Laura Brodie‘s The Widow’s Season hits the ground running with a smart, no-nonsense sentence that pulls readers immediately into the novel’s central conflict: “Sarah McConnell’s husband had been dead three months when she saw him in the grocery store.” It’s not the first time Sarah has seen David since he disappeared — a kayaking trip, a flash flood, two others killed, his body never found — but it’s the first time she’s come nearly face-to-face with him, and he quickly disappears down the next aisle and out of sight. Is her imagination getting the better of her? Is it possible that David is still alive? It’s no coincidence that The Widow’s Season starts out with Halloween in the air, but while the book begins as a ghost story of sorts, it also develops into a romance, with a unique love triangle, and at one point even seems poised to venture into crime thriller territory. Throughout any twists and turns, however, The Widow’s Season stays centered on Sarah’s unfolding grief and her slow growth out of it and toward an unknown, unknowable future.
Brodie’s debut novel was sparked by a chapter from her dissertation on widows in English literature — a chapter about dead (or pretending-to-be-dead) husbands who watch over their wives — and an early manuscript won the 2005 Faulkner Wisdom prize for best novel-in-progress (chosen for the award by novelist Michael Malone, also interviewed on this site). Brodie grew up in Raleigh, NC, and now lives in Lexington, VA, where she teaches at Washington and Lee. She is also the author of Breaking Out: VMI and the Coming of Women.
Later this week, Brodie will visit her native Raleigh for a Friday, July 10, signing at Quail Ridge Books. In anticipation of that reading, she took some time to chat about the book.
Art Taylor: The Widow’s Season not only offers a series of plot twists but also hints toward various plot types. How early did you have a clear idea of the novel’s ultimate shape and direction? And since we readers are teased from the first chapter, the first page, about whether Sarah’s husband has really died or not, how certain were you throughout the writing process about whether her sightings were real or imagined?
Laura Brodie: When I started this novel as a part-time project six years ago, I had only the first hundred pages in mind. That’s about one third of the book. I knew I wanted a story about a widow who believes she is being haunted by her husband’s ghost, with the possibility that the husband didn’t die at all, since his body was never found after a kayaking accident.
But as the story evolved I thought more about daydreams and night dreams, reality vs. fantasy, and the imaginative worlds that readers and writers engage with daily. So I began to explore a third possibility — that the events in my plot were all an illusion sparked by a grieving woman’s mind.
I didn’t know where the ideas would take me. As the plot evolved I decided to follow the holiday seasons; to introduce ghosts at Halloween, babies at Christmas, love on Valentine’s Day. The novel concludes as Easter approaches, which fits the idea of the widow coming back to life. But the ending was a struggle — I tried about six alternatives. When my agent finally sent the original manuscript to editors, the ending was ambiguous; it was left to the reader to decide whether the husband had been dead or alive all that time.
Most of the editors didn’t like that. We got a lot of passes explaining that they loved the opening and the writing was beautiful, but they wanted closure. Eventually I went back and tried a new ending which I now prefer, because of the tenderness in its tone.
To a great degree, the novel is an exploration of grief, but it also seems to be an examination of the road not traveled. Sarah and her husband have been married 17 years when he disappears, and each of them have seen their respective dreams either compromised or thwarted somehow — David’s desire to be an artist, for example, or Sarah’s longing for motherhood. What themes were you particularly interested in exploring here, and why? And how did the writing of the book reaffirm or change your attitude toward those themes and questions?
I was in my late thirties when I started writing, and had been married for the same 17-year span as my characters. In my experience, when most Americans approach forty they start to question the path their life is on, and whether they should make major changes. That’s the theme that interested me most in this book — wanting to start again.
I lived with a group of nine women in college, and while I was writing this novel all of them were taking new directions in their lives: new careers, new marriages, giving up work to spend more time with kids. For me, writing a novel was a new direction and a fulfillment of dreams, and as for my characters, I tried to create a couple who were asking what had happened to the dreams from their college days, and wondering how to get back on track.
You mention the nine women from college and the new directions they were exploring. A potentially related question: Your previous book was Breaking Out: VMI and the Coming of Women. While there are obvious differences between the books, gender issues clearly play a central role in each of them: the choices women make, the challenges they face, the expectations placed upon them. In what ways are the two books covering similar territory and in what ways are their explorations of this issue different?
Thus far all of my books, and most of the college courses I teach, have dealt with women’s issues. I’m especially interested in women who don’t fit social norms. My dissertation on widows in English literature started out with an article on Jane Austen called “Society and the Superfluous Female.” It considered how Jane Austen’s characters respond to women (in that case, widows) who don’t really fit in. In my first book, Breaking Out, the female cadets at the Virginia Military Institute were anomalous figures in a masculine culture. In The Widow’s Season, the main character knows that society doesn’t know how to respond to widows. My next book, a memoir called Love in a Time of Homeschooling, which HarperCollins will publish in April, also deals with women doing something outside the box — I pulled my eldest daughter from the public schools for one year when she was ten, to give her a year of community based learning full of writing. We didn’t fit into the homeschooling norms or the traditional school mode, but it was a great year.
On the subject of your teaching: The Widow’s Season is rich with quotes from and allusions to English literature. Were there certain novels that particularly inspired or influenced you here? Were there any works you had to avoid? And, since academia figures into the book at least as a general backdrop, how did you own teaching impact your writing here?
Because I am an English professor and a lover of language, my mind is full of quotes, which also fill the mind of my main character, Sarah. I’m actually more familiar with poetry than novels — when I was younger I planned to become a poet, and I sometimes care about the rhythm of a sentence more than its content. English majors who read The Widow’s Season will recognizelines that echo Wordsworth, Keats, Dylan Thomas, Wallace Stevens — there are over thirty allusions in the book, including references to several plays by Shakespeare. But the only novel I had in mind while writing was Julia Glass’s Three Junes, because she handles widowed characters with so much depth and sensitivity. The immediate inspiration for the plot came from a chapter in my dissertation on dead husbands. I studied 17th-century plays where husbands fake their deaths in order to spy on their wives — for example, Chapman’s The Widow’s Tears, and Moliere’s La Malade Imaginaire — that got me thinking about ghosts watching their widows, like the dead king in Hamlet, and conduct books that told widows to imagine their husbands were watching and judging. A quote from a 16th-century conduct books provides the epigraph for the novel. Those genres influenced me more than contemporary fiction.
You’ve already talked briefly about your next book, the homeschooling book. Is there another novel in the works as well? Have you discovered a preference for writing either fiction or nonfiction?
What comes next is up in the air. I’ve written fifty pages of a new novel, but I also have a few nonfiction ideas that are occupying more and more of my thoughts. When the ideas for a book start running through my mind so frequently that I begin to feel restless and anxious, that’s when I know I have to write the book.
With fiction, I enjoy the fact that I am accountable to no individual but myself. Sure, a writer is accountable to readers and editors, but a novelist has vast imaginative freedom. When I wrote my first book about VMI, I felt accountable to a whole community. I was describing a college that many people loved (or hated), a place where my husband still works — so I wanted to be both respectful and critical, and that was a difficult balance. Now, in my upcoming memoir I’ve written openly about my family and town, focusing on my eldest daughter, and I’m painfully aware of my obligation to preserve her privacy, while also writing a compelling story. I’m perfectly comfortable revealing my own worst side in a memoir, but I want to be protective of the people around me.
Fiction appeals to me right now as a space where I can let my imagination roam without being tethered to reality.