The Surprising and Beautiful Things Reading Fiction Teaches Us about Real Life
"I always start with character," says Brenda Janowitz. "Many writers start with an idea that's more plot-driven, but for me, it starts with that one person." That's a perfect explanation for the novelist's passion. Janowitz has solidified herself in the fiction world as a creator of vibrant, often irreverent female characters. When you open one of Janowitz's novels, get ready to follow the main character to the last page.
That is true for her new book, The Audrey Hepburn Estate—her third novel in which she's referenced Hollywood starlets (the first two being The Grace Kelly Dress and The Liz Taylor Ring). The protagonist, Emma, faces dark secrets and a yearning to find her voice, underscored by a storied mansion rumored to be the home in the Hepburn film Sabrina. It's a rich and ambitious story, but Janowitz gives it a gravitas with historical facts and the character's humanity.
We recently spoke with the novelist, who was previously a self-described "unhappy lawyer," about why fiction calls to her so strongly—and, ultimately, what we can learn from fiction about ourselves.
A CONVERSATION WITH BRENDA JANOWITZ
You've been open about how imprecise your process is and how critical editing is to writing. Will you share more about this with us?
Interestingly, since I'm eight books in now, I think people expect me to have a real process. They might expect me to say, 'I sit down, I have a cup of coffee…' as if I have an actual process. But with each book, it's been so different—dramatically different. With Audrey, I free-wrote a lot of it. Sometimes, I'm just free writing into oblivion, and don't know where it will go. So the process is always different. But yes, I've learned from eight books that it's all about editing. Writing is rewriting. When you're starting out, that can be hard to believe because writing can be so hard. It can be hard to find the time and the motivation. Or when you block out two or three hours, all of a sudden, your mind goes blank. But the fact is, writing isn't just on a sentence level. Sometimes you'll read a book, and it's beautiful on a sentence level, but the big picture isn't there, or the plot isn't there. Something is missing. So you sort of find it all, which happens in the editing.
This sounds like a metaphor for life.
Oh, I love that, yes!
I have an eighth grader now who's studying the classics. This made me remember when I was in seventh or eighth grade, and it was my first experience with symbolism in a book. I said to my mom, 'How did they write this?' I assumed as a kid that writing was a linear path. You just started on page one, finished, and never went back. She said, 'They do it as a process. They edit it.' And that hadn't dawned on me. Now eight books in, I realize you're constantly ripping the book apart, tearing it up, and learning along the way. You have to trust in yourself that the flow will be there and you will get it.
You imbue the beauty and messiness of life in your books, from falling in love to finding one's voice to dealing with family hardships. Why did you choose fiction as your way to express all of this?
I love this question. My short answer is I write fiction because I can't not write fiction. I always joke when I'm giving advice to people when they ask, 'Should I become a writer? What should I do?' I say, 'If there's anything else you want to do with your life, do that!' Those of us who are writers can't not be writers—but ultimately, you are laying yourself bare. You're putting yourself out there in an unbelievably personal way. It can break your heart every day. And the industry has changed so much. So you must have a love for it.
So again, I'm a fiction writer because I can't not be a fiction writer. I also write personal essays sometimes. But for fiction, I believe story is so incredibly important. As Joan Didion said, we tell ourselves stories in order to live, and I think that's true. Humans are natural storytellers. We're always telling stories to make sense of the world.
As for fiction versus non-fiction, it is a debate I've had with friends. I used to think fiction wasn't as personal as non-fiction. When you write these personal essays, for instance, my argument was that you're in full control of the narrative. You tell the reader exactly what you want them to hear. But one friend told me that fiction is actually more personal because you don't control it. You think you're controlling it, but your subconscious is weaving its way through. And so the readers are discovering more about you, the writer, and your life than any of your essays tell them. You're not totally conscious of what you're doing. I believe that now. One of my earlier novels was about a family with two daughters and a middle brother. My husband's cousin called and pointed out that that was my husband's family. I had no idea that I had done that. I had infused something in the book that was personal without meaning to. Your subconscious weaves its way into the fiction, which can add to how scary it is.
How does fiction teach us more about ourselves and life?
I'm friendly with [the novelist] Laura Dave. Early in my writing career, she gave me some advice. She told me there always has to be something true in the writing. I really took that to heart. I do think the best kind of fiction says something that's true about life and ourselves. And I think that's what imprints on our hearts. So I always think about what's true here. Yes, it's fiction. We're making this up. But we're drawing from real life. We're drawing from things we've heard and things we've seen. So there always has to be that nugget of truth. That's what we connect to in fiction and learn from. It is so personal.
Often in the media, there's still a push to make women more "likable." How do you grapple with this?
I've been thinking about this a lot. Women always get the editorial note: You have to make these female characters likable. But the male characters don't get that note. That can be frustrating as a writer because you want people to feel real. Just because we're women doesn't mean we're always likable. We don't fit into a box, and life is challenging. I want to infuse the messiness of life, as you said earlier, into my books—because life isn't cookie-cutter. Life is messy, and it's hard, but it's beautiful. So when you get the note to make the protagonist more likable, the question then becomes: How do you make someone real, not necessarily likable, but a real human so the reader wants to follow along on their journey? The book Gone Girl comes to mind. The character Amy Dunn is not particularly likable, but I'd follow her journey. So I want my characters to be real and complicated, even if, at times, they do things that aren't so nice. I want to touch on their humanity.
What are you hoping that people take away from The Audrey Hepburn Estate?
At the basic level, if people enjoy it and it takes them away from everyday life for a little while, then I've done my job. Beyond that, I do hope they think a little bit more about Audrey Hepburn and who she was. In my author's note, I talk about connections I made in fiction to her real life. She was this incredible woman who inspired me. A lot of people don't know much about her life. We think of her in chic gowns. People mainly talk about her beauty, her style, and her grace. But that's not even the most interesting part about Audrey Hepburn. She had these tremendous things she had to go through in her life. After reading the book, many people have written to me saying, 'Audrey Hepburn is my idol. She's my inspiration.' So I hope people learn from and talk about Audrey Hepburn's real life.
These Hollywood starlets—Grace Kelly, Elizabeth Taylor, and Audrey Hepburn—were mostly lauded for being beautiful. They were known for being beautiful, even though they were talented, complex women. They all earned Oscars. But when we think about them, we think about how beautiful they are. And there is so much more to know and to learn.
Brenda Janowitz is the author of eight novels, including The Grace Kelly Dress, which has been optioned for film by Hallmark/Crown Media. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Janowitz attended Cornell University and Hofstra Law School. You can learn more at brendajanowitz.com and order her new book, The Audrey Hepburn Estate, here.
Question from the Editor: What fiction novel has taught you something profound? We'd love to know in the comments below.