An Interview with Elizabeth Brundage
Author of Someone Else's Daughter and The Doctor's Wife
Elizabeth Brundage is the author of two novels: The Doctor’s Wife (very good) and Somebody Else’s Daughter (exceptional).
MostlyFiction's Guy Savage recently interviewed Ms. Brundage.
EB: In the Berkshire mountains of Massachusetts a group of families is connected through the prestigious Pioneer prep school. Into this community enters Nate Gallagher, a teacher and struggling writer haunted by the daughter he gave up for adoption years ago. The girl, Willa—now a teenager and one of Nate's students—lives with her adoptive parents, Joe and Candace, who have nurtured her with their affection and prosperity. When Willa wins a community service internship and begins working at a local women's shelter, her friendship with a troubled prostitute raises questions about her own biological past. Despite her parent's love and care, Willa can't shake her feelings of confusion and abandonment, and Joe and Candace are too preoccupied with their crumbling marriage to realize her unhappiness.
The characters become entwined as first scandal and then tragedy strikes. As the story draws to its gripping conclusion, each character must make a decision that defines who they are. Somebody Else's Daughter is a suspenseful tale and a tightly woven psychological drama that examines, as Joe Golding observes, how "in a matter of seconds, based on the fickle inclinations of fate, your life could change forever."
MF: How did your own experiences as an adopted child and as a mother of daughters contribute to SOMEBODY ELSE'S DAUGHTER?
EB: I like to call myself a happily adopted person and consider my real parents to be the adoring couple who adopted me when I was a month old. I have always wanted to write something about being adopted and it took me a long time to figure out what that would be. I think adoption is a good way to explore identity and, in a larger context, the ways in which we attempt to define ourselves in an ever-changing culture. The idea of this novel grew out of my experiences as an adoptee, as well as my experiences as a mother raising children in a complicated world.
MF: The book’s title meshes with the ideas of adoption and also the theme of pornography and the exploitation of women. Any comments on that?
EB: Yes, the title of the book refers to the sense of anonymity that often accompanies such arrangements and transactions. As an adoptee, Willa Golding is still “somebody else’s daughter,” no matter how much she loves her parents. That’s just the reality of the situation. It doesn’t mean she dreams of running off and finding them. When an adopted child becomes curious about his/her biological roots, it’s not a reflection on his/her relationship with his/her “adoptive” parents – it is not a measure of success and I don’t think it’s fair to interpret it that way. I think it would be unnatural for children not to wonder. These are the sort of thoughts and feelings I wanted to write about in the novel. I wanted to show how Nate Gallagher had a hard time giving up his baby, even though he knew he had to, and that the loss informed his entire life. I also wanted to show how Candace and Joe’s lives had been informed by the adoption of Willa, a child born to drug addicts, and explore how they thought about that, and what they did with the information and how being parents had encouraged them to grow and change. For Willa, not knowing much about her biological roots has never mattered very much to her and when she finally does hear the truth about her biological parents, it sets her off on an uncertain journey that makes her question her identity, who she really is. Making a family is hard work, no matter what the circumstances are, and deep emotions guide us, for better or worse.
Regarding the title, I was also interested in the sense of anonymity that taints pornography – and I saw in Pearl, the young Polish prostitute, an opportunity to challenge the idea that those sorts of women are always somebody else’s daughter. When Willa experiences her own violation and, as a result, lapses into certain dangerous behaviors, she is no longer an anonymous whore on the street – she is somebody’s daughter, she’s your daughter, and mine.
EB: In my first novel, I thought it would be interesting to ask questions of my characters that pertained to the subject of reproductive rights. As the wife of a physician, I wanted to write about a medical marriage, its inherently frustrating dynamic – too much work, not enough sleep, no time together – and all of the challenges that come along with it. I wasn’t trying to make any grand political statements, but I did hope that the novel might inspire good conversation and debate on the subject of abortion rights. In this new novel, I did a lot of thinking about how we are born, how we are raised, how we are taught, the various ways in which our perceptions are wired and engaged, and how we create our identities. Sex plays a big role in who we are, how we live, how we love. Pornography is a cultural red herring that I found intriguing, especially in light of our easy access to it on the internet. I wanted to explore similar themes that I’d considered in the first novel: representations of the female form and how one interpretation produces art, the other exploitation. Teenage sexuality seems to be the curve ball that nobody likes to talk about. For example, I thought it would be interesting to compare Teddy’s sexual experiences with Willa and Pearl, to evaluate the similarities and differences.
MF: If anyone is a moral center of the novel, it’s artist Claire Squire. Would you agree or disagree with that statement?
EB: I guess it’s hard for me to say. Morality is a word that everybody defines in their own way, in their own terms. I would bet that if you questioned Jack Heath or Joe Golding, they would each submit that they were “moral” people. Claire Squire is a character I admire because she has learned to be honest with herself, finally, after years of deluding herself and running from her past. When a person comes to terms with who they are, it is something close to being free, and I think this happens for Claire in the novel.
MF: One of the things I really enjoyed about the novel is its setting—the Berkshires—with its sharp socioeconomic divisions. At what point did you decide to set the novel in this location? Why did you select the Berkshires?
EB: I have lived in and around the Berkshires for many years and it’s my favorite place to be. It’s incredibly beautiful, and of course there are the cultural landmarks like Tanglewood and Shakespeare and Company and Jacob’s Pillow, to name only a few. There are lots of interesting people in the Berkshires. There are the summer residents, and the year-rounders, the “townies” and the “intellectuals.” It makes for a very unique and interesting social landscape and I thought it would be a fun place for readers to spend some time, getting to know the all the players.
MF: Claire Squire and Joe Golding are complete opposites on the issue of pornography. Through their relationship, Joe seems to gain a new perspective on pornography. Would you agree or disagree with that statement?
EB: Yes, I would agree. Joe is at a critical place in his life. He sees himself as something of a failure, even though he’s made a ton of money and has everything a person could ask for. He is a man who wants to believe, to have faith, and yet he is consumed with doubt. His life, he thinks, has been one compromise after another. And I think there’s some shame mixed in there too. He loves his daughter more than life itself; he would do anything for her – anything but tell her the truth about who he is, what he does for a living. When Willa starts showing signs of becoming a woman it throws him. He can’t quite process the fact that she’s a sexual person, a woman coming into her own body – and not terribly different from the women in his films. Almost unwittingly, he enters into a relationship with Claire Squire, but not for his usual reasons, and almost immediately he feels unsettled with her, uncertain. She is the first woman who has ever really challenged him, and he’s not sure how to handle it, and he doesn’t really like it. I may be wrong, but I don’t think it’s really about the sex for him, it’s something else. He wants to connect with her intellectually, yet she rejects him, and it nudges him into a state of philosophical reflection that ultimately sets him free.
MF: Your characters are extremely well drawn, and yet since they often fit standard socio-economic roles, they could have been created as stock characters. (I’m thinking of the prostitute, Petra, for example). All too often, prostitutes devolve into clichéd "types." Petra, on the other hand, is a complex character whose actions are hard to fathom at times. You avoid simplistic characters and clichés. Were your characters developed before you began writing the novel, or did their creation grow with the novel?
EB: The character of Petra definitely grew within the novel as I was writing it. She came to me as a waif-like ballet dancer who’d become addicted to crystal meth and found herself suddenly working as a prostitute to maintain her habit. One thing led to another and suddenly she’s in too deep. I found her to be so sad.
Most of the characters in this novel grew as I worked. I didn’t know much about them when we first set out together. I wasn’t sure. I knew certain details, those socio-economic realities – but who they were, how they thought and felt about things, evolved over time.
MF: In the book’s acknowledgements, you mention the article “A Cruel Edge” by Robert Jennings, Ph.D. Would you please describe the article and how it influenced your novel.
EB: In the article “A Cruel Edge,” Robert Jennings, PhD talks about the rigorous routine of debasement that occurs inside the porn industry and its physical and emotional toll on the female actors. It’s pretty shocking. And yet, when I spoke with my contact in the industry, he seemed like a pretty reasonable guy and felt that most of the women he worked with genuinely wanted to be there. He did admit that it was not uncommon for some of the women to throw up or accidently relieve themselves after the sex. I do remember him saying earnestly that “they love the sex,” a line that I included in the novel.
MF: In the 21st century, pornography remains a topical issue. On one side of the fence, there’s the idea of free speech and on the other, the exploitation of women. SOMEBODY ELSE'S DAUGHTER seems to land solidly against pornography. Would you agree or disagree with that statement?
EB: I think that pornography diminishes both women and men, but that’s not why I wrote the novel and I’m not really sure how I would vote on the subject. I think it’s complicated. I guess I would say that my goal as a writer is to, hopefully, inspire people to talk about some of these issues and try to figure them out. In the book, Joe Golding says that pornography exists in our culture and has existed for centuries, therefore it must be necessary. But what purpose does it actually serve? How do we define that purpose? That’s when you get into the tough, murky places that are most troubling, when things are happening around you that you cannot explain, and people get hurt because of them, and you think they should end, but they don’t – they continue. Why? I don’t have an answer for you. I’m not sure why people watch porn, but a lot of them do. I’m not sure if it’s about sex, or something else – something more complicated. I don’t think you can simply talk about pornography without talking about so many other things, like the way we have defined these roles for ourselves as men and women, based on an antiquated paradigm, and how little these roles have actually changed over the centuries. I think we need to look at the way we encourage certain behaviors, the ways in which we interpret our roles as women and men, the expectations we have of one another. The way we evaluate people, categorize people, classify people. The assumptions we make about people based on a handful of superficial facts.
MF: There’s one great scene in the novel when Joe Golding implies that feminism is passé: “a seventies term,” a “word that’s a relic” that no longer has relevance. Claire later considers the word "feminism" and wonders if Joe is correct. What relevance does feminism have in the 21st century?
EB: Equality is always relevant. Feminism is a word that has become elusive in today’s world. I don’t think people really understand what it means and that’s what I was getting at in the novel. It’s an important word, though, and it’s loaded with the history of a struggle that still exists today. For example, although the Equal Pay Act was passed in 1963, women are still not paid the same wage as men for the same work – women earn 77 cents of the dollar a man makes. There’s an act awaiting action by the senate – The Fair Pay Act – which will hopefully go through – but it’s important to understand this lurking disparity in relation to the times we’re living in. I’m glad you mentioned this scene because I think it’s the heart and soul of the novel.
MF: Claire’s art focuses on women. At what point did you decide to add descriptions of her work to the novel?
EB: I wanted to make it clear to the reader what her art looked like and I thought it would be a good way to metaphorically introduce each new section of the book. The descriptions of Claire’s work came out of my research of artists like Kiki Smith, Louise Bourgeois, and George Segal, among others.
MF: What’s next?
Read our review of SOMEBODY ELSE'S DAUGHTER at MostlyFiction.com