Interview with Brenda Marshall

8 mins read

Brenda K. Marshall’s  first novel, Mavis, was published in 1996 (Fawcett-Columbine), and her second novel, Dakota, Or What’s a Heaven For, was published in November 2010 (North Dakota State University Institute for Regional Studies). She also has published a book of scholarship, Teaching the Postmodern: Fiction and Theory (Routledge, 1992).  Brenda grew up in North Dakota and now teaches in the English Department at the University of Michigan.  She lives in the countryside nearby with her unlawfully wedded spouse of 25 years.

Natasha Stagg: How long have you been writing?

Brenda K. Marshall: I have been a writer, in some form, all of my adult life, as a small-town journalist, as a technical editor and writer at a research institute, as a freelancer, as a student and scholar.  Each of these forms of writing has its own requirements, but I believe that each has also taught me something about writing fiction.  (I am certain, for example, that my love of tightening and deleting was formed during my early technical writing years as I pared away at countless padded research tomes.)

The first piece of fiction that I wrote was my first novel, Mavis (Fawcett-Columbine, 1996), which I began in 1991, shortly after finishing my Ph.D. dissertation.  I really do mean the first piece of fiction.  There were no short stories, no other novels tucked away.  I was 38 years old when I began to work on Mavis.

NS: Do you write every day?

BKM: When I am working on a novel, I write about five days a week, for four to six hours per day, although that varies, of course.  I would like to write almost every day, but I am determined to have a life beyond writing, and there are simply times when other responsibilities and pleasures take over. Like many writers publishing these days, I currently find myself spending as much time at work on marketing as on writing, which does not seem to me to be a perfect situation.

NS: What are your thoughts on “writing on writing?” Ever read the advice other authors give?

BKM: My training as a writer cannot be separated from my training as a reader.  So I would say that my education that led to a Ph.D. was simultaneously an education in writing fiction.  I have always been interested in narrative, and as a reader am inclined to pay as much attention to the craft and style of the fiction before me as to the plot.  That is to say, I am just as likely to be thinking to myself, “Now how did the author do that?” as “What will happen next?”  So, in a sense, every time I read a successful piece of fiction, I am reading advice.  But do I ever read the advice of other authors about writing?  No.

NS: Do you have some advice to give?

BKM: I suspect that I have nothing very original to offer here:  A writer has to make time to write and that time has to be viciously guarded.  A writer has to be dedicated to revision.  A writer needs to be a good reader first.

NS: Who is your favorite author of the moment, and what should we read by them?

BKM: I have never really had favorite authors, but I have several favorite books that I return to:  Middlemarch, Mrs. Dalloway, The Great Gatsby, Lolita, Housekeeping, The Crying of Lot 49, for example, and I find them compelling for very different reasons (for intricacy of plot, for the glory of the language, for the intelligence obviously at work).  I like a novel that respects the reader and expects her to do some work, too.  There are some writers whose work I will always watch for (Marilynne Robinson, Carole Maso, Sarah Waters, for example), but again, for very different reasons, and I don’t expect to like all of their books equally.

Right now I’m reading some historical fiction, mostly because my most recent novel falls within that category, and I feel as if (somewhat belatedly) I ought to know more about it.   I just finished Ian Pears’ An Instance of the Fingerpost, and am now devouring Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. Oddly, I did not think of myself as writing within a specific genre as I was writing Dakota, Or What’s a Heaven For (set in late 19th-century Dakota Territory), and did not “prepare” for that novel by reading lots of historical fiction; rather, I immersed myself in 19th-century British and American fiction as a way of getting certain cadences of speech in my head as I wrote. 

Several years ago, as I was working on Teaching the Postmodern: Fiction and Theory (Routledge, 1992), I was fascinated by what we were then calling “historiographic metafiction,” such as Salmon Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Christa Wolf’s Cassandra, and Timothy Findley’s Famous Last Words, in which the authorial position is occupied by someone who refuses the possibility of looking to and writing about the past “as it really was,” choosing instead to take on an active role, to ‘do’ the past, to participate and interrogate. The work of historiographic metaficitonists could be placed squarely within the Foucauldian project of counter-memory, the process of reading history against the grain, of taking an acknowledged active role in the interpretation of history rather than a passive, viewing role (that is, to intervene in history rather than to chronicle it).  I didn’t know it then, but I was laying a foundation for a book I would begin to write a decade later.  Dakota, Or What’s a Heaven For is an integration of the sprawling realist 19th-century novel (with its multi-tiered cast of characters whose stories are woven into a tapestry that forms the backdrop to the central narrative) with a hint of “counter-memory” at its core as it “reads” the history of early Dakota Territory against the grain through the perspective of a previously silent and silenced character, a woman who is driven by her desire for another woman.