This month’s blog is with an award-winning local (at least, to folks in Maryland) author, Michelle Brafman, whose latest book is hot off the press. BERTRAND COURT is a spellbinding collection of seventeen intricately interwoven short stories. The stories span roughly eighty years, and a cast of characters linked both by family and location (hence the title). Michelle, who has been called “a Jewish Anne Lamott,” has been praised by critics for her empathy and honesty.
Her haunting first story– which is one of my favorites – is in the unusual format of second person. It is powerful, poignant and unforgettable. Every story is unique and memorable, but for me they all share several qualities: luminous writing; universal themes; and compassion for her characters, and for us all.
I hope you’ll take a few minutes to find out more about Michelle’s book, and about her fascinating journey to publication.
Why did it take 15 years to write BERTRAND COURT? Were you writing other things in-between? Mulling them over? Or other reasons?
I actually wrote what I thought was the finished book fifteen years ago, but numerous agents advised me to write and publish a novel first. Tall order! I set BERTRAND COURT aside and wrote and sold my novel WASHING THE DEAD. My publisher, Prospect Park Books, asked to see BERTRAND COURT, and here we are. I proceeded to spend a good six months tightening the connections between the characters, writing new pieces to bridge the stories together, and leveling out the quality of the writing.
Way back when, I was devastated that I couldn’t find a home for BERTRAND COURT, but now I’m grateful for the marination time and the chance to hone my writing skills. It’s a much better book.
What made you choose 1st person for certain stories and 3rd person for others?
I picked the point of view that I felt best served the story. For example, I was going for a confessional tone with “Sylvia’s Spoon,” so the first person point of view felt right. I chose third person when I was trying to insert a little more space between the reader and the story, meaning pull back the camera a bit for a wider shot. And in the opening story, I selected second person, because I wanted to bring the reader so tight into the story that he/she would believe that the narrator was a fetus.
Are any sections based on your own experience?
Not factually, but I certainly felt some of the emotions I ascribed to my characters. For example, when I was pregnant, I did not yearn to visit my old urban haunts, but I did have moments when I realized that the gap between my newly domesticated life and my roaring twenties was widening daily.
Is any character closest to you/most like you?
There’s a piece of me in every single character!
What was the most challenging thing about writing this book?
Some of these stories took years to mature because I simply did not have either the insight or the chops to tell them. Of course, I was antsy to publish them anyway. But now I realize that sometimes I have to back away from a story (or even a novel) and let it grow up all on its own.
Had you always planned to link the sections together?
Not at first, but then I found myself drawn to linked story collections, and soon I found myself exploring various characters’ takes on a specific story. Soon these characters started popping up in other pieces, and before I knew it, I’d created a universe of people with shared histories, secrets, and conflicts. I’m always humbled by how connected we all are to one another and how much these connections matter.
How did you decide on 17 stories? Were there any others you wrote but chose to leave out? If so, why?
I initially wrote 13 stories, but when I returned to the book years later, I realized that I had some holes to fill. I kept adding stories until I felt the book cohered.
There were two stories that I had to drop because the characters were too peripheral to Bertrand Court, and hard as I tried, I couldn’t shoehorn them into the book. One piece was published elsewhere, and the others served as the springboard for my new novel.
Was one story harder to write than the others? Do you have a personal favorite?
“Minocqua Bats” was really hard to write because the story turned out to be about something entirely different than my initial errand for it. I kept fighting the material, so I had to put it away for a while and then open up my mind and heart to what was happening on the page.
I do not have a favorite. I love them all equally!
If you could add one more story, which character would you write about and why?
That’s a really good question. I’d probably write more about Maggie, the former cheerleader who lets herself go and marries a Jew to spite her mother. Poor Maggie gets the most airtime when she’s at her absolute worst. I’d be curious to see her during a moment when she’s a bit more settled into herself, yet on the brink of returning to her old sanctimonious ways. Oh, boy. That would be fun.
You mention wanting to revisit “poor Maggie” – do you think you might write a sequel of sorts, seeing what happened to the characters 5 or 10 years later? I’d love to find out! 🙂
That’s an intriguing idea! I hadn’t considered it, but maybe I will now.
How did you come up with the concept for this book?
The concept evolved over time, as I grew more curious about these characters. Who were they when they were pushed to their emotional brink? When they were on more solid footing? How were they perceived by their family members, friends, or enemies? For example, the same character who in one story steals the family silver, emerges as the family matriarch in another, or the rock sold dental hygienist who serves as the glue for both her family and Bertrand Court, steals a leather jacket from Nordstrom when her husband’s business goes bankrupt. I can be quick to judge others and myself, and writing helps me to take a step back and embrace the complexities and inconsistencies that make us all so frustrating, loveable, disappointing, funny, and ultimately, human.
Lastly, would you like to talk a bit about your first novel, WASHING THE DEAD? You spoke about the BERTRAND COURT journey, which was fascinating, and it made me wonder if it was easier to get WTD published? Did you have to submit to a lot of publishers? Did you have an agent? Why do you think you were able to sell that one first (besides BC needing to marinate)?
I did go through a rather lengthy process, seven years total, to write and revise Washing the Dead and in turn find the right agent and publisher. I’m not sure that I wouldn’t have published Bertrand Court had I kept trying, but I think it all worked out the way it was supposed to. Of course, it’s easy to say this now!!
Thank you so much, Michelle, for, taking the time to answer these questions.
I hope you’ll all run to your local bookstores, or to one of the following sites on your computer: