Book Talk: Three sisters in a house of Shakespeare
Meet Rosalind, Bianca and Cordelia, sisters who, like many siblings, profess mutual love but sometimes don't like each other that much.
These three heroines of Eleanor Brown's debut novel, "The Weird Sisters," grew up in a house dominated by their professor father, who specializes in Shakespeare studies, named his girls for Shakespearean heroines and communicates -- sometimes hilariously, often cryptically -- through Shakespeare quotations.
Written in a mix of collective voice "we" and third-person narrative, the book focuses on the sisters as they return to their rural hometown, drawn by their mother's health crisis.
Brown, who is the youngest of three sisters and has always been fascinated by the impact of birth order on peoples' lives, talked about Shakespeare, families and her book.
Q: Did you grow up with Shakespeare the way this family did?
A: "No, not exactly. I certainly grew up in a family that was interested in literature and knowledge. My mother is much more likely to quote song lyrics than Shakespeare: whatever you say she will come up with a song that relates to it. But certainly the importance of language and the importance of books is similar to what I grew up with.
"What I was trying to get at is that every family has some way they communicate that makes no sense to outsiders. Certain sayings or certain ways of talking to each other: it's just the way the family unit communicates. So I wanted to get at that.
"The father retreats into Shakespeare especially when things get emotionally tough. At the exact moment that the sisters need him to talk like himself, he starts to talk like Shakespeare. So that was really just my way of exploring that family communication, and it ended up being Shakespeare largely because I had learned to love and enjoy that language."
Q: Are you still a big fan of Shakespeare?
A: "Well, I needed a break after I finished the book. There was a lot of research and a lot of reading. I read a lot of the plays, I watched a lot of movies, essentially looking for quotes and storylines that I was going to use. I also did a lot of academic research for themes I wanted to pull out.
Q: What themes did you end up using?
A: "The obvious ones of sisterhood and family, what those things mean. Adulthood, what does it mean to be an adult? Destiny. Are things pre-determined or do we get to decide? Identity, what makes us who we are and again, do we have any control over that or is it mapped out for us? Also, I think the idea of home, what makes a place home for you."
Q: The collective voice was a very interesting choice.
A: "I chose it because I was listening to people talk about their families. And when people talk about their families, they always use collective first person. It's never 'when I was little, I went to Disneyland,' it's always 'when we were little we went to Disneyland.'
"What I wanted to get at was this issue that these sisters, even though they're somewhat estranged, you still carry the family that you grew up with, with you. So they may not like each other and they may not choose to spend time together, but they are a part of each other in a way they can't sever. And I wanted to use that voice to underscore and remind the reader of that -- that the family is one unit no matter what the relationship right now is like."
Q: What was your family's form of communication?
A: "Growing up in a very literate family, very concerned with books and reading and knowledge, the joke in our family is that you cannot get through a dinner without consulting one piece of reference material or another. The dictionary would be fetched at one point or another. So I think that a lot of our communication takes place around ideas and books. And then my mother was also a social worker, so discussions of feelings as well. My family is in no way as emotionally absent as this family: they're much, much more present."
Q: Are any of the sisters like your sisters?
A: "The sisters are, I think, all like me. There's a little bit of me in each of them. My hope is that there's a little bit of everybody in each of them, that we all have those conflicting feelings. That we all have a little bit of wanting safety, and we all have a little bit of wanting to be adventurous. So that those conflicts that each of the sisters represents was something that I was trying to work out for myself.
"I don't want to write a character that everybody loves. These characters do things that are frustrating, they act against their own self-interests and they do things that are flat-out stupid sometimes. But that's what people do, and that's what makes us interesting and wonderful."
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