I recently read Gayle Brandeis's book, “Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write” (which Linda reviews this month) and was awed by her imagination and talent. She was nice enough to make time in her busy schedule for an interview with LSS. Check out her web site at: www.gaylebrandeis.com.
Gayle was born in Chicago in 1968, and currently lives in Riverside, CA with her husband Matt McGunigle and their two children.
Here's what she had to say:
Q. Hi Gayle. Let's start at the beginning. When did you start writing?
A. I wrote my first poem when I was 4 years old: "Blow, little wind/Blow the trees, little wind/Blow the seas, little wind/Blow me until I am free, little wind." I knew even then that writing could be a source of freedom.
Q. Tell us about your writing history.
A. When I was 18, my essay on the liberty of the imagination was one of three student essays included in the Centennial time capsule of the Statue of Liberty. Around this time, I became obsessed with the connection between writing and the body -- an obsession that continues to this day -- and created My own major at the University of Redlands, "Poetry and Movement: Arts of Expression, Meditation and Healing," to accommodate this quest. I graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1990.
Q. What do you like best about being a writer?
A. I love that I can work in my pajamas. I love playing with words and finding ones that feel like they were born to be together. I love connecting with readers and other writers. I love those moments of discovery and surprise when the writing takes a turn I hadn’t expected. I love how I can experience being a lion tamer or an old man or a femme fatale without leaving my purple velvet desk chair!
Q. Do you prefer to write poetry or fiction?
A. Poetry has always been at the heart of my writing life, but fiction unexpectedly started pouring out of me in 1993, following the birth of my second child. After writing three unpublished novels, I decided to go back to school to learn something about how to craft a story. I received my MFA in Creative Writing/Fiction from Antioch University in 2001.
Q. Where have you been published?
A. My poetry, fiction and essays have appeared in dozens of magazines and anthologies, including Salon.com, Nerve.com, Hip Mama, McSweeney's and The Oy of Sex: Jewish Women Write Erotica.
Pudding House Publications released a chapbook of my Dictionary Poems in 2003. I appeared in the Tebot Bach Poets of Southern California Swimsuit Calendar the same year.
Q. And your work has won awards?
A. Yes, my novel, The Book of Dead Birds, won Barbara Kingsolver's Bellwether Prize for Fiction in Support of a Literature of Social Change in 2002, and was published by HarperCollins in 2003. Between this honor and having been named a "Steward of Liberty for the next 100 years," I feel a responsibility for my words to do good work in the world.
Q. What do you do when not writing?
A. I’m active in local peace organizations and enjoys speaking at conferences and writers' groups. I’m Writer-in-Residence for the Mission Inn Foundation's Family Voices Project, and work with five underserved area high schools to help students research and write family stories. I also teach fiction online through the UCLA Writer's Program.
Q. What was your inspiration for “Fruitflesh”?
A. When I was a senior in high school, I had an epiphany with a strawberry. The teacher instructed our class to examine the fruit closely, and I began to wonder if I’d ever really looked at anything before. The poem I wrote that day was the “seed” of Fruitflesh.
Q. What is the idea behind Fruitflesh?
A. I used fruits and vegetables as a metaphor for sensual and creative exploration and women's bodies, combining writing advice and exercises with meditations to illuminate prose.
I believe that our bodies are ours to use and enjoy fully, down to the last sticky drop. I wrote FRUITFLESH to help us as women and as writers learn to enjoy our bodies and access our own organic creative power. Our whole history is written in our flesh. Every pleasure, every pain, we’ve experienced is encoded in our cells. As writers, we have a limitless store of material swirling underneath our own skin. When we bring awareness to our bodies, we bring new life, our own life, into our writing. As we open our senses, our capacity for connection with the world outside and within us increases tremendously, and we open the way for some amazing writing to pour forth.
Q. What prevents us from being freely creative?
A. Unfortunately, in our media-saturated culture, we are taught to live our bodies from the outside. We are taught to be concerned only about how we look, about what numbers blink when we step on the scale, about what size skirt we can zip ourselves into. We diet, we starve, we binge, we purge, we smoosh ourselves into girdles and push up bras, all because of some Madison Avenue and Hollywood-created image that tells us how we “should” look. As women, we are not taught, at least not by the popular media, to respect the deep wisdom and pleasures of our bodies—no matter what age or shape or ethnicity we may be. As a result, we are often cut off from our bodies’ authentic joys and stories, the creative flesh that is our birthright.
Q. Last month LSS reviewed “The Book of Dead Birds.” It was both touching and lluminating. Where did the idea for that come from?
A. I happened upon a dead bird when I was walking home from school with my friend Sonja Johnson in first grade. It was a baby bird ’ it didn’t have any feathers yet; its eyes had never opened. It looked so bald, so vulnerable, splayed there on the sidewalk. It was the first time I had seen death up close. I was deeply shaken.
In 1996, I started writing a poem about that experience. The poem was slippery; it quickly morphed into a piece about all the dead birds I’ve come across in my life, then kept getting longer and longer and stranger and stranger. At some point, I realized it didn’t want to be about my own experience any more; it didn’t want to be a poem any more, either. I wasn’t sure what it wanted to be, so I set it aside and moved on to other projects.
In the meanwhile, articles started to appear in the newspaper about massive bird die-offs at the Salton Sea in the California desert, about an hour and a half from my home in Riverside. I clipped them and pasted them into a notebook (my own Book of Dead Birds). I knew this was somehow connected to my dead bird poem, but I wasn’t sure how it all fit together.
Then I happened to stumble across a documentary on PBS one night called “The Women Outside“ about women who had been forced into prostitution on US military bases in Korea. All of a sudden, two characters — Ava and Helen, a daughter who had an unfortunate habit of killing her mother’s beloved birds, a mother with a painful past — materialized in my imagination. Everything clicked.
I knew I had found my story, but I resisted it for a long time. I didn’t think I had any right to write the story of a Korean woman and her Black-Korean-American daughter. Their experience was so outside my own — I knew very little about Korean culture at the time — and I was worried about being perceived as a cultural imperialist by taking on their story. The characters were persistent, though. I couldn’t help but start to research, start to spend time in Koreatown and at the Salton Sea. I couldn’t help but start to write.
Q. Did the story come easily after that?
A. At first I wrote the novel in third person because I thought it would give me some necessary distance; I thought I could observe the characters with respect and compassion without presuming to claim their voices. Even though I loved the characters deeply, the story felt flat. I was ready to throw it away on more than one occasion. Then two things happened: First, a dead crow appeared on my patio. This seemed like too clear a sign to ignore. I forced myself to return to my manuscript, forced myself to keep plugging away. Then, I came down with a horrible case of strep throat. I had a high fever — so high, I began to hallucinate. I ended up having a series of fever dreams in which I became my main character, Ava. It became very clear that Ava wanted to tell her own story, in her own voice. This was terrifying; it felt too intimate, too risky. She was insistent, though. She wanted to narrate the book.
I started a radical revision of my manuscript as soon as the fever broke. The story came back to life for me. Ava’s voice rang out loud and true, both on the page and under my skin. I felt like I had finally found the form that my poem had been searching for, a form that could give voice to so many who had been voiceless, that could give voice to a beleaguered landscape, as well. Despite all of our differences, I feel closer to Ava than any character I have ever written. I am so grateful for what she has taught me, where she has taken me.
Q. It seems that dead birds are signs for you?
A. Yes! A week before the novel came out, a reporter and a photographer from my local paper came over to my house to do a feature about the release. The photographer honed in on the bench on our front porch as a good place for the portrait. She walked over to it, then said “Do you have a broom or something? There’s a dead bird over here.” Sure enough, right where she wanted me to sit, there was a dead baby bird — featherless, its eyes still closed, just like the one I saw when I was six, the one that launched the poem that led to the novel that was just about to be launched, itself.
After the newspaper people left, my daughter and I buried the bird and had a little ritual — with real tears — to honor its life. I felt my own life swoop around, full circle. I felt Ava and Helen swoop off into the world, the dead bird setting them free at last.