Thursday, April 26, 2012

Author Interview: Bryn Greenwood

Today I have the pleasure of talking to Bryn Greenwood, author of Last Will, which debuted earlier this week. I was lucky enough to get my hands on an early copy of Last Will. Word of advice: get your copy right now. And when do, set aside a big chunk of time to read it. It’s so compelling, I think I read it in two sittings. It’s not only a beautifully written, complicated, and layered tale of pain and healing, but a touching story of two amazing characters getting to know each other and themselves. Bryn is absolutely masterful at bringing Bernie and Meda to life on the page, and made me fall in love with both of them, not in spite of their flaws, but because of them.

Read below for Bryn’s insights on writing, publishing and Last Will. Also, Bryn was kind enough to offer to answer any reader questions, so if you have anything to ask her, leave it in the comments and she'll stop by later to answer them!

Here’s a bit about Last Will:

Bernie Raleigh fails at everything he touches. The victim of a kidnapping for ransom as a child, Bernie has spent his adult life trying to avoid being noticed. That’s impossible once he inherits his grandfather’s enormous fortune. The inheritance comes complete with a lot of obligations, a mansion, and a problematic housekeeper named Meda Amos. Beauty queen, alien abductee, crypto-Jew, single mother — Meda is all those things, and she may also be the only person who can help Bernie survive his new and very public life.

Hi Bryn! Thanks so much for talking with me today. First, I’d like to talk a bit about your debut novel, Last Will. Can you tell us a bit about the inspiration for this novel?

Like so many of my story ideas, it started in two very different places. The first idea sprang from a newspaper spread on local child beauty pageant winners. One of the children photographed was a lovely but very angry looking little girl. It was clear she did not want to be in a pageant. The other source was an article I read about alien abduction. The author of the article theorized that reports of alien abduction were symptoms of schizophrenia, with the patients using literal abduction narratives to describe their mental state of feeling "out" of themselves. At some point, those two things converged into a single story that became Last Will.

I was so drawn to Bernie, as he grapples with the effects of being kidnapped as a child, particularly as he’s thrust into this new life as the novel opens. His psychological state is so expertly done, it’s heart-wrenching and breaking at once, yet so very tangible. Why a kidnapping victim? Any particular reason you made this choice for him?

As soon as I knew that Bernie was going to inherit this enormous sum of money, I had to contemplate what the risks of that kind of wealth are. One of them is the greed of other people, so it was an easy step to imagine that the wealth of Bernie's grandfather, coupled with his pride and desire for self-sufficiency, would put Bernie and his brother at risk for those sorts of things. I also loved the mirroring of alien abduction to a ransom kidnapping, in particular because it allowed me to play with all the characters' perceptions of what it means to be abducted.

What made you decide to tell the story from three POVs? And, what made you decide on these particular points of view? It’s very effective as each character has a distinct voice and viewpoint.

The simple answer is that I love multiple narrators. I love to hear "the truth" from more than one character. It lets the reader see characters from other angles. The story started in Bernie's POV, but it became clear that he's not so much an unreliable narrator as he is a reserved one. There were things Bernie would never bring himself to talk about. Things he maybe wasn't even aware of. That was how Meda became a necessary aide to getting the story out. As things progressed, I really wanted to give a hint at Bernie's childhood, but there was no way he was going to open up about that, so his aunt became something of a neutral third party narrator.

You create some fascinating, layered and complex characters. Even your secondary characters leap off the page, many of them making me smile, cringe, or often laugh. I was particularly amused by Celeste. We all know a Celeste, I think. Many of us also are burdened with a Loren or Muriel (or a few in my family, ha!). Were any of your characters – either main or supporting - inspired by anyone you know? I know, a work of fiction is fiction, but I always have to ask.

Wow, what a very dangerous question. I feel I should tiptoe away from it carefully, but of course, any writer who claims not to take inspiration from the people she knows is lying. The trick is to take the smallest parts of those people and spread them out, to avoid actually using a whole person to create a character. So I've never known a Celeste. I've just known half a dozen people who each had something to contribute to Celeste. That includes me. There are parts of me in Celeste. In fact, I try my best to give the least likeable characters some of my own traits. That way I won't ever forget that they need to be just as human as my favorite characters.

You have a lot of family dysfunction happening here too, and I love how you have it on both ends. The super wealthy are just as dysfunctional as the poor. In fact, part of what I loved about Last Will was the many ways you managed to turn societal expectations on their heads to expose simple, but often misconceived truths. I always appreciate an author who isn’t afraid to tackle these issues, and there were a handful of them you took on. Was this one in particular something you thematically set out to do? Or did it organically happen while telling Bernie and Meda’s story?

It's less a thematic urge and more an illustration of my opinion on families. To the best of my knowledge, I've never met a non-dysfunctional family. I've met some lovely families, and I happen to be pretty fond of my own, but they all have problems. Money and social status have zero power to make a family's dynamics healthier.

I couldn’t agree with you more. On a similar note, I loved how you handled Meda’s beauty. The belief that beauty is everything is so widespread, but for Meda it’s very much the opposite. It causes her pain from early on, during her forced childhood pageant days all the way up to the suffering she endures when attacked as a young woman, not to mention the family issues that arise from it. The scars she has (that barely mar her beauty) are something she often seems to wear maybe not with pride exactly, but she certainly doesn’t seem to mind them. (And I have to say, the juxtaposition of scars to beauty mirrors her personality so precisely). Once again, I have to ask, did you set out to take on what the world sees as beautiful and how it’s exploited and abused, or was this simply just who Meda came to be on the page?

Like many of my characters, Meda walked into the story pretty much fully formed. I knew she would be beautiful, the sort of girl Bernie couldn't resist but would feel guilty about wanting. Early on, I also understood that something had happened to sever her from the social expectations of that beauty. Something that would free her from the slavery of being just another beautiful girl. For me, it's usually much later in the process that I understand why a character came out the way he or she did. I'm always saddened by women of a certain age who pine for their youth and good looks. They see themselves as failures or defective, because they're not the unmarked, slender, young women they once were. That's heartbreaking, to always be judging yourself against what you used to be. So I wanted Meda to be free to walk away from her beauty pageant days. It's not that she isn't aware that she's disfigured and a little chubby. It's that she's made her peace with it, not least of which because she recognizes that it was a kind of imprisonment. She can be herself and not what her aunt or anyone else expects.

On a lighter note, while we’re speaking of Meda’s family, I have to ask: Have you ever been abducted by aliens? Tee hee, I’m kidding!

No, but for a while, my family did live in that house with the hideous blue siding and the unforgivable carpet and furniture. The sort of place where you can't run any two appliances at the same time.

Throughout the novel, Bernie and Meda slowly uncover things about both each other and themselves. They protect and heal each other, resulting in some serious personal growth. The characters in the closing chapters are very different than the ones we meet in chapter one. When starting out with this novel, did you know the journey they would take and where they would end up? Or did you discover it while writing?

In other words – outline or no?

No outline. NEVER!!! I am the worst kind of pantser--the kind who believes in the value of the journey without worrying about the outcome. In fact, the first draft of the book had a very different ending. The first person to read it came back to me and said, "I loved it, except for the end. They deserve a happy ending." She proceeded to explain to me my whole book and why the story I'd written argued for a happy ending. Of course, she was right. Sadly, my first reader did not get a happy ending, but it's because of her that the journey for Bernie and Meda ends where it does. I still believe passionately that my writing is about discovery. I often don't know who a character is or what he/she is going to do until I'm writing it. I love that feeling.

What was your favorite part of writing Last Will?

My favorite thing in writing anything is making my characters come to life. I live for those moments where I create a piece of dialog that I feel sure someone somewhere has actually said. Or will say. So often it's the little things, like Meda's frustration with her mother wanting to drink a beer in the car. In those moments, she is so real to me, and I hope she is for readers, too.

Most challenging?

By far the biggest challenge was keeping Bernie in line. He's so prone to navel-gazing and wandering off-topic. Readers will put up with a little of that, more if it's funny, but finding a balance between letting Bernie be himself and keeping the story moving … that was tough.

Since this is mostly a blog where aspiring authors will read this, can you tell us a bit about your road to publication? When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?

I'm one of those boring people who always wanted to be a writer. For the longest time, I just couldn't figure out the logistics of it, because it's not the sort of career where you get a degree and then get a job. You can get a writing degree, but after that, you're on your own to figure out how to write the stories and publish them.

I know your journey to publication is a tale in itself. Tell us about it.

Last Will is an old book in some ways. I wrote it before I turned thirty and I briefly queried the book. I collected a few very nice, encouraging rejections, but nothing more. At the time, I thought that meant the book was doomed. What? The first ten agents I queried didn't want to represent the book? It must be horrible! I'll never sell it! (My interior monolog is very melodramatic.) Since then, I've learned that my request rate and my rejections were really above average and that I should have kept querying. Ah well.

Nine years later, I was introduced to the publisher at Stairway Press, who invited me to submit something. I did, the publisher loved it, but then a week later I got an agent for a different book. When that book didn't sell and my agent left the business, I spent some time moping around, naturally. Then, when I was done feeling sorry for myself, I went back and reconsidered Stairway Press' offer to publish Last Will.

So a mere eleven years after I wrote the book, it's coming to print. Since I wrote it, I've written eight other books, queried three, and learned an awful lot about the chaotic world of publishing.

What is the best part of the publishing process?

I thought it was going to be the moment when I held the book in my hand, because the cover is so gorgeous and it has my name on it! I was wrong. It turns out the most exciting moment is seeing pictures of other people holding my book. Knowing it's out there in the world, being read, that's the best part.

The worst?

The waiting. The waiting. The interminable waiting. First it's waiting for agents to answer. Then it's waiting for editors to answer. Then waiting for proofs and covers. Then waiting for the book. Right now I'm waiting for reviews.

Thanks Bryn! And thanks for giving me an early look at Last Will. In case you couldn’t tell, I loved it! I’m looking forward to reading more books from you in the future. Any hints as to what we can expect from you next?

A lot depends on the whims of the publishing world. Possibly a story about a church secretary, a hit-and-run, and a paramedic who's not who he claims to be. Or perhaps a story about a drug dealer's daughter. I suspect whatever comes out next, it'll have more than one narrator.

You can read more from and about Bryn on her website: