Saturday, June 27, 2009

Mini-Memoir/Interview with Spotlighted Author, R. J. Brown, Author of The Dead Husband, et. al.

RJ, Where are you from?

London, England during The War. Was evacuated to the town of Woking in Surrey into a family which already had two sons plus other evacuee children & a Land Girl to help take care of us all. After VE Day, no one came to collect me so the family adopted me along with a boy orphan who had no one to go home to. My Daddy gave me a new name & a good start to life. It wasn't until I was in my 40s, a mother myself & had done some mental health therapy & Human Potential work that I realized I needed to learn how being adopted had affected me & the choices I made. I gained much insight & comfort from Betty Jean Lifton's JOURNEY OF THE ADOPTED SELF: A Quest for Wholeness. The "mystery" of my origins, however, has remained cuz anyone who might have known Elizabeth Sepesi, the mother listed on my birth & adoption certificates, deflected my questions with scoldings about me being ungrateful & invariably shut me up with the warning I could have grown up in an orphanage.

When I was 7 we moved to West Kensington in London & I, like my older brothers, started boarding school. Eothen in Caterham, Surrey was where my Mum had gone B4 The Great War. 3 years later it quit taking boarders so I started riding the double-decker bus to Queensgate School for Girls (just around the corner from the Natural History Museum) on a daily basis. I graduated at 16 with my GCE "O" Levels with a Silver Medal in Poetry recital. I was a soloist in the school choir, the Lead Alto in the London School Girls Choir & acted in plays with Lynn Redgrave & a whiz at Ballroom Dancing.

When my Daddy died in 1959 after a long illness, my family split apart as brothers left for National Service, university & New Zealand to make a new life. With a scholarship I started at St. Martin's School of Arts & Crafts along Tottenham Court Road. There I joined the Student Union & the Anti-Apartheid Movement & met the young lawyer Nelson Mandela on his speaking tour, then marched on the South African Embassy off Trafalgar Square to protest his incarceration.

I was walking by the old Scala Theatre when a barker asked if I wanted to make five quid (that's pre-decimal £5). Inside, the place was packed with maidens all a-flutter. Up in "the gods" I watched a band of mop-headed lads play while everyone around me screamed & swooned. A HARD DAY'S NIGHT remains a favorite flick.

To earn spending money I worked in the crafts department of Foyle's Bookstore & ushered evenings at The Academy Cinema along Oxford Street. It showed foreign films each for a month so my ear got tuned to the languages as I whispered along with the dialogue. All I remember now was VIVRE SA VIE, a drab B&W French flick about a pretty damsel caught up in prostitution being fought over by pimps. As a pragmatic teenager & ugly enough so no one ever fought over me, I used to wonder why she didn't just find a new line of work someplace else. Akira Kurosawa's samurai comedy THE HIDDEN FORTRESS was more to my taste. It starred the everso handsome Tishuro Mifune, a refreshing contrast to the angry, preening European chaps.

After I'd gained intermediate diplomas in sculpture & graphic arts, my Mum shipped me off to Portugal, where she'd grown up B4 the revolution that ousted the monarchy. One of my aunties had witnessed her fiance shot dead on her doorstep & when I stayed with her she taught me Portuguese history & language, & Patience (Solitaire). All my aunties were ferocious Canasta, Bezique & Mah Jong players. For six months I was a maid in another auntie's hotel in the fishing village of Ericeira on the Atlantic coast. For the first time I ate fresh seafood & salads & lost 3 stone (about 50lbs). Meanwhile, my Mum sold the family home, bought the last 6 years of a 99 year lease on a 12 room flat (apartment) in Paddington & enrolled me at Marlborough Gate Secretarial College for when I flew home. I graduated with top honors in Pitman's shorthand, typing(manual), dictation, filing, bookkeeping, receptionist & telephones.

Now ready to leave home & join the work force, my Mum kept taking to her bed every time I packed up. Eventually, I simply left with her curses about an ungrateful daughter ringing in my ears. Those were fast times in a flat with 3 other secretaries as we "temped" in strange & exciting jobs: an Italian video juke box company, television, plumbing, travel agencies, learning how to make our wages last the week & putting coins in the gas & electric meters. Then I was accepted as Export Secretary for Sir Robert J. Burnett's 200 yo distillery in Earls Court. A purveyor of exotic liqueurs & liquors to the last remnants of the British Empire, that job reawakened my love of stamp collecting & geography. When it was dismantled in a hostile takeover, I was transferred to Gordon's Gin in their new skyscraper, & hated it. There I began thinking about seeing something of the world & after discovering I was unwelcome in any Commonwealth country due to my Anti-Apartheid association, I set my sights on The New World.

What did you do in America?

A week B4 my 22nd birthday I was sailing around the Statue of Liberty by dawn's early light in the old Italian rust bucket Castel Felice & had made my first American friend, Bitsy, who lived in Columbus, Missouri. I was to take the train down for her college's Homecoming football game & meet her family. That was a treat! After an overnight train to Chicago, the Vera Sugg International Placement Bureau had a handful of job interviews waiting for me. I basically took the least terrifying one in an industrial advertising company run by two brothers who were the epitome of slick used car salesmen. I hated it, although made fast friends with the other secretary.

Meanwhile, my oldest brother was marrying his Peace Corps fiancee in her Cleveland Heights hometown over my first Labor Day weekend, so I took the train there too. Staying at the YWCA on Division Street, I got a call from a woman who needed a live-in nanny for her 4 kids on the Near Northside. It was in the bosom of this family that I saw my first color telly & enjoyed my first Halloween & Thanksgiving. Then they invited me, all expenses paid, on their month long winter ski vacation in the then raw village of Vail, Colorado. I had to quit my day job. With knee operations as a teenager I didn't ski, so swam in thermal pools & froze the hair on my head & in my nose. Back in Chicago & unemployed, my sister-in-law's college sorority sister called saying her brother was looking for a good secretary. Rabbi Robert J. Marx was the Director of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (Midwest) & it was working with him that I often met Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Archbishop Cody & Senator Percy as they planned their de-segregation strategies.

A couple of years later I was in my own tiny apartment off Clark Street near Fullerton & had transferred to the UAHC's Union Institute office. It ran a year-round educational camp in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin where I met my first Israelis & the then young Holocaust survivor author Elie Wiesel. At that time suburban baby-boom teenagers were running away in droves to the Windy City & camp parents began asking me to find 'em. My searches took me into the Counter Culture along Lincoln Avenue where I volunteered at Alice's Revisited: a coffee shop oasis to which everyone eventually came for news, rides, crash pads & other unmentionable things; The Seed underground newspaper; Grace Lutheran Runaway Recovery Program & George's LSD Rescue Squad. I expanded my mind, burnt my bra, gave birth to my children, joined & left communes & earned my keep in a secondhand bookstore where I sewed happy hippy clothes while my partner, Lois, made patriotic leather vests with long fringes worn by just about every musician who came to play at the Wise Fools: BB King, Muddy Waters & Junior Walker were some.

A decade later I headed west so I could eat fresh food all year round & landed in Berkeley, California where I took Human Potential Movement trainings, put my kids in alternative schooling & started my cleaning company.

When some friends invited me to help them relocate to Port Townsend, Washington, I fell in love with the Pacific Northwest & moved up here. I continued cleaning & trained as a Children's Advocate for the Jefferson County Domestic Violence Program where I created the Stepson Walk & Talk Safety Course. Then I was offered the Managing Editorship of the Townsend Letter for Doctors which, over 9 years, I took from a 32 page Xeroxed newsletter to a 144 page illustrated magazine.

Now I'm a retired grandmum, living on the Olympic Peninsula's West End with my very much alive hubby. Together we created the book review site & took care of my ailing father-in-law about whom I wrote in my first memoir: STANDING THE WATCH: The Greatest Gift. I'm also a contributing writer for www.seniorssunsettimes, a monthly newspaper for coastal readers.

Why is your first fiction a cozy mystery?

After the birth of my daughter at the end of a hot Chicago summer, I was bemoaning to a friend how intensely I was missing the land of my childhood. Later that day Bernie lugged his camp trunk up to my fourth floor apartment off Lincoln Avenue. In it was every single one of Agatha Christie's paperbacks. Ever since, I've been keen on atmospheric cozy mysteries. Now, I want 'em to take me someplace I haven't been to meet new people & teach me something I didn't know.

I'd been slogging away at my memoir, re-reading 40 years of journals & squirming at some memories I really didn't want to re-visit when a voice started talking in my head & I started typing. For the entire winter! By spring I had my first draft & sent it out to my Reading Group. From their feedback I knew I had the makings of a good book. Two, in fact, it was that long! So, around my hubby's by-pass surgery & long overnight trips to the VAMC in Seattle, I re-wrote a leaner version & got it in print. Now I see all the typos, so next time I'll hire a proofreader!
Sally Collier, in THE DEAD HUSBAND, is a "lowly char," a cleaner of houses & such, cuz that's something I know about & the idea of how a char would see a murder scene had been brewing for decades.

Why go with Print-On-Demand (POD)?

Cuz my rejection folder's full. I did go the traditional route for my first book, diligently scanning the Guide to Literary Agents & Writer's Market, spending time & cash printing synopses, begging letters & all. Got really tired of form letters saying thanks but no thanks or that I should change this & that. Also, I wanted to present my own material; content & cover. That's when my husband helped me start my own imprint: Big River Press, so we could retain control of our intellectual property & print our books the way we wanted 'em. Will they ever become "best sellers"? That's actually not why we write.

So why do you write?

To be able to hold our very own books in our hands. My Vietnam Veteran husband started writing at the suggestion of his therapists, & it's been an effective way to exorcise some of his ghosts. I do it cuz it's second nature & I relish the process. It keeps my brain flexible & besides, my noggin's the only part of my bod that isn't falling apart, yet. I love typing out dialogues, then reading 'em aloud for editing; creating scenes, describing images, exposing emotions. I don't do it for the fame or to become beholden to a publisher, which you are when you're "lucky" enough to be picked up by an agent. You see, they gamble on you to become the next hot author, spend a lot of money on you & then charge you for unsold copies if they miscalculate & print too many. They also send you on book signing tours. We met the author Gayle Lynds in a Seattle bookstore doing that. She was exhausted from flying all over the country, being driven by strangers hither & yon from airports, crashing in shoddy hotel rooms, needing to do some laundry & had not been home in more than a month! That's fun?

Why do you use odd language, slang?

Cuz I like it. I figure I've thought, read & written long enough to own the language. My favorite sayings about spelling are:

"It is a damn poor mind indeed which can't think of at least two ways to spell any word." From Old Hickory, Andrew Jackson, 1767-1845.

"I hold that a man has as much right to spell a word as it is pronounced as he has to pronounce it the way it ain't spelled." American Humorist Josh Billings, 1818-1885.

Erica Jong has one about spelling which I can't repeat here cuz using anatomical words might bring you trouble. Look it up & then tell me if you don't get a giggle.

My husband is the author D. H. Brown of the award-winning HONOR DUE & HONOR DEFENDED, & he uses me as his spell checker. I've deeply loved this language ever since early school when we had to read a page of a dictionary every week & then write a story using as many words as made sense. I'm not so good at those esoteric foreign words given at National Spelling Bees, just everyday to $10 ones.

R. J. What a delightful, fun time spent with you! I'm amazed at all you've done and it looks like a solid lengthier memoir will appear some time in the future! Thanks so much for sharing with me and my readers! And for those of you who missed Rebecca's article on writing memoirs, click below to review!

My reviews for The Dead Husband and Standing The Watch are also posted here...

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