Figuring It Out: A Conversation with Rosellen Brown


Rosellen Brown published her first book, Some Deaths in the Delta and Other Poems, in 1970. She’s since published twelve more: two other collections of poetry, one of short stories, one of miscellany, and, as of this month, five novels, including the best-seller Before and After, which was made into a movie starring Meryl Streep and Niam Nelson. Throughout her career, her work has drawn stellar reviews. Michiko Kakutani has praised her “intuitive rendering of her characters’ inner lives” and Cynthia Ozick has said “Rosellen Brown can do anything with language.” She’s received many honors, including an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, along with other prestigious institutions.

In 1964, Brown and her husband Martin Hoffman went to teach at Tougaloo College near Jackson, Mississippi, where they were involved with the Civil Rights movement. Those years changed their lives. Civil rights, race relations, and class differences have remained prominent topics in Brown’s writing, along with Jewish life and its intersection with the mainstream. Her new novel, The Lake on Fire, is her first work of historical nonfiction and shares many of these concerns. It’s set just before the turn of the twentieth century in rural Wisconsin and in Chicago, where Brown has lived since 1996. The protagonist, Chaya, immigrates with her family from Russia, and after several miserable years on their failing communal farm runs away to the big city. Her young brother Asher, an endlessly curious prodigy with a love of language, insists on accompanying her. While Chaya toils in a cigar factory, Asher explores the streets alone. Chance encounters put them each in proximity to some of Chicago’s wealthiest citizens, even as they live and work alongside some of the poorest. As the World’s Columbian Exposition is built up, unveiled, and torn down, they each take starkly different paths towards addressing the injustices of which they become more keenly aware.

Brown and I met one afternoon in downtown Chicago, after she had spent the morning teaching at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where’s she on the faculty.


The Rumpus: In a Triquarterly Interview from 2010, you say you’re working on a number of books, including one set in Chicago during the Columbian Exposition. Were you referring to The Lake on Fire?

Rosellen Brown: I don’t even remember doing an interview with Triquarterly! But a couple of weeks ago I came across this long, memoiristic piece I did for Gayle Publishers for their Contemporary Authors series, and I mention there that my daughter had just graduated from college, which happened in 1989, and that I was thinking about this book about Jewish farmers.

This book has been in and out of my desk drawer and changing enormously for about thirty years. It started when I was living in New Hampshire—which is the home of our heart, in a lot of ways, though I love Chicago—and originally it was set there. I got the idea from the book Poor Cousins by Ande Manners. I learned about the Am Olam movement from her. But it didn’t really take off.

I feel like I can’t write a story or the novel until two disparate ideas come together. That didn’t happen with this book until I moved to Chicago. We were subletting our first year near the Museum of Science and Industry, which you may know is the only remaining structure from the Columbian Exposition. The others were all temporary, which is an incredible thing to imagine. They were safe enough to walk into, but they weren’t meant to last. The only other thing besides the museum that’s still there from the Exposition is one bridge. So I’m walking around there one day, and what I think of as a poet’s metaphor comes to my mind. I think: Oh my God, this incredible set of artifacts, these beautiful creations were here and gone, every single bit of it…

Rumpus: Like Ozymandias.

Brown: Yes, like Ozymandias. And like us. We’re here now, and we will be gone too. Everything is temporary. So all of a sudden it occurred to me: forget New Hampshire. Why don’t you place this thing in Wisconsin and have her [the main character Chaya] come to Chicago?

One of the reasons she’s in Wisconsin instead of rural Illinois is because I wanted a parallel to Sister Carrie, which I teach in my Writing Chicago class at the Art Institute, and Carrie’s from Wisconsin. I went through Drieser’s whole book very carefully searching for an epigraph, and I found this: “When a girl leaves her home at eighteen, she does one of two things. Either she falls into saving hands and becomes better, or she rapidly assumes the cosmopolitan standard of virtue and becomes worse.” I didn’t end up using it, because it’s just too frontal, but I love it.

There are so many ways to look at the book. You can look at it as about class and the Gilded Age and all the rest of it, but it’s also a Bildungsroman, a story about someone growing up and learning how to live, making her choices.

I’ve written about this before. My first novel The Autobiography of My Mother, is about an immigrant lawyer, the mother, who has her ideals about what is the right way to live, and her adult daughter, who has different ideas. A friend of mine had a lawyer friend and I gave her the book to read. When we met, it was very clear she didn’t like it, and I asked her why. She said, “it didn’t tell me how to live my life.”

Rumpus: She wanted the instruction!

Brown: She wanted the instruction. She wanted the triptych, the road map. But I don’t want to do that as an author; I don’t want to be prescriptive. What I’m trying to do is embody how someone goes about figuring it out. So, going back to how I got the idea for this book. As with all my books, I didn’t have any idea of where it was going to go. I had an area of interest. I wanted to try to reconstruct this, the Columbian Exposition, this beautiful, beautiful place, that somehow my character wormed her way into. And there was one other thing playing in the back of my mind—I’m a very bad storyteller, and I have to get my ideas from somewhere, like from other books or articles—which is that I read about a woman who worked in a cigar factory, Rose Pastor Stokes. She was a radical, a communist, and eventually she became a journalist, and she ended up marrying a very wealthy man. The whole idea of this kind of Cinderella wedding, I thought, could throw into very strong relief so many questions I’m interested in: Is there a way to stay true to your class as you let yourself live very comfortably? Is it a sin to live comfortably? Do you betray your class if you marry out of it?

Rumpus: I was drawn to that part of the book, how you complicate the Cinderella aspect. There is a handsome stranger who appears in Chaya and Asher’s hour of need. He does buy Chaya a beautiful dress—but I loved the detail that he didn’t think about the shoes. She had to wear her shopworn shoes.

Brown: I didn’t want to make Gregory too much of a Prince Charming. He has his flaws.

Rumpus: He’s a bad writer.

Brown: That’s right. And she finds that sort of charming. It humanizes him to her.

Rumpus: I also liked that her interest in him was rooted in physical attraction. She was drawn to him almost despite his wealth, which is a flip. Instead of a having a woman trying to make herself physically appealing to attract wealth, she has a libidinous motive. Their eroticism was nicely done, and what drives the wedge between herself and her brother.

Brown: By the way, I just found out last week that they’re going to do an audiobook. I don’t know how they’re going to handle Asher’s chapters, all that wordplay. His inquiry into the way words are put together. The other thing that’s happened for the book—and I don’t even know if I should say this because I want people to patronize independent bookstores—but Costco ordered a thousand copies, just for their Chicago stores. It’s a first for me.

Rumpus: But some of your books have done quite well.

Brown: Before and After did quite well. That is the only one that sold a lot of copies, because the marketing and the timing just worked out, and they did a movie. It was on the bestseller list for four weeks or something. But that’s not going to happen with this one. I don’t know if anyone back East is ever going to hear about it. They have a very good thing going on at Saraband. I love them. But there’s only so much that’s under your control. So much is sheer chance.

Rumpus: How did this book wind up at Sarabande?

Brown: I’ve worked with a lot of publishers. I’ve left one unhappy. It’s just been, stuff happens. My first book was a university press. The story collection was published with Doubleday. Then we had a book that was auctioned to Knopf. But when it came to Before and After, the editor at Knopf was going to publish it reluctantly. He didn’t really like the characters; he thought the main male character was a jerk. So my agent—who loved the book—said we’re going to take it somewhere else. And she took it to FSG and she asked two editors what they would do with it. And John Glusman, who had just had a child—so he was in the fatherly mode and the book is about parents—he loved the book, and so I worked with him for two books. He was a wonderful editor.

But it was all chance! There are so many good books that don’t get published, better books than anything you’ve ever read! “Full many a flower is born to blush unseen.”

So what happened with A Lake on Fire is I had a two-book contract with FSG. After Before and After, I sold them Half a Heart as part of a two-book deal, and they waited very, very patiently for years for another book. And I brought this book to them, slightly different, but, this book. I had a new editor there by this point, and she read it and wasn’t the least bit interested. She said, “Oh, this isn’t the Rosellen Brown people expect. Why don’t you give us the kind of thing you do. Why are you giving us this historical stuff. This isn’t your thing.”

Rumpus: This isn’t your thing! This book that you’ve worked on for thirty years!

Brown: Well, for many of those it sat in a drawer. Because, I had actually sent it in earlier form to an agent—not my original agent Virginia Barber, who had gotten out of the business by then, but to someone who she had trained—and she said, “I can’t send this to your editor, it will only depress him.” And so I folded! I was so disheartened I put it away!

I was just reading an interview in the Paris Review with Penelope Lively, who’s a wonderful writer, and she said “it’s a good thing I had success early because I don’t know what I would have done with rejection early on. I might have just stopped.” And I feel the same.

When the FSG editor said this book isn’t what people are looking for, I told myself, I’m too old to drag my book around from one publisher to another to hear the same thing. They’re looking for the commercial. They’re sheep. So I thought about the small presses I’ve always liked, and Sarabande was up there. We [Brown and her agent Gail Hochman] sent it and the editor Sarah Gorham asked if she could call me, and I thought she was going to call and let me down easy but she said “I love it,” and we were off and running.

They do beautiful work. They may or may not get the attention that I’d like in New York, but they take the book seriously.

Rumpus: So how much research did you do?

Brown: With my first novel The Autobiography of My Mother, I realized that the kind of research I like to do is soft research. I don’t write down a lot. I read and absorb and use what’s worth remembering. But what’s interesting is that there’s not as much as you would imagine about Jews in agriculture. There are a few things, and I had a sister-in-law with family who had lived on a farm. There’s not a lot about the Am Olam movement. I tried to learn what I could about that, but often I just went with intuition.

But for the Columbian Exposition, there are a million books. Photography collections, novels, children’s books, adult books. The other thing is that here in Chicago, and I love this, everyone whose family is from Chicago has a souvenir passed down from a grandmother or a great grandmother—handkerchief, a souvenir spoon, something, that they have from the fair. That’s why Costco must have thought people here would be interested, all these people still have a sentimental attachment to the fair.

There’s a wonderful set of books called The Workers. The scene where Asher goes to see where the anarchists and socialists and the so-called proletariat are gathering, that was influenced by descriptions of those types of meetings. I read Emma Goldman. Ida B Welles. I read a couple books by Florence Kelley, who’s the other character in the book alongside Jane Adams who was based on a historical figure. She helped to pioneer the labor laws. But the research was all impressionistic.

Rumpus: One of the things I liked about the novel was not only the deconstructing of the Cinderella myth, but also the deflating of the agrarian myth—that all can be healed if we go back to the land. The glory of the frontier!

Brown: This book is about a double immigration, in a way. Not only are these people leaving Europe for a new land, they’re going to agricultural lifestyle they’re totally unfamiliar with, too. Jews weren’t even allowed to own land where they came from.

I just had an interview with Shelagh Shapiro for the Write the Book podcast, and she asked how this book relates to the immigration situation now. But I started this damn thing thirty years ago! Immigration wasn’t on people’s minds in the same way. Or not exactly.

Although in today’s New York Times there was a fascinating article about the ways in which immigration was controlled around the turn of the century, at the beginning of the 1900s. Some of the things that were said at the time about Italians, it’s worse than anything you even hear today. [Brown takes out a copy of the newspaper and reads] “[Henry Cabot] Lodge wanted citizenship confined to the ‘original race stocks of the 13 colonies.’ The others, he averred, were chiefly ‘slum dwellers, criminals and juvenile delinquents.’” Here’s Woodrow Wilson: “Any man who carried a hyphen about with him carries a dagger that he is willing to plunge into the Republic.”

So here we are again. We keep thinking that everything is happening for the first time. But very little is. It’s always been difficult to be an immigrant.


Photograph of Rosellen Brown © Lynn Sloan.

Zoe Zolbrod is the author of the award-winning memoir The Telling and the novel Currency. Her essays have appeared in places such as Salon, The Guardian, the Manifest Station, and The Rumpus, where she served as the Sunday co-editor. More from this author →