The Longings of Wayward Girls by Karen Brown (Washington Square Press; 336 pages; $15).
Compelling, atmospheric and smart, The Longings of Wayward Girls lures you in, beguiles, and even abducts you for a time. You are in Brown’s dark domain where deep guilt, loss and impossible longing rule. Little Sinners, and Other Stories as well as Pins and Needles made Brown the darling of critics, but I predict The Longings of Wayward Girls will speak to readers and critics alike. Brown is a powerful force in fiction today, but her new novel makes her distinct voice even louder and more relevant.
Jaime Boler: Thank you for letting me ask you these questions, Karen. The Longings of Wayward Girls captivated and wowed me. Your setting, your plot, and your characters are all pitch-perfect and smart. Did you always want to be a writer?
Karen Brown: I have piles of writing stored in accordion folders and boxes, going all the way back to my first illustrated story about talking squirrels who convince a girl to jump from her second story bedroom window. Writing has always been something I seemed to do well. In school teachers put my poems on the bulletin board. When you have early acknowledgement, it becomes part of who you are, and if you’re lucky, who you become.
JB: Your previous works have won awards. Pins and Needles received the Grace Paley Prize in Short Fiction, and Little Sinners, and Other Stories was awarded the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction. What were those experiences like?
KB: I was a short story writer who’d published in literary magazines, and the natural goal was to get “the book.” These contests came with publication, so I began putting stories together and submitting them. I did this for many years–rearranging stories, replacing older stories with newer ones. I never got discouraged—maybe because I was always writing, and always changing the manuscripts, and because it was fun, and I was doing what I loved. It was a great surprise and a great honor to have each of my manuscripts chosen. I knew how many people entered, and I was all too well aware that my winning meant others faced rejection.
KB: Each story I write feels like just a piece of something larger. I was drawn to the setting of “Little Sinners,” and I thought that the prank the girls pull might have more lasting repercussions. I’d also written “Housewifery” at this time, and I knew that I wanted the main character to be living in a similar suburb with her own family, and to discover a hidden pond. The combination of both stories led to the novel.
JB: Please describe your new novel The Longings of Wayward Girls out July 2 from Atria Books.
KB: Set entirely in a small Connecticut town, The Longings of Wayward Girls is a book about how the past influences the decisions of a woman, Sadie, as she confronts pivotal life events: the birth of a stillborn daughter, and the anniversary of her mother’s death—the realization that she has now reached the age her mother hadn’t, that she is moving into “unknown territory.” Sadie must confront her memories of her childhood, and recognize that her perception was skewed by her own inability, as a thirteen-year old, to understand the events of that time.
JB: How did you come up with the title?
KB: The story of titles starts with the collection, Little Sinners. Originally, the collection was titled Leaf House, and the press felt that I needed something more commercial. I’d already been working on the novel, based on the short story “Little Sinners,” and I’d always planned for Little Sinners to be the novel’s title as well. But faced with coming up with a new one for the collection, I basically stole my novel’s title. That left the novel title-less, and the working title (The Lost Girl) wasn’t quite what the team at Atria wanted. “Something more like Little Sinners,” my editor said. Of course, I regretted stealing my novel’s title, but the book had already come out, and I couldn’t steal it back! We made lists. I even brainstormed with my students. We had some good ones! But I kept going back to my editor’s suggestion, and I agreed. The title Little Sinners fit Sadie and her friend so well. My idea for Longings came from that. They aren’t really “wayward,” just like they aren’t really “sinners.” The title assumes a world within the book that judges them, one that the girls emerge from, that’s ingrained in who they become.
KB: When I’m writing a story I don’t really know the ending until I get about halfway through. Because the novel is based on the story I had a sort of template, but I had to change the ending to add more momentum—so I did know where I was heading—just not how I would get there!
JB: I know the idea for Longings is based on a real person. Who was Janice Pockett? And how did this little girl provide the impetus for your literary works?
KB: In the 1970s several girls went missing in a particular area in Connecticut, and Janice Pockett was one of them. I’d been researching missing girls even before I wrote the short story, and I discovered newspaper articles about Janice’s disappearance. She went missing about the time my friends and I were exploring pastures and woods, and roaming freely about our neighborhood. We didn’t know about Janice Pockett or the other girls, or feel any sort of fear about where we lived, and yet they’d disappeared just a few towns away. Janice, too, lived in a rural area. She’d simply gone off on her bicycle to retrieve a butterfly and never returned.
The presence of the real missing girl was always with me as I wrote the book, and it greatly influenced the conclusion. She has never been found, and her sister keeps a Facebook page for her. On it she posts photographs of her sister wearing the same clothes my friends and I wore—the same Brownie uniform, the same bell-bottom pants and cardigan sweaters. I think I wanted the Laura Loomis sections to bring to life the stages of loss and the absence of resolution that families with missing children experience.
JB: Now I want to talk about the differences in the novel compared to the short story. First of all, you have changed points of view. In the short story Little Sinners, you tell the story from the main character’s first person perspective. In the novel, though, you write in the third person. Why the change?
KB: The reminiscent narrator in the short story isn’t Sadie from the novel—she’s an adult at a different place in her life, regretting her inability to determine what really happened all of those years ago, and seeking forgiveness. I had to invent a character who would live within the frame of the story, who would have experienced things—marriage, childbirth, the loss of her own mother—that the story’s narrator hadn’t. And I didn’t feel that the voice in the story could carry a book. It’s just too heavy with sadness.
JB: Another difference is the name change of the best friend. In the short story, the friend’s name is Valerie Empson; while in the novel, the best friend is Betty Donahue. Why was this changed?
KB: I’m not sure why I changed the name! Valerie was the name of one of my close friends growing up, and I think I wanted to be sure to distance the fictional character from the real person—in case she read it—something she is actually doing now! And as Betty’s character developed she seemed more like a “Betty.”
JB: By far the biggest change, though, is that in the short story, Francie, a little girl who disappears, is found alive. But in the book, it is years and years before her fate is revealed. What prompted you to change this part of the story?
KB: I wanted the revelation of what happened to Francie to remain, as it does in the short story, at the end. And I wanted the impact of this to have had bigger ramifications for Sadie—so that the reader knows she’s lived all of these years with the belief that she was implicated in Francie’s disappearance. It felt weightier, more powerful. Also, since the main characters in the story and novel are fundamentally different, the events resonate differently in each.
JB: The Longings of Wayward Girls is set in a Connecticut suburb. Is it much like the town in which you grew up? What was your childhood and adolescence like?
KB: I used the town I grew up in as a model for the town in the book. My niece drew the map from a sketch I made. The town was once called Wintonbury, and the historical society is called The Wintonbury Historical Society. The names of the roads are slightly off (mostly because I didn’t use a real map of the town as I wrote—I just pulled names and vague locations out of my memory!) We had plenty of fields, a swamp, the “dead end” and a local produce stand. There was a Vincent Elementary School. The pond, and the American Indian names are drawn from Windham County, in northeastern Connecticut, where my brother lives. (Once, he led me up a path through the woods, and showed me an amazing pond.) My friends and I did put on plays, and hold a version of the Haunted Woods in the summer. We played elaborate games of house in my basement. And so much more, that never found its way into the book!
JB: When you were younger, did you ever pull a prank on someone? Or have one played on you?
KB: I do remember leaving letters from a farmer boy under a stone at the dead end. But I’m not entirely sure they were ever retrieved, or who, exactly, they were intended for. Memory has a way of blurring these things. If I remembered exactly I wouldn’t have been able to make a story out of it.
JB: Do you see Sadie and Betty as bullies? Why or why not?
KB: I think they are precocious and caught in the process of moving from childhood to adulthood. The book pauses them on the edge of that, and so their actions seem to arise out of a sense of their trying to claim some power over something in their lives. Sadie, especially, feels the loss of childhood acutely. But to answer your question, yes! Most readers would agree that they are bullies.
JB: You incorporate colonial history into your story, and I really love that you do. What role does the diary of Mary Vial Holyoke play in the life of Sadie, your main character? What does Sadie learn from the colonial woman?
KB: Colonial women frequently dealt with the death of a child—something Sadie discovers when she volunteers to map out the old cemetery. The section of Mary Vial Holyoke’s diary that I quote is her recording of the illness of her oldest daughter Polly. Most of the diary notes the passage of days as chores and errands and visits, and suddenly there’s a line that alerts the reader that Polly is sick. From this point on each day names a different woman who came to “watch” over Polly, and there’s a great sense of women pulling together to help Mary through what we discover is the death of her child. I think Sadie is in denial about her own grief—and doesn’t yet see the ways the women who gather at the pond, and at Kate’s, might help her through it, or how the regularity of her life—the way she is needed by her husband and children–might ease her pain.
JB: Emotions such as deep loss and impossible longing resonate throughout your novel. What made you want to explore these feelings?
KB: I’m not sure I set out to explore those feelings exactly, but in creating the character of Sadie I seemed to gravitate toward them. I imagined that loss and longing fueled Sadie’s choices, and that these feelings arose from her childhood. While I never feel I have to explain a character’s actions, I still believe that a reader should understand her or him, whether she agrees with them morally or not.
JB: You teach creative writing and literature at the University of South Florida. How has teaching writing made you a better writer?
KB: The practice of reading good fiction in class, and discussing what strategies a writer has used to achieve that result definitely keep me focused on my own choices.
JB: In your view, Karen, what is good fiction? How can good fiction change both the writer and the reader?
KB: For me, good fiction provides readers with a unique voice—one that allows us to navigate a world that is familiar enough for us to believe we are experiencing events there, but that retains an element of strangeness that keeps us guessing, and wanting to know more. Good fiction utilizes specific details that accomplish multiple tasks: they let us in on secret aspects of the world—visual, emotional, and intellectual. If a book can lure a reader in, it has the potential to change the way they view their world.
JB: Which writers have influenced your work the most? Which books have had the greatest effect on your life? Which matter the most to you?
KB: I’m drawn to lyrical writing, and as a literature student I loved writers like [Gabriel] Garcia Marquez, [Vladimir] Nabokov, Toni Morrison and Don DeLillo. I still love these writers, and reread their work. They tell their stories, which seem private—and by this I mean they are about particular people’s lives, but somehow they manage to encompass all of us, and deal with vital issues in the world.
JB: As an author of both short stories and novels, which medium do you prefer? Why?
KB: As a reader, I enjoy a novel to escape. But if I’m reading as a writer, and want to come away from something with a jolt, a fine short story is always best. As a writer I can’t choose which I prefer—they are both so different, and require different things from me. I’ve trained myself to distill a moment down to fit the length of a story, but it’s an entirely different process loosening up the story, and filling it with scenes and multiple moments.
KB: I’m going to answer this in a roundabout way: When I knew I wanted to write a novel, I began to read them voraciously. I joined a book club, and I read the other members’ choices—books I would never have chosen myself as a stuffy instructor of Modern American Literature: Stieg Larsson, Carlos Ruiz Zafon, David Baldacci, Kate Morton. And I introduced my book club to my own choices: Richard Yates, Elizabeth Strout, Ann Patchett, Jess Walter. I learned how invested readers could be in characters, and how engaged they became with the events that befell them.
I realized that books can entertain, as well as teach us something about ourselves, and I hope that readers will enter the world I’ve created and experience both of these things.
JB: What’s next for you? Are you working on anything new?
KB: I’d like to publish another novel, and I’m working on one now. The process of writing Longings—the revisions, the editing—taught me so much! I’m trying to apply that knowledge to this new book. (Like Longings it was inspired by one of my short stories—“Galatea” from Pins & Needles.)
JB: Thanks for a wonderful interview, Karen. Good luck with the book!