Author Interview with Terra Brigando

At the end of last week, I reviewed Terra Brigando’s wonderful new novel Rooms for Ghosts, and I am incredibly excited to have an interview with the author for you today. Brigando is incredibly talented and insightful, and we got to talk about writing, rejection, being published, her goals with this book, and why so many people seem to be surprised that such a dark book came from Brigando’s mind, but why they really shouldn’t be.

Jump the cut for the full interview. Text in bold is me speaking, and the rest if Brigando. Remember, you can purchase Rooms for Ghosts directly from the publisher, and from major booksellers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble. If you like the book, help it get some more exposure by leaving a review at either site.

Let's just get this out of the way first: Rooms for Ghosts is your debut novel. What's it been like going through the process of finishing, selling, and debuting your work? I know it's been at least four years to get this from your brain to the shelves. What's been the best part of that process?

The last four years have felt very fast to me, but also extremely slow. I began Rooms for Ghosts as my thesis project in graduate school, and remember writing those opening words like it was yesterday. It took about 2½ years after graduation for me to finish the story, rewrite multiple drafts, and to complete the final draft. I originally queried the book as a novella because it’s much shorter than your typical commercial novel. I got a few rejections, some publishers said that I made it to the final round of their reading, and ultimately my publisher, Wordcraft of Oregon, said that they wanted it – and that they wanted to market it as a novel. Then it took another year for everything to fall into place and now it’s finally out! I think the best part of the process for me was seeing the hardcopy of the book for the first time and holding it in my hands. It felt finally very real.

Oh, man, that thing you say about rejections just kills me. I’ve written about rejection on the site before, and the one thing that always hurts me most is when somebody tells me that they almost wanted to publish my work. It just takes me so much work to recover from that, and it’s such a counter-intuitive, counter-productive reaction because it’s actually really fantastic to make it through several rounds of reading. I guess it’s like the logic that coming in second hurts more than coming in last. Having come out the other end, what can you say about receiving, dealing with, or recovering from rejection?

To be honest, rejection hasn’t been that difficult for me to handle. I don’t know if it’s because I got so used to my work being openly discussed right in front of me in college and graduate school, but when I get a rejection now, I kind of just shrug and discard the email or letter. To me, rejection is a very natural part of the publication process and it happens to everyone. If a piece of my writing is getting rejected right and left, then I make some changes and submit again. Or sometimes I’ll just retire the writing to look at again in a few months. It’s also important to realize that when you get rejected, it can be for a lot of different reasons. Some publications may like your writing but feel that the theme isn’t right for their magazine, or something along those lines. And when you’re rejected, that’s just one place that doesn’t think your work is for them. It doesn’t mean that the work is bad or doomed. Another publication may love it! It’s all very relative.

Oh, I agree with all of that! Sometimes it’s just hard to get my heart on the same page as my head. It sounds like you really treat these moments as learning experiences, though, and I’m curious what else writing Rooms for Ghosts taught you. What was the most important or surprising thing you discovered about writing or being a writer from working on this project? What did you do that you'll never do again? What did you figure out that you'll always do from now on?

Well, I guess I was surprised to find out how hard writing is. Writing is so hard! I’ve known this from the first time I began to write, but I didn’t really know how hard it was until I wrote this book. Writing is also so exhausting – there were times when I would sit there for hours and only come away with one page written and I’d feel completely worn out. I’m not sure what I’ll never do again. I think every piece of writing calls for a different process and has its own journey, so maybe things that didn’t quite work out for me with this book will work out for me with the next. I’ve never been 100% satisfied with a piece of finished writing, so there’s always and forever room for improvement. As for what I’ll always do from now on – definitely disconnect myself from the internet when I’m writing. I can get distracted very easily, so it’s best to be away from email and Instagram. But I also end up researching a lot of what I want to write about online, so there’s a balance. I also find that I write better when I’m out of the house.

Oh my god, I’m so happy to you mentioned how exhausting writing can be! I was having a conversation the other week and I was trying to explain to this person why so many professionals average only 1,000 words or less in a work day when most of us are perfectly capable of doing several thousand more in a single good day. It was such a struggle to get across the cognitive, emotional, and physical drains that happen when you sustain heavy writing loads day after day.

It’s fascinating to me that you write better outside of the house. I’m the exact opposite. I need a desk in a familiar space where nobody can see me working if I’m going to be in my best headspace. I also used to be a better night-writer, but I’ve transitioned to the afternoon more recently. I’d love to do my best writing in the morning, but I seem to transition better into writing when I do some other productive thing beforehand. My worst writing days are the ones when I don’t have anything else to do as I wake up but aimlessly click links. What do you think it is about getting out of the house that makes it easier for you to work?

I definitely agree with you that my best writing days are when I’ve been productive beforehand and the worst are when I have nothing else to do. I like getting out of the house because I tend to be lazy when I’m at home. I find that I’m much more likely to get work done when I’m in an unfamiliar environment. At home I get distracted playing with my dog, or thinking I need to walk outside for a bit, or by the internet. If I’m at a cafe or library writing, it feels as though I’m there to do one thing and one thing only: write. In my ideal creative environment I have a cup of coffee, which is often why I like writing in cafes. Sometimes I will listen to classical music, but I find that music with lyrics is very distracting. I always have to have books on hand that inspire me. If I get stuck, I’ll flip to a random page and it often reinvigorates me. This only works with a book I love and admire, not just any book.

The idea that I’m only there to write and do nothing else is exactly why self-seclusion works for me. The fewer things happening around me, the better my focus. I lose focus very easily, and if I sat in a café I might just end up listening to people’s orders for an hour, or studying faces, or something like that. I find that the other thing that keeps me charged and focused, though, is reading. Reading the right book at the right time can provide so much insight into a work in progress. I like the feeling of reading something and thinking, “I want this to be how people feel when they read my work.” If somebody was going to say, "I just love reading [blank], [blank], and Terra Brigando," how would you hope they fill in the blanks?

Writers that I love and look up to include Kirsty Gunn, Megan Abbott, Aimee Bender, Marguerite Duras, and Yvonne Vera. They are all very lyrical and dark. I would love to be compared to Kirsty Gunn and Marguerite Duras. I took a lot of inspiration from both of their work as I was writing Rooms for Ghosts.

I had a feeling you were going to say Aimee Bender. I’m not sure why exactly, but I got her influence on your work more than anyone else while I was reading. I even mentioned it in my review! Rooms for Ghosts doesn’t share her surreal bent, but I think there’s a way the two of you consistently land on such surprising and arresting imagery to grip your readers and propel their attention forward.

Yeah, when I saw that in your review I felt like it was one of the best compliments anyone has ever given me! That was awesome.

Speaking of Rooms for Ghosts, let’s get more into the nitty-gritty of the book itself. In my review, I wrote that I felt the story was really exploring dependence in its different forms. Each character seems to build their dependencies as a way to combat their loneliness – that loneliness driving so many of everyone's decisions throughout – but those dependencies are also the double-edged swords that create their loneliness. Can you talk a little bit about what kinds of ideas you had in mind as you were writing? How do you see your characters being motivated, whether to action or inaction? What common problems connect their suffering?

I wanted my reader to be a witness to each character’s faults, but to also feel for them. The main character acts out in many ways to make some sort of connection, however tenuous, with those around her. She has no authority figure to guide her and is ultimately left alone to do as she pleases. I think loneliness is one of the main themes of the book. All the main characters struggle with their own isolation and sadness and are trying to do whatever they can to make themselves feel better – which often leads to self-destructive behavior. I think each character is also very much led by his or her desire for pleasure and to leave the problems of the outside world behind. The main character ends up going on a self-imposed exile as a way to rid herself essentially from herself, but in the end I think she realizes that loneliness is a condition we all must grapple with as human beings. It’s the human condition. Even in a room full of people, you are ultimately alone because you are the only one inside of your head.

I think it shows in the story how invested you were in being honest about the character faults, but how much more invested you were in contextualizing those faults as consequences more than as inherent qualities. There’s this terrible cause and effect that starts almost even before the narrator was born, so that we see how every vice that grips these people was developed as a response to some other action that was out of their control.

Yes. I think that’s the way it is in most families that struggle with abuse or addiction. Damage and destruction is often passed down through generations, almost like a legacy, and it takes a lot of awareness to break the cycle. So much about one’s life is predetermined by the kind of situation he or she is born into. It’s very unfair. I don’t think the main character really ever had a chance to have a normal childhood, and you’re right, it started before she was even born. This was definitely a theme in the book that I was trying to explore.

I feel like the way the narrator deals with her loneliness is very true to her age, too. She resents her dependence on her parents because they’re doing a pretty bad job of fulfilling her needs, and she thinks that independence will solve that problem. But she mistakes, naively, solitude for independence, misunderstands the difference between being lonely and being alone.

In fact, I have to say: I was so impressed all the way through by how honestly and realistically you were able to write from the perspective of somebody so much younger like this. I always struggle to get into the heads of my young characters. What was it like staying in her voice and being true to her age during the years you worked on this?

Thank you. When I workshopped early drafts of the book, I got a lot of conflicting responses about the main character’s voice and her age. Some said she came off as too adult, others said she seemed younger than fourteen, and some said her thoughts were spot-on. I vividly remember what it felt like to be a teenager – everything is intense and your emotions are very extreme. I wanted her voice to create a sense of urgency in the reader, but to also show the confusion of adolescence. I think this character has a unique situation in that she is basically raising herself and making moral decisions based off of her own judgments, so I tried to show that she could at once be quite self-aware and grown-up, but at the same time yearn for some sort of direction from those older than her. Sometimes I still think I’m fourteen! So some of my own emotions show up in here, too. In that way, it was easy for me stay true to her voice.

I would even argue that the conflicting notes you got were a great sign that you were doing things right. The people who thought she felt too young or too old, I think, were picking up on the nature of her liminality. I like the idea that sometimes even you still feel like you’re fourteen. I bet there are other times you feel like you’re forty-five! We’re never just one thing, and it’s like, on average this character is fourteen. To be true, sometimes she has to feel younger and sometimes she has to feel older. If she were a perfectly smooth “young woman” all the way through, it would be a failure to represent her honestly.

I like that you just said we are never just one thing. I read the short story “Eleven” by Sandra Cisneros a few years back. In the story the main character is turning eleven but she explains that she’s still really ten and nine and eight and so on, that she’s all the ages leading up to eleven because you’re never just one thing. She says that growing old is like those dolls that fit inside of each other ­­– each year just lives inside of the next one. That’s why I think as an adult you can still very much relate to what it felt like to be a teenager or a child. Each age that we’ve experienced is still very present within us.

I like that a lot, and I think it’s one of the things your story knows that your narrator doesn’t really understand because she’s so young. She latches onto this idea that every seven years our bodies have cycled through a new set of cells, and she seems to think that means the past is actually shed along with it. Of course, what hurts her so much is that it isn’t.

So let’s see here. I only have a few quick questions left. I tried to save the fun ones for last. I want to cement my interviewer cred, so here’s a question it seems every writer has to answer at least once: What was the best advice anybody gave you as a writer?

When you’re workshopping your writing, take the advice from others that you agree with, and leave the advice that you don’t agree with behind. Ultimately, this is your story to write, you don’t have to listen to everyone (or anyone if you don’t want to).

Oh, yeah, the idea of owning your writing, your ideas, and your intentions through revisions in the face of criticism is so important. I still often find myself approaching every single criticism as some kind of gospel against my authority as writer. It must sound like I take every bit of adversity really poorly, but I save myself with distance. For me, it’s as important to distance myself from critiques as it is to distance myself from my own work before I can approach either in a constructive way. Do you have a secret that helps you maintain your authority in the face of other people’s opinions?

I probably shouldn’t say this, but sometimes in grad school I would only read the critiques of the colleagues whose writing I liked, and then I would just throw everyone else’s away without looking at them. Also, I came to realize that criticism has nothing to do with you as a person, that it’s important to separate yourself from your writing. So maintaining my authority really just comes down to doing my own thing. I think if you try to revise a piece based on criticism or suggestions that you don’t agree with, your writing will sound very inauthentic and your readers will be able to tell.

So on the other side of the coin, what was the worst advice you’ve been given?

Always plan out your entire story or novel before you start writing. Make storyboards, timelines, map scenes, etc. I do not work like this at all. Everyone has her own writing process and style, so I think it’s important to just stick with what feels best for you.

One of the things I’ve discovered working with other writers is how different our processes all are. I can’t do the outlining thing either, though I know some people who just absolutely need it. There was one story I tried to carefully outline based on that very advice, and I vividly remember coming to the end of the scene where the outline needed one character to leave the room. As I wrote, I got more and more frustrated with the character because she would not leave the stupid room. I eventually just wrote her interrupting everybody else and saying “I have to go now” for no reason just to get her out of there so I could move on, and left it as something to fix in revision.

It’s very strange how characters really become their own people. You envision them and create them, but soon they begin to act and think on their own.

Yeah, they constantly mess up my plans, but always improve my stories by doing so. I actually do write detailed outlines after I finish my first drafts, though. It helps me see what I already wrote, track character motivations, find out what needs to be introduced earlier and what can be cut, etc, and gives me a solid, structured foundation to start my revisions from.

That is smart. I can be a very disorganized writer at times. I usually just have a Word document open with all kinds of writing and thoughts and tangents and that’s it.

Getting away from writing for a minute, here’s something I’m always curious about: Do you keep your copy of the book in any special place? (I would)

I have a shelf in the living room where I keep my hardcopy publications, so that’s where my book is, along with some literary journals and magazines.

That’s great. I’m a big fan of “trophy” shelves. It’s so important to celebrate our own work. Here’s one inspired the book: What's your favorite summer vacation spot?

Probably somewhere beachy, preferably with warm ocean water so that I can go night-swimming.

Somewhere like a private island… maybe a summer home?

Yes! How did you know?

Here’s another Easter egg for your readers: If you were sitting in a warm cafe with an espresso on a cold day, who would you be waiting for?

Probably my fiancé Brent. And my dog – hopefully it’s a dog friendly cafe.

Wrapping up, I’d like to know if there’s anything I missed in the interview I should have asked. What question do you wish somebody would ask you about the book? 

Well, people who have read it and who think they know me will often be very surprised at how “dark” the book is. I guess people don’t expect me to write something like this? I feel very confined by opinions like that. So I might like a “Why did you want to write such a dark book?” question so that I can talk about how my own interests, in terms of literature and films, often veer towards the darker and more emotionally intense aspects of life.

I had actually decided I wasn’t going to ask that kind of question initially, because I feel there’s a weird way that a lot of people underestimate qualities like “darkness” in women, or assume some kind of bright, happy, virginal purity, and it’s just crazy. I can’t tell you how often I’ve seen people act absolutely astonished when a fully grown woman so much as says a bad word, so I can imagine how astonished people are to see you write a book like this. That said, I don’t want to disappoint you. So tell me: “Why did you want to write such a dark book?”

Although we’ve come a long way, I still think that women writers face particular obstacles when it comes to subject matter. So many people have commented on the themes in Rooms for Ghosts and their surprise that something like this came from me. It’s extremely frustrating and I really don’t appreciate it. I also think that people don’t expect someone who looks like me to write a book like this, based on their preconceptions. I need to find some sort of response to that comment, but I have yet to figure out what to say. If you have any suggestions, please help me out. As for the actual question, I wrote this book because it was the only book that I could write. My favorite books, films, and other art tend to deal with female struggle in the face of adversity. I’m also into things that are weird or outside of the norm, like serial killers, cults, death and other morose topics. Just because I don’t dress in black all the time or think I’m a vampire doesn’t mean that I’m not fascinated by lurid topics. For my birthday a few years ago Brent gave me a biography of Ted Bundy. It was the perfect gift.

That’s awesome. I think the best response to people who don’t expect you to write books like this is just to keep writing them, but it would be nice to have a witty rejoinder ready just in case. 

So before we go, I want to make sure readers know what they might look forward to from you. What are you working on now? Anything exciting?

I have a few short stories I’ve been sending around. I actually just started a new novel. But it’s so new, I don’t even know where it’s headed yet. Stay tuned!

Thanks so much for doing this, Terra! Anybody looking to find Terra Brigando online can visit her website at terrabrigando.com.