Monday, February 6, 2023

TBR: Drawing Breath: Essays on Writing, the Body, and Loss by Gayle Brandeis

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: whats your book about in 2-3 sentences?


The subtitle of Drawing Breath gives a clear window into what the book holds—Essays on Writing, the Body, and Loss. What it doesn’t tell you, however, is that these essays were written over the span of 20+ years, making this collection a retrospective of sorts, a record of the subjects I keep returning to over time, the steady pulses of curiosity/obsession/devotion within my writing life.


Which essay did you most enjoy writing? Why? And which essay gave you the most trouble, and why?


My 1999 essay, “Spelling” was so much fun to write and makes me so happy every time I read it. It’s about my daughter teaching herself to write as a little girl, and is one of the oldest essays in the book (and I’m realizing I should write about joy more often if I have to look so far back to find my most enjoyable piece! I’ve certainly had fun writing other things since, but this one just felt like pure celebration.) My daughter is in her late 20s now, and is a beautiful writer—I love how that same magic she had as a child continues to sparkle through her. The hardest essay to write in the collection was “Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying” from 2012 [see link below]. It was the first thing I had written that looked directly at my mom’s suicide, and the process of getting it onto the page was excruciating. The experience of publishing it was terrifying, too, at least at first, but the warm response the piece received gave me courage to keep going to those hard places in my work.



Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your books road to publication.


Since I didn’t have a book in mind as I wrote the essays within it—I just wrote them as they came to me, and later pulled them together—the presence of the book feels like a lovely surprise, an icing-on-the-cake book. I feel like I have less ego-attachment to Drawing Breath than I do with books I’ve wrestled with single-mindedly for years (even though perhaps there’s more of me in this book than any other, since it does cover such a broad span of time). When Drawing Breath was on submission, I found rejections stung less than they usually do, and I feel like I can let this book journey into the world without burdening it with expectation, maybe because most of these essays have already been published, so I’ve survived the anxiety of those being read publicly, and have received sweet support for them as individual pieces. This is not to say I don’t feel any anxiety about the book release—of course I do!—but it’s a less consuming anxiety than usual. A big high of this process has been landing at Overcup Press—they’ve been a dream to work with (and I have Liz Prato to thank for this…she had taken over the Overcup Twitter feed—they had published her wonderful essay collection, Volcanoes, Palm Trees, and Privilege: Essays on Hawai’i—and when I saw what they were actively looking for, I realized Drawing Breath could be a good fit. I’m grateful they agreed!)



Whats your favorite piece of writing advice?


I return to Hélène Cixous’ advice all the time: Censor the body and you censor breath and speech at the same time. Write yourself. Your body must be heard.” I used the last two lines of this as an epigraph for my 2002 craft book Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write, and I use another Cixous quote for the epigraph of Drawing Breath. “My body experiences, deep down inside, one of its panicky cosmic adventures. I have volcanoes on my lands. But no lava: what wants to flow is breath. And not just any old way. The breath ‘wants’ a form. ‘Write me!’” (That quote isn’t advice, per se, but it resonates with my experience. Clearly, Cixous speaks to me!) I’ve also held Audre Lorde’s sentence “Your silence will not protect you” close to my writerly heart—it’s guided me through some of my most difficult writing.


My favorite writing advice is write until something surprises you.” What surprised you in the writing of this book?


I love this advice—surprise is one of my very favorite parts of the writing process. As I noted earlier, the fact that my essays coalesced into a book feels like a cool surprise in itself. In terms of surprise during the writing process, I’m going to harken back to “Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying,” the essay I found the hardest to write. The essay has two parts—the first part is about leaving my first marriage, and the second part is about my mom’s suicide, and I thought the two parts were tied together only by the Belle & Sebastian song I use as the title for this essay, since that song played an important role during both time periods of my life. Then the last sentence of the essay poured out of my fingers and tied the two parts together in a way that surprised the hell out of me and brought me to tears, and I realized “Oh, wow, this is what this essay is about.” My writing is way smarter than I am.


How do you approach revision?


Revision was a wild process with this collection. I often tell my students to set work aside for a while so you can see it freshly (because that works!), but I usually don’t set work aside for 20 whole years and returning to the older work was quite a trip. I noticed some writerly tics in those older pieces that I needed to smooth out (an over-reliance on the word, “though”, for example), and had to do quite a bit of tightening (including removing the then-standard extra space after each period, which now looks like a big gaping hole to me), but I was glad to see they mostly held up over time. Another revision challenge: I’ll often return to the same stories over the course of several essays, because I still have questions about the experience, or want to approach the story from a new angle, or just can’t shake it from my system, and I had to figure out how to remove repetition of information from one piece to the next so the book wouldn’t become a hall of mirrors.


Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food/s associated with your book? (Any recipes I might share?)


I adore reading and writing about food, but when I first pondered this question—such a great question!—I couldn’t think of a single dish in the book. Then I combed through the collection and found at least 40 food references (including two discomfiting food “tangles”— “The tangle of shrimp, glistening with butter, looked obscene, like an orgy in the shallow bowl” and “a plate of what they called chow mein looked like a gray tangle of slime.”) I’m not sure how I had forgotten there was so much food in the book, especially since one of the essays is titled “Eating the Food of the Dead” and is about the food my parents and my husband’s mother left behind after they died. Most of the food in Drawing Breath has more emotional resonance than it does any culinary sophistication, but I would be tickled if someone wanted to make my dad’s favorite sandwich: Swiss cheese, mayonnaise, and bread and butter pickles on toasted rye. Buzz sandwiches forever!


As far as more complex recipes go, I feel like I should give you one for cookies, since cookies, I was tickled to discover, appear in four different essays in the collection, and two of those feature thumbprint cookies—some made by my former mother in law in one, my dad’s favorite Pepperidge Farm variety in the other. I don’t think I would have noticed there were two different thumbprint cookies in the book if you hadn’t asked this question—thank you for the fun surprise/discovery! It feels apt to share a recipe for this type of cookie because writing is like a thumbprint, isn’t it? So unique to each writer’s own body/voice. I don’t think I’ve ever actually made thumbprint cookies before (other than helping my beloved former mother in law make hers), but I do want to try this recipe, which works with my various dietary restrictions— . While both varieties of thumbprint cookies in the book are filled with raspberry jam, I’d like to try the recipe writer’s suggestion to use lemon infused olive oil and rosemary in the cookies, plus I’d add pine nuts instead of the recommended almonds, since one of the most memorable batches of cookies I've ever made were pine nut rosemary shortbread ones from a recipe I found in the Los Angeles Times about twenty years ago (appropriate, given the vintage of some of the essays in this collection). I can still smell and taste that shortbread so vividly two decades later, and am excited to attempt this variation of them soon. I’ll probably fill the thumbprints with a dairy free lemon curd, like the one at


As apt as these cookies are, I’m realizing now that perhaps the most fitting reference to food in the collection is the potluck dinner in my essay “Ghosts in the Ecotone.” That essay takes place during a weekend writing retreat, where all of us had brought dishes to share at a communal dinner, and the table was heaped with all kinds of deliciousness. Drawing Breath is a smorgasbord of sorts, itself—a smorgasbord of my writing, and also a smorgasbord of voices other than my own, since I quote a large number of other writers throughout Drawing Breath. I wanted to set a generous table with this book, and hope readers leave feeling well-fed.







READ AN ESSAY, “Get Me Away from Here, I’m Dying”:






DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.