Elizabeth Inness-Brown was born in Rochester, New York. Her family lived in Louisiana, North Dakota and Texas before settling in St. Lawrence County, New York, in an area called the North Country. She received a degree from St. Lawrence University and a graduate degree from Columbia University. Brown has taught at a number of colleges and currently is a professor of English at St. Michael’s College in Colchester, Vermont. She has published two short story collections, Here and Satin Palms, and her stories have appeared in the New Yorker, North American Review, Boulevard and various other literary magazines. She has recently published her first novel, Burning Marguerite. Set on a starkly beautiful New England island, Burning Marguerite centers on the relationship between James Jack and the 94-year-old woman, Marguerite Anne Bernadette-Marie Deo, who has raised him.
Elizabeth Inness-Brown lives on South Hero island in Lake Champlain with her husband and son. She is working on her next novel.
Robert Birnbaum: This is a big story in about 240 pages. What did you start with? With a character? A picture?
Elizabeth-Inness Brown: I started with a place. I moved to South Hero in the Champlain Islands about a year before I started writing this book. I just started by writing scenes. Obviously, there were characters in the scenes, but all that connected the scenes, initially, was the place. I was on sabbatical, and I was writing for about three months, and toward the end of March — I had hundreds of pages of scenes, notes… and I was just talking to myself because I had no clue what I was writing — I wrote the scene where James Jack goes into the sheriff’s office to report finding this body. Initially, I was just writing about this place, about this building. Describing the flag and the parking lot and all this stuff.
RB: And the woman smoking in the foyer in that scene, was she there?
EIB: Yup, I was just writing this description of this place and then, of course, I had to give all these perceptions to somebody and I created James Jack — whose name was different at the time — he didn’t have a name at first. He walked up to the counter, and he had to be there for some reason. I had him reporting finding this body. And then I sat back and said, “Who is it? Who’s this person he’s found? What’s their relationship? ” The moment I wrote that scene, I realized that this could be the beginning of the story and pull all these pieces together that I had been writing. I started working from there to figure out who she was, what their relationship was. Why was he reporting it to the sheriff? Why didn’t he call on the phone instead of driving down? So, it just went from there. That was really the beginning of knowing what the book was about, even though at that point I had random hundreds of pages accumulated.
RB: You published a collection of stories in 1982. Then 13 or 14 years later you published another collection of stories. Now eight years later you’ve written a novel. Did you set out to write a novel?
EIB: When I was writing this book I set out to write a novel. My first teaching job was at the University of Southern Mississippi. Shortly after I got there I produced my first book — some stories from graduate school and some new stories. And then I was really thrown for a loop for a while. I was 28 when that book came out, and I felt as if I had to write a novel next; that’s what people do. You do a book of short stories and then you move on. You grow up and you write a novel. So, for a long time I tried to write a novel. This drove me deeper and deeper into writer despair because I couldn’t do it. When my first sabbatical at that job came up I went off to Yaddo and initially was trying again to write a novel. I had all kinds of weird ideas, but I just couldn’t get anywhere with it. I finally threw my hands up and said, “Forget it. I’m writing stories again.”
I went back to writing stories, but it took me a long time to accumulate enough for the next book. By the time I had enough, most of them had been published in little magazines, so it wasn’t dead time for me as a writer. That book came out, and by then I really, really wanted to write a novel. Meanwhile I had left my job in Mississippi, and I was skipping around from place to place and met my husband. Actually, we met in graduate school and ten years later got married. We moved to Vermont where I was trying to piece together a life. At one point I was teaching two part-time teaching jobs and teaching aerobics and doing a little editing on the side. Anything I could do to make money. There wasn’t much time for writing. I was still trying to write a novel and I worked on one for many, many months — probably a couple of years. Then I started another that led to this other idea I worked on for a long time. Then we moved to the islands. I had applied for another sabbatical — which is now 13 years in between — which almost explains the gap. My husband had back surgery and was laid up for six months. It didn’t go well and basically he couldn’t walk or do anything. So I had no time to write. So I had to abandon the novel I had been working on for six months. When the sabbatical rolled around, and I tried to get back to it, I said, “I can’t. This is gone. I don’t want to do that. It’s not interesting to me anymore. I don’t know what I was thinking. Forget it.” So I started from scratch, but in my mind it was now or never, “I have got to do this now.” For one thing I wanted to get pregnant. I was in my early 40s. “I’ve got a sabbatical. I am going to write a novel. I don’t care if I ever publish it.”
RB: “I’m going to write a novel. I’m going to get pregnant.”
EIB: I’ve got these things to do here. I’m checking these things off my list (laughs). So I was determined. I tried all kinds of other methods for working on a novel, making notes, making outlines and all these things and having an idea and going after it that way. But it hadn’t worked for me. So I said, I’m going to do exactly what I do when I’m writing short stories. I’m just going to sit down and write and write and write until the story emerges. It took three months and it finally did.
RB: Why didn’t you intuitively go that way from the beginning?
EIB: Simply because a novel is so much bigger.
RB: Methodologically it wasn’t…
EIB: It was one of those things that was so intimidating. I needed the pressure of time, and I needed to mature as a person and trust the process and have patience with the process.
RB: What happens to the hundreds of pages of notes and your other attempts?
EIB: Everything is in boxes or it’s still on the computer.
RB: But you would never go back to it?
EIB: No I wouldn’t. But I tell my students nothing is wasted. You learn from everything that you do. You want to leave this record for yourself of the process you have gone through. I will never have time to do anything with it but I like the idea — even with Burning Marguerite there’s this log. I keep a file called “Notes” and I write everyday and date it. You can actually follow the progression of the development of the book if you wanted to. Maybe somebody someday will want to.
RB: Is it annotation as opposed to text?
EIB: It’s notes to myself. Like, “Okay, what the hell is going on with the sheriff? Why is he in the story?” Then I’ll brainstorm. “Could it be this or that?” It’s like having a dialogue with myself, about the text that I am writing. I’ll have other files where I am writing actual scenes. It went through several phases. There was a time I would write about everybody in one file. Then I separated them all out and each character had a file. And then when I started piecing the book together because it wasn’t written in anything like the order that it appears in — even the individual sections. I love computers for this reason — I would go grab something and put it together and create a new file and call it something else. I think maybe the thing that enabled me to write a novel in the end was the computer.
RB: What do you call the italicized prefaces to the chapters?
EIB: I don’t have a name. Do you have a name for them? I know what they are.
RB: They are all Marguerite speaking?
EIB: Yes. The opening is one is when she is actually lying there in the snow. In my mind, all those little moments are when she is lying there in the snow. And then, of course, the last one is in the third person and it’s sort of a shift, the moment of her moving out of the house and deciding to — kill herself at the end of the book — although she has actually done it before the beginning of the book. So, I don’t have a name for them…
RB: As you were writing them when did you decide to weave those passages into the story?
EIB: For me one of the biggest decisions — I’m working on a new book now and I am still struggling with this — what voice do you use. Do you write in third person? Do you write in first person? Do you write in present tense or past tense? How are you going to do this? You can have all kinds of ideas but until you get that voice going…What happened with this book was that I had settled on the third person for James Jack. I felt very comfortable with that, and I couldn’t do it with Marguerite. One day I sat down and said, I’m just going to try to write Marguerite in her voice. That very first section, the italicized section is what came out. I wrote little snippets like that, quite a number of them, for a while, and then I gradually started writing more and more in her voice and it became clear that I was going to tell her whole life story. But they weren’t in any specific order to start with…
RB: I’m quite surprised that you didn’t start this novel with, if not a clear and strong sense of Marguerite, that she at least was the compelling central idea. And you are telling me you started with a scene and that she wasn’t defined until my necessity she was a plot device or something like that…
EIB: She wasn’t a plot device… I had to figure out who she was and what their [with James Jack] relationship was. When I let her begin to speak it became clear that it was her story. It was so easy to write in her voice. It still is easy — I could sit down today and write more her in her voice. She seemed to speak from some other place. As soon as she started speaking, I knew she was the center of the story and that they [Marguerite and James Jack] were the center of the story. To back up further, what I didn’t tell you was that I started with Faith as the main character. Once James’ and Marguerite’s relationship developed and the sheriff was linked into that quite nicely it seemed obvious that Faith’s story wasn’t all that relevant. She went to the “cutting room floor” as they say. I still have bits and pieces of her story that I am quite fond of and that I would like to incorporate into something else sometime.
RB: Was the first draft of Burning Marguerite much larger than the final version?
EIB: No, the draft was about the same length. For some reason I had it that you needed 300 pages for a novel and that’s what it came out to be. Faith had about a 75-page section. Now the day is told through James Jack’s point of view throughout the book. It was originally told, first James Jack, then Faith and then the sheriff and each one of them had a big chunk. When I reorganized and decided to cut Faith’s point of view, I took what I needed from her section and gave it to James Jack and gradually I realized I didn’t need as much of the sheriff’s back story as I had, and I whittled that down quite a bit. And then I pumped up Marguerite. There were parts of her story, especially the childhood part, that I had hinted at but not developed dramatically. I decided to go for it. If you read my short stories my forte seems to be…
RB: Are they in print?
EIB: Oh yeah. My real forte is to write with dramatic events somewhere off-camera and to write about the reactions.
RB: I know you grew up near the Canadian border and have spent time in the South and a little in the West, could someone from another part of the country have written this book?
EIB: (chuckles) Hmm.
RB: Another way of asking this: Is there a specific regional kind of writing that understands this locale, understands how to talk about it?
EIB: The thing that made me able to write this book was growing up in Upstate New York. I didn’t realize this until after the book was pretty much done. I grew up on the Canadian border in St. Lawrence County. Even though the island stuff is much more based on where I live now, the culture in this book comes just as much from that county. It’s the poorest county in New York state. There’s a lot of French Canadian influence there, a lot of native Americans. Like where I live now. A lot of that stuff which came to me intuitively as I was developing this story came from my own childhood and from growing up there. All this images and words — when I started writing this — before Marguerite had a name she was ‘tantee’. I was saying “tantay” in my mind, and I knew that wasn’t right. Finally during the revision process (that’s when I do all my research, after the fact) I contacted this woman who teaches at my college who focuses on French Canadians. I said, “Can you help me? I’m calling her “tant-ay” and that’s not right.” She said that French Canadians often say “tantee” they combine tante and auntie. And that’s where it came from. For me, it must have come from something I experienced as a child because I had no conscious memory of learning that. It must be something I had heard. I think a lot of it came from that experience. Whether or not somebody else could have written this book…I think it does have a specific regional quality. It’s really about that netherworld, where it’s not quite the United States and not quite Canada and there are a lot of people there and a lot of Native Americans there and the culture has its own subtle but clear mix.
RB: James Jack and the people in this book love this cold and sparse place. They don’t seem to want to be anywhere else.
EIB: That’s the way the people where I live feel. It’s not like the rest of Vermont. It’s not pretty. It’s not picturesque. It’s wonderful in the summertime, but that’s a very short period in Vermont. The rest of the year, once the leaves are off trees, it’s scrubby. It’s a lot of farm country. The lake is always beautiful, but only ice fishermen can love it in the wintertime. But there is really a stark, harsh beauty to it. You have to be a certain ilk of person to love that. The funny thing that has been hitting me with this book is that the first and best reviews were from the South. All these little Southern newspapers are picking it up and reviewing all over the place. And they all love it. And I’m thinking, “They must crave this cold.”
RB: Do you think that’s what it is?
EIB: Initially they hear it has a part [of the book] in New Orleans and they think, “Oh, it’s connected to us. We should read it.” Then they write about the Northern-ness of it. I tried to make this place mythical. I wanted it to be beyond region. I didn’t use any real names or set it in any real lake. Some people think it’s off the coast of Maine. It’s interesting to read the reviews and see the different places where they set it. Despite the fact that the book jacket says where I live, you’d think they would make that connection. But it’s not specifically where I live. I just wanted to build on that. The whole ambience — driving and seeing these people ice fishing out there — I never lived anywhere where people sit out on the ice for hours. After I felt the book was finished, to a certain point, I sent it off to my agent and then my father’s 75th birthday rolled around, I said, “I’m taking my father ice fishing.” And that was the first time I went ice fishing. I read ice-fishing books and observed ice fishing from a distance. I had all those images. But I hadn’t actually been myself. We went ice fishing, and the very first thing I realized I left out bait. I don’t know how I missed that…Totally missed it. But it was an awesome experience. It has meditative quality to it. It’s very quiet. My father, of course, fell asleep. And I was sitting thereby myself on the ice. The ice is two feet thick and you look down these little holes at the water. We didn’t catch a thing…
RB: You didn’t have any bait…
EIB: No, we…
RB: I’m kidding.
EIB: For 35 bucks you can rent a shanty, all the fishing equipment, wood for the fireplace and they drive you out on the ice. All you have to do bring your own food. You want to go to the bathroom, you just wave ’em down and they drive you back to shore and out again. The only fish we caught was about the same size as the bait. But it was really a magical, mythical kind of feeling to be out there.
RB: I noticed you were in an anthology of…
EIB: Yes, the NorthCountry Living.
RB: Is there a trend to focus on this region?
EIB: That’s the first book that I’m aware of that’s really focused on the North Country. They have defined the North Country very broadly. They start somewhere north of Albany and go all the way up to the Canadian border. When I was growing up it was the two or three counties right along the Canadian border. That’s what we thought of, but they were a little more inclusive in their book. I don’t know what they expected. I think [the editors] were expecting a lot of bucolic things and they got a lot of life-is-tough-in-the-North Country kinds of essays. I haven’t noticed a lot of other people doing that.
RB: There are a lot of writers living in Vermont and Maine.
EIB: Yes, a lot of writers. The reason for it is because of Breadloaf. Robert Frost started this thing, Breadloaf, and since the ’20s…The writers get a taste of Vermont and they try to move there. It’s a special state. It’s a very odd mix of extremely — I don’t want to use the word liberal because that has certain connotations…
RB: Why is it different than Maine?
EIB: Oh it’s a lot more liberal than Maine. Maine is a lot more conservative and less welcoming to outsiders. Although I’m sure it’s changed a lot. I’m not really sure what the difference is. Vermont is a “live and let live” kind of place, mostly. Mixed with a lot of conservative older Vermonters. There is still a lot of poverty, farm country, and at the same time there’s a lot of culture and beauty. The public radio station has a record number of participants sending in money every year. It’s a really different place. People just get attracted to it and that’s why they move there.
RB: Could you live somewhere else?
EIB: No, not right now. I can’t really imagine. My husband jokes about living in Scotland. Which is practically the same thing…
RB: Does the word ‘career arc’ or ‘trajectory’ enter into your thoughts?
EIB: Oh yeah. I call it “striking while the iron is hot.” I finished writing this book and got pregnant, had my little boy, and for over two years I did no writing at all. I would write with my students and they would be essays about being a mother. And then the book was accepted and that got me back into writing and I realized that I really, really enjoyed writing this book the first time around. And then I started revising it, and I loved it even more…
RB: You started revising after the book was accepted?
EIB: We did quite a lot of revision after the book was accepted. I worked on it for about a year. I could have done it faster if I hadn’t been teaching.
RB: You revised at the suggestion of your editor or was it self-motivated?
EIB: I had known that it needed to be revised, but I was not going to stop being a mother and sit down and revise my book. I wasn’t in any rush. If somebody was interested in it, that would motivate me. It was out of sight, out of mind. The book was off doing its thing and I’m busy over here doing my thing. And finally I get a call from my agent and he said, “Well, you know we have a serious nibble from Knopf.” And I said, “No, I didn’t know that. Nobody told me that.” He said, “Well, the editor wants to call you.” And I have had editors call me before and nothing had happened. So I didn’t take it too seriously. So she called and I had a horrible, horrible head cold and could barely talk. We talked for a half-hour and I loved her immediately. She’s funny. She’s smart. She’s fantastic.
RB: Who is she?
EIB: Robin Desser. The few other places where it had been rejected it had always been, “It’s too much like a series of short stories.” Because it has those four different points of view. And, “I don’t know which character I’m supposed to relate to…” I’m like, “Grow up. Novels have multiple points of view all the time.” So I tried not to pay attention. Then she called [Robin Desser]. She said, “I think Faith’s story just doesn’t fit.” And I just went, “You’re right. That’s it! Thank you so much. Now I know exactly what to do.” She thought I was just saying that because I wanted her to take the book. I was so excited when she said that because I hadn’t had time to think about it very much. I just knew something wasn’t right. This was my birthday, as it turned out, and I went off to work and it was raining and I was sick and miserable. I didn’t think anything was going to come of this thing. That night I get home and my agent calls. He starts talking about the size of the advance we are going to ask for and all this stuff. And I’m like, “Whatever.” I still don’t think anything is going to happen. And that was that and I didn’t hear anything for 24 hours. And then I email my agent. And he goes, “Oh yeah, congratulations.” And then Robin called me.
RB: Maybe there is a different time zone between New York and Vermont?
EIB: I don’t know, it was very peculiar. Luckily, that was the beginning of May. So I spent that summer doing the major revision, doing all that moving around and redistributing. I had written a whole bunch of new material and it was all sitting there waiting to be refined. She [Robin] was very happy with it.
RB: I know you’ve gotten a lot of good reviews. Have you gotten any bad reviews?
EIB: That’s an unfair question. The Kirkus review was bad. I got a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly. So you figure it out. The same thing happened with my last book of short stories. The Kirkus review was bad and the PW review was good. I’ve heard that what happens at Kirkus is they give the book to the person who did your last book. Which is fine if that person likes your stuff …
RB: Are these reviews supposed to be important?
EIB: I don’t know. They are important locally. I’m on the Boston Globe local bestseller list. I’m sure it’s because of the review. I can’t imagine without that I would be on any bestseller list. Certainly the New York Times review will be the most important one. But for me personally…the vast majority has been very good and there have been a couple that…some reviewers like to spend all their time on the quibbles and then their last line is, “But it’s really, really a good book.” Then you feel like, why do they talk about that stuff?
RB: Do you need reviews to tell you that you’ve written a wonderful book?
EIB: No, I’m happy with the book. I shouldn’t bad mouth reviewers because anybody who pays any attention to the book, it’s all to the good.
EIB: But I do have a few quibbles with reviews. You have two extremes. The reviewers who loved your book and then they tell the entire story in the review. You would like them to hold back a little bit. But then I think for people who haven’t read the book, they don’t know it’s the whole story, nothing has been revealed to them. And there is the other extreme of the review that’s bad and gets the story completely wrong. That was the Kirkus review. It was like, “What book did you read? You don’t even have the characters names right. There’s nothing right here.” Those you can just dismiss. I’ll admit I go to the Internet everyday and type in “Burning Marguerite” to see if any new reviews have showed up. That’s the only way I have of knowing if anyone is reviewing it. The main reason I am doing it is because I am anxious for the publisher to be happy. (laughs) And I think that’s going to make them happy.
RB: I asked a little bit ago about career trajectory. Woody Allen is the most obvious proponent of having his movies pay out so that he can make more. That seems to be what’s driving you.
EIB: Right. Yes. Although I have to say, the beginning of writing anything is the hardest part. I was really tearing my hair out, and I also have seen this happen to other people, it dawned on me that what could happen is that I could produce something really lousy and they could rush it out — which is what seems to happen to some writers — just because they want to capitalize, let’s build on that. So I e-mailed Robin, “I know I don’t need to ask you this, but promise me that you won’t let me publish the next book until it is as good or better than this one.” I have a tenured full professorship. I make enough money. Sure, it’ll be nice to have more money to fix the house up, put some money away for retirement. But I don’t need the money enough that I want to put something there where people are going to say, “Oh, too bad. Her first book was so good.” I just don’t want that. I don’t want the next book to be one of those disappointments. Although, it is really hard, writing the second book.
RB: You have started?
EIB: Yeah, I’m on sabbatical again. It just worked out that way. It’s so hard. I have to keep remembering that I’m not doing the same book. I’m not even going to try to do the same kind of book. I worry that I am going to disappoint people. Some of the reviewers, and the woman who called me from Alabama to interview me and the wonderful book club people who come to the readings are so in love with the way this book is, that if the next book doesn’t have the same kind of feeling to it, they’ll be disappointed no matter how good the next book is. But I have to put that out of mind and say, “Write this book the best way you know how.” I also have to say to my self, “Don’t just try to be different for the sake of being different. If you need to do something similar to what you did before that’s okay, too.” So there’s a lot of pressure. It’s been a very stressful couple of months getting started on the book.
RB: Which is more stressful, success or anonymity?
EIB: For me success is, but I know a lot of writers — mostly men — for whom anonymity is a lot more stressful. They want, they need the recognition. I was fine until the actual date of book release got closer and closer. I started getting nervous about it. I know it’s a good book. I know it’s the best I could do at the time. I love it dearly. So it’s not, “Is everybody going to like it?” It’s about, “Is my editor going to be happy. Will the book do well enough?” I feel like I have to pay them back. They did take a chance and my editor was so incredibly wonderful, worked with me so long. We had a really wonderful relationship — a give and take. I want to work with her again. So I want her to like what happens with this book so I can do that again. It was like role reversal, the way I work with my student, she worked with me. Pulling and pulling things out…
RB: Is your life going return to some kind of normalcy?
EIB: I hope so. I hope that I’ll be able get some quite time.
RB: Does living where you live almost insure that?
EIB: Yeah, that’s part of it. That does help. That’s one of the reasons I like to live where I live. When I drive off the mainland — I teach on the mainland — when I drive home at night, I’m in a different world. I feel as if I’m far, far away. It’s only 20 minutes, but it seems like a completely different world. We have an acre and a half of land and we are surrounded by trees There are no houses across the road from us. Just open woods. We have a couple of neighbors tucked in behind us but you can feel completely alone. It’s too bad about the Internet. When I was on my last sabbatical it was so nice and peaceful. I had no contact with the outside world at all. I just can’t resist tapping into it a couple of times a day.
RB: Do you have a box of ideas saved up?
EIB: With this book that I’m working on now, I started last summer doing the dilly-dallying around and I had titles, vague ideas in my mind. It’s already evolved, 4 or 5 steps away from what I thought I was going to do. And it’s still evolving. I like the direction it’s going. The characters have come alive and begun to take charge a little more. It’s more that I sit and down and say, “What happens next?” It’s coming along really well. I don’t stockpile but I write notes all the time. I like Annie Dillard’s line, “Put everything you have into the book you are writing now.” That’s the way I try to do it. That’s what I am liking about this little [book] tour. It gives me all this new input. I just put everything into this book and then when the next book comes you put everything into that book. There are always new everythings to put in…There is no lack of material.
RB: Do readers and reviewers think Marguerite represents a certain kind of woman?
EIB: There is the question of whether she represented a typical woman of her time period. When I was writing her I would have answered that, “No, absolutely not. She’s completely out of step with her time.” I had this American history expert, focusing on woman’s history read the book. She said there was a really peculiar thing that happened in the early 20th century where woman did have these opportunities to be more sexually forthright, that actually Marguerite does represent a kind of woman that was not uncommon. But that was totally by accident. There was also a question about whether I am trying to say something about love relationships in the 20th century. I never try to say anything. I write characters and I make up stories.
RB: It’s for readers to figure out.
EIB: Yeah, let them figure it out.
RB: Well, thanks.