Eleanor Brown finds universality in our peculiarities

by Connie Ogle

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

8 February 2012


Readers are fond of asking author Eleanor Brown which of her fictional, Shakespeare-loving sisters she’s most like: capable, responsible Rose (named for Rosalind in “As You Like It”) ; independent, prickly Bean (formally Bianca, named for Kate’s sister in “The Taming of the Shrew”); the baby of the family, wild child Cordy (short for Cordelia, King Lear’s favorite daughter).

Brown says there’s a bit of all three siblings in her … and in all of us.

“There’s someone in everybody who wants adventure, someone who wants to be safe, someone who wants to be independent, someone who wants to be taken care of,” says Brown. Of course, when she was a kid, the answer was different: “I was definitely Cordy,” she confesses. “I was irresponsible. Everybody was taking care of me. But as you grow up, you take on other roles.”

Brown has most recently taken on the role of novelist, and it suits her. The former teacher is talking about her first novel, “The Weird Sisters” (Berkley, $15), an irresistible examination of a family that “has always communicated its deepest feelings through the words of a man who has been dead for almost four hundred years,” thanks to its Shakespeare professor father. Their mother’s illness and their own individual crises bring all three adult daughters home, where they spar, attempt to co-exist and try to figure out what comes next.

Brown wasn’t always a fan of the Bard, but sisters? That’s a subject with which she’s intimately familiar.

“I come from a family of three sisters,” says Brown, who has a master’s degree in literature and lives in Colorado with her partner, writer J.C. Hutchins. “I wouldn’t have been interested in writing this book if I hadn’t. You look at movies and books with sisters, and they’re so perfect and love each other so much. That’s not the way it is. You cannot spend your life with someone and always love them.”

Question: Why do birth-order theories interest you?

Answer: I grew up in a family with three siblings of the same gender. It was a pressure cooker for birth order roles to come out! As we grew up we moved out of them, but when I was in college I was a psychology major, and I did my Capstone Research Project on birth order. People think of it as astrology, something that’s fun to read about, but honestly I really feel like it affects us. It’s one of the first things I like to ask people when I meet them. You can really see it come out in interesting ways. When I was a teacher it came out in kids all the time. A child comes to your desk and says “Is this right? Am I doing this right?” and you say, “Yes, only child, you’re doing fine!”

Q: When did you learn to love Shakespeare?

A: I came to Shakespeare very late. My early experience was everybody’s early experience, which was in ninth grade my teacher handed me “Romeo and Juliet.” I hated “Romeo and Juliet.” It’s still my least favorite play. Later we read “MacBeth,” and that was better, but I don’t think I read any more Shakespeare till graduate school. I was studying at Oxford, and I got to see “The Tempest” at the Globe and “As You Like It” by the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford. I saw “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at Oxford done in an outdoor amphitheater, and Titania and Oberon arrived by boat. I had this revelation: “Oh! I get it! They’re plays!” That had never occurred to me. We give 14-year-olds plays with difficult language and say, “Read this like a book,” and they’re not books. They’re not meant to be experienced that way. … I think you have to be trained to read scripts in a certain way. Now, I find the reading richer, because if I’ve seen a production first, then I can linger over the language.

Q: Why did you decide to use the narrative “we” in writing the book?

A: As a reader and a writer I’m interested in things like point of view. This is a narrative voice I came up with years before I started writing; I thought I was the first person to think of this, and I told a professor, who said, “William Faulkner did that already.” Darn it, Bill! But I put it in the back of my mind, and when I started writing the story it felt so natural. When you listen to people tell stories about their families, there is a we. “When we were little, we went to Disney World.” Marriages are the same way: “We like to go out to dinner on Friday nights.” It allowed me to do some things for the sisters, to have them comment on each other’s actions without being judgmental or cruel. But you have to come up with rules. I had rules on how many sisters had to be in a room before I could write “we” did something.

Q: Why doesn’t the mother in the book have a name?

A: The book is about the transition of this family from being parents and children to being adults together. If you’re a parent, there’s a period of your life where you lose your name. You’re just Mom or Dad or Jaden’s mom or Tony’s dad. You exist because of your relationship to the child. So the sisters aren’t recognizing their parents as people at the beginning of the book. The father gets a name because he has an identity outside the family. But the stay-at-home mom, that’s all she is to her daughters. If I wanted to be precious I could’ve given her a name three-fourths of the way through, but that seemed wrong.

Q: The paperback edition of “The Weird Sisters” has a reading guide. How do you feel about guides in general?

A: I was actually involved in writing it. … It was a collaborative process. At the publishing house it was interesting the questions others came up with. Like: “What’s up with Bean? Why is she such a horrible person?” I objected to that. These are my babies; don’t pick on my kids! She’s the character who a lot of people find hard to love, but there’s so much that’s important to think about with her, the parts of us that are unwilling to accept ourselves, being your own worst enemy. … People love to ask about her. They ask me if she’s really remorseful, has she done her penance. One of the things I’ve realized seeing those questions is that when you write a book, once it’s out there, it’s not yours anymore. Everybody reads a different book. Everybody brings their own emotional baggage, their own history.

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