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Drunk on Ink Q & A with Jennifer S Brown and ‘Modern Girls’

Drunk on Ink is a blast interview series conducted by Soniah Kamal, Jaggery Blog Editor and author of the forthcoming novel Unmarriageable: Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice in Pakistan. 

Jennifer S. Brown is the author of the novel Modern Girls. She has published fiction and creative nonfiction in Fiction Southeast, Cognoscenti, The Best Women’s Travel Writing, The Southeast Review, and Bellevue Literary Review, and elsewhere. Her essay “The Codeine of Jordan” was selected as a notable essay in 2012’s The Best American Travel Writing. She has a BFA in film and television from New York University and an MFA in creative writing from the University of Washington, Seattle. This makes her uniquely suited to write film reviews, which would be great if she hadn’t stopped going to the movies when her kids were born

About Modern Girls

Modern Girls is the story of what happens when, in New York in 1935, an immigrant mother, Rose, and her unmarried 19-year-old daughter, Dottie, both discover they’re pregnant. The news upends their lives: Rose had eagerly anticipated returning to the political activism of her youth, and Dottie, with a promotion at work, had great career ambitions. With war on the horizon and traditions to uphold, the two must wrestle with their beliefs and their consciences as they decide how to reconcile their longings with the realities of this new modern world in which they live. Kirkus Reviews called Modern Girls “a clear-eyed view of the sharp, difficult choices facing women on the cusp of equality.”

SONIAH KAMAL:First author/book you read/fell in love with?

JENNIFER S. BROWN: I was a voracious reader as a child so picking the first is difficult.  I would say the books of Judy Blume, but that feels a little cliché and I can’t be sure that’s correct. I also loved Anne of Green Gables, the Nancy Drew books, and The Chronicles of Narnia. The first book I was passionate about, though, was a picture book that was read to me, Beady Bear . Reading it now though (as I still have my childhood copy), the message is terrible. Beady Bear, a wind-up toy bear, goes off to explore but gets stuck when he winds down. So the message is don’t be adventurous because you’ll end up scared and alone and in need of rescuing? Eek!

To unwind: chai, coffee, water, wine?

Bourbon! And more specifically the bourbon drinks my husband makes, which depending on mood, is either a Black Manhattan or a Sazerac.

A novel, short story, poem, essay, anything you believe should be mandatory reading?

The Awakening by Kate Chopin.

Any classic you wished you’d pushed through in your teens?

I still have not read Wuthering Heights nor Jane Eyre. I own copies of both and they stand, forlorn, in my to-be-read pile. Both are on the top of my “summer books” pile. Alas, I will admit, it’s not the first summer that they’ve been on top of the pile.

A favorite quote from your book 

“…I realized that what takes just a moment in time can be stitched into an entire story that lasts an entire lifetime, can be tattooed and never forgotten. That one moment would stay with me across continents and oceans; through marriage and deaths; against the distance of decades, and that one moment is as real and current as the feel of my sweat on a August day or my son’s hand tugging on the bottom of my dress or a kiss from Ben under cover of the dark on a Shabbes night.”

Your favorite book to film?

In general, I’m not a huge fan of the book to film. I prefer either to watch the film or read the book. Invariably, when I do both, I’m disappointed. However, the one time I was completely enamored by both a book and its film (well, a mini-series) was Middlemarch (trailer). The miniseries on PBS enchanted me and didn’t suffer in comparison to the novel by George Eliot.

Favorite Indie Book Store/s?

Indie books stores are my happy place! For many years, my favorite local indie was Porter Square Books. Porter Square Books is still dear to me, but my loyalty is now divided because an amazing new bookstore even closer to my home has opened, Belmont Books

The one think you wish you’d known about the writing life?

That being published is not a panacea. Don’t get me wrong: I’m beyond thrilled my novel, Modern Girls, is in the world. But it wasn’t a magical key to happiness and it doesn’t make writing books any easier and it doesn’t make me feel like an accomplished writer. I’m still struggling now as I did before.

Does writing/publishing/marketing get any easier with each story/novel published?

Gads, no! In fact, I think it makes it harder because now you have these little voices whispering, “Is it as good as the last one? Will your readers like it? Will your agent like it?” Before being published, I only had to worry about what I thought. I’m learning to tune out those voices, but it’s challenging.

Dog, Cat, Or?

I’m desperate to own a cat but my husband, daughter, and mother are all allergic, and apparently it’s bad form to make your family sick.

Favorite book cover?

This version of Anita Loos’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes  is so gorgeous, I had to be talked out of buying it, as a different version included the sequel, But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes. While I like that cover too, I’m still tempted to buy the first version simply to display on my shelf. (And if you haven’t read these, they are magnificent windows into life in the 1920s and totally fun reads.)

Favorite song?

Right now I’m grooving on “Havana” by Camila Cabello, because the sound reminds me so much of home (Miami Beach, Florida). However, I also adore the old jazz standards, and Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong’s “They Can’t Take that Away from Me” always gets me singing (which isn’t necessarily a good thing—I’m a terrible singer).

Ideal Vacation?
I’m a city girl through and through, and while I’m charmed by the idea of sitting by a lake with a book, I’m happiest when I’m simply wandering a city, discovering new things. As I write this, I’m in New York, and I’m dragging my husband around to simply look at buildings. Because I’m enamored of history (and hence historical fiction), I like knowing what was here before. The New York Public Library has a web site and app called OldNYC.org. It’s a map of New York and you can look up any corner and find archival photos from the NYPL digital collection. We’ve been wandering the Lower East Side, stopping every block so I can see what it looked like in the 1930s and 1940s (yes, I’m a geek). I love seeing the tidbits of history that remain.
Favorite painting/art? 
My mother is an artist and I grew up surrounded by artwork. She earned both her BFA and her MFA in sculpture when I was a child. While other mothers in South Florida worked as lawyers or stayed at home baking cookies, my mom learned how to weld. I’ve visited countless museums and I could name a million pieces I love that everyone is familiar with (and I especially love those that now charm my children; my daughter and I have made it a point to visit as many Degas “Little Dancer” sculptures as we can), my mom’s work is my favorite. Of all of her work, the one that sparks my imagination the most, is an installation called Seduction Forest 
Literary Festival Anecdote?
I can’t tell my favorite anecdote, because it involves naming names, and I don’t think I can do that. 🙂 However, I will tell my most disastrous reading: I flew to Florida (from Boston) for a talk/reading. On Wednesday, November 9, 2016. Oy! Of course I’d had no sleep the night before, as I’d been up late and then I couldn’t sleep so I was up early. What I remember most from that day is not the reading, but seeing the “Trump Triumphs” headlines on the New York Times. The turnout was, understandably, small, and the folks at the venue were so flustered they hadn’t made arrangements for my presentation to be projected. So numb with shock, without my visual aids, to a very small room, I gave my talk, which, considering it’s about reproductive freedom and immigration to the U.S., felt hauntingly timely. The audience was lovely. The organizers apologized and said they normally get a larger crowd, but I assured them, if I hadn’t already said I’d be there, I’d have been at home, curled up in a fetal position. That was a tough one!
Favorite Jane Austen Novel and screen adaptation?
I don’t mean to be a cliche, but Colin Firth! I watched that Pride and Prejudice, I don’t know how many times, just to see Colin Firth in that wet shirt. 

Favorite Small Press and Literary Journal?

I subscribe to a teeny-tiny journal called Inch, put out by Bull City Press. I mean teeny-tiny quite literally. It’s eight pages long and isn’t much bigger than my hand.  The prose is under 750 words and the poetry not longer than nine lines. Flash fiction is an obsession of mine, so it’s exciting when a new issue arrives in my mailbox.

Last impulse book buy and why?

Amy Bloom’s White Houses. I’m working on a novel based on a real person, and although I have a gigantic stack of books based on real people (wonderful books! The Other Einstein by Marie Benedict, Terrible Virtue by Ellen Feldman, Euphoria by Lily King…), when I saw the book on the new release table at Belmont Books, I couldn’t resist. I’ve read about Mrs. Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok in Loving Eleanor, but I was interested in a new take on it.

Soniah Kamal’s novel Unmarriageable: Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice in Pakistan is forthcoming from Penguin Random House. PRE ORDER . Her debut novel An Isolated Incident was a finalist for the Townsend Prize for Fiction, the KLF French Fiction Prize, and an Amazon Rising Star pick. Soniah’s TEDx talk, Redreaming Your Dream, is about regrets, second chances and redemption. Her story Jelly Beans was selected for The Best Asian Stories Series 2017 and her award winning and Pushcart Prize nominated work has appeared in numerous publications including The New York Times, The Guardian, BuzzFeed, Literary Hub, Catapult and The Normal School.

More Drunk on Ink Interviews:

Anne Boyd Rioux: Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters, non fiction

Devoney Looser: The Making of Jane Austen, non fiction

Kristen Miller ZohnThe Currency of Taste- Gibbons Georgian Silver, coffee table book

Vanessa HuaA River of Stars, novel

Chaitli SenThe Pathless Sky, novel

Sonya HuberPain Woman Take Your Keys, memoir

Kathy Wilson FlorenceThree of Cups, a novel

Sara Luce LookCharis Books and More, independent book store

S J SinduMarriage of a Thousand Lies, a novel

Rosalie Morales KearnsKingdom of Men, a novel

Saadia FaruqiMeet Yasmin, children’s literature

Rene DenfeldThe Child Finder, a novel

Jamie BrennerThe Husband Hour, a novel

Sara MarchantThe Driveway has Two Sides, memoir

Kirsten Imani KasaiThe House of Erzulie, a novel

Thrity UmrigarThe Secrets Between Us, novel

John Kessel, Pride and Prometheus, novel

Lisa Romeo, Starting with Goodbye: A Daughter’s Memoir of Love After Loss

Rachel May, An American Quilt: Unfolding a Story of Family and Slavery

Rebecca Entel, Fingerprints of Previous Owners, novel

Jamie Sumner, Unbound: Finding from Unrealistic Expectations of Motherhood

Falguni Kothari, My Last Love Story, novel

Tanaz BathenaA Girl Like That, YA novel

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