I spoke with Eleanor Brown about her excellent and poignant debut novel, The Weird Sisters. The New York Times, the Washington Post, Publisher’s Weekly, People, and the Library Journal have praised Eleanor’s novel. Barnes and Noble selected The Weird Sisters as a Best Book for Adults, and Liane Hansen interviewed Eleanor on NPR’s Weekend Edition. You can read more praise of the novel here.
Born and raised in the Washington, D.C. area, Eleanor has lived in St. Paul, San Francisco, Philadelphia, South Florida, and Oxford, London, and Brighton, England. She lives in Colorado with her partner, writer and new media superstar, J.C. Hutchins. Eleanor’s writing has appeared in anthologies, journals, magazines, and newspapers.
To learn more about Eleanor, visit her website http://www.eleanor-brown.com/the-weird-sisters.
Gayle Trotter: This is Gayle Trotter. Today I’m speaking with Eleanor Brown, author of the debut novel, The Weird Sisters. Good morning Eleanor.
Eleanor Brown: Good morning, Gayle. Thank you so much for having me.
GT: Thanks so much for joining me. Eleanor, anyone with sisters can relate to your title. Either they feel that their sisters are weird, or they feel weird around their sisters. But that’s not what your title means, right?
EB: No, the title is taken from the Shakespearean play Macbeth. There are a number of Shakespeare quotations and references and themes in the novel. And the weird sisters is what the witches in Macbeth are called. But they’re not actually witches. Shakespeare used them to represent the three fates, or the idea of destiny. So when I use it as the title, yes, it’s a little bit of humor there because most of us who have siblings feel that they are weird in one way or another. But it’s also really to get at the idea of fate and destiny which is a theme that I tried to bring out in the novel as well.
GT: So who are the three main characters of the book?
EB: The three main characters are the sisters in the Andreas family. They’re all named after characters in Shakespearean plays. So there’s Rosalind, named from As You Like It and she goes by Rose; and then there is Bianca from Taming of the Shrew and she goes by Bean; and then there’s Cordelia from King Lear and she goes by Cordy.
GT: And which part of each character do you most identify with and why?
EB: I’m so glad you asked that! Usually people ask me which character is me and my answer is all of them are me! And I think that there is a little bit of each of them in me. So in Rose there is a little bit of that desire for control and order and safety – she’s the oldest sister. And then in the middle sister, Bean, there’s a longing for attention and recognition which we all have, especially if you have siblings or look at families with siblings. And then the youngest, Cordy; I think there’s that part of me that always wants adventure and wants to be taken care of but knows that I need to do it myself, too.
GT: Absolutely. Well, would you say that this book is autobiographical?
EB: I think that all fiction is autobiographical to a certain extent because an enormous part of writing is writing out your emotions and your thoughts and your feelings about things. So everything in the book is a way of me trying to make sense of things. So, for instance, one of the main themes in the book is what it means to be an adult. And how you tell when you’re a grownup. And that was something that I was really wrestling with and really having a hard time waiting for the day I was going to wake up and say, “Today I feel like a grownup.” So certainly that emotion is completely autobiographical; it was something I was trying to manage. But the ways in which the sisters deal with it are completely fictional. So I would say that really a lot of the emotion behind it – anything that you encounter in there: shame or frustration or love and looking for your passion in life, those were all feelings that I had, but what the sisters do to get there is completely fictional.
GT: And in what way would you say that the book is mainly different from your life experience?
EB: Oh, it’s totally different from my life experience! Well, I shouldn’t say that; there are parts of it that are. So I come from a family of three sisters and I don’t think I would be as interested in birth order, which is another topic that I was trying to write out in the book, if I did not come from a family of three sisters. But those sisters are not me and my sisters. If anything the sisters are much more just me – different aspects of me. And certainly again the theme is trying to find a career that I feel passionately about; that is definitely something that I wrestled with. I’m not a mathematics professor or librarian or a barista or a baker.
GT: Very different.
EB: Right. None of the things that they do are like me. So I would say the particulars are all different from what I said. That said, if you ask me kind of how autobiographical is it, really what I should say is: probably more than I intended it to be and less than you think. So if you read the book and think you’re reading about my family, you’re not, but certainly there’s probably more of me and my family in it than I had originally intended.
GT: Birth order figures prominently in your book. Do the birth order theories resonate with you?
EB: Completely. I think birth order theory is fascinating. And I think that it is often dismissed as almost astrological; that’s it’s just kind of something silly and fun, that you can take a quiz about. But the idea behind it is that the person you become and the personality you develop is completely dependent on where you are in the family order. And so if you’re an only child, then that is going to produce a certain kind of person with certain kinds of traits. And I think we can all think of exceptions to those rules, but I also have seen it bear out a lot. So the very traditional idea – and three is kind of the perfect number so I’ll use that – the oldest child is very driven and very successful, and the middle child is very charming and maybe a mediator but also feels lost in the shuffle and is looking for an identity, and then the youngest child is probably a little bit spoiled and a little bit manipulative but also really charming and kind of a performer. And so I can see that happening much, much more in families that I know. And if you think about it, if you are the oldest child, at one point you were an only child, but if you are a second or a third or a fourth or a fifth child, you have never been an only child. And your experience is always as one of many. So even if you think just about kind of a basic numbers game, you really are growing up in an entirely different family than your siblings.
GT: I love the quote you have of Rose, the oldest in your book – actually it was one of her sisters saying, “Rose hates us taking away her throne but she never pushed us off of it.”
EB: Right; and I think that experience of once having been an only child and really being the center of everything and then suddenly not being, can be hard for an oldest sibling. I think it can be really tricky. And all three of the sisters in the book talk about that at one point or another, sort of like: Am I the only child – if I’m the only one at home at any given moment does that mean I’m an only child? Well, no, because your family’s still there, even if they’re not physically there right then.
GT: There’s another quote from the middle child, Bean, who said she felt like she was waving her arms and shouting, “Notice me, notice me!” and her sister replies, “We could have told Bean that we were waving and screaming, too, and none of us ever got what we wanted. Not when it came to attention. No one does.” I love that.
EB: Well, no one does, right? I mean, we are all the stars of our own movie and we are all the center of our own universe and we never feel like we get everything that we need. And I think that’s amplified in middle children because you’re not the first, so you’re not special in that way, and you’re not the last, so you’re not special in that way, and I really do… middle children get, or feel like they get, lost in the shuffle.
GT: Now how does that work if you have six children?
EB: I think that you’ve got a lot of middle children who feel like they’re jumping up and down and waving their arms! But it also depends on how the family works, you know. It depends on how the parents manage everything and how the kids relate to each other and spend individual time with the children and things like that and make them feel special as much as we can make anybody feel special.
GT: Well, talking about the sisters, to you what does a good sister look like, and are the sisters in your book good sisters?
EB: That’s a really interesting question. I think a good sister is a good family member is a good friend. So I don’t think there’s something particular in being a good sister that I wouldn’t say is also required of any family member or any friend. And that is, you know, being supportive in good times and in bad. I actually got a beautiful letter from a reader that was talking about her four sisters and their progression from “I hate you” when they were little, to the point now where her sisters are the ones that she turns to when she had to go to the hospital for a biopsy. And her sisters were the ones who she wanted to go with her. And I thought that was really beautiful and a really great expression that your sister is the one you turn to when you when you need something either good or bad. I think the sisters in the novel initially are not good sisters, because they are so wrapped up in their own problems and their own concerns – again, everybody’s the star of their own movie, right? But as they work through that, they really do become good sisters and they become good sisters because they are better people themselves and they are then better able to support each other.
GT: And do you think it’s the mother’s illness and the parents’ aging that brings out that maturity in them?
EB: I think that’s part of it. That was something that was really tricky for me when I was writing the book. So you know the mother’s ill and that is sort of the superficial excuse that they use to come home. And certainly they care deeply about their mother and they’re very concerned about her, but it also is an excuse, because there are other reasons that they want to retreat. And I think that those of us who are at a point in our lives where we are watching our parents age or watching them deal with illnesses, it does change something in you. You move from child to caretaker in some respects, or at the very least you become equals, and you start to ask the kinds of questions that your parents asked you when you were younger: “Are you going to the doctor?” and “What does the doctor say?” and things like that. So I think that is absolutely a part of their maturity because you cannot deal with that shift in relationship with an aging parent without having it push you toward maturity.
GT: You have a great line in the book where you say, “How old were you when you first realized your parents were human?” and I think that kind of ties in with what you were just saying, that at some point as an adult each of us realizes that our parents are human and that they exist outside of our existence.
EB: Right. It’s like that idea of object permanence that happens developmentally to infants – that idea that if I leave the room, the room is still there… It’s like that and I really like the way you put that — the idea that they exist even when we’re not in the room. And they have feelings and passions and hopes and dreams and probably they have a history where some of those hopes and dreams have not been realized, and they have good days and bad days, and they don’t just exist to take care of you. And that, I think, can be a real awakening and, I think, a real joy when you start to deal with your parents not as your parents, but as complex and wonderful human beings and start to engage with them in that way. That’s one of the things that I tried to bring out with the sisters. There’s a couple of times where the sisters have conversations with the parents where they kind of realize that. These are people – these are fully-fledged people with lives, and they get to learn a little bit more about that and I think that’s exciting for them.
GT: Well, speaking about the parents’ lives, religion plays a part in the parents’ lives and you talk about the parents right before the mother goes into surgery. The sisters are imagining that the parents pray together before surgery. You also talk about how when all the sisters return home, the parents assume that the sisters would join them at church, and that they were all going regularly even when they weren’t at home. And you have this great quote that I just love: “Faith never came out in bombast or brimstone; it was just a part of who they were, as much as the books they read.”
EB: You know, when I first started writing the book, religion was going to be a much bigger part of it than it ended up being. But it did stay this kind of quiet undercurrent. I think it’s a really beautiful part of that family, and I think it’s one of the reasons the parents are so serene when the daughters are not. And all three of the daughters, really frankly, are in situations of their own making and probably would be much better off if they had something – and it doesn’t necessarily have to be their parents’ faith – but if they had an awareness of something larger than themselves and some kind of greater moral code. I think that that would have pulled them out of a lot of the trouble they found themselves in. So I really adore the way that the parents in the book manifest their faith, because it is quiet, it is important to them. They do expect it and did try to pass it on to their children, but they didn’t force it on them and there is no anger; there is simply that sort of parental caring and hope that they will find whatever it is that is going to bring them peace.
GT: And there’s a really interesting character in your book who’s a priest. And he’s speaking with the middle child, Bean, who maybe has the most to worry about from the “sin radar” – I love that line. And Bean is talking to the priest, and she says to him, “There is no me; there is only Rose and Cordy. I’m just like this speed bump in the middle, slowing everyone down because I keep f-ing up. I’m nothing.” And the priest responds that we all have stories that we tell ourselves: We’re too fat, we’re too ugly, we’re too old, we’re too foolish. And he says that stories allow us to excuse our actions. And when I was reading your book, I was looking for the moral of your story and I came to the conclusion…I mean each reader obviously brings their experiences and what they want to get out of the book and I thought: Is this the moral of your story? Is this what you’re trying to say through this book and does this book give us a key to ourselves, just like in your book you talk about the sisters are always searching for the book that will give us the key to our self.
EB: Wow, there’s a lot in that question. So first of all let me talk about the priest character for a second, Father Aiden. I love him; he is an Episcopal priest, which is important because of some relationship-wrangling that happens in the book. He is really kind of that voice of moral authority and I love him because he comes at it so gently and with such love. So he is an interesting character and that story line is interesting to me because it’s kind of the last remnant of what the original story line (which was much more about faith) was. Do I think that that’s the message of the book? It’s certainly one of the huge messages of the book. So, as interested as I am in birth order and how our family shapes who we are, I don’t think it has to be a life sentence. I think you kind of get to become the person you want to be, and you do that through all the little decisions you make along the way. But sometimes we can get trapped into telling ourselves that we are someone. So Rose is trapped because she keeps telling herself she’s the responsible one and she has to be the responsible one and she doesn’t have to be. She could tell herself a different story and in the novel – I don’t think I’m ruining anything by saying this – she obviously does tell herself a different story. And that really allows herself to break free, and that’s certainly one of the things that I had come to realize and that I hope that other people have, is that part of who you are is the story you tell yourself, and you don’t always have to tell yourself the same story.
GT: This is Gayle Trotter. I’m speaking with Eleanor Brown, author of the debut novel, The Weird Sisters. Eleanor’s going to spend a few minutes talking with us about the process of writing a novel and getting it published. I’m sure you have a lot to tell us on that subject, right Eleanor?
EB: I do. It’s always a long and complex story that any writer will be able to tell you.
GT: Well, I just finished reading Stephen King’s book on writing, and it was really fascinating to me that he didn’t just descend fully formed from Zeus’s head. It was a long process, and he had a nail on the wall in his room where he just tacked rejection letter after rejection letter after rejection letter. Can you relate to that at all?
EB: Oh, completely. And I do also have to say that that is probably one of my very favorite books about writing because it is full of so many of those things that every writer goes through, and it also makes you realize that your stack of rejection letters looks just like Stephen King’s stack of rejection letters as well. So I started out small. I started out writing short stories and essays and opinion pieces and I’ve always been a writer. It’s always something I’ve done, just to kind of think things through and express feelings that I had. So when I got more serious about it, I started sending those pieces out to be published, and I got piles of rejection letters, and some of them did end up being published. And then when I moved on to writing novels, I wrote a few of them that I actually wrote myself my own rejection letter because they were so bad I didn’t want to send them out to anybody else.
GT: That’s great!
EB: And when I finally wrote one that I felt was worthy of sending out, I accumulated a bunch of rejection letters for that one, too. So I definitely have that experience. I didn’t wake up one morning, sit down and write a novel and then send it out to trumpets and acclaim – I definitely had a hard path to get there.
GT: Well, that’s great to hear – it’s all through the experience, right?
EB: Right, exactly.
GT: I liked how Stephen King detailed in that book about his writing regimen, and he went through different authors, historical authors, and their writing regimens. And he talked about this one author who set a certain amount of time aside every day to write. If he finished a novel and he had fifteen minutes left to his time that he’d set aside to write, he would pick up writing something else. And if that time came and he wasn’t finished writing something, but he was really close, he’d stop. That is just amazing discipline; I can’t even imagine.
EB: No, neither can I and don’t you just hate him just a little bit too?
GT: Yes! What is your writing regimen like?
EB: It depends. I am somewhat of a binge writer, which means that I will spend long periods of time reading and taking notes and staring at the wall and thinking and really not putting any writing on the page at all. But to me that actually still counts as part of the writing process, because you have to do a little bit of staring at the wall at some point. And it’s very easy to beat yourself up and feel like, “I’m not producing anything.” But you actually are, it’s just not coming out on the page yet. The only problem is if staring at the wall is all you do. That’s when you do have to sit down and write something. So when I am writing I do tend to set myself goals, so today I want to do 1,000 words or today I want to do 2,500 words or whatever it is. But there is a difference for those of us who have, as you well know, careers and families and other kinds of responsibilities. Keeping that writing time sacred is really hard. So it’s very difficult to be that person who can just write for exactly 45 minutes every day or write for three hours every day, when you have other responsibilities. So I think that there’s also something to be said for being forgiving when it doesn’t happen. So I set myself those goals and sometimes I make them and sometimes I don’t but the thing that really helps me make them is not being critical of myself when I write. So Jody Picoult, who is an author I really admire, I once heard her speak and she said, “You can edit garbage, but you can’t edit a blank page.” So the most important thing is just to get it out there, and then you can worry about making it good. So I think those word deadlines or those time deadlines are really helpful because then you can just worry about getting it down and later you can worry about making it beautiful, and that’s something that I really tried to do.
GT: That is great advice. So Shakespeare played a huge part in this book. Did you have a lot of that just in your store bank of reading in your life, or did you have to do a lot of research for that?
EB: I had to do a lot of research. I think the passion for Shakespeare was already there. I wasn’t really a big Shakespeare fan until graduate school, and I think that’s because that’s when I started seeing the plays performed. I kind of had this epiphany like, “Oh he was a playwright, right? We should see these plays.” And just seeing these wonderful, wonderful productions all over the world – seeingThe Tempest done at the Globe Theater in London and As You Like It being done by the Royal Shakespeare Theater in Stratford-Upon-Avon and Othello being done at the Folger Theater in D.C. — just really wonderful things. So that’s when the passion had awakened. When I think about Shakespeare, that’s what I think about. I think about the productions that I’ve seen; I don’t think about particular lines. But I did want to go a little bit deeper than that in the book. I didn’t want to go “scary” Shakespeare, so that if you aren’t familiar you wouldn’t cry when you read the book, but I wanted people who were more familiar to have some depth in there. So I did tons of research. I re-read or re-watched a lot of the plays; I read a lot of scholarly articles, I had a long, long list of quotations that I wanted to use in the book. There was definite, definite research that went into it. I wish I were the kind of person who could say, “Oh no, I just have this enormous storehouse of Shakespeare in my head,” but sadly, mostly what I have are notebooks and notebooks and binders full of Shakespeare research.
GT: And have you received a lot of positive feedback from academics in the Shakespeare area?
EB: You know, I have heard nothing. But, that’s okay because that was not the audience I was trying to reach. And what’s interesting about the book in particular is that this is a family that, because the father’s a Shakespeare professor, they use the language of Shakespeare to communicate. Especially when things get emotionally tricky, they’re much more likely to quote from a play than to speak their own words. But what that means is that a lot of the Shakespeare is completely taken out of context and is really kind of this linguistic currency – it has no meaning whatsoever.
GT: The lingua franca of the emotions in their family.
EB: Exactly, that’s exactly right. That’s just the way the family operates. There are some sort of thematic elements, especially when it comes to the characters, but it’s really not very deep. I am not producing anything in this novel that is going to shake the Shakespeare world. And that wasn’t my goal, because again, I wanted this to be widely readable. I wanted the average person who probably read Romeo and Juliet in ninth grade and who maybe has seen a couple plays or movies but isn’t a scholar – I wanted them to be able to relate to it. I didn’t want it to be a stumbling block; I just wanted it to be something to enrich the book.
GT: Yes, even the people who’ve only seen the Bugs Bunny versions of Shakespeare?
EB: Exactly, because even seeing the Bugs Bunny versions, you actually walk out with somewhat of an understanding of what it’s about. So if some academics want to read it and enjoy it for the Shakespeare part, that’s great and I would be very flattered, but that wasn’t my goal to go after that at all.
GT: Eleanor, thank you so much for spending this time with us and we wish you much luck in your future endeavors.
EB: Wonderful, Gayle, thank you so much for having me. It was great to talk to you.
First published in First Things in March 2011