Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Gayle Brandeis, Book of Dead Birds and Fruitflesh

Gayle Brandeis

A few years ago I attended a writers convention here in southern California. There was an interesting mix of struggling and accomplished writers, speakers who ran the gamut from polished to eccentric. The best part of my day was not watching a drunk agent hit on a big chested writer, but meeting Gayle Brandeis.

I was immediately drawn to her. She is soft spoken and kind. Gayle has a huge heart and has been a supporter of my own writing over the past few years. Everyone should be so lucky to have a Gayle in their life. I love the fact that she gives so much to the community and is involved in charity work and committed to making a difference in the world. She is a mother, wife, writer and poet. And she likes sordid celebrity gossip, this is true.

I read The Book of Dead Birds not sure what to expect. Would it be about..dead birds? And how does one write about dead birds anyway? Gayle's poetic style moves the pages along and there is a deeper meaning to the title- you must read it. Fruitflesh is a tool for incorporating all of your senses when writing. Using fruits as a way of awakening your ablity to describe, your writing will come alive.

It took me a while to come up with questions for Gayle.. I wanted to get across her personality and do justice to her talent. Be sure to check out her website and read her blog.

What five words you would use to describe yourself?

Ooh, that's a tricky one! I could give you five words for any of my characters so easily, but describing myself is more of a challenge—I guess it can be hard for us to see ourselves clearly. Here goes (deep breath): creative, intuitive, goofy, loving, alive.

The critically acclaimed Book of Dead Birds is such a great novel. Were you nervous the title would push people away? Mentioning 'dead birds' could mean the book is about one of many different things....

People seem to either really love or really hate the title. I'm afraid it has scared some readers away; several people told me they were really upset when their book groups first selected the novel—they thought it sounded relentlessly dark, but then they were happily surprised to find that it's shot through with a lot of lightness, too.

I couldn't imagine another title for it, although after it was published, a friend suggested The Language of Birds, which I do like a lot, and a new Dutch edition came out as Mijn Moeders Vleugels—My Mother's Wings--which is nice, too. But The Book of Dead Birds still feels like the rightful title to me, even though it ruffles some people's feathers the wrong way. I'm so glad you liked the book!

I really admire your dedication to being active with political and social issues. Tell me about the issues that are important to you? What are your "pet" causes?

My heart bleeds all over the place—so many issues are important to me. I try to do whatever I can to nurture and promote social/environmental/political justice. I am especially drawn to issues that affect women and children around the world—as a writer, I feel I have an opportunity, and a responsibility, to give voice to those who are voiceless. I have worked as a literacy volunteer, a community organizer, an environmental activist, etc., and am constantly writing to my elected officials about issues that need to be addressed.

My work with CODEPINK: Women for Peace, has been especially gratifying—CODEPINK finds such fun and creative ways to speak to power, to create a more peaceful and sustainable future. I have done a lot of writing for them (including songs and chants!), and am eager to do more. I am also a founding member of the Women Creating Peace Collective, a local group dedicated to spreading peace and the arts throughout and beyond the community.

If you could teach one class to high school students, what would it be and why? I'm torn between teaching about money- how to balance a checkbook and create a budget and teaching about tolerance and kindness.

I wish someone had taught me how to deal with money in high school—that's a class I could never teach, since I'm still pretty clueless when it comes to finances! I am much better at teaching about tolerance and kindness; I actually have a chance to do that, through the work I do as writer-in-residence for the Mission Inn Foundation's Family Voices Project. I work with classes at five local high schools, helping kids research and write family stories. It is such a satisfying process.

Often, when I first enter the classrooms, these kids feel as if they don't have stories to tell, as if their families' stories aren't important. I work with them over the course of about three months, and by the time we're done working together, they usually have fully claimed their stories, their voices, and find pride in their families' history. I think it's very empowering for them. And they learn so much about each other over the course of our time together—often these kids have sat in classrooms together for years, but never got around to knowing anything personal about one another. As they begin to share their stories, they begin to understand one another more deeply, and a real sense of community grows within the group. It's quite amazing to behold.

Fruitflesh is so beautifully written and poetic. Give me a sample - describe to me your favorite fruit.

Thanks, Cindy! I would have to say my favorite fruit is the mango; just thinking about it makes my mouth water. Here is the mango meditation from the book:

Mangos are intense. If you hold a mango in your hand, it feels solid, sure of itself. The flesh inside is incredibly sexy, moist and slick and richly hued, with a bold, ambrosial, flavor. The mango is wild but centered, its seed supportive as a spine.

Slice a "cheek" off a mango. Bend the wedge of fruit back, like a neck arched in pleasure. Tear the sweet flesh away from the skin with your teeth. Devour the fruit until your whole face is slippery with its juice.

Let your writing be bold, sexy, unapologetic. Enter into it fully, with your whole body, without hesitation.

What is your favorite book, movie and song?

It's very hard to choose a favorite book—I have so many! I would say the book I return to for inspiration most often, though, is a book of poems: American Primitive by Mary Oliver. She writes about nature and the body in such a gorgeous way. I love tons of movies, too, but my favorite is probably Wim Wenders' "Wings of Desire", which came out in the late 80s—it is so beautiful, and makes me feel blissed out, fully alive. My favorite song is definitely "This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)" by The Talking Heads. It always hits me right in the heart. I went to see David Byrne at the Hollywood Bowl this summer, and when he sang that song, I sobbed all the way through.

Do you ever get jealous of the success of other writers? How do you handle the rejection part of being a writer? What about putting your work out there for people to pick apart and criticize?

To be a writer, one has to be open—open to inspiration, open to the creative flow. That openness can make us vulnerable, though—there is so much rejection in this business, so much harsh judgment, and it is very easy to take it all personally.
I have fallen prey to this—I have been hurt by rejection, been hurt by bad reviews (or no reviews from places that I had expected to review me), been envious of other writers who are reviewed everywhere, who sell gobs and gobs of books. But then I step back and try to gain some detachment. I try to remember how lucky I am to spend time with these characters, these words I love. I try to put my focus on the creative process, itself. Anything else that happens with publishing is a thrill, of course—a dream come true—but the writing itself provides the most lasting source of pleasure, and no one, no snarky reviewer, no superstar spotlight author du jour, can take that away.

What kind of mark do you want to leave on the world?

I don't think very often about what kind of mark I want to leave—I mostly want to focus on living well and justly and creatively here and now—but I do want to leave the world having made it a better place, even if my name is forgotten along the way. If I am remembered, I would want my legacy to be one of love—I want my work to show how much I loved the world, how much I loved language, how much I loved my family and friends. And I hope that love can have tendrils that will spread out and create more love, more peace, more inspiration.


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