5 Questions for...Amy Brill
Contributor
Written by
Five Questions
April 2013
Contributor
Written by
Five Questions
April 2013

Amy Brill is a writer and producer whose articles, essays, and stories have appeared or are forthcoming in publications including Salon, Guernica, Redbook, Real Simple, Time Out New York, and The Common. A Pushcart Prize nominee and Peabody-winning television writer, Amy has received fellowships in fiction from the Edward F. Albee Foundation, Jentel, the Millay Colony, Fundación Valparaíso, the Constance Saltonstall Foundation, and the American Antiquarian Society. Her debut novel, The Movement of Stars, out this month from Riverhead, is inspired by the work of Maria Mitchell, the United States’ first professional female astronomer. She talks here with fellow She Writer Sarah Saffian, author of Ithaka: A Daughter’s Memoir of Being Found, about weaving fact and fiction, juggling her roles as author, wife, and mother, and her fifteen-year-long creative journey.

 

Sarah Saffian: Describe when you first learned about Maria Mitchell and the seed of the idea for a book was planted—that flash of inspiration, that light bulb going off?

Amy Brill: It was a daytrip to Nantucket in 1996—that’s not a typo. I’d been working at a bookstore on the Cape and decided to go out there for a day. On the ferry I picked up a tourist flyer, and there was a squib that said, Come and see the home of the famous girl astronomer from Nantucket! And that little thing happened in my head: click, ping! Girl astronomer? I walked up to her little house and breathed in the salt air, and wondered about this woman, Maria Mitchell, who’d stood on her roof every night and scanned the sky for something new to appear, until it did, when she was 29 years old. In those days comet discoveries were paths to a career in astronomy, and so it was for her, even though she was a woman. But I was intrigued by the discipline required to pursue such a thing, as well as the time and place. The whaling ships, the isolated island, the rigid Quaker community there at that time—it was like a perfect storm for a budding novelist.


Sarah Saffian: Especially considering that you’ve worked in the non-fiction realm—journalism, personal essays—what was it like to be inspired by a real person, and do factual research, in order to create a fictional character and the story around her? What’s grounded in reality, and how did you take flights of imagination away from that?

Amy Brill: Well in some ways I was hindered by my love for facts. In addition to writing nonfiction, I was also a fact-checker at magazines and a history minor in college. I really, enjoy reading about history. And research was so much easier than writing! I thought at the outset that I was writing a novelized version of Maria Mitchell’s life, but cleaving to the facts hindered the progress of the novel in numerous ways. What I ended up with was a novel that took the setting and circumstances, as well as the aspirations and work of a real person, and merged them with an invented character whose life differs markedly from that of her inspiration. I made up the whole plot and almost all of the secondary characters in the book. There’s an exhaustive list at the back of the book for those supernerds (like me!) who really want to know which details were “real” and which ones I made up.

Sarah Saffian: Earlier drafts of The Movement of Stars were entirely epistolary. What made you ultimately decide against that format? Any other major voice changes—did you ever consider first person for Hannah, rather than close third, for example?

Amy Brill: Oh, I tried them all. The epistolary format didn’t work because I had a character who was so very reticent and, at the outset, barely able to identify her own feelings, much less articulate them. So to put most of the novel in her voice—and in letters and journals, for that matter—it was like reading sand. I did try first person, which actually helped me get further into Hannah’s head, but ultimately I wanted more distance. Hopefully it was the right choice!

Sarah Saffian: You worked on this novel for more than ten years, and during that time you also got married and had your two daughters. For all the multi-tasking She Writers out there, what are your writing habits like, and how have they evolved? Also, did these major life changes have an impact on the content of the story?

Amy Brill: I often look back on all my writing residencies—on my whole life, really, before I became a parent, and think: What was I doing with all that time! From where I am now—an 18-month old, a four-year old, and a book coming out—that period of my life looks like an ocean of time. Having kids forced me to go directly to work when I had the time to work, and I mean, even a morsel of time. A half an hour. An hour. If I’m writing new material, I know that I have to just go forward. When I have a full day to devote to writing, I give myself a page count and stick to it. As for the content of the story, when I began I was 25 and single, like my protagonist, but when I finished I was forty and married with a child. I would say that during that time my understanding of Hannah and the many facets of female desire definitely evolved, and that helped the story gain more depth and maybe heart, too.

Sarah Saffian: Describe one peak and one trough, creatively speaking, along the journey of working on this book—a shimmering moment of things clicking into place, a day when you came close to losing faith in the project?

Amy Brill: I recall writing a chapter involving a lost key, but not knowing what would become of it. When I realized who had taken it, and what it meant, it was this giant A-ha! moment. It made everything suddenly make sense in a new way. As for the day I almost quit, I have to go back to my over-reliance on research. I’d been at a residency in Spain, and then I flew to Barcelona to meet my then-boyfriend, now-husband for a week. On the way home, I checked the backpack that had all my research, my notes, my journal, my special old books, all of it. And the airline lost the bag. I was crushed. And I was sure I’d never finish the book. But it turned out to be a fantastic turn of events. It freed me to rewrite the story the way I wanted it to happen, not the way it really happened. I only wish I’d gotten the check they promised me. Guess it’s still in the mail.

 

For more about Amy Brill and her debut novel, The Movement of Stars, visit her website: www.amybrill.com.

To learn more about Sarah Saffian and her work, visit www.saffian.com.

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Comments
  • amy brill

    Thank you, @Julia! And @Kate--get back to work! :) Once you've given yourself a break and a pat on the back for finishing the first one, that is. 

  • Julia Fierro

    The Movement of Stars is one of my favorite reads of 2013! Thank you for such an engaging story, and such a memorable protagonist, Amy.

  • Kate Campbell

    You commented that research was so much easier than writing and that has been my experience, too. It's easy to get lost for days on the Internet. Having that access is a blessing and a curse. Thanks, also, for sharing your discipline -- half hour here, days with specific page counts. After finishing my first novel, I've been drifting, not picking up the reins of the next book and trotting down the trail to a completed draft. Need to get back to work.

  • amy brill

    Thanks, all! @Lisa, keep going! Just go forward until you reach the end. Or, "an" end. The story will be in there somewhere--you'll find it in revisions. But don't quit. 

  • Lisa Thomson

    This is an interesting interview.  It's always so fascinating to hear other writers' stories of their process. I'm happy to hear it took you 10 years to write. I'm working on my novel and I get worried it's taking too long, but your story Amy, has taken years and is proof that it does come together eventually. Thanks for this!

  • Evalyn Lee

    I loved reading this!  Fact, fiction.  Fiction, fact.  The eternal dance.  Thanks for sharing your journey.  Can't wait to read the book.

  • Fascinating feature.  Amy's wrestling with the "facts" as opposed to the "story" is something every author faces and one with which I struggled, too.  I always love knowing the seed of a story; it's a testament to just how unique every writer's perspective is and how infinite the opportunities for inspiration.