Bits and Babbles
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:
“Magic isn’t a game or a trick or a puzzle to be figured out. It’s an experience to be shared.” – Illusions Vick
A little over a year ago, I participated in my first Pitch contest run by the fabulous Brenda Drake. If you aren’t yet familiar with Pitch Madness, it’s a contest where writers enter for a chance to win requests from participating agents by submitting a 35-word (max) pitch and the first 250 words of their completed manuscript. (Note: If you’re an aspiring children’s book writer, do yourself a favor and check out: http://www.brenda-drake.com/pitch-madness. It may change your life; it sure changed mine.)
So, there I was, frantically struggling to send out short-but-compelling pitches about my middle grade hero, Ethan, an aspiring magician. Unbenownst to me, my good friend and fellow writer, Laura Shovan, retweeted one of my pitches… and a real-live magician responded, offering to give any technical advice needed! His name is Illusions Vick, and he is very magical indeed.
Since we “met,” I participated in a second Brenda Drake contest, this one called Pitch Wars. I was lucky enough to win a mentor – the amazing Veronica Bartles. One thing led to another, and a few months later, I was offered representation by the warm, wise, and wonderful Samantha Bremekamp of Corvisiero Literary Agency.
After all this magic was thrust upon me, it seemed only fitting that I interview my magician friend, Illusions Vick, for the magical holiday month of December. I hope you enjoy it.
Q&A With Illusions Vick
1) You reference “very challenging” past performances – could you discuss one of them?
For 3 years I was part of the live entertainment at a Movie Theater Multi-plex (24 screens). The theater complex was very popular but had patrons waiting upwards of an hour to see their movie. The theater thought live entertainment would be a good idea. We (myself, another magician and 2 stand up comics) did some crazy stuff. At first it was incredibly challenging, walking into a theater of 500 who have been waiting in their seats for 20 minutes for the film to start, they have no idea what you are there for and then try entertaining. After 6 months we were (somewhat of) a hit (patrons would come in and ask for us and the company tried to replicate what we were doing in their other multi-plexes). For the next 2.5 years it was just myself and 1 stand up comic. We created characters and played characters from hit films (launching a side business of appearing as Professor Snape). We were given free rein to preform what we wanted. We wrote our own scripts, became more skilled at improv and did our own costuming. There is nothing like the experience of performing a new routine 25+ times a day, 3 days a week for live audiences. On top of that we had to keep the material fresh as there were patrons who came to the theater every week.
For 6 months I was the featured Illusionist in a 1940’s theme weekly burlesque review at a nightclub in Washington, DC. Imagine being the magician on before the very popular featured burlesque artist, in front of inebriated patrons, in a DC nightclub where patrons are paying $40 for a seat. 2- 3 times nightly. I was lucky and it went well.
These challenging situations gave me great experience that you can’t get any other way. To be good a magician has to have a place to be bad first, I already had that, these challenges made me a very good performer good very quickly
2) Who are your favorite magicians, and why?
Teller ~ (of Penn & Teller) he’s brilliant, incredibly talented, dedicated and a great man.
S.H. Sharpe ~ Sharpe wrote the most important books ever on performing magic and theory, absolutely brilliant.
Rocco (Silano) ~ One of the most real performers anywhere, the man you see on the stage is the man you get in real life. Had the opportunity to speak with Rocco for a bit after a lecture he gave. Funny, insightful, smart and very well versed in magic.
Denny Haney ~ Denny performed all over the world for 30 years, then semi-retired and opened a magic studio (magic shop). His caring and passion for the art are evident. He won’t sell poor quality effects and he’s more concerned about helping someone in the art than making a buck.
3) Who are your heroes, and why?
Anyone who raises their children well, to be intelligent, caring, decent human beings.
I don’t get star struck and really don’t understand the American obsession with so called celebrities.
4) What is the hardest thing about being a magician?
Overcoming the stereotype of magic being entertainment for children. As great as it is to see children laughing and a spark of imagination light up in their eyes I’ve often thought adults need magic the most! Adults most need their imaginations sparked, their funny bones tickled, their imaginations engaged, their perspective refreshed and their hearts touched. Adults appreciate a celebration where all their concerns are forgotten. Immersed in a beautiful, funny, amazing and unique art form and entertainment experience.
Magic is an incredible art form. Where but in magic can an artist share miracles, enable others to laugh, to think and feel a spectrum of emotions? A journey into the incredible. A good performer will create and share an atmosphere where anything can and might happen, where the boundaries of normal existence fade away and our minds are wide open. This is entertainment for everyone. I talk about this often and struggle against the typical “magician” stereotype.
The trip home after a great show, it’s an incredible high to being a normal human, well maybe never a normal human.
The other hardest thing about being a magician is the time away from my family.
5) What is the most satisfying, gratifying thing about being a magician?
Making people happy. I have the greatest career in the world. Am invited to all the best parties and events, meet the most interesting people, have fun, share smiles and laughs, touch hearts and tickle funny bones and that’s my career (the part of it everyone gets to see).
6) Do you have any advice for young magicians?
Don’t. Really. It’s a tough life.
I’m incredibly fortunate to have achieved the small amount of success I have.
If you find that you must, there is nothing wrong with being a hobbyist or collector. I find that hobbyist have it the best as they don’t aren’t concerned with bookings, travel, clients, advertising and so and can concentrate solely on the magic. For every minute on stage I invest 90 minutes in rehearsal, practice (yes they are 2 different things) working with clients, marketing, advertising and more. Being a professional magician is a full time business and needs to be treated as such. It’s not only about the time on stage, it’s about what you do to get you to that time.
Also if you must disregard my advice and you still want to become a professional magician LEARN THEATER!! Work with a director for your show, do live theater, plays any stage time you can working with a crew. Look to other arts for inspiration. When you can think about what you want the magic effect to be, then find the way to build it instead of picking up a trick and trying to make your personality fit around it (even though in the beginning that is what you would have to do until you learn methods).
Stay away from walk around or so called “strolling” magic, it cheapens the art. Your work should command an audience, the audience should be there to see you, you shouldn’t be forcing magic on someone to create an audience. It shouldn’t be you walking up to a stranger, interrupting their social interactions and saying something to the effect of “Hi I’m a magician, can I show you a trick?”
Be prepared to work almost every holiday and be away from your family often.
7) What is one of your favorite magical moments to date?
I am so incredibly fortunate to have so many. So many wonderful people and events. I’ll relate one of the most beautiful moments of magic ever in one of my shows… and I didn’t perform it.
I had been hired to perform 45 minutes parlor (magical entertainment) at a 50th Birthday Celebration. The gentleman (Eugene) who hired me to perform for his wife’s 50th birthday celebration and I had been communicating in email, along the way I suggested if he had a small present to present I could show him a magical way to present it. He liked the idea. We took a few minutes before the show to go over the presentation, I believe he had be practicing on his own (when I gave instruction on where to place it he made a remark that lead me to think he had been trying on his own).
I brought Eugene and his wife Katherine up to perform Anniversary Waltz (a card trick that can be a beautiful, fun moment) and when I was done Eugene said he had a trick that might top mine. (I sat down and directed a person with a video camera to a good spot for their special moment)
He did it perfectly, when the flash died away there was a very, very beautiful ring hanging from his hand on a fine chain. There was an amazing outpouring of love and joy, not just from his wife but from everyone present (about 30 guests). The laughter, applause, love and hugs went on all night as part of this very special celebration
Sometimes I say I perform because it makes others better people (when someone is laughing, enjoying themselves, amazed or having fun that is about the best someone can be); that night they made me a better person.
Thanks so much, Vick, for your generosity and friendship.
Below are links to two of my favorite videos of Illusions Vick in action – I hope you find them as magical as I do!
Illusions Vick with Cub Scouts at Blue and Gold Banquet http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jKgUkB6fQkI
And his beautiful floating butterflies…
Want more Illusions Vick? Go to: http://www.illusionsbyvick.com/