By Karen Hemmerle, Contributing Editor
Sarah Brooks was born and raised on a farm in Iowa, traveled through Europe and Central America, and lived in Alaska for a decade before she moved to Colorado to live near her family. When she’s not writing late at night, she raises her beautiful, sassy daughter Mitike, teaches middle schoolers how to love writing and reading, and hikes in the mountains.
Boulder Writers’ Workshop: Please tell us about The Beginning of Us, and how you came to write it.
Sarah Brooks: It began more as an essay. I wanted to find out what it would have been like to come out as a lesbian in college at age 21 or 22 instead of at age 28. I was also trying to understand why it took me so long to discover I was lesbian, so I thought it would make sense to return to my origins in Iowa. The more I thought about these ideas, the more a fictional story began to emerge -- the fictional me, discovering my identity my senior year of college. Others have asked why I wrote it in an epistolary form, but it just emerged that way. It made the most sense to me, to have my fictional self work through her thoughts and experiences through her journal writing and her emails to others.
BWW: Most of your writing has been in essay form. Why did you decide to move to longer stories? Do you have a preference?
SB: I've been writing both fiction and essays since I was a teenager, but essays have always come more easily -- and most of my publication has been in the essay form. I like the essay form because I can work through an idea myself there. I can find out what I think as I write. Often, my fiction is just a different form of essay, masked, maybe, but always testing an idea, always exploring a concept.
BWW: Why is it important for lesbian history and stories to be told?
SB: I've been thinking about this question for several years. When I came out in 2005, I didn't know any stories like mine. I was 28, and I was afraid and lonely. I wish I'd known then what I know now: that many phenomenal women in our history have been lesbians (whether they used that term in their own time or not). Most recently, I've been reading the important work of Lillian Faderman, a historian who has worked to rescue and revive the stories of lesbians in history. Lesbian lives have been hidden, erased. I want people to know those stories, and I especially want girls who are questioning to know those stories.
BWW: Did you always want to be a writer? When did you first take writing seriously?
SB: I started taking writing seriously when I was about nine years old, when I started writing and publishing a newsletter that I distributed to my extended family. I come from a line of writers: my mother is a journalist, my grandmother was the food editor at Better Homes and Gardens. I've always loved to write, and I've always thought of myself as a writer. However, the first time I got published -- an essay in the Juneau Empire in 2003 -- marked the first time I was brave enough to believe others could view me as a writer, too.
BWW: As a middle school teacher, do you think reading skills in kids have declined? How can writers get kids more excited to read?
SB: In my twelve years as a middle school and high school teacher, I've watched interest in reading change, and I've watched reading skills decline. It's a problem. Our kids are adept at technology, but that technology has decreased the average attention span -- a crucial part of getting involved in a book. YA writers (and writers for adults) are responding to that by writing more action at a faster pace, or by increasing the stakes in characters' conflicts (see The Hunger Games). It's interesting to watch how some writers are trying to use drawings, photographs, imitated social media. Writers like John Green use YouTube and blogs to keep a reader following between books.
BWW: Have you considered writing for middle grade readers?
SB: Yes. I have three manuscripts started, and I read parts to my classes sometimes. They enjoy that, and they love giving advice about where the plot should go. One is a sci-fi story, one is a lesbian story, and one is a modernization of a Shakespeare play. I'll finish them all eventually.
BWW: How do you balance teaching, raising your daughter, all of life’s demands and writing?
SB: Um. . .balance?
BWW: Do you have a writing process? What do you do when you get stuck?
SB: I've developed a strict discipline in my writing process, which helps me have a writing life even while I'm teaching and raising my daughter during the day. My work in my MFA program at Naropa helped hone this process, but I've maintained it on my own since I finished the program. Basically, my rule is to write. Every night I am home (I do give myself time off when I'm traveling), I put my daughter to bed, make a cup of coffee, and then refuse to let myself go to bed until I've written 1,500 words. Sometimes, those words are all part of an in-progress novel. Sometimes, I'm working on one or two different essays. Sometimes I'm free-writing. I spend time looking for writing contests and submission requests, and I often research while I'm writing, but I keep to the 1,500-word requirement. It's given me a writing practice.
When I get stuck on a particular piece of writing, I move to another one. I keep a list of my in-progress work, by genre. The free-writing always helps me get unstuck, too.
BWW: What do you do to develop as a writer and hone your skills?
SB: My MFA program at Naropa helped immensely, mostly because it introduced me to other writers, gave me experienced writers as mentors, and challenged me in form and topic. I try to stay part of a writing group, so I have a constant group of people willing to read and respond to my work. Otherwise, I read and read as much as I can. When I read a book, I'm asking myself how the author constructed the text, how I could do something similar.
BWW: You asked the Boulder Book Store to include a section for GLBTQ books. Do you think putting those books in their own section will keep non-GLBTQ readers from buying and reading some excellent books? Even if it does, is it worth the trade-off for GLBTQ readers to have a dedicated section?
SB: My critical thesis for my MFA is on this topic. I think lesbian fiction (note that I'm differentiating it from the other letters in the GLBTQ acronym) is its own genre, an argument supported by feminist and lesbian literary theory. For the same reason I think lesbian history needs to be told, lesbian fiction needs to be visible. Shelving it with the other fiction hides it from people who need to know about it. That includes women who are searching to discover who they are and people who just need to read an excellent book.
It's worth noting that the Boulder Bookstore didn't respond to my email about this. Many bookstores (like Portland's Powell's) shelve lesbian fiction on its own, gay fiction on its own, etc. I think it's an interesting discussion. What I know: part of my own growth and increasing comfort as a lesbian came from my visit to a GLBTQ bookstore in New York (the Oscar Wilde -- now closed). It's important to know where to find the stories.
BWW: You grew up in rural Iowa, traveled extensively and lived in Alaska for ten years. How has seeing the world in so many ways influenced your writing?
SB: It's taught me about people and about varieties of lives. It's made me question the world and examine my own experience. It's pushed me to discover who I am apart from place, since I have so seldom had a place I called "home" as an adult. I'm a richer person and a better writer because I've lived in the world. In all that travel and exuberant living, I've also experienced pain and loss: my writing has become more real, more vulnerable. I've learned that geography matters less than the human heart, less than the interactions between people.
BWW: What is your best advice for other writers?
SB: Write, write, write, write. Read. Then write some more. Go out and live in the world and experience as much as you can handle. Read some more. Then write, write, write, write. Try not to read the reviews, positive or negative.
That's what I'm doing, anyway.
BWW: What’s next for you? Do you have a new book in the works?
SB: I'm always working on something. I've got a book of essays out in the world right now. I'm working on a new novel, and I'm collaborating with my dad, a professional photographer, on a bird guide book.
BWW: Thanks for sharing with us, Sarah.
Karen Hemmerle is an essayist and produced screenwriter, and is currently writing a nonfiction book, Goodbye to the Fat Girl. Read the blog about her book at http://goodbyetothefatgirl.wordpress.com or follow her on Facebook.