It’s always a pleasure to welcome to Behind the Pen an author whose work I admire and today my guest is Emily Brewin, talking with me about her latest release, Small Blessings.
How would you describe Small Blessings if you could only use 5 words?
Hope, connection, friendship, motherhood, loss.
What was the inspiration behind Small Blessings? With two very different women driving the narrative, where did each of them come from? Was either of the women more of a challenge than the other to write?
Small Blessings evolved from a short story I wrote about a missing child’s shoe being found in a suburban front garden. I was interested in the two female protagonists and wanted to explore them further. The shoe in the short story was inspired by a Blundstone boot I spotted while driving down the Monash Freeway to my parent’s house. Deserted shoes always make me wonder about the owner. A child’s shoe ups the emotional ante.
In terms of characters, I found Isobel much more difficult to write. I felt I was standing at a distance from her while Rosie I could see very clearly. My copyeditor cleverly pointed out that Isobel’s chapters were often written in past tense. Once I put them in present tense her character came to life. I think too that I felt more empathy for Rosie, which enabled me to inhabit her character more easily.
The disappearance of Petey teases out the prejudices, tensions and emotions that exist around mothering, the desire to mother, and the fine line between love and frustration that often comes with motherhood. Your previous novel, Hello, Goodbye, was also to a certain degree about mothering, although of course within a different context and with a different focus. Would you say that as a theme, motherhood offers a minefield of aspects to explore? With social media channels providing such a strong presence within our daily lives, do you think we are at risk of narrowing down our viewpoint on motherhood, thus becoming less tolerant of others and more inclined to openly judge, particularly in online forums?
Motherhood is a bit of minefield because it plays such a complex and important role in the growth and vitality of our society, yet it is undervalued – especially economically. Because of this, mothers are easily and often judged harshly. We are judged, for instance, for staying at home to look after our children and again for going back to work full-time. Our choices are scrutinised and often found lacking in the face of society’s high expectations. This creates an unrealistic pressure on women to do and be it all. To work hard, look good, keep house and raise a family.
Social media exacerbates this. Judgements can be made and bandied about or used to target individuals. Representations of motherhood on social media are also skewed. We don’t often see images of tantrums in the supermarket aisle or the parental tears spilt after a particularly hard day. So yes, on one level I think that social media leads to a narrowing of our idea of motherhood. On another, I believe women are experts at creating meaningful connections that allow honesty and openness, be that online or face-to-face. There’s nothing as affirming as sharing a moment of gut-wrenching frustration with another mother, only to discover she feels exactly the same way.
Are you balancing a different career with your writing? Does this other career provide inspiration for you writing? How do you go about making time for your writing within limited hours?
I teach part-time at a secondary school. Generally, I am able to strike a balance between the two, although life gets pretty chaotic around assessment times. Teaching is as much about personalities and relationships as it is about learning. For this reason, it gives me the opportunity to observe how people behave and interact. I’m definitely not taking notes in class, but some things do sneak into my writing.
Balancing writing with having my own children and working part-time is often hard work. But, I find the combination provides structure, in that I know when I can and can’t expect to write and for how long. I’m much better at writing in two to four hour blocks anyway. Give me eight hours and I turn into a major procrastinator. On the other hand, my house becomes very clean…
How much research do you do? How do you balance the demands of getting the facts right and telling a good story?
The amount of research I do depends on what type of story I’m writing. For instance, Hello, Goodbye was set in 1968, an era before I was born, and explored the themes of forced adoption and the Vietnam War. For these reasons, I researched and interviewed widely – looking at the music, fashion, politics and social values of the time. I also spoke to mothers who had been forced to give babies away and to returned Vietnam veterans. Small Blessings required less research because it is contemporary. Saying this, I did interview around autism, police procedure and IVF.
Facts generally don’t get in the way of telling a good story. I use them to add colour and depth. Researching or interviewing people with lived experience helps me understand the issues I’m writing about and brings my stories to life. It also ensures I’m doing justice to the communities I’m representing in my books.
Have you ever had to deal with a situation where someone feels they recognise traits of themselves in one of your characters?
This happens every now and then. My partner is currently convinced the main character in my new manuscript is based on him. This character is a teenage girl… And although she has some similar traits, her story is very different. I think it’s inevitable that authors write elements of people they know into their books. After all, we are the sum of all our experiences. Funnily, my mum recognised my dad in some of May’s father’s actions in Hello, Goodbye. Specifically, my dad’s habit of polishing shoes with pairs of his old underpants!
What book is currently on your bedside table? Are you more of a print, e-book, or audio book fan?
I’ve just started reading my friend’s third book – Sonia Orchard’s Into the Fire. It’s set in 1990s Melbourne and her vivid descriptions of the time take me back to my university days. I’m only a couple of chapters in but I’m well and truly hooked.
I’m definitely more of print girl. I love the whole book experience, from searching covers on the shelves to flipping through to find my page when I read in bed. I never tire of holding the real thing in my hands.
What attributes do you think you need to remain sane as a writer? Are there any particular things you routinely do for yourself to maintain your own headspace?
Connecting with other writers is a must for me because they understand the emotional and physical stamina it takes to write a book. It’s great to be able to talk shop and life, to exchange ideas and opportunities, and to support one and other. Of course, my friends and family are supportive too but their eyes tend to glaze over at the mere mention of a character arc.
I also cycle to maintain a healthy headspace. I took up road cycling a couple of years ago and love the way it forces me into the moment so that everything else drops away. Writing can be like that too. Saying this, cycling also gives me the chance to churn ideas over without putting pen to paper. If I have a full writing day, I break it up with a ride to clear my head.
Whiling time away with my children is the other thing I do to reset. We have a favourite gelato bar near home that makes us all very happy campers.
Can you tell us something about yourself that not many people would know?
My superpower is parallel parking. I don’t want to boast… but I can squeeze my car into the teeniest of spaces.
You can wear one pair of shoes for the rest of your life. What type are they and what colour?
I have a wardrobe full of shoes. To say I love them is an understatement. My favourites though are the heels I can dance the night away in. Design should be beautiful as well as practical. In terms of colour, it depends on the outfit, but I’m a big fan of red. Hmmm… let’s say, a pair of cork wedges with red leather straps.
Through the unlikeliest of friendships comes a second chance.
Rosie Larson doesn’t trust people – and with good reason. Her violent ex-boyfriend, Joel, is out of jail and she’s determined he won’t find her or their eleven-year-old son.
For Isobel Hutchins, the cost of success is beginning to prove too high. Her impressive career and comfortable lifestyle can’t protect her from the news her mother is dying or the need to face her past.
When tragedy strikes, Rosie and Isobel are thrown together despite their differences. In this difficult space, they draw strength from each other and form an unlikely friendship that may just see them through.
Small Blessings is a poignant and uplifting tale of secrets, motherhood, innocence and heartache, and ultimately what we’re willing to do for love.
Released February 2019