Deborah holds a Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing (fiction) and teaches at UCLA’s Extension Writing Program, the Black Forest Writing Seminar at the University of Freiburg, Germany, as well as workshops and conferences around the United States and in Europe. She wrote the bestselling thriller, A Small Fortune and its sequel, Fortune’s Deadly Descent, under her pen name, Audrey Braun. All of her novels have been translated or are forthcoming in German. She lives in Los Angeles, California.
Connect with Deborah:
MF: You’ve written two novels under the name Deborah Reed and two under the pseudonym Audrey Braun. Why the dual identities?
DR: It’s an open secret that I am both writers. Audrey Braun writes mystery/thriller/adventure novels and Deborah Reed writes literary fiction with a southern slant. The separate identities help me keep track of what I’m doing in my own mind, and also let readers know what to expect. Thrillers are far more plot driven so Audrey Braun spends more time on raveling and unraveling the puzzle pieces of the mystery, while Deborah Reed gets lost in the character’s flaws and needs, as well as the artistry of the prose, which is a different kind of mystery all together.
MF: It took you sixteen years to complete Things We Set On Fire and yet you published three other books within that time span. What made Things We Set On Fire so difficult to complete?
DR: It was very emotionally draining, this story of women with a tragic past, present, and what looked to be a tragic future if something didn’t change. What happened to them was very complex and not easy to write about without veering off into clichés. I needed to do right by these characters and not allow them or their story to become stereotypes in an emotionally driven family saga.
MF: Is there a message you want readers to take away from reading Things We Set On Fire?
DR: There are obviously some heavy themes in the novel so I’m glad you asked that. It’s difficult to articulate what happens during the process of writing except to say it is an unfolding of meaning in the mind over the course of long hours of getting lost in the story. I actually happened to come across this quote the other day from Ursula Le Guin that perfectly sums up my answer to your question:
“I believe storytelling is one of the most useful tools we have for achieving meaning: It serves to keep our communities together by asking and saying who we are, and it’s one of the best tools an individual has to find out who I am, what life may ask of me and how I can respond. But that’s not the same as having a message. The complex meanings of a serious story or novel can be understood only by participation in the language of the story itself. To translate them into a message or reduce them to a sermon distorts, betrays, and destroys them. This is because a work of art is understood not by the mind only, but by the emotions and by the body itself.”
MF: You studied Anthropology and German as an undergraduate. I too studied German and it helped me better understand the complexities of English. Would you agree that learning a foreign language can be beneficial to English writers?
DR: Absolutely. I also lived in Germany for many years and so I’ve experienced a daily life inside a foreign language and one of the most striking things I’ve learned is that there are concepts that I’ve never even considered because we have no words for them in English. Language and meaning are elastic. You can stretch them to new places all the time. It fascinates me to no end.
MF: You taught at the Black Forest Writing Seminars in Freiburg, Germany this past summer. Tell us about that experience.
DR: I did and will be teaching there again each summer beginning in 2015. The setting alone has a magical and majestic quality to it. But the students, who came from all over the world, were so eager, kind, and hungry for writing fiction, and for some English wasn’t even their native language. It was humbling to see the grasp they had on my mother tongue, and their unique use of it at times made it sing in the most unusual ways. Teaching there was one of the highlights of my life.
MF: On your blog, author Jack Driscoll was identified as your mentor. Is there one shiny pearl of wisdom he shared with you that stands out?
DR: Oh, man. There are so many! I suppose his “Kind God” theory. How the writer should love her characters, no matter their flaws, no matter if they verge into evil. To love them without judgment is to breathe the life of real world into them, and to remove all traces of authorial condescension. It allows the reader to empathize with characters that make choices the reader never would in real life, and to begin to understand even the most despicable characters’ motivations.
MF: You attended Pacific University’s low residence MFA Program in Creative Writing. Explain the difference between a low residence and a traditional MFA program. Why did you choose a low residence program?
DR: Low residency means you are on the campus less than in a traditional program but in return you are working closely and directly with a mentor each semester who combs through your work and gives you feedback one to one. It’s all very intense and intimate compared to traditional MFA programs, and in many ways superior in that it immediately sets up the real life writing circumstance of working and dealing with family and other obligations while finding time to write (since most of us don’t have trust funds), so that upon graduating the student is already versed in how to manage a writing life with the rest of life.
MF: What has been the toughest criticism given to you as a writer? What has been the best compliment?
DR: The toughest criticism really stems from being rejected by publishers for years before I was finally published. It’s absolutely heartbreaking. Even the kindest rejections are still a kind of slap in the face that you are not good enough. It’s really, really rough to get through years of this kind of thing. At times it debilitated me. And then I somehow got back up again, and again, trying harder and harder to get it right. As for the best compliment, it would have to be having my writing compared to that of Marilynne Robinson or Daniel Woodrell, two authors I really admire. And also making people cry.
MF: Aside from polished and engaging writing, what three things do you think every new writer must do in order to succeed in this highly competitive and ever-changing industry?
DR: 1.) Don’t be so hard on yourself. It will cause you to give up. Write through the bad stuff to get to the good stuff.
2.) Get in the chair every day, even if you’re only staring at the page. Something will eventually come if you sit there long enough. If you put off sitting because you don’t know what you’re going to write you may never find the story. Write to find the story.
3.) Be open to alternative and innovative ways of publishing. The rules are changing every day. Technology has opened many doors for many people. Don’t be a Luddite. Embrace change. See what it has to offer.
MF: If you could jump into a book, and live in that world … which would it be?
DR: I would jump into Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson. I love that book so much. I’ve read it at least 6 times. I would live in the small house in the Norwegian forest where Trond lives, watching snow fall between the pines, stoking the fire with my dog at my side. And come spring I’d drive to Sweden and watch the Loggers roll logs down the river. I’d live happily ever after.
A series of tragedies brings Vivvie’s young grandchildren into her custody, and her two estranged daughters back under one roof. Jackson, Vivvie’s husband, was shot and killed 30 years ago, and the ramifications have splintered the family into their own isolated remembrances and recriminations.
This deeply personal, hauntingly melancholy look at the damages families inflict on each other – and the healing that only they can provide – is filled with flinty, flawed and complex people stumbling towards some kind of peace. Like Elizabeth Strout and Kazuo Isiguro, Deborah Reed understands a story and its inhabitants reveal themselves in the subtleties: the space between the thoughts, the sigh behind the smile, and the unreliable lies people tell themselves that ultimately reveal the deepest truths.
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