Today we welcome Courtney Angela Brkic to the blog and celebrate the release of her debut novel, The First Rule of Swimming. Brkic’s first book, Stillness: And Other Stories, was a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers pick and a New York Times Notable Book. Grab a cup of coffee and enjoy our conversation!
The First Rule of Swimming is about a woman named Magdalena who must leave her Croatian island home to search for her missing sister in New York City. While there, she discovers many things about her family’s dark past. Can you tell us more about Magdalena and her family?
Magdalena and her sister were raised by their grandparents on Rosmarina, save for a single year when they lived with their mother and abusive stepfather on the mainland. The sisters are very close but also very different – Magdalena is content to live the rest of her days on the island but Jadranka, an artist, chafes at its confines. When their American cousin suggests an extended visit to New York, she jumps at the opportunity. But when she arrives she learns several troubling things about her family and, particularly, her place in it. The book shows the impact of history on a single family and it follows three generations: Magdalena’s grandfather who was a Partisan during the Second World War, her mother and uncle who must wrestle with Communism and its legacy, and Magdalena and her sister who come of age in the post-Communist, post-war period.
Barbara Hoffert from Library Journal says you are “a special writer whose works hit me right in the heart.” Much is written about how authors can connect to their readers. How do you emotionally connect to your readers through your writing?
My fictional characters are constructs but their emotions – and the situations they find themselves in – are very real. I write about things which move me: families, immigration, the former-Yugoslavia, war. And within these things are always shadows of my family and my friends. People I care deeply about. And although not a single character from The First Rule of Swimming is based on an actual person, those parallels to life do exist. I’ve always felt that while a story might not be factual, it’s important for the emotions to ring true.
It’s been about 10 years since you published your debut work. How have things changed for you, in your writing career, over the past decade?
Things have changed a lot since then, but mostly on the personal front – I began teaching around the time that Stillness, my story collection, came out. In the years since then I’ve married, had a child and moved away from New York. All of those changes influence my writing life, both in terms of the material that interests me and the nitty-gritty of sitting down to work.
The First Rule of Swimming is your first novel. You’ve also published a critically acclaimed memoir and an award-winning collection of short stories. Having written in these three mediums, what challenges does writing a full-length fictional novel present over writing a short story collection or piece of non-fiction?
For me, the experience of writing a novel was vastly different than writing stories or memoir. Stories are self-contained universes, however complex. I often write stories in one sitting, like a very long exhalation of breath. And while revision is as important to short fiction as it is to longer forms, consistency of voice doesn’t tend to be a problem. A novel, by its nature, is written over a longer period of time. Sometimes – and especially if you’re a slow writer like I am! – a very long period of time. The person holding the pen, or tapping at the keyboard, changes in that time and begins to see things differently. There’s an intricacy to a novel, to the way the component pieces must fit together like a puzzle. In this respect, writing a novel is more like writing memoir. But in a memoir, you are necessarily constrained by fact. Your interpretation, or presentation, can be creative, but by calling something non-fiction you enter a pact with the reader that you will not invent things to further the story. A novel, by contrast, is a wide, open space. Which makes it both daunting and thrilling.
As a professor in the MFA program at George Mason University, what writing advice do you give your students?
To write in their own voices. Each of us has a favorite author whose work has been critical in shaping us, both as writers and as human beings. Most writers pass through an early stage of mimicking that author, aspiring to create work of the same order. But a crucial part of developing as an artist is moving beyond this and entering new territory. Creating something of your own. And it’s equally important to do your own thing, to not be swayed by what is in fashion, or what you think will sell. We don’t all like the same food, wear the same clothes or love the same people. (At least, we shouldn’t.) And how boring the world would be if we all wrote in the same way.
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