The author of eleven books award-winning writer Martha Brooks is our June Author of the Month. Martha is an award-winning novelist, playwright and jazz singer whose books have been published in Spain, Italy, Japan, Denmark, England, Germany and Australia, as well as in Canada and the United States. She is a three-time winner of the Canadian Library Association Young Adult Book of the Year, as well as the Ruth Schwartz Award, the Mr. Christie’s Book Award, the Governor General’s Award, and the Vicky Metcalf Award for her body of work. Letters to Brian is her first book for adult readers. She shares with us a few thoughts about her creative process in 19 Questions about Process: An interview with Martha Brooks.
Martha's books with Turnstone Press are:
When did you first come to think of yourself as a professional writer?
When my first book, A Hill for Looking was published in 1982, I kept pinching myself that it was all real after ten years of hard work and many rejections. I wrote three plays after that. One of them, Andrew’s Tree won the Chalmers Award. But it wasn’t really until my book of short fiction, Paradise Cafe and other Stories was released into the world in 1988 that I felt I’d finally arrived. It garnered me my first Governor General’s Award nomination. It was picked up by Little Brown and Company in Boston and summarily received the Boston Globe Honour Book Award. The year Paradise Cafe and other Stories came out, through writing and writing related activities I made a living wage, which was a pretty exciting amount, especially for an author, at that time. I began, and this is an important distinction, to think of myself as a writer of the world, not one small corner of it, and I still operate that way.
What is your current typical writing routine like?
When I have a writing project I have a pretty regular routine, starting about 8 in the morning and going for the next five hours. That’s really quite enough. Any writing time longer than that becomes, for me at least, counterproductive.
Has your writing routine changed from when you first began to write?
I’m much less driven than I once was. I do, still, obsess about my work—especially when I feel it’s time to get something out there. But now I go through healthy stretches where I am, for example, only thinking about my next jazz gig and how that’s going to flow.
What inspires you?
Mostly desperation. I simply have to find something to write about. I once wrote a short story called “The Best Side of Heaven” after having spent about half an hour reading James Joyce’s Ulysses. It was a perfect launching pad. For some reason I’ll often get inspired on a Sunday, such a quiet day, where I pray to the Muse, and these days that would be Brian, and sometimes I’m rewarded with a new idea. Writing, even after eleven books, is always difficult for me. Most of the time I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. Then a thought strikes and I’m like a cartoon deer caught in the headlights. I really really hate having to plot, too, that’s such a pain in the neck. If I’m lucky a good character finds me and then I work through the next ten or fifteen drafts, all the while keeping faith that it’ll come out in the end. Inspiration comes mostly from a lot of muddling around and getting lost and having the sheer will to keep at it with the odd tantalizing breakthrough that gives me hope.
You have written both for Young Adult and Adult markets. Do you have a current preference? Does your approach differ?
My current and probably rest of my life preference is writing for adults. The last two novels, Mistik Lake and Queen of Hearts had a largely adult readership and so, really, I’d been leaving the YA genre for quite some time—I just hadn’t yet closed the door. My books have never been strictly one thing or another anyway. I write for people who like to read about something that feels like life. If I carry any residue from the YA thing its probably that, like my wonderful YA readers I’m allergic to cleverness and fakery. Taped to my MacBook is a note to myself, “Keep it simple and honest. Tell the truth.” But people, in general, seem to be hungry for real connection and so I write as clear-eyed as I can about love and loss and the miracle of unexpected connections. That has always been my subject. I have to say that, whatever their age, I love my readers.
What role, if any, does research play in your writing?
In the broadest sense, of course, a writer is always researching. At gatherings, part of me is noticing who guests are in that moment and wondering what has brought them there. And my ear is drawn to the two people to my right (one of whom I noticed earlier has the slightest limp and walks with the help of a cane) as they connect over the sushi which they both like and now they’re exchanging stories about their beloved dogs and the places they like to take them and the conversation then moves onto books and McNally’s bookstore and the Keith Jarrett and Charlie Haden CD that one of them just purchased and is enthralled with and, as it turns out, the person they’ve just met is a jazz lover, too, and a deep listener who says, in a perfect segue-way, “I love Bill Evans,” and the other person says, “Oh my God, yes, he was a genius.” And right at that point I notice these two people who have only just met are becoming friends or falling in love or maybe a little of both. And in the next minute they’ll connect over some very unlikely person they both know because it’s such a small world. It’s about paying attention.
Some writers prefer the process of composing a first draft to a story while others prefer the editorial stage of fine tuning and polishing. Do you have a preference? Why?
I’m always glad to have a great editor who will show me the error of my ways by telling me first, what’s working, and next, what isn’t. I never know until about three quarters of the way though what a book is about. And so I’d say my favourite part is the last draft of a beautiful almost finished product. The joy for me is in the grace notes.
Your work has been translated into other languages. What was that process like for you?
I once had a German translator tell me that she liked an earlier draft of a manuscript of mine and that that was the one she was going to go with. Appalled, I protested and didn’t hear from her again. Several months later I received my copy. I suspect it’s a good thing I don’t read German. On the other hand when True Confessions of a Heartless Girl, was being translated into Japanese, I got an email from my translator saying that she wanted to come for the weekend (from Japan!) because she couldn’t imagine doing the book justice until she’d seen “A prairie sky full of stars.” She arrived with her 16-year-old daughter and the four of us had a fabulous three days. Brian and I toured them everywhere making sure they got to see a sky full of stars, fell in love with them, and were wistful to see them go.
Letters to Brian chronicles your healing process after the loss of your husband. What role did the writing, first the journal and second the editing and publishing of book have in your journey?
It was all a process, as my journey through the vast continent of grief has been a process. I still write Brian a letter almost every day. The difference now, I suppose, is that I looked at the face of grief, my own face, through all of this and I think because of that I moved through profound unstoppable sorrow where my heart broke and broke again into the light. It all helped. But there is a privacy thing here that I’m not willing to share. I still feel raw some days. But it helped. It all helped. And that’s about as much as I want to say about this.
How did you come to terms with sharing your intimate experiences with grief and loss with a wider audience?
I didn’t actually come to terms with it, it just happened. One minute I was writing Brian letters to assuage my grief and somehow hold onto him, and the next I was thinking, “This could actually be a book—now what do I do?” The answer that came from him was, “Well, just keep going, honey—I told you that when this was all over you’d really have something to write about.” My longtime Young Adult editor, Shelley Tanaka came for a visit in May around the time of what would have been his 70th birthday and about five months into the project. She wisely advised, “You can always push the delete button.” At that point, too, as an ever practical working author, I’d already applied for an arts grant and, for me, there was no turning back.
Letters to Brian evolved out of your journal the year following your husband’s passing. How did you choose what to share and what to exclude from the manuscript? What criteria did you impose?
My biggest concern was not to misrepresent or offend the major and minor players in this very personal memoir. As far as what Brian and I had to offer as a couple, however, going through what we went through—both here in this world and in our separation—I had very little concern other than presenting what would flow into a story. I wrote the manuscript in the moment, as it happened, and other than leaving out a few letters that were off topic I was surprised by the story that evolved as I reached the end of the first year after his death.
What do you hope that readers will take away or gain from Letters to Brian?
I think it’s useful for anyone, especially if they are going through a similar experience, to read about the process—the in-the-moment daily digging out from under grief. One reader, a widow, asked me, tearfully, “Does it get better?” “Well,” I said, “often people will tell you it does, and that time heals all, and don’t you just want to smack them? More often than not they haven’t been through it so they haven’t got a clue what they’re talking about. But if I tell you it’ll get better, then you’re going to believe me, right?” Another reader, and widow, said, “I’ve had it up to here with self-help books. I want someone to tell me their story. Their true story.” And yet another reader got caught up in the love story and the language and told me, open-heartedly, “I love it. I just love it.” I hope that all my readers will come away knowing a little more about gratitude and joy and how it all shifts and swims in our lives. I also hope that they’ll get to know Brian—he was something else—and in doing so realize that people are real even after death and continue to move and shift in our lives in miraculous and unexpected ways.
What are your thoughts about social media and its related networking for writers?
I have none …
What are you currently working on?
An adult novel.
And now a few fun questions:
Do you keep any talismans or lucky charms nearby when you write?
Stones that I pick up and bring home. And sometimes rocks, big rocks that then hang around the house with me, their beautiful stillness saying that they are so much older and wiser than me and have been around for eons and will be around long long after I’m gone. I find it very comforting.
Are you a habitual consumer of anything while you write? How about when you edit?
I begin my day by making enough for two very strong mugs of latte. (Costco’s espresso blend.) Brian’s sister Maureen keeps me in good supply of homemade whole grain bread which I have with apricot jam and an egg. But the coffee is sacrosanct. I eat breakfast and then go to my desk sipping the coffee until it’s all gone. That’s all the coffee I’ll drink for the rest of the day. After that I either drink herbal tea or water.
How do you draft your materials—do you draft longhand first or do you compose everything on the computer?
The first blush of an idea is written long hand with a dark lead pencil and the help of a nearby large white eraser. Letters to Brian however was written with the same pen (I kept buying ink refills) into a hefty orange hard-back journal until the day of the first anniversary of his death. It was the first time I had written an entire first draft long hand—but then, these were old-fashioned letters.
Favourite music to listen to while you write.
So here I am a jazz singer, too, and it would seem the obvious thing that I’d listen to music while I’m writing. But I don’t. I find it far too distracting. It’s what I do in my other life.
If you could not be involved in the literary arts, what career might you have?
It’s not a might, it’s an is. Jazz is my other life, a dual career that I started some twenty years ago. And my life as a jazz singer has most definitely kept me sane through recent troubles. My colleagues in this world are other musicians who speak the language of jazz. I love connecting with audiences here, as well, whether it’s at the Winnipeg Jazz Festival, or as in this past February with two performances of the music of Sammy Cahn with the Winnipeg Jazz Orchestra. I’m so grateful to have both art forms. I find a different kind of solace and shelter with each and can’t imagine being without either. In many ways, especially these days, they’ve given me back my life.