Skip to main content


July 7, 2011

Elizabeth Brundage: A STRANGER LIKE YOU, Part I

Posted by Stephen

Bestselling author Elizabeth Brundage discusses a range of topics in this interview that informed her writing of A Stranger Like You, which is now available in paperback. Check out Part II next week!

stranger.JPGQ. Readers and critics have sometimes described your work as "feminist," a word that is notoriously difficult to define and is also laden with lots of overdetermined meanings. How do you respond to the characterization of "feminist" and in what way might it be problematical as applied to your writing?
Elizabeth Brundage: According to most dictionaries, feminism advocates equal political and economic rights for men and women, and, based on this definition, I am certainly a feminist. However, when it comes to my work, I don't have much use for labels and I certainly wouldn't want a reader to not read my novels based on assumptions about my political views. I'm interested in considering and perhaps challenging the assumptions we make based on gender. I fight for my male characters just as much as my female characters and try to explore and disrupt the various cultural nuances that attempt to define us as men and women.
Q. Your previous novel, Somebody Else's Daughter, was set in the Berkshires, a long way from the Hollywood backdrop of A Stranger Like You. How do you think geography influences the characters you write about?
EB: Geography influences my characters a great deal. A sense of place is important in my work, as it is important to me in my life. To some degree, where we live, how we live, defines us in some way-not that it has to be permanent, but it may inform one's perspective at the time. In Somebody Else's Daughter, the Berkshires were meaningful because the characters, for the most part, had chosen to live there-to pursue what they hoped would be an ideal life based on their fantasies of what that might mean. Hollywood is a place that attracts people who are seeking a different version of an idealized fantasy --- the tantalizing possibility of fame and fortune --- and it's a place that can also make people desperate. Back in New Jersey, Hugh Waters is probably considered a pretty reasonable guy, but when his dreams get trampled (to borrow from Yeats-tread softly because you tread on my dreams) it revives a bitter longing from someplace deep and he can't let it go. Having lived in Los Angeles, I wanted to re-create a city that is at once seedy and elegant, gloriously deceptive, brutally dispassionate.
Q. The topic of Judaism has surfaced more than once in your novels. What is your personal relation to Judaism, and how does it inspire you?
Elizabeth Brundage: As a Jew, the idea of faith interests me. Faith requires a suspension of disbelief in the same way that movies do-you must submit to the journey and be open to what comes next. I thought this was an interesting parallel to explore in the novel. Although she was raised in a Jewish home, Hedda is a non-believer. She is somewhat literal in her thinking, not the sort of person who can trust abstractions, and so the notion that there is a God confounds her. In her profession as a producer she has learned to rely on the facts, the numbers, the bottom line-in her business dreams are for amateurs-and yet she wants desperately to believe in something. I think many of us want to believe in something...but this crosses into the novel on many levels. When she buys the car from the bereaved magician, there is a suggestion of magic in the transaction --- the magic is presented, but you must believe in the possibility. If you believe, for example, that the lingering scent of roses in the car indicates the presence of the man's dead wife, then you may also believe that there is something else-God-that decides our destiny. We live in complicated times and religion --- the commitment to faith --- has become, for many, an obscure pursuit. For some it brings solace and comfort, for others guilt and confusion. From the beginning of time, religion has instigated war; the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the "unrest" in Israel are no exception. Religion is about devotion, passion. But it's also, and always has been, about territory.
In America, the idea of passion, of being passionate, has lost some of its charm. I think a kind of emotional anemia has tainted our cultural blood flow-passion, believing in something so intensely that you're willing to stake your life on it --- has somehow become almost naïve. In these hard-line economic times, we have learned, in the way abused children learn, not to expect anything, not even love. To believe in something means you will most likely be betrayed. And these are some of the realities I wanted to explore in this novel.
Q. The literary genre of the thriller is not traditionally known for its enlightened attitudes regarding gender. What were the challenges in using this genre to tell what is, fundamentally, a pro-woman story?
Elizabeth Brundage: Having lived and worked in Los Angeles, first as a film student and then in a variety of industry jobs, I caught a heady whiff of sexism. I thought it would be interesting to write about a female producer who has sacrificed her passion to garner success. When an opportunity arises to make an important film about an Iraqi woman who is accused of adultery and sentenced to death, Hedda decides to take on the project, but it's not because she's getting in touch with her feminist side. On the contrary, she's in love with the film's screenwriter, Tom Foster, who reminds her of who she once was-a filmmaker fueled by conviction and the desire to tell the truth. Hedda Chase is a woman who has grown accustomed to getting her way-she is strong and powerful --- and yet she soon discovers that her freedom is more vulnerable than she ever imagined. Freedom is a gift and, as Americans, we take it for granted (as we should). But the rest of the world doesn't function by our rules. I wanted to draw a parallel between what happens to Hedda, trapped and at the mercy of her captor or God ,and the women in countries like Iraq, where the idea of being free, a free, woman, is elusive and ignored.
Q. How fully do you plot a book before you write it? Are you yourself ever surprised by the direction one of your stories takes?
EB: I am often surprised by the choices my characters make and these, to a large degree, decide the plot. I hate that word "plot" because it sounds like a hole in the ground where you put a dead person, but it is a good idea to have a sense of direction when you write. It's funny because as a kid I had a lousy sense of direction and my parents would criticize me when a two-hour drive became six hours of "touring" --- we didn't have MapQuest back then --- but I like to think, as a novelist, that my sense of direction is strategic. If you know your characters well before you begin, then your instincts will lead you. Instinct, in fact, is an important aspect of writing. You must sense your characters-your instinct is your compass.
When writing a first draft, I like to be surprised. Usually, if I go too far in one direction, my character will tap me on the shoulder and turn me around. Sometimes research will help to inform the direction a book takes. While writing the first draft of A Stranger Like You, I wasn't sure who would steal the car once Hedda was inside the trunk. I had only an inkling of Denny at that point and had decided he was a veteran with PTSD, and then I thought it might be interesting to have him work at an airport parking lot because the gatehouse reminded me of the tight quarters inside a tank. Once you know your characters well they begin to tell you things, and take you to places you never thought you'd go.