A Conversation with Dani Shapiro and Laura Catherine Brown
This Q&A was originally published in Penguin Random House
Dani Shapiro is the author of the novels Playing with Fire, Fugitive Blue, Picturing the Wreck, and most recently a memoir, Slow Motion.
Dani Shapiro: Mandy’s voice is a wonderful first-person voice of a character who doesn’t quite know as much as she’s telling us. How did you find Mandy’s voice for Quickening? What was that process like?
Laura Catherine Brown: Actually, it was a long and convoluted process. The book was initially written in a third-person voice. I never used to like first-person novels when I was young. If it was an “I” book–that’s how I thought of first-person narration–I didn’t want to read it. I always wanted to read about he, she, and they. So the first draft of Quickening was in the third-person past tense, and that wasn’t working. There was no real voice or point of view. It felt distant and generic to me. Also, I didn’t know a lot about writing, so it wasn’t crafted–my sentences weren’t really complex. So then I took it to the first-person present, believing that made it really immediate–which is something I think a lot of beginning writers believe. But the present tense wasn’t working, either, because Mandy could only know what was right there in front of her. She could only comment on what was going on in her mind. There was no sense of distance or perspective– there really couldn’t be. So it wasn’t reading as I hoped it would; instead, it was reading as immovable. Finally, I tried first-person past tense–a very close past tense. She wasn’t far from the events, yet she had gotten through them, so she had a slight sense of perspective. And suddenly it seemed to work. The idiosyncrasies of her speech and ways of thinking suddenly had room to exist. And once I had that, there was a momentum to the writing. I think I learned how to write while writing this book.
DS: Let’s talk about that for a minute. How long did it take to complete the novel, and what was that experience like?
LCB: It took seven years to complete the novel. I had a full-time job as a computer graphics designer, and it became very hard to do both. Eventually I quit my job and went freelance. And for a while that was harder because I became paranoid about money and couldn’t write at all. There was no time. I took on every freelance job offered me. I never refused a job. But eventually I learned to turn down those jobs. I learned to have faith in what I was doing, and I gave myself permission to write the book. Once I gave myself the time, the final draft probably took only a year, after all that slowly building momentum.
DS: Quickening can be described as a coming-of-age novel. Is that what you intended?
LCB: I see it more as a coming-of-adulthood novel. Coming-of-age usually is more about a younger protagonist and a loss of innocence. Whereas I think that in Quickening, Mandy isn’t entirely innocent in the beginning. She’s on the latter end of her adolescence, and she’s leaving home. The book isn’t about discovering an ugly truth about life–it’s about leaving home to enter the world at large. In the beginning, she leaves home believing herself to be free, finally away from the limits and confinements of her background. But, in fact, although she physically leaves, she has not left, and she is pulled back. The whole novel is, in a sense, a struggle to leave. I would say that even her relationship with Booner is part of that struggle. He’s from the same area, and even though he lives in Queens, basically the area travels with him. He re-creates the small-town life–something she thought she was escaping. By the end of Quickening, Mandy has truly left home, and that leaving is something that happens internally.
DS: Mandy’s father dies fairly early in the novel, and just after she’s met Booner. Do you think she would have gone off with Booner if her father had still been alive?
LCB: No. I don’t. I think she may have had a relationship with Booner–he might have been a long-distance boyfriend–but she definitely would not have left college for him. She was grieving her father and falling apart, and what Booner offered was a form of love and safety. And if Mandy’s father hadn’t died, she would not have needed that.
DS: There are several characters in the novel who might be read as somewhat unlikable or unsympathetic, and yet they are entirely understandable to the reader. How did you go about creating those characters–particularly that of Mandy’s mother?
LCB: I have a lot of sympathy for Mandy’s mother. She has a lot of characteristics of various people in my life. One of the things I thought made her sympathetic was that she’s in a bind, and she’s trapped–economically, by her health, by the fact that she’s not loved–so she grasps what she can to get through her days. Unfortunately, in this case, what she grasps is her daughter, but I think that impulse is understandable. As far as some of the other characters, Booner was far less sympathetic in the early drafts of the novel. I really had to work on his good side. I remember in a writing workshop one of my classmates saying, “We’ve all had those bad boyfriends, Laura. It’s up to you to tell us why.”
DS: In certain respects, it seems that Mandy’s art–her photography–saves her. What were you trying to do there?
LCB: In every other part of Mandy’s life, she’s looking to see how she’s reflected in the eyes of others. In photography, Mandy discovers a way of looking from the inside out. And that is where her strength ultimately comes from. That’s where she learns what is true to herself. There is also a connection to Mandy’s father through the photography–after all, she’s using his camera. Mandy adored her father, though as it turned out he wasn’t the god she thought he was. But that doesn’t detract from the fact that he did love her, whatever his flaws. And he believed in her. He’s the one who really pushed her, and believed she could get into college. So the taking of pictures, with his camera, was a way of beginning to believe in herself.
DS: There’s a sense of a hidden truth, a secret, in almost every character in Quickening, whether it’s Booner’s childhood abuse, or Priscilla’s married boyfriend. Is this something you were actively trying to do?
LCB: No–actually, that’s interesting. I guess I do think people have secrets–a facade they put forth. Everybody has hidden griefs that they have learned to live around. For instance, Booner’s abuse: It’s not something he ever dealt with, but it’s there, and it drives him. His inability to love fully, his anger, his need come from a stunted place inside him. And Priscilla, on the outside, looks like a very successful, polished woman. And yet she’s gotten herself into a relationship in which she’ll never get what she needs; she’ll never be the central person in that man’s life. And that’s a private compromise she’s made. And Mandy’s mother had a dream of a family and a life that she was going to be living, and reality fell far short of her dream. And that is a lot of what motivates her behavior.
DS: The possibility of terminating an unwanted pregnancy is in many ways at the heart of the novel. Did you know it was going to be such a big part of the story when you started out? The abortion scene is particularly vivid. Was that a difficult part of the novel to write?
LCB: I did sort of know that it was going to end that way. I went to high school upstate New York, and I can’t tell you how many girls dropped out and had babies. And it seemed to me such a tragedy. And abortions, at least where I lived, weren’t common. They were private and shameful. And yet these young girls having babies was somehow far less of a stigma. So to me, it seemed that Mandy’s getting an abortion–although that is a very hard and difficult choice to make–offered her a great deal of perspective. Sometimes when you have a loss there are positive aspects. One, an acknowledgment of your own strength. Two, a hard-won maturity. And a sense of self, and perhaps a larger compassion for others. And that was what I was hoping for, for Mandy.
DS: So that must mean that you have a less hopeful prognosis for Tracy, Mandy’s high school friend who did, in fact, drop out and have a child?
LCB: Well, I don’t know if the prognosis is less hopeful, but I do think it would take Tracy a longer time to get back to herself. When Mandy discovers she’s pregnant, she thinks of Tracy and the closeness and love Tracy has with her toddler son. And Mandy envies that closeness, she wants that. On the other hand, Tracy’s youth ended abruptly when she had her son, and the wild side that she once had doesn’t just vanish. It goes underground. Tracy’s life is going to be more limited because of her choice, and her son’s life may be affected, too.
DS: Mandy’s other friend in the book, Barb, is a sharp contrast to Tracy.
LCB: Yes. She comes from a certain amount of privilege, and the expectation that she will be somebody. She has a fair amount of self-esteem. And actually I think she’s a pretty good friend to Mandy. When you’re young, there’s a certain amount of self-absorption that can happen if someone else is suffering. I think Barb had to distance herself. In the end, there were limitations to how much she could do for Mandy. People have had different responses to Barb. Some readers have felt she was the best possible friend Mandy could have had, but when I was writing the book, I saw her as a pretty fair-weather friend.
DS: Let’s talk about Pastor Bob. He seems like a pretty strong counterpoint to the abortion story line. I wondered what, if anything, you were saying through his character about the role of religion in the life of a character such as Mandy’s mom.
LCB: I guess I saw the role of religion for Mandy’s mother as a place where she felt she belonged. She had formerly belonged to this religion, but was estranged from it when she suffered her miscarriages. Her beliefs hadn’t protected her. Because she had prayed, she had done the right things, and still, she hadn’t gotten what she was due. So here, she’s lost her husband, and now in Pastor Bob she’s found someone who thinks she’s worthwhile. The religion offered her a greater sense of purpose, and I think it does that for a lot of people.
DS: Near the very end of the novel, Mandy thinks to herself: I wasn’t pregnant. I could call the university and ask them what to do. I would find another place to live. I would go to work, become successful, pay Priscilla back. I would take pictures. The possibilities were endless. What did you envision for Mandy at the end of Quickening? Was she going to pull it together? Was her story one of a particularly bumpy coming-of-age that would wind up as happily-ever-after?
LCB: Happier. Happier than she had been. I did think she would pull herself together. That it would mark a turning point in her life–that she wouldn’t be so passive anymore. She had to choose herself over Booner. There was pressure for her to have the baby, even reasons for her to have the baby, and the reasons were somewhat known to her: she knew what Booner was offering. In choosing not to have the baby, and to leave Booner, she was choosing the unknown. She was choosing herself, rather than fitting herself into someone else’s idea of where her future lay.