Conversations: Sybil Baker and Laura Catherine Brown

Sybil Baker is the author of four works of fiction, most recently While You Were Gone. Her work of nonfiction, Immigration Essays is the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga’s required Read2Achieve first year read for 2018-2019. Four of her reviews and essays have appeared in Critical Flame. In addition to being a professor at UTC, she is on faculty for the Yale Writer’s Workshop and Vermont College of Fine Arts international low-residency MFA.

Laura Catherine Brown’s second novel, Made by Mary, has recently launched with C&R Press. Her debut novel, Quickening, was published by Random House, and featured in Barnes & Noble’s Discover Great New Writers series. Her short stories have appeared in several literary journals, including The Bellingham Review, Monkeybicycle, Paragraphiti and Tin House; and in anthologies with Seal Press and Overlook Press. She has been awarded support from The Byrdcliffe Colony, Djerassi, Millay, Ragdale, Ucross, Vermont Studio Center, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She currently serves as creative committee co-chair of the Millay Colony for the Arts, and assistant fiction editor of the literary magazine, Newfound. She lives in New York City where she’s writing a third novel.

SLB: From the opening chapter of Made By Mary, I was drawn into the complicated and intense relationships, especially between Mary (my favorite character) and her daughter Ann. Both of our novels deal with complicated mother-daughter relationships—in mine with the three sisters who lost their mother when they were young, and to a lesser extent, with the oldest sister Claire and her daughter Aimee.

Can you discuss your process of writing about their relationship and how you developed it in the novel?

LCB: Oh, complicated mother-daughter relationships. We can’t get away from them. I think the mother-daughter bond is primal and always problematic, given that a mother has to teach and socialize her daughter to navigate in a patriarchy in which she is destined to hold (alas, still quite true) second-class status. This makes the power dynamic between mother and daughter particularly complex and fraught.

One of the progressions I hoped to convey between Mary and Ann was the growing recognition of each other as women, outside their roles as mother and daughter. Another intention was to convey this idea about an act of generosity (like Mary’s) that arises from a narcissistic need. The gesture endures and resonates, not the flawed impulse behind it, which is why I think I had to end the novel the way I did.

I felt a similar impulse in your book, Sybil—you’ve written a family of flawed and misguided characters (also human and fully dimensional) but it’s their acts of generosity and forgiveness that endure, no matter how distorted their motivations were. I wonder if you can speak to that in regard to Shannon, Claire and Paige (and Jeremy, who’s a great character)?

SLB: I also believe that motivations are often complex and flawed, like Mary’s, and good intentions can result in negative consequences. The sisters and Jeremy have chosen to live in their hometown, Chattanooga, even though this choice brings many conflicts they might have avoided if they’d moved away. In the end, those conflicts perhaps allow them more generosity and forgiveness than if they’d not remained in Chattanooga. The sisters and Jeremy’s relationships are also built on loss, which perhaps makes them eventually more likely to forgive those still alive.

For me, writing is a way to explore characters’ desires that differ from my own. For example, as someone who chose not to have children, in my last two novels I’ve written about women who do want children but have obstacles to starting a family. In your novel, I truly felt and believed Ann’s overwhelming desire to have children. I’m wondering why you decided to explore the idea of motherhood in general and Ann’s tragic situation in particular.

LCB: Like you, I find writing is a way to explore unknown desires. I think there’s an age (probably in her thirties) when every woman has to think about whether or not to have children. I’ve endured a volatile mix of feelings about motherhood. In retrospect, I think writing the novel helped me make sense of the experience. Do you feel that writing is a way of understanding and making sense of the world?

SLB: For me it is. I purposely choose characters who want things strongly that I do not. Then I try to understand why they want them. I hope that readers also open themselves up to characters unlike themselves and sympathize with their desires.

All of my novels so far have focused on women in their late twenties and thirties. I feel like it’s such an important time for women as they’re pressured to make decisions about family, career, and relationships—decisions that can affect the rest of their lives. Certainly, my choice at age 31 to move to Korea and not have children profoundly affected my own trajectory.

I want to touch on point of view. Both of our novels have alternating points of view. For While You Were Gone, I chose a close third for the three sisters, with two other chapters toward the end from two other characters. I didn’t feel confident enough to write three different perspectives in first person with three different voices.

I thought you did a great job distinguishing between Mary’s voice and Ann’s in your work, so I’m curious why you chose to write in a similar POV for your novel.

LCB: My first novel also portrayed a mother and daughter caught in a difficult dynamic, though that book was written entirely from the daughter’s point of view, in first person. I began this second novel casting the story from Mary’s (the mother’s) point of view but first person seemed too limiting.

The POV needed to be larger than the subjectivity of the individual character, which third person offered more readily for me. Plus, it was different, for me, a new approach. I was several drafts into the book (I’m not a fast writer) when I realized that Ann’s side needed to be told, too, or the situation wouldn’t be plausible.

SLB: I’m so glad you included Ann’s point of view in the novel. I thought she was an excellent counterpoint to Mary’s, and revealed the complexities of their relationship. For my own novel, there were many revisions, and several big changes in plot points, but I’m always interested in a character’s change over the course of a novel.

Both of our novels also deal with misguided or thwarted desires that lead to “wrong” decisions. You deal with these wrong decisions with empathy and compassion in your novel, giving them space to make mistakes but to also ask for forgiveness and love. Does this approach come naturally to you, or is this something you work on when revising?

LCB: I aspire for a balance between satire and sympathy. I’m a huge fan of funny/sad stories. But my early drafts can be harsh and ironic. Compassion emerges in revision.

SLB: Could you expand on how the character of Mary developed? She’s such a charismatic yet vulnerable character.

LCB: Mary is an amalgam of larger-than-life, opinionated, infuriating, narcissistic, irresistible, big-hearted women in my life. Her voice and spirit came to me before any other aspect of the novel. I’d read an article about a mother-daughter surrogacy and this stirred up questions for me about what kind of woman would allow her mother to do that for her, what kind of mother would do it, and what position would this put the husband (father) in?

The psychosexual dynamics piqued my imagination. I had a collection of characters and a situation but it wasn’t quite a story. The story came last.

I was intrigued by the complex, cruel, loving, envious, adoring, multi-layered relationships between sisters in your book. In terms of your writing process, did you set out to write about sisters? And did you know when you began the book that they had lost their mother when they were children?

I’m one of four sisters and I found your portrayal of siblings compelling and true. Each is utterly individual, on her own path. Yet they fall into patterns established in their early childhood, and they each occupy an identity within the family structure that’s limiting and inaccurate. Claire is the successful strait-laced one, Shannon is the observant truth-teller, Paige is the lost rebel.

Each sister has a different take on the family and each sister holds a unique awareness of the family secrets, creating a Rashomon effect, which was very powerful. Did the book begin with a secret? What was the kernel that set the story going?

SLB: The kernel that set the story going was reading Jane Austen’s Persuasion and then Chekhov’s Three Sisters, and wondering what it might it be like for sisters to lose both parents at different stages of their lives. When they were in college, my sister in law and one of my best friends lost their mothers to long battles with cancer, and I wondered how that event, too, might have shaped them.

I do enjoy writing about secrets and discovery. If I can remember back to one of the early drafts, the larger secrets that made it to the final draft were not originally there. Only through multiple revisions did I discover connections from what I’d set up in the beginning of the novel and how that might affect the last part of it.

Related, your novel lovingly makes fun of some aspects of the new-age lifestyle that Mary has embraced in her adult life. I see that you’ve studied and taught yoga for more than twenty years, and I wonder if that experience informed Mary’s background as well as the positive and life-saving aspects of the new-age community Ann grew up in.

LCB: Initially, I was very skeptical about modern Paganism and the Wiccan belief system. But in my research I came to understand that the power of Wicca arises from the community, the rituals, the enactments—not from scripture and faith, but from direct experience and from a deep connection to nature and the seasons.

Yoga probably saved my life, as it gave me a way to exist inside my own skin. For me, yoga and writing are very similar. Both have recognized forms (with infinite and ever-evolving variations); in both we aspire toward mastery while having to accept where we are; both are process-oriented and experiential, full of play and possibility; and both are enriched by the cultivation of what’s called “beginner’s mind.”

There’s a saying by Shunryu Suzuki: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” So, I think in both writing and yoga, there has to be discovery.

SLB: I love how you connect the “beginner’s mind” to the writer’s mind. I thought you did a great job of balancing satire and sympathy, and really admire your ability to do that. I so agree that discovery is one of the best parts of the drafting process.

LCB: Staying with this idea of compassion, I felt that you treated your characters with enormous sensitivity. Each of the sisters undergoes her own personal, painful series of transformations, and each makes mistakes and decisions that come with a cost. Yet their love (for each other, for their father, their children, nieces, nephews, cousins, friends and lovers) is what endures. It’s what lingers after I finished the book, and this is one of its strengths.

Claire has the greatest fall from grace, if I can call it that, since she has it all when the book opens: career, kids, husband. She’s the caretaker, the responsible one; yet ultimately, she needs to be cared for. Her reversal packed an emotional punch.

Did you intend for the “successful” sister to fail and for the failed sisters to succeed? I’m keeping it vague to avoid spoilers, but Claire remains a sympathetic character even as the reader might flinch at some of her actions.

It seemed to me that one of commonalities in their individual trajectories was a coming to terms with reality. History is long, lifespans are short, and it takes generations to recognize and atone, not only for individual acts but also for the crimes of ancestors and, in a much larger way, for the collective violent history of Chattanooga and the south, which feels particularly relevant right now.

SLB: Thanks for your generous interpretation of the novel! I thought yours too was filled with humanity, and that the characters became more compassionate toward themselves and others as the novel progressed and as the conflicts deepened.

Without giving too much away I also thought our novels ended in similar places and on similar notes. It’s like we were both working toward similar arcs in our books. Besides Mary and Ann, there are other characters who also are important to the story, charismatic characters who pull the family into some lucrative but illegal enterprises to make more money.

I loved how all the characters were flawed, different, yet in the end, sympathetic. Can you comment more on how you write characters?

LCB: I take my characters right out of my life. I combine aspects of different people but it seems to me that living, breathing human beings are constantly presenting themselves to me as characters. I’m attracted to seekers, to people who lack the resources, both internal and external to deal with the situations in which they’re thrust.

I’m intrigued by the infinite ways people compensate for their shortcomings and limitations, and I’m fascinated by the painful process of growth. It’s heroic. Two of my sisters are psychotherapists and I think we grew up analyzing the hidden realities behind the façades.

I’m curious about the passing of time in narrative. The “present” of your novel shifts in time from Shannon in high school through college, early career, and into her thirties. Paige and Claire’s pasts are told more through flashback. The novel spans many years, but childhood remains backstory, and there’s also what I’ll call deep backstory from which ancestral crimes and secrets seep into the present.

How did you decide where to start? And how did you deal in your writing process with the clock of the story and management of time?

SLB: Because in the first drafts I was using Three Sisters, a play, as a model, I had the idea early on that I would create sections that were more cinematic. Like Three Sisters, I decided to use an episodic approach, jumping ahead in time, which has its advantages and disadvantages.

I began writing the novel in 2012, about a year after devastating tornadoes swept through Chattanooga and other parts of the South. Three Sisters has a fire in Act III, and taking that as my cue, I decided I could end the novel with a natural disaster.

With that ending in mind, I devised the clock of the story, although it did not come easily. I decided to make their father’s birthday on the day of the tornados, and then revisit that time period more or less—for each year.

Your novel begins in 1999 and ends in 2000. I’m curious why you chose this time period—was it because of the reproductive technology available at the time?

LCB: I chose that era because of the millennium, which everyone was freaking out about. But I was also thinking of the 30-year anniversary of the Woodstock concert (August 15-18, 1969). There’s a famous bit in the Woodstock movie when John Sebastian announces from the stage: Some cat’s old lady just had a baby, a kid destined to be far out. And I’ve always wondered what happened to that baby. Nobody’s ever surfaced to claim the identity.

SLB: I’ve talked a bit about how the places I’ve lived have affected what I write about. As a native New Yorker, what are some advantages and disadvantages of being a writer in New York? On the one hand you live in the literary and publishing capital of the world; on the other hand, you must see the competition and ambition first hand, something I can remove myself from.

Also, New York as a setting provides so many opportunities for writers, yet I also read criticisms that too many novels are set there. You chose for this novel to set it mostly in upstate New York—why did you decide to set it there instead of New York City?

LCB: I was born in New York, so it doesn’t feel exotic. It’s hard for me to see it objectively, it’s like the river and I’m the fish. My parents divorced when I was twelve and my mother moved us to the Catskills, so I’ve also lived in rural New York, near Bethel, where the Woodstock concert and the events of the novel occurred. It’s easier for me to see that area with a distance.

I moved back to the city at nineteen, and lived in an illegal rent-controlled sublet on Second Avenue and 92nd Street, in a 4-story walkup that was torn down decades ago. This was in the 1980s. I don’t think those deals exist anymore. This might sound cliché but I love New York. It’s always changing.

I also find it exhausting. No matter where you are or what you’re doing, you’re always missing out on fifty other things. I suffer with a chronic case of FOMO (fear of missing out) but I’m trying to cultivate JOMO (joy of missing out). Because you need JOMO to write.

SLB: I’m a huge fan of JOMO. I loved how this realistic novel turns into something bigger, gesturing to magical realism, giving magic, tribes, storytelling, and ritual a power equal to science and medicine. What kind of research did you have to do for these contrasts? Can you describe how the tension is played out between these two sides in the novel and what kind of conversation you wanted to engender?

LCB: I think that even with all our technology and scientific breakthroughs, there exists at the heart of conception, birth and death, a mystery. A miracle. Why does a woman who couldn’t conceive for years, finally, after numerous IVF procedures, become pregnant and give birth to a daughter? How does she subsequently becomes pregnant again without any medical intervention?

I know people this has happened to! There are theories about how the body learns on a cellular level. But no one really knows. So, I wanted to convey the mystery, the animal nature of all of us, the ancient fertility rites and belief systems we all collectively carry, as well as the effect of the moon and the seasonal cycles on the human psyche.