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An Interview with Laura Catherine Brown: making form out of chaos.

Laura Catherine Brown and I have been in the same writing group for over ten years. In fact the two of us are the longest standing members of a group that has been meeting monthly in New York City for almost twenty years. I can’t recall what I noticed first about Laura. The impressions and discoveries that came in quick succession were that she is a brilliant communicator, damn funny, and a superior editor. Laura’s emotional intelligence makes all of her fiction glow. Her characters have voices that grab your attention from their first sentences. The author and vicariously the reader don’t just empathize with Laura’s characters, but feel strongly about them, often fiercely protective because Laura lays them bare and puts them through the wringer.

One of the keys to success of our writing group is that no one was friends before joining. Nepotism (or friendship) is not what gains you entry. We’ve joked that it’s harder to get into the Exiles than most grad schools. But that’s because it’s a lifetime membership. Once an Exile, we are allowed to socialize, and we fervently support each others’ book launches and readings, but on the whole, common daily friendships don’t sprout from this sacred writing group. When I first met Laura, I furtively showed up a yoga class she taught, and over the years, she and I would meet for lunch in lower Manhattan. In all seriousness, Laura is my friend, but first and foremost we help each other tackle the writing. I’ve said it aloud in group and I can say it aloud here. When I get home with a stack of edited copies of my manuscript, its Laura’s that I turn to first and fear the most. She will make me work as hard as she works, and over the years she has edited with as much generosity as intelligence, all of my work.
We often meet at Laura’s apartment, east of Union Square, for our monthly group sessions. We eat ordered-in Thai food surrounded by towering bookshelves. At Laura’s there is always very dark chocolate between manuscripts. And her two black and white tuxedo cats weave and lounge amongst us, providing their feline support to ease the exertion of receiving deep critiques of our work. On the enclosed balcony beyond her living room, I often steal glimpses of Laura’s writing desk. It appears to be a sacred and also utilitarian place. There’s a lot going on there with a large desktop computer and tidy but tall piles of books and manuscript pages. There are many notes taped up around the shelving and the monitor. I don’t know what they say, but I sure am curious.
When Laura and I conducted this interview earlier this month, I was delighted to discover that all of her answers surprised me. I’d read, and workshopped her most recent novel, Made By Mary, in the last four years or so, and when it was published in 2018 by C&R Press and I read the final published version, I was dumbstruck by how changed it was. I’ll let the interview itself reveal more about this dark, witty, searing, deeply touching, odd-ball novel, but I feel confident that you’ll find Laura’s novels, and even her insights here, to be surprising dives into the depths of humanity.
RSG: I’ve known you a long time and read several of your novels-in-progress, but when I was reading Made By Mary, I became very curious about your relationship to the Wiccan world. Is this something you have first hand experience with, or did you just do incredible research? It certainly feels very real.
LCB: I’m not a practicing Wiccan but I’ve participated in many Wiccan rituals and I have Wiccan friends. I believe, as the Wiccans do, that ritual is essential for marking life changes. I’m definitely a spiritual seeker, with a dose of skepticism. My personal belief system is porous and evolving. What I love about Wicca, is its woman-centeredness, which feels like home to me. I’m one of four sisters, no brothers and my life has been mostly female-filled. Wiccans are nature-based and believe in the power of the cycles of the seasons and the moon, and recognize the life force in all things animate and inanimate. I did a lot of research. I’m glad the Wiccan world feels real! It felt very real to me as I was writing.
RSG: As I read the book, I thought this would be a great read and even resource for anyone whose used a surrogate or has been a surrogate. However, by the end, I wasn’t so sure. What are your thoughts on that? Or perhaps you’ve heard from readers?
LCB: I’m not sure I’d use fiction as a guide for anything except maybe opening up my sense of what’s possible. I haven’t heard from any readers about the surrogacy situation, which I admit is a bit over-the-top. I haven’t been in a surrogacy situation, but I have experienced IVF (in vitro fertilization) and reproductive technology, which is invasive and expensive, and takes over your life when you’re in the thick of it. And I’ve heard from readers about their IVF experiences, mostly around its failure. IVF fails more often than it succeeds, and many couples will undergo the process multiple times. I say couples, but it’s the woman who takes the hormones, endures the injections and undergoes the frequent ultrasounds and early-morning blood tests. Yet, despite incredible technological advancements, at the heart of pregnancy and birth lies a mystery. I wanted to get at that mystery. At the heart of death lies a mystery, too. Where did we come from? Where do we go? Why are we here?
RSG:Do you think black comedy describes your writing in Made By Mary? I love the dark
comedy in all your writing and I think the book is often hilarious. You are very funny. I’m
curious about the defining of it as black comedy and how much you focused on the humor as you wrote.
LCB: I definitely think of Made By Mary as a dark comedy. I don’t actually focus on humor when I’m writing but funny people and funny situations arise in scenes and ideas, and in my life. I think I see everything through the lens of humor, as a way of coping with pain. Life is painful. Life is full of tragedy and failure and injustice and loss. Yet, there’s always something beautiful, some moment, some connection. We find ourselves in situations that we lack the resources and perspective to navigate, so we have to fumble through and wing it, and find a way to forgive ourselves and to forgive those around us. Often this process can be hilarious: mismatches, miscommunications, misunderstandings, all carry the seed of hilarity.
RSG: What do you hope readers take away from your fiction in general?

LCB: I hope the characters linger as living, breathing people who transcend my puny writerly abilities. I like to imagine them living their lives and making their often bad choices on another plane, independent of me, outside the book. That’s what I’d love readers to take away. Every story for me begins and ends in the characters. Even language is character.

RSG: I know you were a panelist at AWP earlier this month in Portland. What was your panel about? And how was AWP?
LCB: My panel was focused on navigating one’s life as a writer. I don’t have an MFA (neither did most of the panelists, and the ones who did have MFAs didn’t have the best experiences) I earn very little money from my writing. My job is not connected to the literary world. The panel was fun, and seemed to connect with a lot of people. It’s important to talk about money and the sacrifices many of us have to make in order to write. The AWP conference was amazing, exhausting, inspiring, stimulating and overwhelming and so much fun. There’s nothing like interacting with thousands of writers for an intense 3 days and nights, seeing old friends, making new ones and just immersing yourself in ideas about literature and writing and teaching and living as a writer. It’s a beautiful experience. It’s very hard to maintain a writing life when so many other imperatives press down: family, work, health, politics. Yet here we are, crazy and dogged and passionate, all of us still making time to write, still getting words down, still trying to make form out of chaos.

Los Angeles launch at Diesel Books

I kicked off July with a visit to DIESEL in Brentwood. This reading was so gratifying for a number of reasons. My ultra-supportive mom came with wine, cheese and crackers and fruit, and was even super gracious when kids in the store ate all the fresh figs and didn’t buy my book. Friends from the two high schools I attended in LA turned out for the event. College friends from Santa Cruz and NY friends and cousins who had moved to LA were there to celebrate. My husband Bill and our two sons came with me from NY and made the whole experience feel like home. Also, I wasn’t nervous. Apparently, I’m only nervous once, when I’m a book launch virgin and after that I just know how to have fun.

The fun was doubled by having a post-reading conversation with the irresistible and witty Julia Fierro. We talked and spiraled around our psychologies, why we write, what I hope this book means and also publicly observed that the fig tree is getting too much shade but is full of small birds nonetheless.

Eureka book reading at phatsy Kline lounge

Last Friday I had the privilege of having a reading and book signing in the gorgeous Eagle House Hotel, Phatsy Kline Lounge. The event was so warm, with a group of lovely friends and book lovers, who actually stepped out of the rare July sunshine to listen to scenes from PRACTICE DYING and drink some Friends With Benefits Humboldt Cider (so good!)

And the best part was doing this all in the company of my sister, Dana. She was such a fun and intelligent Q&A facilitator, even throwing in a big-sister curve-ball to keep me on my toes.

Authors, put Eureka CA on your book tours!

You won’t regret it.

author photo outtakes

A few weeks ago I met my friend Jena at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden with both our one-year-olds. Before leaving the house I texted her, “I’m putting on some make-up in case you take my new author photo!”

Jena is a photographer and she took my last author photo for The Sign for Drowning.

I love how natural and relaxed the best pictures turned out. When truth-be-told, we were doling out snacks and milk bottles and babbling to two restless babies during the whole shoot.

These outtakes capture the mood perfectly.

My new novel, PRACTICE DYING, will be out in 8 short days!

First blurb came in!

Obtaining blurbs for your upcoming book can be an excruciating part of publishing. It’s up to the author to find the leads, have the contacts and make the requests. It’s a big favor to ask- the author whose recommendation you want, has to read the novel for starts. And then craft something useful and enticing to say about your book in a few short sentences. You write to authors you know, or have met once, or (yikes) have never met at all, and you ask really nicely. A few months ago, I went through this hard process, starting by choosing authors who’s work had some overlap with mine, traveled some similar territory, who it made sense to be associated with. Well, I have to admit, Leland is the least of these criteria. His work is darkly comedic- very comedic and satirical. But I kept coming back to him. His work has huge range, tells ridiculous, striving and poignant tales. He writes human beings- who you can see- sometimes naked- often tortured- very flawed. The more I thought about his work, the more I wondered if he’d blurb my book. I exchange work with Leland regularly in a monthly writing group we’re both in. And I also know him to be open, supportive and to the point.

From a writing retreat in a castle in Scotland, he recently sent me this moving and generous blurb. I am so grateful he did, and that I asked.

“Like the best novels, Rachel Stolzman Gullo’s PRACTICE DYING deals with life’s biggest questions, among them: how do we find the courage to live and love in the face of all our collective suffering? Full of surprise encounters leading to even more surprising developments, this is a novel for seekers, like twins Jamila and David, for whom every day is an urgent and beautiful quest for connection and enlightenment.”

—Leland Cheuk, author of THE MISADVENTURES OF SULLIVER PONG and LETTERS FROM DINOSAURS

The roar of change

Each hour I hear the grind and shift of the tectonic plates of this planet and its inhabitants forcibly rubbing. A breaking point is underway. Can something be too obvious as to make it actually less visible? We’re expecting more subtle signs, something we have to find and uncover. These slaps in the face and deafening explosions leave us number and less certain of meaning. But I’m sensing that collectively most of us see the deal here. Power and wealth inequality like we’ve created in this past half century, create crisis, breakdown and destruction. The race to corporate and personal wealth have abused Earth, women, the poor and people of color. And those in extreme power become the sickest individuals among us. Those individuals who wield power over others by racism, classism, sexism, they are the most diseased of humans- their lives on a realm so far below those they oppress. The future might be better, far better, it might be worse- even annihilation. But I think we all hear the ground giving way. A new sprout must cause the total destruction of the seed. 

the meaning of democracy

E. B. WHITE ON “THE MEANING OF DEMOCRACY”

This piece originally appeared in the Notes and Comment section of the July 3, 1943, issue of The New Yorker. “The 40s: The Story of a Decade,” an anthology of New Yorker articles, stories, and poems, will be released on Tuesday.

We received a letter from the Writers’ War Board the other day asking for a statement on “The Meaning of Democracy.” It presumably is our duty to comply with such a request, and it is certainly our pleasure.

Surely the Board knows what democracy is. It is the line that forms on the right. It is the don’t in don’t shove. It is the hole in the stuffed shirt through which the sawdust slowly trickles; it is the dent in the high hat. Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half of the time. It is the feeling of privacy in the voting booths, the feeling of communion in the libraries, the feeling of vitality everywhere. Democracy is a letter to the editor. Democracy is the score at the beginning of the ninth. It is an idea which hasn’t been disproved yet, a song the words of which have not gone bad. It’s the mustard on the hot dog and the cream in the rationed coffee. Democracy is a request from a War Board, in the middle of a morning in the middle of a war, wanting to know what democracy is.

E. B. White
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