It’s a pleasure to welcome debut author Jennifer S. Brown to WFW today! I’ve been waiting a long time to introduce you to her and to her book, Modern Girls. I’ll be honest, I saw the cover and knew I needed to read it and to meet the author. My CP even emailed me the cover months ago and wrote, “This looks like it’s up your alley.”
Am I that transparent?
The best thing about being an author is knowing other authors and learning their personal stories. Today, Jennifer shares with us how Modern Girls came to be, at a time when carving out time to herself went from the last thing on her mind, to the first.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Please welcome Jennifer S. Brown to WFW!
A Funny Thing Happened on My Way to Real Life: I Wrote a Novel
by Jennifer S. Brown
My first novel didn’t sell. Women’s fiction. Contemporary story. It went nowhere. This was before my active involvement on Facebook, and I didn’t realize at the time that not selling a first novel is actually rather common. Instead, I was sad and, yes, bitter, and I knew I’d never try writing a novel again. A world of possibilities existed for me besides writing… if only I could figure out what they were.
As a stay-at-home mother, I didn’t have a job to bury myself in. So I threw myself into stay-at-home tasks. I decided my kids’ elementary school needed a newsletter. So I started a newsletter. And what self-respecting school doesn’t have a literary journal? So I founded a journal. My daughter wanted to be a Girl Scout, but no troop was available in our neighborhood. So I volunteered to become a leader and form a troop. I had free time left over so I allowed myself to become obsessed with genealogy. You have no idea how many hours can be lost to genealogical research. Always a new rabbit hole to fall into.
A strange thing happened while I was busy doing these other things: A story began to form in my mind. With every new genealogical discovery, I found tidbits that I thought would make great elements in a story. My great-grandmother protested the czar in Russia? My great-great grandparents had eleven people living in one apartment on the Lower East Side of New York? My great-uncle was fired from his job at City University of New York for being a Communist? These were the kind of morsels that begged to be included in a novel. But if I were to use these elements, I’d be writing a historical novel. I’d never written historical fiction before, and I didn’t know where to begin. Not that I was going to write a novel. I was done with that.
My time was spoken for. I kept busy working with the kids. I managed a team of fifth graders who supervised the production of the literary journal, which was open for submissions from the whole school. Older kids helped younger kids transcribe their stories. Poems were crafted. Essays polished. That determination! Seeing how the children persevered was inspiring. At every Girl Scout meeting, we recited the law, and I’d cringe a little when we got to “I will do my best to be courageous and strong.” I quit after one novel didn’t sell. Was that the example I wanted to set for these girls? And while working on the newsletter, I rediscovered the joy of fact-checking. From fact-checking to out-and-out research is not a big step. Just for fun, I began to look into New York in the 1930s. Not that I was going to write a novel. No. I was merely curious.
Even though I was still sure that my novel-writing days were over, I casually perused the website of Grub Street, a writing center in Boston, because why not? To my surprise, there was a weekend seminar on writing historical fiction. Figuring I had nothing to lose, I signed up.
The funny thing about not writing a novel is that sometimes it doesn’t work out. That class was the final nudge I needed. I wanted to write. The great thing about being busy is my free time became that much more precious and now I knew how to spend it. Eagerly I came to my computer to write and research. Each day I found pockets of time to work. I wrote. I researched. I wrote some more. The important thing, though, is I was enjoying it again. I was writing a story because I was fascinated by an idea. I wasn’t worried about publishing it. All I wanted to do was to get it onto paper because I was in love with the history, with my characters, and I needed to see where it would all end up. And a year later, I had the first draft of Modern Girls.
Wouldn’t it be great to say that the finished product was a perfect novel and it sold instantly? It didn’t. My agent and I spent over a year revising it. Then my editor and I worked on it a lot more. But I couldn’t be prouder of where my novel ended up. Modern Girls is the outcome of a full life. Sometimes life needs to slow down for a writer to write; but for me, life had to speed up so I could find the story I had to tell.
Jennifer S. Brown considers herself a Floridian, having moved to Miami as a three-year-old and spending the majority of her formative years in Miami Beach. But then again, she’ll also identify as a New Yorker after earning a BFA in filmmaking from New York University and sticking around the City to work in publishing and—for a very brief stint—at a talent agency (and to be technical about it, she was born in New York City). Her passion for Seattle developed when she earned her MFA in creative writing from the University of Washington and then settled into a job as an editor at, what was then billed as, “that little online bookstore,” aka Amazon.com. She now lives and writes in the suburbs of Boston.
Her fiction, articles, and essays have appeared in numerous publications, and she was the winner of the 2005 World’s Best Short-Short Story Contest (judged by Robert Olen Butler) in the Southeast Review. Her creative nonfiction piece, “The Codeine of Jordan,” published in the Bellevue Literary Review, was selected as a notable essay in 2012’s The Best American Travel Writing and included in volume 9 of The Best Women’s Travel Writing.
Her first novel, Modern Girls, set in 1935 in the Lower East Side of New York, is about a Russian-born Jewish mother and her American-born unmarried daughter. Each discovers that she is expecting, although the pregnancies are unplanned and unwanted, in this story about women’s roles, standards, and choices, set against the backdrop of the impending war. Modern Girls is published by NAL and available everywhere books are sold.