Some of the Bas Bleu editors’ favorite books are the ones we find the most difficult to write about, and that was certainly the case for our Mysteries Book a Month 2018 pick, All Things Cease to Appear by Elizabeth Brundage. Our reviewer praised the novel as “exquisitely written and genre-defying…as much a powerful character study as it as a thrilling mystery.” Today in the Bluestocking Salon, we caught up with Elizabeth Brundage to learn about how her early career as a screenwriter shaped her as a novelist, the parallels she sees between ghosts and faith, and the importance of being an adventurous reader.
Bas Bleu: In writing a review for All Things Cease to Appear, we found the novel hard to describe in a short paragraph, which often happens with books we really love. It’s a thriller, yes, in that there’s a murder and it’s grippingly suspenseful. But it’s so much more, as well: a ghost story, an exploration of marriage and family, a probing character study, a portrait of a small town, etc. Do you consider yourself a mystery writer, or do you find that label confining? When you write a novel, do you usually begin with a crime and then develop the plot around that, or is your process different?
Elizabeth Brundage: I am a writer, plain and simple. I don’t like being labeled as a mystery writer because my imagination has no limits and I want to remain free to try new things. I may decide, for example, to write a memoir, or a science fiction novel or a children’s book. So no, I don’t consider myself a mystery writer per se. That said, I would agree that my work tends to unravel some sort of mysterious knot. Life is mysterious. I’m interested in exploring the detailed range of challenges we face as humans. My work always begins with character, not with story. This novel was inspired by an actual cold case murder, but the murder itself was the least interesting thing to me. That’s not why I wrote it. I was more intrigued by the people involved, the troubled marriage that may have led to such a tragedy, and the effect of a murder on a small town. I see my role as a kind of translator for my characters. They come to me at first with a whisper. After a while they step into the light, they tell their stories. I listen, I translate, I write it down. Then the reader interprets it. It’s a great collaboration.
EB: Education is extremely important, and I had incredible teachers early on that influenced and guided my direction. In high school I was lucky to take a film class with an amazing teacher named George Chase, who never treated me like a “girl” and took me seriously. Soon after I started writing poetry and came to the conclusion that I wanted to be a writer. This was the early 80’s. No Internet. No social media. And at that time the medium of narrative film seemed to have different priorities, meaning that there was less technology, less special effects, less violence. I had grown up on films like Carnal Knowledge, One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, Five Easy Pieces, Marathon Man, Raging Bull, 3 Women, Annie Hall, An Unmarried Woman, to name just a few, and they are part of the reason I fell in love with filmmaking and the idea of becoming a screenwriter.
I took my junior year at NYU where I made a few short films then wrote my first feature length screenplay, which ultimately led me to a screenwriting fellowship at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. I remember meeting with an agent out there who’d read a couple of my screenplays. She commented that she liked my sentences and suggested I try writing fiction. I decided to take her up on it and wrote my first short story. I fell in love with writing fiction – voice – characters – language – and it just really felt right. I knew I needed to learn more and enrolled in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. One of the greatest gifts of graduate study is time. At Iowa, I learned to read again—reading is just as important as writing. I read all kinds of fiction and began to experiment on the page. There’s a great deal of fun in writing and attempting to emulate your favorite writers. You are discovering how to write, how to get better at it. The experience at Iowa was invaluable, but it didn’t make the process of “becoming a writer” any easier. You really have to stay with it, sign up for the long haul, because there’s no rushing the process. Finding your voice, your method, your style, these are things that take time and practice. You may write a novel, for example, that doesn’t get published, but it is still a great accomplishment—you taught yourself how to write it, you finished it, and now you can write another.
Learning to write screenplays taught me the importance of telling a story that has an elegant structure. It’s the architecture of your book. The best stories in any medium focus on a character who is confronted with some sort of dilemma that brings about a change of some kind in his/her life. It’s important to ask yourself why somebody should read what you’re writing and answering that question can help you get to the root of what you’re trying to write about. It’s important to remember that readers read to find out what happens to the characters, how they solve their problems and what they learn from them. There’s a certain empathy that’s established as the reader begins to care about the character’s destiny, and they want to see that character through to the very end, whatever end that may be.
BB: The setting for this book—the small university town of Chosen, New York—is crucial to the events of the plot and the themes explored. You live in upstate New York. Do you have firsthand experience of places like Chosen? Why did you decide to set this particular novel there, and why in the 1970s?
EB: The fictional town of Chosen is based on the town of Chatham, in upstate New York where I lived with my husband and children in a series of very old rental houses back when we were getting our careers up and running. One of those houses was haunted and became the inspiration for the setting in this book, although it would be years before I would write it. Chatham is a lovely little town in the Hudson Valley, surrounded by beautiful open land and farms so vividly portrayed by the Hudson River School painters like Thomas Cole, Frederick Church and the great George Inness. During the late seventies this sleepy agricultural community became an enclave for wealthy New Yorkers, forever changing its socio-economic dynamic and inevitably dividing its residents into two groups: townies and weekenders. I’ve always been interested in writing about class divisions, and I had an opportunity to explore those tensions in this novel with the old Hale dairy farm, owned by the same family for generations, which goes into foreclosure, causing a wake of problems for the Hale family and establishing a troubling welcome for its new owners, the Clares.
BB: There are subtle paranormal elements to the book, with ghosts of the past lingering in the Clares’ farmhouse. Do you believe in ghosts yourself? How does religion (George’s proud atheism; Catherine’s devout Catholicism) affect each character’s relationship with the past?
EB: So, yes, I do believe in ghosts—but not the ones we see in movies. There are lingering presences… I’ve always lived in historic homes. Houses have a past, just like people do. I love and admire antiques too for the same reason. When I decided that George Clare would be an art historian I thought it would be interesting to make him an expert on George Inness, not only because Inness was such a fine painter, but because his paintings of the Hudson River Valley and the New Jersey countryside were so much like the landscape around Chatham that it seemed appropriate. When I started researching Inness I discovered he was a devout Swedenborgian, a religion based on the eighteenth-century Swedish philosopher/scientist/theologian and “Seer” Emanuel Swedenborg, who was a firm believer in the afterlife. The Swedenborg connection allowed me to pull in some of those eerie and intriguing supernatural themes. It also encouraged some reflection on the idea of religion and the existence of God. I attempted to consider ghosts and God in somewhat the same terms—we don’t see either, but we believe they’re there. Faith is something of an abstract ideal. We have faith in the presence of God, although few people can swear to ever seeing Him with their own eyes. Faith is a kind of magic, a kind of prayer in itself.
BB: We’ve read several favorable comparisons of this book with The Talented Mr. Ripley. Are you a Patricia Highsmith fan? Who else influences your work?
EB: I love Patricia Highsmith’s work, and I’m honored by the comparison. There are so many writers who have influenced me and made me want to write better. In high school I read the Russian novels; I consider Crime and Punishment to be one of the great early thrillers. I discovered Highsmith at AFI as well as the great noir/thriller writers like Graham Greene, Jim Thompson, James Cain, Raymond Chandler, and so many other great and amazing writers who have influenced my work and shown me what joy writing and reading good fiction can bring. There is nothing like it.
BB: Which book(s) from your childhood helped to shape the person you are today?
EB: Well, I can still remember a librarian handing me The Boxcar Children when I was very young. That book probably made me want to write even then. I loved the idea of a family of orphans making a home in a boxcar. When I was in sixth grade or so I read The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton and that was one of the first books that really got me thinking about how to tell a story, and how exciting the experience of reading could be. I grew up in the late seventies when women were starting to talk about who they really were and what they really wanted. I read some of the courageous women novelists of that time period—I remember everyone was talking about The Women’s Room by Marilyn French. When Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent came out I remember thinking how great it was to be able to twist an ending like that. I read Joyce Carol Oates’s Them, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five and Irwin Shaw’s Rich Man, Poor Man, all of which greatly inspired me. I finally got around to reading Madame Bovary the summer before college and that too left an impression. Oh, and of course The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. In college I discovered Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch, and the spooky intriguing tale, Aura, by Carlos Fuentes, still one of my favorites. Black Tickets, by Jayne Ann Phillips. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, The Safety of Objects by A.M. Homes. The Nick Adams Stories by Ernest Hemingway, Moby Dick, Don Quixote, Ulysses, Albert Camus’s The Stranger, everything by Vladimir Nabokov, everything by Ray Carver, Richard Ford, Flannery O’Connor, Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee, Sabbath’s Theater by Philip Roth, Herzog by Saul Bellow, Robert Stone’s notable story “Helping,” Light Years by James Salter, The Road by Cormac McCarthy—these books, and so many more, shaped my early impressions of literature and greatly inspired me to become a writer.
BB: Aside from your own titles, which books are you quick to recommend to other readers? Who are your favorite authors?
EB: The books I mentioned above are a good place to start. And I admire a great many more writers—too many to name here. My recommendation for readers is to be adventurous. Don’t rely too heavily on the opinions of others, because every reader brings something unique to the work. Also, a book is a living world. And in that world there will be things you like and don’t like. Some books take more time than others—and some are more challenging. The best novels are more than simply entertainment—the story gets under your skin and stays with you for a little while. The characters feel like people you know, and you miss them when they’re gone.
BB: What future projects can our readers look forward to seeing from you?
EB: I’m working on a new novel that I hope to finish very soon!!! Thank you for these great questions and for giving me the opportunity to talk about my work, I appreciate it so very much.
BB: Thank you, Elizabeth Brundage!
(AUTHOR PHOTO CREDIT: Elena Seibert)
Don’t want to miss another blog post from the Bluestocking Salon? Sign up to receive our posts via email! Just scroll down past the comments section and you’ll see a space where you can enter your email address to receive notifications of new posts.