blurbs

“Laura Catherine Brown is a gifted writer, unafraid to take risks and plunge into difficult emotional terrain. You can’t help but root for her flawed characters as they stumble through the broken world, struggling to realize their dreams. Made By Mary is a wise, tragicomic exploration of the complex ties of family, with a little bit of magic thrown in.”

– HILLARY JORDAN author of the novels Mudbound (2008) and When She Woke (2011)

“A suspenseful and surprising book filled with magic, mothers and daughters unusually entwined in a search for new life; all told in a believable voice, with precisely conveyed detail, and dialogue which conjures up a plethora of characters searching for love.”

– SHEILA KOHLER, author of Dreaming for Freud, Once We Were Sisters, and Cracks

“A wry and compassionate novel about that most inextricable of relationships—the mother-daughter bond. In Mary, a jewelry-making, pot-growing, goddess-worshipping hippie, who claims that she birthed her daughter at Woodstock, Brown has created an indelible and unlikely heroine. About our tenderest sacrifices, and our fiercest desires, Made by Mary is a generous book, and a wise one. Brown understands that, between a daughter’s debt, and a mother’s due, there is a whole territory of resentment, love, fury, devotion, and mutual incomprehension.”

– KATHERINE MIN, author of Second Hand World

“Made by Mary is a jaunty read about the way we live now. The way we get born, and reborn, and surrogately born. The way we make fun of our foibles and fads without losing sight of what is eternal and earnest: the desire to sustain the species, to love our family no matter how it came to be, no matter how it spirals into the infuriatingly silly or the inimitably sublime. To honor the mysteries of the universe even as we are imperfect in understanding them, yet always always making efforts in that direction, hilariously, devoutly, with heart, and without cease.”

– ANTONYA NELSON, author of Funny Once, Nothing Right, and Bound

“Excellent with dope deals, lovers lesbian and otherwise, surrogate motherhood and the unforgettable character of crystal-toting, never-grow-up Mary, Laura Catherine Brown’s Made By Mary is deeply moving. The repercussions of Woodstock have never been so wisely and vividly examined, nor the spectacle of maternal love sonogramed so well between generations.”

– TERESE SVOBODA, author of Tin God and Bohemian Girl, and Pirate Talk or Mermalade

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Made by Mary

On the Authority and Surrender of Writing a Novel: A Conversation with Laura Catherine Brown

12/08/18

Laura Catherine Brown is the author of two novels: Quickening (Random House, 2000), which was featured in Barnes & Noble’s Discover Great New Writers series, and Made by Mary (C&R Press, Spring 2018). Laura has taught writing at Manhattanville College, and her short stories have appeared in Monkey Bicycle, Tin House, and Paragraphiti, among others. She has attended residencies at Byrdcliffe, Djerassi, Millay Colony, Ragdale, Ucross, Vermont Studio Center, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and Laura credits these residencies with allowing her the opportunity to complete her novels. Laura currently lives in New York City with her husband. She is writing her third novel.

Marni and Laura bridged the gap between Maine and New York City with a conversation that included Laura’s struggles and triumphs while writing Made by Mary, how she adds humor to gloom by putting the “fun” back in funeral, and finding a novel’s “secret center.”

MB: I noticed you taught at Manhattanville College for two years. How do you find your writing life cohabiting with teaching writing?

LB: I loved teaching. I loved seeing students’ work evolve. I loved the classroom discussions and the vibe of Manhattanville. It was good for my writing life to be part of the community, to read and analyze stories and to talk about craft. The student work was almost always courageous. I had to constantly remind myself to heed my own advice about taking risks and overriding the inner critic. Self-criticism and perfectionism never fail to annihilate freshness in the work, and this was particularly obvious to me when I was teaching undergrads in creative writing and seeing how hard on themselves they were. But while I was teaching I was also working as a graphic designer, which made finding the time to write almost impossible.

MB: How does your graphic design work feed into your writing?

LB: I’m a visual person. I went to art school where I studied graphic design, and I’ve earned a living as a designer ever since.

As a designer, words are not my medium—it’s color, shape, layout, typography, concept. Most graphic designers I know are avid readers, so there’s crossover, in terms of literary interests.

Graphic design is collaborative, client-based and deadline-driven. Writing is solitary and can feel open-ended, so the two pursuits provide a nice balance.

I love designing book covers and book interiors, but I make my living doing mostly corporate design. In fact, I designed the cover and the interior of Made by Mary, which was a lot of fun. In terms of imagery in my written work, I think I’m always “seeing” my imaginary worlds and characters before any of the other senses kick in.

MB: I love that you designed your book’s cover. Circling back to teaching—because I know you teach yoga—I once had an advisor for teaching writing who said she simply couldn’t write on the days she taught because, and I’m paraphrasing, “As a teacher, I can’t be as stupid as I need to be as a writer.” I took that to mean: As a teacher she needed to have a sense of authority; whereas as a writer, she needed that authority to break down, so she could discover a story. Do you feel like you need to have a sense of authority, during your writing process?

LB: This is such an interesting question. I think it’s true that you need to be stupid and sensory, and free yourself from conceptualizing and analysis. Yet, authority seems necessary to me, in order to claim permission to tell the story. One of the people who read an early draft of Made by Mary described it as “mushy.” I interpreted this to mean it lacked a story-telling authority, and thus it lacked cohesion.

In life, you can’t stay on the sidelines. You have to take a stand. The same is true in writing. I needed as an author/narrator to state unequivocally: “This matters. Here’s why.” But I kept churning out scene after scene, somehow believing “the mattering” would reveal itself without my having to stake a claim and that if I just kept exploring stuff, the “story” would arise from the scenes.

If I’m brutally honest, I may have been living my life like that, too—with a passivity I rationalized, since so much seems beyond my control. I’ve learned that it’s important to set intentions, even if life presents obstacles, and even if intentions are not met. They can change, but it’s good to have a lodestar.

MB: What an insight—that your writing life can parallel your actual life, and authority in writing can lead to authority in life. I’d love to talk a bit more about that. What are some particular passages in Made By Mary that you recall really requiring your authority more than others?

LB: I think the Wiccan ritual scenes required giving myself permission to write, despite my fear that I didn’t know enough about Wicca. Fear is a great tool for abdicating responsibility and authority. I’ll never know enough about anything! Also, in general, I took many writing workshops because I desperately wanted someone to tell me how to shape my narrative, which seems crazy, but I was having so much trouble figuring it out on my own, so I hoped an “expert” could help. No one else can shape your narrative except you, the writer, the ultimate arbiter.

MB: What did you do to assert your authority in those passages?

LB: I barreled through the ritual scenes and revised endlessly. But I asserted the crucial authority when I finally completed a full draft. This took me a long time because I kept circling back to revise the beginning, getting lost in loops and tangents of self-doubt. Forcing a narrative forward, not knowing whether you’re leading to a dead end or a breakthrough, not knowing whether you’ll find gold or just get lost, this is a daunting and arduous and time-consuming task, and requires authority. It’s as if the writer has to be a resolute explorer at the mouth of a dark scary cave, shouting, “I’m going in!” You don’t know what you might find, you don’t know if it’ll be any good, but you have to go in and write it anyway.

MB: How did this authority in writing these scenes parallel authority you found in specific areas of your life?

LB: I think I’ve had trouble asserting my wants and desires, even to myself. I circle, I evade, I deny, I avoid. But writing the passages where all the characters are engaged in Wiccan rituals and, as the writer, inhabiting their desires and motives, freed me. Writing allowed me to recognize my own yearning, along with a wider recognition that we all have ongoing desires and agendas—it’s human. Above all, I wanted to finish the book and have it be the best book I could write, knowing it would be imperfect, and putting it out there anyway. Therapy helped a lot, too.

MB: In your website bio, there’s an interesting line: “Laura sees a common thread among the three pursuits that she’s most passionate about: writing, yoga and graphic design all require practice, dedication and constant, ongoing surrender.” I can imagine that common thread. But I’d love it if you wouldn’t mind elaborating on this idea of “constant surrender,” because I think I require it too as a writer. I’d love to know a little more about how “constant surrender” feeds into your writing process.

LB: There’s a yoga concept called “effortless effort” that I think applies to any creative or spiritual endeavor, or just life in general, no matter what you’re doing. For instance, in meditation or yoga, you have to show up on the cushion or mat—that’s your essential obligation. You strive for mastery, while simultaneously you have to accept fully where you are. I think writing and design are conceptually similar to yoga. They’re process-oriented and experiential, full of play and possibility. They have recognized forms (with infinite and ever-evolving variations). And we aspire toward mastery while having to accept where we are.

It’s paradoxical. Something is bound to happen, but it’s not entirely under your control, because the creative process simply isn’t controllable. That’s where the surrender comes in.

MB: What were some areas of Made by Mary that required surrender—were any curiously the same passages that required authority?

LB: The areas that required surrender were definitely connected to the areas that required authority, and they relate to the Wicca aspect. I knew from the start that these characters believed in a Goddess-centered animism. But at a certain point in the process, I realized that their belief system could not operate merely as a backdrop or group identity, it had to generate narrative movement and become much more real. In other words, magic had to happen. I resisted this for a long time. It felt like so much work! I didn’t know enough! Also, I had never intended to write a “supernatural novel.” But I surrendered because it became a narrative imperative.

MB: If a book were related to a child, growing, it seems the parent/writer would need to somehow be able to wield both authority and surrender with someone/something that has a will of its own but still needs guidance. Is this analogy a stretch?

LB: Not a stretch at all! I think you have to let the work surprise you, and you have to venture into the unknown, or it’s boring. Likewise, you have to allow your child to not be you, and to not be limited by who you think they are, or who you might want them to be. They are themselves, but you still have to usher them into the world.

MB: Made by Mary begins with an immediate sense of loss. The reader discovers quickly that the character “Ann” can’t have a child—and perhaps cannot adopt. Many stories stem from a problem that needs to be solved, of course, but can you talk a little bit about what inspired this work?

LB: The book arose from a story I’d read in a newspaper while waiting in line at the supermarket about a woman who gave birth to her own grandchild because her daughter didn’t have a uterus. It was a bare-bones tiny article that caught my eye, and I immediately began to fantasize: How would it feel for a daughter to need her mother in this way? And what if her mother was a dominating person? How would the father of that baby respond to the situation? I imagined this mother feeling like a goddess bestowing a gift. And the character of Mary appeared before me, fully formed. It was imperative that Ann exhaust all other options, otherwise she would never have agreed to the arrangement. Ann had to be at the end of her tether. But that plot rationale came later.

MB: Made by Mary has a strong comedic thread. I’m thinking of the character “Mary” with a smile on my face. She appears as a kind of New Age enthusiast who, though loving, is initially suspicious of her daughter’s desire for a child. There are so many ways to write about loss—and many leave out humor entirely; I’m thinking of Sylvia Plath on one end of the “serious” spectrum. How did you come to decide to add lightness to what could be considered an otherwise painful journey for a character trying and failing to have a child?

LB: I try to approach everything with humor. The saddest situations can sometimes give rise to the most hysterical hilarity. The line between laughing and crying can be porous.

Here’s a real-life example: Someone brought a dog to my father’s memorial, which was held in a small theater. And the dog trotted up onto the stage and took a shit while everyone was singing Amazing Grace. That was so funny we literally bent over in pain laughing so hard. But it was also very sad, because my father had died. We put the “fun” back in funeral. I think life is full of situations like this.

MB: Did any of your life experiences inspire Made by Mary?

LB: One of the challenges of [writing Made by Mary] was how invented it was, especially compared to my first novel, which I culled from my life. I realize I’m someone who needs to bring my life somehow into my fiction, or the text feels dead, like an empty exercise. The Catskills setting in Made by Mary is drawn directly from my past. As a teenager, I lived near the town of Bethel where the Woodstock Concert happened. Now, in the present day, there’s a beautiful concert venue there. But when I was in high school, there were empty fields surrounding a defunct dairy farm in a depressed upstate county. I mourned my fate at having been born too late and missed the crazy hippie era.

Also, my husband and I tried to have a child through IVF. It was very expensive and it ultimately failed. Nobody talks about how often it fails. It was many years ago, we’re both fine with being child-free, but those were some tough times.

MB: Was writing Made by Mary a useful way to process this experience in your life?

LB: Only in retrospect. The two processes (IVF, writing a novel) feel similar in that there’s a time-consuming slog toward what you desperately hope for (a pregnancy, a book); and you can ultimately fail at one or both of those endeavors. I’ve come to believe that failure is a good thing. It seems almost cliché to mention Samuel Beckett, but his famous quote from Worstward Ho is brilliant and, in my opinion, brimming with hope and perseverance. “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

MB: Speaking of how reality does or doesn’t feed into your work, do you find the news these days too distracting? Or does it inspire you? Or even both?

LB: The news these days is so much stranger than fiction! Because I’m concerned with “ordinary” people, I have to push aside the endless chaos and drama, which is celebrity-based and reality-tv-star centered. But I also feel the urgency toward political activism and resistance. I don’t want to regret not having acted when I could have and should have. But interior lives matter more than ever, so I drag myself away from the news. I use an app called Self Control that lets me block sites.

MB: Have the residencies you have attended had a similar affect as Self Control—providing some relief from the hustle and bustle of daily life?

LB: I’m not sure I would have been able to complete either of my novels without the incredible gift of artist residencies.

Most residencies provide food, bedroom and a studio to work in, and they host artists of all disciplines (visual, musical, literary). There’s a magical cross-pollination that occurs. The freedom from chores and meal preparation is a blessing and then some. There’s time and space to sit with your work and connect to the “long thought,” which is the quality of knowledge and being that allows for a deepening and an expansion of consciousness. There’s an opening that arises. This simply doesn’t happen in my daily life with its constant tasks and interruptions.

MB: In The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist, Orhan Pamuk writes that all novels each have their own “secret center”—not an actual place, but a central wisdom that a novel imparts; he argues that the act of writing and reading is inspired by the hope in both the writer and the reader to find the secret center. At what point in writing Made by Mary did you notice its secret center? And, without giving too many secrets of the book away, what would you say that secret center is?

LB: I love this concept of the “secret center.” That’s absolutely beautiful! It feels very true. I think I came to know the secret center of Made by Mary early in the process—as having something to do with the way love is passed on from generation to generation, as well as the way emotional wounding is also passed on. In the course of writing the book, I learned to focus more energy on the love and less on the wounding. I think that’s the secret center.

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