Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Guest Blogger: Laura Brodie

Yesterday, I reviewed THE WIDOW'S SEASON by Laura Brodie -- I absolutely loved it! I am so happy that Ms. Brodie has written a guest post especially for Booking Mama's readers. I found it especially interesting to learn more about the background for her beautiful novel.

The Literary Roots Behind The Widow’s Season

Dead husbands might not seem like a promising topic for a novel---too creepy, too morbid, too, well… weird. But in my graduate school days, when I was researching widows in English literature (think Jane Austen’s novels and Chaucer’s Wife of Bath) the husbands proved just as intriguing as their widows. In fact, I got hooked on plays from the 1600s where husbands fake their deaths in order to spy on their wives.

Moliere, Chapman, Behn, Steele (not exactly household names today) all created male characters who wanted to preview their deaths, to see how their wives would behave. Inevitably the women behaved badly, taking new lovers and preparing to hand over the family property, until their husbands stepped from the wings, saying Aha! These plays reveal a lot about men’s anxiety over money and women’s sexuality, but what I liked most was the voyeurism. It made me think of ghosts in literature who watch their widows, like the dead king in Hamlet, who is just as angry about his widow’s sex life as his own murder.

From there I started reading conduct books and educational treatises from the Renaissance forward, which told widows to imagine that their husbands were watching—kind of like Santa Claus, “he knows if you’ve been bad or good so be good for goodness sake!” Or kind of like God. Mary Wollstonecraft, who wrote the feminist classic A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, said that good widows imagine that the eyes of the husband are joined with the Eye of God in one big patriarchal gaze. Bad widows, according to Wollstonecraft, forget their husbands, neglect their children and fall prey to fortune hunters.

Then came my first attempt at writing a novel, and I knew that I wanted to use these ideas from my research. But should I create a husband who faked his death, or a ghost who watches his widow, or just a widow with a grieving mind who imagines things that aren’t there? And then I thought: why not combine all three? Why not try, for three hundred pages, to sustain the ambiguity between life and death, imagination and reality? When people are grieving, a lot of those lines get blurred anyway.

And so, over the course of many years, I wrote The Widow’s Season, a novel where the husband’s status is constantly in question. In fact, in my original draft I never answered the question. The husband just walked away at the end, and I let readers decide for themselves whether he was dead or alive all that time. I enjoy ambiguity, but lots of readers and editors don’t. My agent couldn’t sell a book that didn’t have closure. She tried for a year. The current ending is not a violation of my vision, because it shares my own understanding of what was happening with the husband. Still, I would have been fine with an open ending, because I don’t think a writer has to share everything. Sometimes the reader can use her or his own imagination.

I’m curious about what readers out there think. Do you like ambiguous endings, that don’t solve the puzzle, or do you prefer closure? I’d love to hear more people’s thoughts on that.


Pam said...

I find it depends on the novel. Often, I think it depends on the characters. If I'm totally invested in them by the end of the book, I'd rather have an ambiguous ending that I can imagine to fit my own interpretation of the story than an ending that doesn't ultimately satisfy me. There does have to be some sense of closure for me though; an abrupt ending doesn't work but an ambiguous ending is okay.

brodiel said...

I agree with Pam about abrupt endings. I think the pacing of an ending is important, and very hard to master.
Incidentally, I was just giving a talk yesterday where a reader really wished I had left the ambiguous ending, because she is also a writer--and she loves to use her own imagination to help finish a book. But I've had other readers say the book is a page turner because you want to find out what is really going on--and they would feel cheated if the "truth" was not revealed at the end.

bermudaonion said...

I loved reading about how the author came up with the idea for her novel. I generally like closure in my novels, but do find some ambiguous endings satisfying.

Beth F said...

I'm with the others. I'm fine with an open, ambiguous ending that allows you to think about the possibilities. But I don't like a book that just ends and leaves the reader with the feeling that the author didn't know what to do with the characters anymore so he or she simply stopped writing.

I plan on reading Brodie's novel very soon.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I love the story about the plays from the 1600s that have husbands faking their deaths so they could spy on their wives!

For endings, I like things tied up in a bow for me. But I suppose that's why I find children's books so appealing! :--)

Beth Kephart said...

This is an excellent guest post — it tells us something about process and beginnings and the shaping of things. Thank you.

Anna said...

Now I can't wait to read this one. What a fascinating idea for a story, and I enjoyed reading how she got the idea.

Diary of an Eccentric

Serena said...

This provides great back story for the novel.

Anonymous said...

I am very excited to read this novel! The background information makes me want to read the literature that inspired the novel as well!

As far as endings go, I do like closure in my novels. I love finishing a novel and reflecting on how all the pieces fit together perfectly!

carolsnotebook said...

I, too, like a sense of closure, but that doesn't mean it all has to be wrapped up with a tidy bow.