When friends write books, it can be tricky. What if it’s no good? What if it’s downright awful? Thankfully, that hasn’t been the case with any of the books written by people I know, and Miranda Pennington’s debut is no exception. A mix between memoir and literary commentary, A Girl Walks Into a Book: What the Brontës Taught Me About Life, Love, and Women’s Work is a love letter to the Brontës woven together with stories of self-discovery, love, friendship, and exploration. In between book launch events, Pennington found time to discuss her bibliomemoir and more with me.
The Rumpus: Back in grad school, I know you wrote a lot of essays, both personal essays and comic essays. What made you decide to do a sort of braided memoir book, and one that tied in your love for the Brontës? Was it something about the form?
Miranda Pennington: I used to always be skeptical when fiction writers said their characters told them what to write, but this book really did begin to emerge almost involuntarily. One of the courses I got to take during my MFA coursework was a research seminar with Patty O’Toole, and after spending a semester researching and reading, I turned out a fourteen-page essay about my life reading the Brontës and thought that was it. The great thing about nonfiction workshops is people are nosy, so they didn’t want to just know, “Reading this book reminded me of my childhood,” they wanted to know all the whats and whens and whys, and how did that make me feel. It was really important to me that the Brontës, their lives, and their work be what really propelled it; I never set out to write a memoir, but I realized that in order to care about my enthusiasm for all things Charlotte, Emily, and Anne, readers needed to know who I was, so I figured out how to braid all those elements together in a way that’s harmonious, I hope!
Rumpus: Were there any advantages/disadvantages to this, as opposed to straight memoir?
Pennington: I really love reading showbiz memoirs—Jane Lynch, Mindy Kaling, Carol Burnett—people whose voices you recognize, so you know you’re actually hearing from them, not just a ghost writer. But if you’re not famous, your life just has to be really interesting in some way. Braided memoir allows writers to showcase our voices and introduce people to what we love in a way that’s accessible, with enough personal experience to make us present as narrator/characters, without the weight of the whole narrative being about what happened to us. Anchoring my coming of age to these timeless books—especially the ones way fewer people have read, like The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Villette—gives this book a non-self-aggrandizing reason for being, which made me feel less self-conscious. Which can only make the writing better.
Rumpus: Why do you think the Brontës have managed to stay so relevant in literature? Is there anyone today who might compare to them?
Pennington: Back in the day, the Brontës’ prose was considered shockingly unrestrained. People found it scandalous. But when you pick their works up today, you have to wade through stylistic choices that most modern novelists wouldn’t make, like taking too long to get the plot moving or total McGuffin characters. The people who really fall in love with the Brontës are the people who hear that fierce energy thundering away behind this somewhat formal, old-fashioned prose. I think it delights us to know that two hundred years ago, there were women who were just as angry and depressed and amused and excited as we are. They may have led very different lives, and made different choices, and been limited by the knowledge that was available to them, but they had the same feelings we do. It’s liberating, and exciting, to feel affirmed in that way. Your feelings of anxiety or inadequacy or discomfort are totally normal, and you just need to read Charlotte’s letters to find confirmation of that.
There are plenty of writers alive now whose work I think we’ll still be revisiting in a hundred years, but there’s also something special about the family unit. The only voices I could think of that might compare in terms of having a unique perspective and this essential family of origin context are Amy Sedaris and David Sedaris, maybe? But that reflects my extreme bias for comedic observational essays, and is perhaps not the answer a more well-read person would give!
Rumpus: I found it so interesting to read about Charlotte’s last two years, where her writing took a backseat to her husband. You mention your own writing and the precariousness that might occur if you have children. Do you think this struggle, this constant tension about carving out our own time, our writing time, and family time, is one that is unique to women writers?
Pennington: I feel like you’d be better equipped to answer this than I am because you have a small human terrorizing your house! I do think that women who write bear the burdens of emotional labor and mental labor, particularly around household-running, more than most men. (I’ll just preempt the inevitable #notallmen by acknowledging there are exceptions, and that I myself refuse to be “in charge” of housework. If it’s not shared equally, I’m paying someone else to do it).
It’s only to the good that women’s voices around motherhood (or the decision not to pursue motherhood) are growing more prevalent and more varied. I think Charlotte made the decision to get married because she was lonely, worried about what would happen to her father if he grew too frail to work, and because Arthur Bell Nicholls had kind of grown on her. I think she was happy, even if it meant she had less time for writing because one of her ambitions was to be a “proper woman.”
It requires significant mental effort to shrug off the internal and external expectations that come with being a writer who’s a woman, I think, whether those have to do with kids or spouses or household decisions or the logistics of other paid and unpaid work. I still worry about the prospect of having kids, given that a bad day or a really crappy commute home sends me straight to the shower for twenty minutes of decompressing time. I understand kids tend not to let you have that autonomy. But maybe my kids would be introverts, too, so once we got through those high-need early years, we’d be okay. I have zero answers in this department.
Rumpus: What do you see our role as writers being, in this current political/social climate?
Pennington: We have to keep our eyes open, tell the truth, and try not to let being afraid stop us. I just finished Sady Doyle’s Trainwreck, which does a tremendous job of unpacking the way we, as a group, look at women in the media, how we celebrate them and punish them and why. I think maintaining our own critical reading skills to question narratives being pushed on us is really important right now.
Rumpus: What are you reading now?
Pennington: I’ve been rereading Mercedes Lackey’s entire Valdemar series for comfort; it’s so all-encompassing and spans decades and Good tends to prevail—it’s medieval fantasy where there’s all different kinds of magic and we get to watch people form happy relationships and overcome their hangups in partnership with magic horses. It’s… it’s not what the Brontës would do, probably, but it’s a self-care choice.
Rumpus: If you could recommend five books to anyone, what would they be?
Pennington: Impossible! There are as many kinds of readers as there are books! But, if bibliomemoir is up your alley, my favorite iterations of the genre are: My Life in Middlemarch, H Is for Hawk, Out of Sheer Rage, this new one, My Life with Bob, and what the heck, read Shirley!
Rumpus: What inspires you?
Pennington: I tend to figure out I need to write something down when I’m going in circles or can’t let go of a particular phrase or idea. I really like to be immersed in things. I can’t have too many irons in the fire if I’m going to make significant headway on something big, so to get inspired I tend to book a weekend away—or as long as I can manage—someplace where I can take a stack of books, get in a good wake up-shower-work-relax routine and block out the noise. For about six months after I turned in A Girl Walks Into a Book my mind was totally blank and I thought Oh no, that was it, I used up all my material, but then just as with that initial Brontë essay, I revisited a draft I could never get to work—it was really unsatisfying, because I couldn’t get to the root of why I had started trying to write this essay. It kept poking me in the back of the brain until I yanked it into the foreground and started unpacking it. And now it’s my next book project! So I guess being annoyed inspires me, eventually.
Rumpus: What advice do you have for other writers?
Pennington: I give this advice to my students all the time—find some way to get low-stakes practice, whether it’s a blog, or essays, or a zine, or a writing group with your friends. Get creative in how you visualize what you’re writing—I come up with these mildly deranged drawings or graphic organizers when I’m trying to hammer out the scope of a project. Save your crappy first drafts—in a document called TRASH if you have to! Don’t just sit down to a blank page without having spent some time mulling things over. Take a walk, take a shower, eat something, so you don’t just sit there staring at that white space, thrashing around while you try to come up with the perfect first sentence. Write a terrible first sentence and trust that Future You will be able to improve on it eventually.
Author photograph © Eric Titner.
Miranda will read from A Girl Walks Into a Book with Melissa Scholes Young and Iggy McGovern this week at 2 p.m. on Saturday, October 14th, 2017 at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland.