Author Jennifer S. Brown on Writing, Feminism, and the Importance of Having a Support Group

Jennifer S Brown interview

Released on April 5th, 2016, Jennifer S. Brown’s debut novel Modern Girls is a historical fiction piece set in 1930s New York City and follows the lives of Rose and Dottie, a mother and daughter who both become pregnant at the same time. Part social commentary, part family history, Modern Girls is an incredible story about growing up, second chances, and the power of new beginnings. If you’re interested in reading my full review of Modern Girls, click here. To hear more about Brown’s writing process, the books that inspire her, her time at The Debutante Ball, and if there is any possibility of a Modern Girls sequel, keep reading for my full interview with the lovely Jennifer S. Brown. 🙂

1. First thing’s first: congratulations on Modern Girls! Publishing a book is such a major achievement in any regard, but I know Modern Girls is your debut novel and to have it come out to such spectacular reviews must be a dream come true. How are you feeling now that Modern Girls has been out for a couple of months?

If anything, it feels crazier than it did than when it first came out! Because now people have read it. For so many years, Dottie and Rose existed only on my page. Now they exist on the page for anyone. It’s like my imaginary friends are now being shared with others. I’m completely excited, but a little freaked out.

2. Now, I know that the inspiration from Modern Girls comes from your own family history. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?

So much of the book was inspired by my family! I’m an avid, amateur genealogist and through the course of my research, I’ve come up with lots of tidbits about my family. But the tidbits have no substance to them, simply a line here or there. For instance, long ago, my grandfather mentioned in an offhand way that his mother had been trampled by a horse at a protest in Ukraine. I took that and used it to give Rose a limp. My grandmother told me that although she had been born in Michigan, she didn’t speak English until kindergarten, because she only knew Yiddish. What a fun fact for me to give Dottie.

Of course the major inspiration for the story came from my great-grandmother. When I was pregnant with my first child, I asked my parents questions about our family medical history. My father mentioned that his grandmother had had an abortion during the Depression. He knew nothing more—his conjecture was that the family couldn’t afford any more children. Research into the time period proves that this was actually quite common, women choosing to terminate pregnancies because of financial issues. The idea really stuck with me, though, and I mulled it over for a number of years. What would it have been like to be pregnant when a woman had few choices? Originally, only Dottie was pregnant, because so much is at stake for a single woman with child in the 1930s. But as I wrote, I realized Rose was pregnant too, and I became fascinated with how her pregnancy would contrast with her daughter’s.

3. I know that sometimes when I read books with multiple perspectives I subconsciously start to play favorites; do writers experience a similar thing? In your writing of Modern Girls, did you ever prefer writing one woman’s perspective more than the other’s?

Absolutely! But it switched constantly. I have a son and a daughter. Every night at bedtime, I tell my son, “You’re my favorite boy child,” and of course to my daughter, “You’re my favorite girl child.” When they ask (as they occasionally do) which of them is my truly favorite child, I say something like, “The one who is about to give me a neck rub.”* It’s the same with Dottie and Rose. Dottie was my favorite young woman, Rose my favorite mother. When I was writing Rose, I was so enmeshed in her story that she became my favorite. When I was writing Dottie, she was unquestionably my favorite.

I think identified more with Rose simply because I’m in a similar position: I’m in my forties, I’m done having children, and as my children are getting older, I’m enjoying having more time to focus on my work, which is my writing.  But writing Dottie was revisiting younger years, and I vicariously relived youthful peccadillos and joys. Thinking about Dottie’s future excited me.

*This technique recently began to backfire. The last time I tried this, my daughter looked at her brother, who rushed to give me a neck rub, and said nonchalantly, “I guess you’re the favorite child,” as she returned to her iPad music videos.

4. One of my favorite things about Modern Girls is that it features such strong, empowering women. There’s a quote from the author Diana Gabaldon about writing strong female protagonists that I particularly like: “People ask me why I write strong women, and I say, ‘Well, I don’t like stupid ones.’ Who would want to read about weak and whiny women? Are they people who assume women are weak and whiny? If so, why do they think that?” Do you feel a similar way?

Yes, although I’m not sure I ever thought about it in a conscious way. I gravitate toward books with strong women and it wouldn’t occur to me create a woman who wasn’t in control of her own life.  I’m not afraid of the “f” word and absolutely self-identify as a feminist.

I like to say I was born a feminist. When I was growing up in the 1970s, my mom wanted to make sculpture, so my sister and I became the only kids in our South Florida elementary school whose mom was taking welding classes and making cast iron bronze sculptures. My mom had to put up with a lot of crap to learn what she wanted—she was the only woman in that welding class—but she did it and has been an artist ever since. My father was often the one tucking me and my sister into bed while my mom attended art events. This wasn’t earth-shattering; it was our life. I’ve never known a world where women were weak and depended on men to make their way.

5. The way Modern Girls finished was quite open-ended, and personally I know that I would love to read more about Rose and Dottie. Are there any plans in the future for a Modern Girls sequel?

Ideas need to percolate with me for a good long time before I can start writing them. I have ideas for a sequel, but they haven’t completely come together yet. So I guess the answer is, while I’m not working on a sequel now, I haven’t ruled out the possibility for the future.

6. I want to change topics slightly and talk about the historical setting of Modern Girls, because you can really tell that you’ve done your research. When you read this book, you feel like you’ve stepped into 1930s New York City and can smell all the smells, see all the sights, and hear all the sounds that the characters hear. What sort of research is required in writing a historical fiction novel like Modern Girls, and were there any sources in particular that you found particularly useful when conducting your own research?

You might be sorry you asked this, because I’m a total research geek, and I could talk for eons about it. If I could tell you how many rabbit holes I fell down while researching…

I started with the obvious, which is books. I read books on the time period (such as Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression by Morris Dickstein), on the Jewish immigration experience (World of Our Fathers by Irving Howe), on the history of abortion in America (When Abortion Was a Crime by Leslie J. Reagan). I also devoured books written in the time period like those of Anzia Yezierska and Michael Gold. I read a really fun book called A Bintel Brief by Isaac Metzker, which is a collection of sixty years of the advice column that ran in the Forverts, the newspaper Rose reads every morning. These letters give amazing insight to what new Jewish immigrants were going through and what kind of things concerned them.

In my research repertoire I also used movies from the 1930s, which gave me the fashions, mores, and slang of the time. From eBay I bought a few editions of McCall’s, Cosmopolitan, and House & Garden. My kids would see me lying on my bed, reading those magazines, and I’d yell, “No, really! It’s work!” One of the Cosmopolitans from 1933 (and note Cosmo was a literary magazine in the ‘30s) had this fascinating article: “But…Will It All Be the Same 100 Years from Now.” They had leading minds writing about what life in 2033 would be like, such as Amelia Earhart writing on the future of transportation and Frank Lloyd Wright on the future of the home.

My research also took on a more hands-on approach. I tried baking kuchen (coffee cake) as Rose would have. I created a 1930s playlist in Pandora to help me set the mood as I wrote and I listened to podcasts by the Bowery Boys. I traveled to New York (from my home in the Boston area) and visited the Tenement Museum to get a feel for what Rose’s first home would have been like. A visit to the New York Public Library allowed me to read Socialist newspapers from the 1930s and to study transportation maps to make sure Dottie traveled about the city accurately. And let’s not forget genealogy: I used sites like Ellis Island and Ancestry.com to find the names of ships, details of immigration, and to search for the names that were common.

7. As well as writing fiction, you are also a contributor over at The Debutante Ball. I know that, unfortunately, your time there is almost over, so how do you feel about leaving The Debutante Ball, and how important do you think it is to have a good support group when you’re writing a novel?

A support group is invaluable. My fellow Deb Ball writers kept me sane when I was freaking out about the publishing process. So much is out of a writer’s control, so it’s wonderful to have people to whom to vent who understand. But I’ve also found a great community through Boston’s writing center, Grub Street, as well as through my writing group. My writing group began when we all had kids at the same elementary school.

Writing for The Debutante Ball has had the added benefit of meeting people in other stages of their writing careers. I’ve appreciated the wisdom of those who are further in their careers and I’ve been flattered when those still in the writing or querying stage have come to me for advice or simply words of support. I’ll miss being a Deb when my time is up, but the friendships I’ve made will carry through, and they are already there as I struggle with next novel (and every novel is a struggle, believe me!).

8.  When I enjoy an author’s works, I love learning what their favorite books are as I think the books you read really say a lot about who you are as a writer. What are five books that you feel have really shaped and inspired you, both as a writer and a person?

This is one of those lists that changes with my mood. But for today I will say: My grandfather was an avid reader and a frustrated writer, and he introduced me to the most amazing authors. I fell in love with Sherwood Anderson when my grandfather gave me a copy of Winesburg, Ohio. My grandfather also showed me the works of the writers of the Algonquin Round Table, and while I adored them all, I gravitated toward Dorothy Parker. He also had a collection called The New Yorker Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Album 1925–1950, which was a cartoon compendium. From a young age, I’d page through it, although I understood maybe a fifth of what I read. However my fascination with that era (and The New Yorker in general) can be traced to that book. John O’Hara was a powerful influence; Appointment in Samarra is filled with vivid language and his commentary on class in America is spot-on. Those are the books that shaped me as a writer. As for the books that shaped me as a person, I’d have to rely on the childhood classics that I read and reread. It probably goes without saying that Judy Blume was a huge influence. After reading Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh I began keeping a journal. My passion for New York started with From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg. Okay that’s more than five books, but that’s what happens when you ask a writer about books!

9. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today! Before you go, can you give us eager readers any hints as to what you’re working on at the moment? 

Every time I try to tell someone what I’m working on, it inevitably means the book takes another direction the very next day. At this moment, the story takes place during Prohibition, and it’s about an immigrant girl whose father is a bootlegger. When the father disappears, she takes over the gin mill he ran. But that may change by tomorrow.

For more on Jennifer S. Brown, check out her website. If you’re interested in purchasing Modern Girls (and I highly recommend it), you can find it on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or virtually anywhere where books are sold. 🙂

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