The Story of My Novel



BrendaKindleCovWhen I began to write my novel, I had a theme in mind: the universal, routine violence suffered by women. The seed of this tale is a true story of the rape and murder of a mother of three on a trail near the one on which I walked every day. I had just moved from what then was the murder capital of the world, Washington, DC, and had chosen Walnut Creek for its small-town simplicity and peace. Yet, almost immediately this terrible crime happened. There were press reports of how the victim was talking on her cell phone to her husband when her assailant appeared, of how vivacious and loved she had been. The murderer eventually was found, tried and given the death penalty. A kind of closure.

But not for me. Her story stayed with me, nagged at me.

On the day I began writing my novel, I had walked to our downtown Farmer’s Market and noted the absence of the usual Sunday crowd of joggers along the trail, no ball games on surrounding grassy areas, no bikes whizzing by. And then realized: it was Super Bowl Sunday; everyone was huddled around TVs, noshing and yelling. I felt a chill as a ragged man stepped out of a glade behind a patch of tangled shrubbery, remembering the lovely young woman killed a few years earlier, and quickened my pace. 

At the Farmer’s Market, I selected my fruit and vegetables, then decided to avoid the trail for my walk home. Where a horrid tale began to pour into my computer—it had been waiting for the right moment to emerge, a moment when my business had slowed, when I had time to attempt my lifelong dream of writing a novel. I typed a title, “Brenda Corrigan Went Downtown.” I described a lively 60-year-old woman walking on a lonely trail to the downtown Farmer’s Market, intending to purchase ingredients for an “un-Super Bowl” dinner party. I imagined her valiant effort to deter a vicious attack by a man who appeared from nowhere, who raped and maimed her and left her for dead.

But she doesn’t die and what develops is the story of this spirited woman, of her brave, warm friends, of familial relationships that are loving and quarrelsome. A tale of doctors, foolish and wise, who keep her alive, of resilience and hope, of despair and reconciliation. A tale of chance, for she could have taken her car that day, could have avoided the lonely trail, had she realized it would be deserted on Super Bowl Sunday.

I suffered during years of writing and rewriting, as Brenda fought to recover, as her life unfolded. I loved my new companion. She embodied my young mother who had recovered from painful, debilitating surgery only to succumb to brain cancer three years later. She was so like dear friends who fought similar battles.

I suffered, but couldn’t give her up. With each reading, this old editor would discover a misplaced semi-colon, a dangling participle (God forbid). I did endless searches to ensure that words like ‘gray’ and ‘grey’ were always ‘gray.’ I tripped over my many characters’ names and attributes, discovering that Brenda’s son was sometimes ‘Jeff,’ sometimes ‘Jack,’ then created bios for each with subtext, a tool I used as a playwright.

And then, on Super Bowl Sunday 2013, while doing one more “final proof,” I was struck by this passage:

There’s a big adjustment ahead, thought Brenda. My children and I will have to free each other again.

I realized I had to let go. My characters had lived in my imagination for four years. Now they wanted out. The story was finished.

Having received no replies from the dozens of agents I queried, I uploaded my document to the self-publishing arm of amazon.comI was too old, did not have years enough ahead, to pursue traditional avenues. I asked a graphic designer I’d worked with in Washington to create the cover illustration, knowing that she would portray the essence of my girl. And voila! my book was alive, stacked on my office shelves, its digital counterpart on my kindle.

I hauled out my marketing skills, sent a Constant Contact letter to several lists, developed a website, posted the news on Facebook so often that old friends probably wanted to un-friend me. 

Orinda Books hosted a launch party, local papers interviewed me, a church dubbed me their ‘Author of the Year” and hosted a discussion group. Synagogues and book clubs invited me to speak and sign. 

Soon, I was punchy from the attention, from losing my way on serpentine back roads as I searched for each venue. And from managing reader response—revelations of rape, heated debates on the ethics of Brenda’s decision to live well or not at all. I wasn’t equipped to handle these discussions and longed for a therapist or minister to moderate.

Some readers were disappointed that an interlude with Charley, an old lover, did not lead Brenda to eternal bliss. They wanted a sequel, impossible given her sad end. One suggested that her daughter, Lynn, could find Mr. Right and all would be swell in sweet Walnut Creek. I gave it a try, imagining Charley and Lynn and a chance meeting in Santorini, but that didn’t go well. 

There were good moments, too. One book club felt like a safe haven—these women had shared life’s joys and sorrows for 25 years and vividly connected with Brenda and her close friends. And I liked waking to emails from readers stating they could not put the book down, or they’d just sent it to their aunt in Poughkeepsie or a sister in London.

But mostly the conversations exhausted me, the opinions, the rugalach (yes, rugalach; my character Rose bakes rugalach, so I brought apricot and chocolate to each event, baked by Sunrise Deli).

I grew tired of people calling me Brenda, of confusing fiction with autobiography, and wrote a witty post for my blog called, “I’m Not Brenda,” to no avail. Strangers bombarding me with photos of past boyfriends and tales of illicit love, sharing their regrets and sorrows, made me want to post “I’m Not Your Shrink,” but I didn’t.

“Oy. Enough already,” my weary brain whimpered as I snaked down an unfamiliar foggy road one night. I needed to get back to my own life. I had a business, a monthly deadline to meet. There was fun to be had. The next morning, I canceled future engagements and returned to LBB—life before Brenda—happily scribbling snippets and stories for the joy of it. I had no desire ever to publish again.

When I began to write my novel, I intended to portray an example of the universal, routine violence suffered by women. I did that, but a novel meanders, refuses to adhere to a planned route. My polemic became a life story, which is always more than one thing. And which holds innumerable meanings for its readers.

 

“The Story of My Novel” appeared in the Spring 2023 issue of Vistas & Byways.

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The Past Holds Sway



Thinking about my novel, Brenda Corrigan Went Downtown.

I began the writing on February 1, 2009, prompted by a walk on the trail near my home and finding it devoid of the usual rambunctious Sunday afternoon activity. Having lived through 9/11 in Washington, DC, I felt a sense of foreboding.

As does Brenda, when she comes upon:

. . . a nearby field where dogs usually romped off-leash, bounding after Frisbees, barking wildly, ecstatic to run free, then saw it was empty. Where was everybody? She felt disoriented now. Where were the walkers, the bikers who usually swarmed over the trail on a Sunday? Had something terrible happened? A terrorist attack?

Then she remembered. The Super Bowl. The whole world was nestled on couches, watching warm-ups and wrap-ups, stuffing itself with nachos and salsa. And here she was, alone . . . .

I’d been noodling an idea for a novel for a few years. I thought it would be interesting to imagine the life of someone who had been subjected to childhood abuse. Calamitous childhoods are so much more common than we like to think, but often are well hidden. Most people vigorously put an unpleasant past behind them, never realizing how much energy this fruitless task consumes. For the truth will find its way to freedom— through pores, temper, an inability to cope with life’s vicissitudes, post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Brenda is a determined woman. She has overcome her roots, she believes, the facts of her foundation. She would not consider herself one of the walking wounded, that she is owed something. If she were to think about the past at all, it would be with a sense of victory. She lives in the present, enjoying her days to the fullest among family and friends, partaking of all that life has to offer.

Until she is struck down with unimaginable force. Then the past holds sway. Her hard will bends to dreams and nightmares, memories, and she is steered away from recovery.

Let’s Face It



That’s this pretty girl, second from right, at 17.

That’s this pretty girl, second from right, at 17.

A pretty girl grows accustomed to being the center of attention. She is on the A-list, selected for teams and sleepovers, to star in school plays, and to go to ritzy beach houses on summer weekends and on ski trips in winter.

A pretty girl grows accustomed to being sought after by A-list boys, and longed for by boys on society’s fringe. If charm accompanies that pretty face, she often is teacher’s pet, with latitude granted for missed homework and poor quiz scores.

When I was in school in the 50s, a pretty girl believed it wise to compete with girls for boys, and not to compete with boys. Collecting varsity pins of stars who vied for her attention trumped any desire she may have had to pursue academic excellence.

A pretty girl who attended college in the early 60s, often on a quest for an M.R.S. degree, received high grades for work that might be mediocre, from professors (they were mostly men then) who primped as she entered the room, hoping to gain her admiration. Accustomed to “getting by on her looks,” a pretty girl sometimes felt bewildered by changing expectations of the era, but found that a pretty face serves as hard currency in any world.

A pretty girl is accustomed to being noticed as she enters a room. The waters part for her. She is fawned over by plain girls wanting to share the glow of her aura, and men are courtly. In the office or lab, she is offered raises and promotions (to a point), foreign travel and prime assignments. In marriage, her failings are happily forgiven by her besotted husband.

Woe to this pretty girl as she ages. We all know her story. Often her position at home or at work is usurped by a younger woman. She doesn’t quite get why her status has changed, because disappointment is a strange bedfellow. And when she looks in the mirror, she still sees a pretty face. She feels pretty. Her Gestalt is “pretty.”

Over time, this self-image wanes. The faces of her friends become lined and she may muse, “Is that how I look?” Then, one morning the face that greets her in her mirror is not the pretty girl.

I was a lucky pretty girl, in that I had it both ways. I never fully incorporated a pretty-girl persona because by the time my swan emerged, in late adolescence, I was used to being ignored by boys and had developed other interests.

But in the end, I am that woman looking in the mirror wondering where the pretty girl went. Because my pretty mother died young, I no longer see her face in mine. I see my Aunt Clara, who lived a long life.
minnie and clara
My mom is on the left, Aunt Clara on the right.

I am sharing these thoughts because my friend wondered if the novel I’m writing addresses metaphorically my preoccupation with aging and the loss of physical beauty. My protagonist, Brenda Corrigan, is attacked and undergoes facial reconstruction. As she tries to cope with the reality that her pretty, though aging, face has been usurped by one misshapen and scarred, she is determined to rely on other strengths, noting that the blind hear everything, the deaf see all. Wit remains her mainstay: When a group of women enter a posh Beverly Hills restaurant, Brenda observes their plastic surgery results. “Were those faces all cut from the same stencil?” she asks her daughter. “They all look like gaping fish.”

Aging indeed is a theme of this novel. We all confront the loss of physical beauty and learn to rely on other strengths, if we are lucky.

Slaughterhouses



This is an excerpt from my novel, Brenda Corrigan Went Downtown:

As a child, I visited slaughterhouses. They lined a street so wide it could have been a boulevard. The asphalt shone with bloody puddles of sunlight. Trucks and cars backed into the curb for easy loading. Drivers loped determinedly in and out of doors, arms full, faces closed.

I always waited in my father’s car. He dealt lunches to factory workers from the deck of his station wagon, then we’d go to market to buy next day’s supplies. Sometimes I’d bring a book to read, so as not to see the blood. Sometimes I’d close my eyes, lean back against the seat, and dream. That the animals sang, that they played and danced in a happy zoo and these men who paced in blood were, like me, merely visitors.

But I always knew that the animals longed to be free. Their singing wounded my heart and I wished that they would one day trample the bloody aprons and dash onto the wide, free street. Oh what a fairy tale this would make!

Of course, they never strayed. They huddled in grand choirs, scraping the senses of all who still heard.

I learned to chant: “Chop! the chicken head. Ping! the pig is dead.”

Brenda’s 9/11 Dream



This is one of my favorite passages in my novel, Brenda Corrigan Went Downtown — a dream of 9/11 in Washington, DC:

Awash in the news, her former neighbors would converge on the lawn in front of their building, consultants wandering off to Café Deluxe to nurse a cappuccino; retired foreign service officers entrenched, waiting for official word of what to do next. The Romanov heir would twist his rings and murmur memories of his Paris boyhood. The General from the Shah’s army would pierce the air with his foul cigarettes, his wife silent at his side. Nannies would comfort toddlers alarmed by the sudden roar of an F16 . . .

All true and exactly how it happened in real life, when I was a Washingtonian.

 

What Is Your Book About?



I’ve read umpteen articles about “The Pitch,” but when it comes to answering that five-word query—What is your book about?—my expertise on pitching vanishes. I stutter and stammer and gaze at the ceiling, while trying to compress the story of a captivating woman into a few scintillating sentences.

For I am a writer, after all, and not a pitchman.

I started out in advertising, but that was long ago, in the Mad Men era, and I turned to editing because that better suited my personality—not exactly shy and retiring, but tending to prefer solitary quiet pondering and paring, while leaving team efforts to the unruly.

As a magazine editor in a huge publishing company, I was classified as a “creative,” meaning I was paid less than execs who sold advertising. But I hobnobbed with the latter long enough to learn by osmosis how to pitch.

So why is that knowledge failing me now? Why does it not enter stage front when I am faced with those five little words (not facing, exactly—more aptly, evading), at book sales, when guests take me aside and ask what Brenda Corrigan Went Downtown is about:

315 pages, I joke, then get serious,
a woman coping with a catastrophic event,
the men she’s loved,
her experiences in a career that took her around the world,
her loyal friends and children

Now I’m cooking. Brenda Corrigan Went Downtown is about faith and the lack thereof, what kills faith, what restores faith. It proposes a dilemma: What would you do, dear reader, in similar circumstances? It is about the joys of friendship and children and grandchildren, about love and failed love and failure to love, about loss and death.

“But is he really dead?” I am asked at book groups. “I wanted him to rescue her, marry her, carry her off on his muscular white steed to a land where they will live happily ever after.”

“That is a different book,” I suggest.

“A sequel!” someone shouts. A scattering of applause, big smiles.

“Perhaps,” I grant. “Perhaps I will call it, Brenda Corrigan Came Home.”

Perhaps that will be easier to pitch.

We, the “Elderly”



Sent by a friend, without attribution:

  • We grew up in the 40s-50s-60.
  • We studied in the 50s-60s-70s.
  • We dated in the 50s-60s-70s.
  • We got married and discovered the world in the 60s-70s-80s.
  • We ventured into the 70s-80s.
  • We stabilized in the 90s.
  • We got wiser in the 2000s.
  • And went firmly through the 2010s.

Turns out we’ve lived through NINE different decades…

TWO different centuries…

TWO different millennia…

  • We have gone from the telephone with an operator for long-distance calls to video calls to anywhere in the world, we have gone from slides to YouTube, from vinyl records to online music, from handwritten letters to email and WhatsApp…
  • From live matches on the radio, to black and white TV, and then to HDTV…
  • We went to Blockbuster and now we watch Netflix…
  • We got to know the first computers, punch cards, diskettes and now we have gigabytes and megabytes in hand on our cell phones or iPads…
  • We wore shorts throughout our childhood and then long pants, oxfords, Bermuda shorts, etc.
  • We dodged infantile paralysis, meningitis, H1N1 flu and now COVID-19…
  • We rode skates, tricycles, invented cars, bicycles, mopeds, gasoline or diesel cars and now we ride hybrids or 100% electric…

Yes, we’ve been through a lot but what a great life we’ve had!

They could describe us as “exennials” people who were born in that world of the fifties, who had an analog childhood and a digital adulthood.

We’re kind of Ya-seen-it-all.

Our generation has literally lived through and witnessed more than any other in every dimension of life.

It is our generation that has literally adapted to “CHANGE”.

A big round of applause to all the members of a very special generation, which are UNIQUE.  Here’s a precious and very true message that I received from a friend:

TIME DOES NOT STOP

Life is a task that we do ourselves every day.

  • When you look… it’s already six in the afternoon; when you look… it’s already Friday; when one looks… the month is over; when one looks… the year is over; when one looks… 50, 60, 70 and 80 years have passed!
  • When you look… we no longer know where our friends are.
  • When you look… we lost the love of our life and now, it’s too late to go back.

Do not stop doing something you like due to lack of time.

Do not stop having someone by your side, because your children will soon not be yours, and you will have to do something with that remaining time, where the only thing that we are going to miss will be the space that can only be enjoyed with the usual friends.  This time that, unfortunately, never returns…

The day is today!

WE ARE NO LONGER AT AN AGE TO POSTPONE ANYTHING.

Pass it on to your best friends. Don’t leave it for later

 

 

Thanksgiving



thanksgiving cornucopiaI loved it even when I had to sit at the children’s table, kicking and stabbing my cousins with playful glee, as I took my knocks from them.

I loved the stuffing and dark meat, pies bursting with apples or pumpkin filling, cream pies oozing bananas.

I loved the warmth of hugs from my elders (but not the pinches), listening to their gossip and watching their complex interactions and my sensitive mother’s reactions.

I loved it all, and eagerly took on the role of hostess when I married and moved to a new city, far from my clan. Under a sparkling chandelier, my dining room table was set for 12 with China we’d hand-carried from England and gleaming silverware. Serving platters were carefully arranged on crisp celadon linen, around a straw cornucopia of autumn fruits and flowers.

Along with appetizers, there’d be a perfunctory tip of the hat to gratitude, then my husband would bring the carved bird from the kitchen, shouting, “Dig in!” and friends, neighbors and visiting relatives would fill their plates, partaking of all that our bountiful lives afforded us.

Over the years, the cast of characters changed. Babies evolved into teens, new faces replaced those lost to divorce, illness and death. Eventually, I sold my house and moved to a large apartment, where my Thanksgiving tradition continued. I invited foreign families of my son’s Washington International School classmates, who contributed new dishes to our sacred ritual.

A few years later, when that son, Michael, moved to San Francisco, married and announced a baby on the way, I packed the China and linen, the silverware and cornucopia, and headed for Walnut Creek, California. My sisters had moved to the Bay area in the 70s, as hippies, my older son lived a stone’s throw away in Los Angeles, and suddenly I was awash in family again.

So, on my first California Thanksgiving, though it was a tight fit in my new condo, my table was extended with four leaves and once again graced with my beautiful things, sans chandelier. It was fun to be together after so many years, on my favorite holiday.

But the time came when one guest requested a vegan meal, another gluten-free, and yet another, pescatarian. My limited kitchen skills were tested as I prepared salmon, as well as turkey, and re-heated a multitude of vegetable casseroles. I was frazzled. The thrill of the holiday was gone.

That was the year I bequeathed our Thanksgiving tradition to Michael and my daughter-in-law, Georgianna. They had just restored an old house in Oakland and could easily accommodate family and friends in their massive dining room.

I transitioned well, never looked back with longing to my hostess days. We dined on turkey and Dungeness crab and kvelled over my grandson Philo. Eventually, he tried his hand as chef and regaled us with home-made focaccia and other delectables as he grew.

In my 70s, I found a lovely little home in Rossmoor and downsized for the umpteenth time, planning to bring only necessities, my art and photos, and small keepsakes. But as the movers placed my beloved dining room set and boxes of China near the elevator, to be picked up by a charity, they found me sitting on one of the chairs, crying. I felt so foolish. Crying over mere things, at my age. After a lifetime of real losses. But the guys were kind, accustomed to these events, and brought me a serving bowl and platter that had not yet been packed. “You can keep these, Mrs. Kaulkin. To remember. We’ll find a place for them in your new home.”

And then I really cried.

And life goes on. Covid hit and Thanksgiving went on hiatus. One of my sisters moved to Portland, and Philo went off to college. This year we were merely five, plus a friend, enjoying Thanksgiving at the Lafayette Park Hotel.  Where they featured shrimp, salmon, abundant vegetables, along with Sir Tom.  And a good time was had by all.

“Thanksgiving” appeared in the Winter 2023 issue of Vistas & Byways.

 

On the death of Desmond Tutu – 12/26/21



Archbishop-Tutu-mediumI had the pleasure of meeting Bishop Tutu on the morning after his Nobel Peace Prize was announced, in 1984.

He was going to the Washington Post for an interview and I was going to my office next door.

As I am star-struck and given to chatting with strangers, I stopped to congratulate him as we strode past each other.

He clapped his hands and giggled, practically jumped up and down with joy, absolutely adorable.  “How do you know already?” he asked.

“It’s on all the news,” I said, laughing with this hero who helped end apartheid in South Africa. A perfect moment in my cache of memories.

When Nelson Mandela was released from prison a few years later, he too was interviewed by the Post and I was one of many who gathered nearby to watch as he entered the building, surrounded by bodyguards.

Working next door to the Washington Post was very exciting.

 

 

You Go Girl ca. 1963



I don’t want to hear stupid
Girl you were never stupid, only foolish
Saw the stories in your books
but not the stories all around you
But now it’s done and what I say is
A woman’s place is with her husband
Your husband says go, you go
Don’t say you’ll miss me
Don’t say you’ll miss your mama
You had us all nineteen years of your little life
Now you have a husband
That’s all you have
That’s all you’ll ever have
‘Cept children
You’ll have those too
for a while
I had eight
Children
All gone now, the girls like your mama following their husbands
because I said so
Don’t matter if they slap you around
Make you feel panic like dirt flying off a swept floor
I got thirteen grandchildren
And I’m telling you grandchild
Your place is with your husband
He says go, you go

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