What have you learned from parenting, or from your own parents, that you bring to your work as a writer?
I come from a family of readers. My paternal grandfather introduced me to some of my favorite writers, such as Sherwood Anderson, Dorothy Parker, and John O’Hara. My maternal grandmother and I exchanged book recommendations on a regular basis. My parents always made sure I had access to books, and they never censored what I read. My family taught me that the written word is powerful, and the love of literature they bequeathed to me made me want to be a writer. Seeing my own children embrace books with the same enthusiasm brings me incredible joy. I secretly love it when they read way past their bedtimes and I have to threaten lights out or else I’ll take away their books. (Don’t tell them: I would never take away their books!)
Where do you write? What do you love about it?
Usually I write on my laptop sitting on the living room couch. I do have an office in the house, but sitting on the couch allows me to relax and let myself disappear into the writing. Plus I live outside of Boston, where we can have bitter cold winters, so I like to be near the fireplace. If I become too antsy at home (read: I make too many trips to raid the kids’ candy jars), I’ll go to the reading room at my local library or a café.
If you had a motto, what would it be?
I’d like to say my motto is something classy, like “This too shall pass,” which is what my grandfather used to say. I used that saying in MODERN GIRLS. But the truth is, about seven years ago, we took an overseas trip to visit family. My kids were then three and five years old. We knew many aspects of the trip would be tough (my daughter didn’t sleep; my son ate almost nothing; the flight was fourteen hours), so we created a family motto: “Suck it up.” The motto sticks to this day, and it’s used freely by all members of the family. When things in the publishing process were making me anxious (nothing bad ever happened; it was just the unknown element of it all), my daughter would bat her big green eyes at me and lovingly say, “You know what you have to do, Mom! Suck it up!” Honestly, it always makes me feel a little better, that little reminder that I’m tough and I can handle whatever’s thrown at me.
Who inspires you?
Originally my grandfather. He was a frustrated writer, but he never let that stop him. He used to write little quips and submit them to Reader’s Digest, and though none were published, he kept writing. Now my children inspire me. They’ve seen how long I’ve worked at writing and that perseverance and dedication has paid off. On my pub day, my daughter gave me a huge hug and told me how proud she was of me. Just the thought of my kids gives me a push on those days when the writing doesn’t come easily.
What charity or community service are you passionate about? Why?
As a writer, I’m passionate about seeing young writers at work. Four years ago, I applied for and received a grant to start a literary journal at my kids’ elementary school. The journal is run by 5th grade students, but it welcomes submissions from the entire school. The first year of the journal, I had twelve 5th graders interested in working on it. This year, our fourth, there are fifty-five 5th graders running the journal! It’s a little tough to manage so many students, but it is important to me that it remain open to anyone who is interested. The 5th graders write morning announcements, visit the classrooms, and make posters to request work. They evaluate the submissions, then type up the accepted pieces. They proofread the journal. We have an editor-in-chief and an editorial committee as well as a designer.
Watching the students hard at work is so fulfilling, and it makes me proud to see how the kids work together. For instance, the 5th graders work with kindergartners on submissions, taking dictation for the stories the younger students want to tell.
Supervising these dedicated students is a thrill. Our weekly meetings can be chaotic, but also fun. And the look on their faces when they first see the finished journal is gratifying. The elementary school literary journal is by far the most enjoyable community service I’ve ever done.
What are you reading now, and/or what book do you recommend?
I’m currently in the middle of two books: THE NEST by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney, which is, strange to say, such a fun book of family dysfunction, and also THE JAZZ PALACE by Mary Morris, which has the most sumptuous descriptions of music that I’ve ever read.
Jennifer S. Brown has a BFA in film and television from New York University and an MFA in creative writing from the University of Washington, Seattle. This would make her uniquely suited to writing film reviews, if she hadn’t stopped going to the movies when her kids were born. She has published fiction and creative nonfiction in The Best Women’s Travel Writing, The Southeast Review, and Bellevue Literary Review, among other places. MODERN GIRLS (NAL/Penguin) is her debut novel.