TBR [to be read] is a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books who will tell us about their new work as well as offer tips on writing, stories about the publishing biz, and from time to time, a recipe.
Give us your elevator pitch: what’s your book about in 2-3 sentences?
The stories in Our Sister Who Will Not Die explore brutal aspects of human behavior and the complex, deeply human individuals beneath these acts. Patricide, enabling addiction, domestic violence, the cruelty of which we’re capable and the mistakes we make, these are stories about finding empathy for even our darkest, most troubling moments as people.
Which story did you most enjoy writing? Why? And which story gave you the most trouble, and why?
“The Pleasures of Television” was probably my favorite story to write, largely because I was wrapped up in Sandy’s voice. I think embodying a voicey first person narrator, letting the character unspool themselves is some of the most rewarding (and pleasurable!) writing. Plus, Sandy and Beau’s game of “Watching TV” allowed for more wordplay than my stories typically offer, and who doesn’t love a good pun. “Our Sister Who Will Not Die” was perhaps the trickiest to write in part because of its large cast, but also the play-like monologues. It’s a story that didn’t feel wholly right until my final read-through of the manuscript post copy-edits.
Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.
These stories were drafted over the course of two years of workshop, and my original hope was to wait for that elusive two-book deal. I had an early agent who gave me faith in the stories, but eventually we decided to part ways, largely due to a novel that was giving me a lot of pain. I decided at some point, well, if the two-book deal isn’t going to happen, I’ll submit to some contests because why not. And then, of course, I ended up winning The Journal’s Non/Fiction prize, thanks to their kind staff and Nick White. I was surprised because it was the first contest I heard back from, and because these stories weren’t easy to place. A number of them were those stories that get multiple personal rejections from great journals but just never find a home. But my hope is that collectively they form a whole stronger or more palatable than their parts.
What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?
I believe that sheer endurance, perseverance through rejection is likely the best advice or most necessary. To somehow maintain hope and just keep writing—but in terms of concrete advice, I’ve been thinking a lot about what one of my professors said during my defense, Miroslav Penkov, a brilliant writer and teacher. He said, a novel must have memorable scenes. Which probably seems obvious but has been so helpful to me. I tend to write in the page a day, plug away style, and this helps give me focus. What are the scenes I’m writing toward? What are these stand out moments going to be? What do I want readers to remember?
My favorite writing advice is “write until something surprises you.” What surprised you in the writing of this book?
To be honest, what might be most surprising to me was getting my blurbs and realizing how dark these stories appeared to others. Or perhaps, the cohesive story the blurbs painted. I feel such abiding love for my characters, even in their moments of intense failure and frailty, though I also recognize not everyone might feel that way. I didn’t set out to write dark stories, I set out to understand how/why people would do things that seemed inexplicable to me, and through that it meant facing those worst parts of ourselves.
How did you find the title of your book?
My original title as I was drafting the stories was “Bad Things to Such Good People” which is a song title by the band Pedro the Lion, something I listened to in my early 20s. I liked this idea of emphasizing these people as good, though I guess there’s the potential to misread it as irony. I was teaching at a men’s prison, and in part that influenced the stories, wanting to compel people to see other humans as having worth beyond their worst actions. The press thought “Our Sister Who Will Not Die” was a much better title, and my agent agreed, and I believe they were correct.
Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food/s associated with your book? (Any recipes I might share?)
Maxine’s chicken involtini comes to mind first, though a disclaimer I have never made this myself. I worked at an awesome Italian restaurant during college which is where the inspiration for the dish came from in the story. Here’s a recipe that looks good!
READ MORE ABOUT THIS AUTHOR: www.rebeccaibernard.com
ORDER THIS BOOK FOR YOUR OWN TBR STACK: https://ohiostatepress.org/books/titles/9780814258408.html
READ A STORY FROM THIS BOOK, “First Date”: https://witness.blackmountaininstitute.org/issues/vol-xxxi-2-summer-2018/first-date/