Gayle Brandeis is the author of Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write (HarperSanFrancisco) , Dictionary Poems (Pudding House Publications), The Book of Dead Birds: A Novel (HarperCollins), which won Barbara Kingsolver’s Bellwether Prize for Fiction in Support of a Literature of Social Change, and Self Storage (Ballantine), a Target Breakout Book. Her first YA novel, My Life with the Lincolns was published by Henry Holt in March, 2010 and her next novel for adults, Delta Girls, will be published by Ballantine, June,2010. Her poetry, fiction and essays have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies (such as Salon.com, The Nation, and The Mississippi Review) and have received several awards, including the QPB/Story Magazine Short Story Award, a Barbara Mandigo Kelley Peace Poetry Award, and a grant from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund. Her essay on the meaning of liberty was one of three included in the Statue of Liberty’s Centennial time capsule in 1986.
In 2004, the Writer Magazine honored Gayle with a Writer Who Makes a Difference Award. Gayle holds a BA in “Poetry and Movement: Arts of Expression, Meditation and Healing” from the University of Redlands, and an MFA in Creative Writing/Fiction from Antioch University. Currently on the faculty of the MFA program at Antioch University, Gayle has taught at universities, libraries, community centers and writing conferences around the country, and was Writer in Residence for the Mission Inn Foundation’s Family Voices Project for several years. She is also on the national staff of the women’s peace organization CODEPINK and is a founding member of the Women Creating Peace Collective. Gayle currently lives in Redlands, CA and has one kid in college, one kid in high school, and one new baby. You can find her at www.gaylebrandeis.com.
Q (Meg Pokrass): What stories or books or films do you feel closest to?
I often return to Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus for a good dose of bliss. American Primitive by the poet Mary Oliver, too. The compassion of Grapes of Wrath devastates me in the best possible way. Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver will forever be my favorite of her books, and one of my favorite books, period, for its exploration of sisters and community and justice. And I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for Harriet the Spy.
As for films, Wings of Desire offers such a gorgeous taste of the sublime, and Pee Wee’s Big Adventure offers such a glorious taste of the ridiculous. I could watch both of them again and again. All of these books and movies give me a sense of coming home.
Whose work (or works) have influenced you the most as a writer?
The poet Sharon Olds gave me permission to write in a more honest way, to not shy away from gritty physicality on the page. Diane Ackerman has reminded me to pay deep attention to the natural world and the senses in my work. Barbara Kingsolver showed me how to blend art and social responsibility. I also love and have been influenced by writers who weave together darkness and whimsy, like Kelly Link and Aimee Bender and Francesca Lia Block.
When you were a child, what did you want to be as an adult?
I had one of those Dr. Seuss “All About Me” books as a kid, and where it asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I wrote “Writer-doctor-Olympic figure skater-mother.” Two out of four isn’t bad! And I have an Olympic-hopeful figure skater in my novel Delta Girls coming out this summer, so I got to vicariously live that life, too! Writing has always been at the center of my world–I taught myself to read at three and started writing poems at four; I have no memories before four, so I can’t remember ever not writing. I am very grateful to be able to do what I love.
What are your favorite websites?
I get most of my news from Salon.com, nytimes.com and alternet.org. I love BoingBoing.net for introducing me to weird and wonderful art, science and culture. I visit a whole slew of literary and foodie and progressive political blogs–too numerous to list here. And I’m on Facebook way too often.
Re: your new book? Let us know how it evolved, the general flavor of what to expect, what you are most excited about, etc.
My Life with the Lincolns started off as a memoir–when I was young, I thought my dad was Abraham Lincoln reincarnated, and a few years ago, I learned more about Mary Lincoln’s grandiose delusions around money, and it reminded me of my mom. I thought I could parallel the Lincolns’ story with my family’s story, an idea my agent and editor at the time were very excited about, but then my mother asked me not to write about her while she was still alive, plus I was too close to the material, so I set it aside. My agent and editor asked if maybe I could fictionalize my family’s story, which I didn’t want to do, since I wanted to write the real story some day, but then the character of 12 year old Mina Edelman started to speak to me. Like me, she thought her dad was Lincoln reincarnated, but she also believed her whole family used to be the Lincoln family and it was her job to save them from their fate. The story ended up not being autobiographical at all (aside from a few elements); my editor loved it, but ultimately turned it down because it wasn’t right for her list. She thought it was for younger readers, and she did only adult titles. The rejection stung at first, but soon I got excited about the idea of connecting with a new audience, one I didn’t initially intend to reach. The book just came out and I’m so eager to see how young readers will respond to it.
What is happening right now? Just about anything you decide it means!
What isn’t happening right now? These last few months have been the most intense of my life. I gave birth last November to my beautiful son, Asher–I have a 19 year old son and a 16 year old daughter, and never imagined I would have another baby. He’s such a gift. And it almost feels as if he was born to help us get through the next few months; my mother killed herself one week after he was born, and last week, my mother in law had a heart attack and died. Asher is keeping us grounded and bringing us a lot of joy within our grief. We recently bought a house and are doing some work on it before we move in, so that’s at the forefront of our lives right now, too–we’re trying to be as green as possible in our renovations, and were able to find reclaimed wood flooring from one of the oldest schools in town for our floors (for practically free!), and locally made recycled glass countertops for our kitchen, which is exciting. We were actually supposed to move in tomorrow, but the floors aren’t done yet, plus with everything going on, we’re too overwhelmed to think about packing, so we’ll be moving a month from now. Next week, we head to Michigan and Chicago for some book events; I grew up in Chicago (where My Life with the Lincolns is set) and am very excited to return to my sweet home town and see some relatives I haven’t seen in years, including an aunt my mother had been estranged from. I have started to write my mom’s story now that she’s gone–and man, did she give me a story to write. I hope I’m up for it.
The Fictionaut Five is our ongoing series of interviews with Fictionaut authors. Every Wednesday, Meg Pokrass asks a writer five (or more) questions. Meg is an editor at Smokelong Quarterly, and her stories and poems have been published widely. She blogs at http://megpokrass.com.