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July 12, 2011

Elizabeth Brundage: A STRANGER LIKE YOU, Part II

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 I here.

stranger.JPGQ. Like Hugh Waters, you have taken your turns at scriptwriting. How did your experiences in that kind of writing influence your work on A Stranger Like You?

EB: In college I began studying film and directed my first 16mm films, which were pretty weird. I have always been interested in images and how images convey meaning, and film is an intriguing medium in which to explore these interests. I wrote my first feature screenplay in my senior year at Hampshire College and that script earned my acceptance to the American Film Institute as a screenwriting fellow. In the novel, the "conservatory" is based on AFI --- a really special place for young filmmakers, and an extraordinary opportunity for me at the time. Screenplays are highly structured inventions, and it was there that I learned how to tell a story that had a beginning, a middle and an end, a structure that is deceptively simple. Screenwriting classes differ from fiction-writing classes in that they stress the architecture of a story over anything else --- an underlying premise is played out over time. A character confronts a problem and has to deal with it and in doing so experiences a change. In fiction, the focus is on character. What I try to do in my novels is to combine these two elements; strong characterization within a structure that has a sort of domino effect progression-one scene pushing through to the next toward an inevitable resolution.
After AFI, I continued to write screenplays. One day I met with an agent who had liked one of my scripts. She looked at me curiously and asked if I'd ever written fiction. I had tried writing prose in college, but not much had come of it. At her suggestion, I went home and wrote my first short story, and that was the beginning of my life as a fiction writer.
Q. For the time being, at least, you've chosen novel writing over screenwriting. Why?
EB: I like writing novels because you create an entire world on the page. As a kid, I used to play for hours down in our basement setting up "apartments" and creating lives and situations and problems with my dolls and stuffed animals. That sense of play is a natural way to work things out. Writing fiction is not all that different. For me, as a writer, I like to work out the knots with words. Fiction is a place where anything is possible. Novels take the reader into a landscape that is at once familiar and unique. I especially like the novel form as it allows for a deeper analysis of a character. I like the almost intimate relationship that occurs between writer and reader when two imaginations collide, when the reader "translates" the writer's version of the story into his own.
Q. Through the character of Denny Rios, you explore the effects of posttraumatic stress disorder. What was it like to research his character, and what did you learn?
EB: Here's how Denny came about. We were having trouble with our television reception and called DirecTV for help. They sent someone over and when he got to the door I had just come out of the shower and had a towel on my head. I answered the door and apologized for my appearance and he made a comment that it was okay, he was used to "towel heads." He had returned from his tour in Iraq a few months before and had a limp and hadn't gotten his health benefits yet and was angry about it. Although most of the time he complained about his experience, it was obvious to me that he'd been an excellent soldier. He was fastidious in his way of working. I could see that, for a period of time, he was accustomed to going into a situation and dealing with it until it was resolved. It wasn't until months later that I decided to base a character on him and regretted never getting his name. On another occasion when we were having a second TV installed, DirecTV sent two other young men who had also been to Iraq. I noticed that all three had similar qualities. Something in their faces told me they'd see things they'd never fully be able to process. Thus, the character of Denny was born. I began to look for veterans to interview and was told about an organization called Soldier's Heart in Troy, New York, that helps veterans cope with their experiences. They urged me to read a book called War and the Soul, by Edward Tick, which explores strategies for coping with posttraumatic stress disorder. Through Soldier's Heart I met a young marine named Sean who had served in the first invasion in 2003 and who helped me to further understand the dynamics of being at war and the difficulties that often surface when coming home.
Q. America's involvement in Iraq exerts a powerful force over events in your novel, both through the character of Denny and through the film that Hedda makes in Abu Dhabi. Why did you choose to give so much attention to the Middle East in what is, in most respects, a Hollywood story?
EB: War is a kind of theater. The invasion of Iraq was an enormous, high-budget production. I wanted to draw parallels between Iraq and Hollywood-the notion that conflict can be manufactured and managed by a select few. My research led me into various directions. I came upon a YouTube video that showed from beginning to end an Iraqi woman getting stoned to death. The fact that it is a rare occurrence condoned by religious extremists does not dismiss its significance, and the rationale that supports such condemnation seems to say something about the country's overall regard for women. Through the character of Fatima Kassim I was able to address some of these issues and to consider how behavior like this speaks to the larger global community and why nothing is done to stop it. The why is what keeps me up at night. It's why Hedda makes her movie and it's one of the reasons I wanted to write this book.
Q. One of our favorite scenes in A Stranger Like You takes place in Chapter 6, when Hedda tries to explain why she is offended by the rough sex scene in The Promise. What were your thoughts and motivations when you were writing that part of the novel?
EB: In this country, women have fought hard for their rights, and we are still fighting. We have fought for the right to vote, the right to work, the right to fair pay, the right to govern our own bodies and yet, incredibly, we are continually facing new challenges. From a very young age, children are fed images of women, from the housewives in dish soap commercials to the slutty chicks in the jeans ads. Advertisements do more than sell products. They sell lifestyle; behavior. And so do movies. But of course movies are not real. They are manufactured representations and this is something I wanted to consider thematically in the novel as a whole.
Q. Although the ending of A Stranger Like You could be a good deal bleaker than it is, it isn't quite a happy ending, either. What made you choose such a dissonant tone for your final pages?
EB: The ending of the novel is a bit mysterious, even to me. Hedda has been saved and is told she will be fine, but she too suffers from PTSD. She survived an ordeal that will not be easy to forget. It doesn't just go away. The memories linger. The nurse tells her that she'll be back to her old self in no time, but that phrase is elusive at best, not to mention patronizing. Hedda can't remember who she was, not really she can't. Something has been lost. I guess what I'm getting at is that we have become so accustomed to witnessing violence --- on television, in movies and video games, in the news-that we're somewhat desensitized to it, and I want to remind the reader that violence is not something you recover from. Yes, time passes and you learn to move on, but you don't recover.
Q. In chapter nine of A Stranger Like You, guests at a party come up with four-word "X leads to Y" premises to describe movie plots and their lives. What is the four-word premise of your life so far and why?
EB: Every screenplay has an underlying premise that promises some kind of progression-one condition leads to another. It is a way that screenwriters begin to think about the story they want to tell and one of the first things I learned in film school. For me, I suppose the premise of my life so far is: Hard work leads to success. Writing is hard work. There is just no way around it. You have to put in the hours. You have to think things through. You spend a lot of time in a little room at your desk getting the words down on the page. I think it's easy to idealize the life of a writer, but there is absolutely nothing ideal about it. You think publishing will make it easier; it doesn't. In fact, it makes it harder. Facing the blank page every day is at once a privilege and a misery. You just have to keep moving forward, one word at a time.
Q. What, for you, is the best part of writing?
EB: Writing is a solitary profession. Months may pass and you see few people outside of your family members; you may find yourself talking at length to your dog. The process of writing a novel from start to finish is long and difficult, but when you are finished there is no better feeling. You feel, well, released. You feel as if you have stated your case. You have done well by your characters. Perhaps you will be redeemed. There is a great sense of accomplishment. I would have to say that I love that feeling; it's what keeps me doing it. I can't imagine doing anything else.