Novels by M.J. Brett
(a.k.a. Margaret Brettschneider)
You've written ten novels now. How do you prevent Writer's Block?
When did you start writing books?
In 1995, when I retired from teaching after thirty years, and my former high school students started nagging me by e-mail, I finally started writing the stories that had been in my head for ages with no time to write them down. Teachers don't have much time of their own. After a lot of research, the first novel came out in 2003, and there have come about one a year since then.
How do you select your stories?
I’m interested in stories I feel need to be told—things others might not know. If one happens to have been witness to history in some way, perhaps one has a duty to share those perceptions with others. For instance, now that the Cold War is over, all anyone seems to remember is the Berlin Wall. What about all those soldiers who had a secret and suicidal mission along the Border that stretched across Europe for forty years? After living on that Border for seven years, out of my empathy for their story being neglected and others needing to know, came Shadows on
an Iron Curtain. Another example: We know what Hitler did to the Jews and the POWs during World War II. We don’t know what he did to his own people—the ordinary German family. So Mutti’s War needed to be told because it was a part of world history not found in history books. It's like being a fly on the wall in the enemy camp...what were events really like for one living in the middle of them? My newest novel, The Voices Know My Name, is about people with PTSD because I feel it is so misunderstood, and we need to understand it in order to help those with it. I happen to think probably every human being has a bit of it, since we all face, and must overcome, the stress of trauma in our lives. I think there are stories out there that need to be told, and I love finding those types of stories and sharing them.
What has been a major influence in your writing?
Classical literature with its universal themes of human behavior under stress has always intrigued me, and probably Ernest Hemingway’s “iceberg theory”--that only what is necessary should show in a story—the reader can surmise what is beneath the surface if you have given the right clues. I’d love to do it as well as he did, but probably no one ever will..
How is Between Duty and Devotion different from your other novels?
It’s more psychological, more probing of human emotions simmering under the surface. We may judge others with no idea what they are facing under the bright shiny exterior they show to the public. This may be especially true among military officers. I watched as friends made spur-of-the-moment mistakes and became painfully-flawed characters. In seeking to understand how these things could happen in a relationship, I tried to tell the story from all sides using multiple points of view and probing how relationships change and either grow stronger, or disintegrate under pressure. It's also the only one of my books that could not be suitable for elementary or middle school, since it's a serious treatment of adult themes. I've been told by several readers that if someone liked Bridges of Madison County, they would like this "military version." I often am also told that the emotion "hits a nerve" in most people who read it. I'm not sure if that is a good thing or a bad thing, but it certainly gives us some super discussions.
How have your own life experiences helped you?
Problems you see in ordinary people every day offer endless drama to be morphed into story form. It seems that people tend to solve their personal problems vicariously through characters they can love or hate, or with whom they can identify and grow. Many of my stories have military themes since that experience was from living among military families for over 21 years. Though they are not much different from everyone else, they are subject to more stringent rules. And their danger plays a role, as well. Watching them in crisis, and having them as close friends has given me traits on which to model my fictional characters. A subject's willingness to share their innermost feelings with me has been helpful, and it comes from the trust we’ve all built up together over many years. No experience, good or bad, is ever lost—it will all serve to make the author’s characters more believable. Characters are usually composities, taken from all the author has experienced or seen of multiple jobs, disintegrating marriages, the joy and pain of raising children, abandonment, the pressures of teaching, success, failure, love, death, camaradarie, loss, loneliness and betrayal that cause inadvertent pain to someone we care about. We all know how pain feels, how love feels...so of course the author's experiences find their way into the work. Also travel opportunities help. If one is observant, one's travel experience can offer a myriad of detailed settings and characters to plug into one's work, as needed.
Symbolism is apparent in your stories. How do you create it?
While teaching literature, I thought symbols were always a conscious construct of the author, and I assumed I’d probably never know how to “create” any. I find now, that when I’m merely telling a story, trying to make my fictional characters feel realistic emotions, I’m always surprised to recognize a symbol as sort of a happy accident. Yet taken altogether, I find that many of the symbols that came accidentally, actually build up to a warning for my characters that I had never voiced in the story line. In Between Duty and Devotion, here is an example of such an “accidental” symbol. I tell the story of a couple falling in love in this old cabin, alone for the first time. The man builds a fire in the fireplace, anticipating a romantic evening with wine and firelight. But in his excitement, he forgets to open the flue, the room fills with smoke, and they must evacuate the cabin coughing and choking. The woman laughingly says to him, “What a shame. All that fire and no place to go with it.” It wasn’t until much later in the writing process that I noticed the event and her remark were “symbolic” of their relationship--loving each other with all the fire possible, yet never being able to be together forever, as they both desire. Truly, they had no place to go with the fire of their love. As I edit and reread, I find many such symbols that indicate things will never be the way they want them to be, yet they cannot see these warnings, so they keep hoping and believing. Well, what do you know? I made some symbols after all. How exciting!
What is the hardest part of writing a story?
I get too attached to my characters. I tend to write about real life problems—in my estimation, the only thing I enjoy writing about or reading. (fantasy-writing friends, please don’t take offense) When you know wonderful human beings who have been battered by life, it's hard not to want to make things work out better for their fictional counterparts. But life rarely hands us what we want. For instance, a fairy tale ending would put Between Duty and Devotion in the category of a Romance, and that is not what it is about. It's about the difficult decions we must make as human beings. A happy ending would put Shadows on an Iron Curtain in the awkward role of a "military romance," whatever that might be. My stories are not about unfortunate events of life--they are about how we humans handle those events. That is the more realistic story, and it throws the light of understanding on people who have been tested, sometimes, through great difficulty. In Street Smart on a Dead End, it was hard to relive those 1960's days when drugs and gangs were just starting and, God help us, we thought they were "isolated" events. We never dreamed they would become as prevalent as they are now. We were so naive. But in telling the story of Olivia, of both the pain and joy she brought into our family, it hurt to sit down and write. So many of the people I loved are now gone, both real and fictional. In I Think I Can, I Think I Can, I found it hurt to remember things I had tried for years to forget, my own abandonment and handicaps, yet I suppose even pain must come out in your writing for it to be true to life. It seems I love my characters as much as their real life counterparts. The hardest part is that I always find myself crying for my characters because they become very real to me as I write their story. I always hope life, and my novel, will treat them more kindly, but it rarely does.
How much research is needed?
As much as it takes. Research is imperative, but there are many types of research. Interviews with people about their observations of life are my favorite form. There is nothing quite like the camaraderie one develops through the give and take of personal interviews. With Shadows on an Iron Curtain, Between Duty and Devotion, and Mama Told Me Not to Come, I had the advantage of letters and diaries—even divorce papers—that friends were willing to share with me. I also worked on military bases for 21 years, so I had much personal knowledge of the activities, secrets, and human failings that took place there.
In Truth Lies Six Foot Under, I knew the family of the murdered couple and could do interviews with both them and coroners in Colorado and New Mexico. For Street Smart on a Dead End, I had personal memories of a difficult time when the drug and gang wars affected our family when my children were all young--in another life, I guess one could say. But with something like Mutti’s War, in addition to the interviews, it was also necessary to spend a couple of years researching WW II history books and maps to be sure the story was accurate in every detail. Mutti was 83 when I finally got her to talk, and she spoke only in German, so I was afraid of making a mistake through her age, or my translation. There is nothing worse than telling a story, even a fictional one, and making errors of historical fact. One "best-selling" romance author created a scene of a woman joining her husband in downtown Berlin on Unter den Linden Strasse at a sidewalk café DURING the last three days of the battle with the Soviets of World War II. Even my high school students who lived in Germany were appalled that the author (a famous one who we’ll keep mercifully nameless) had not done her homework enough to realize that 1) the street and all its buildings were obliterated by that time, 2) in the confusion of battle, she would never have been able to even find her own soldier husband, 3) nor get gas for her elaborate sports car to drive there, (vehicles had been converted to wood-burners by then) and 4) anyone sitting in an outdoor café (even if it still existed, which it didn’t) would have had to be crazy to be out in the middle of the Battle of Berlin. My students could not forgive that author or read her works again. I believe accuracy is as important in fiction as it is in non-fiction. So, I wouldn't even write without doing the necessary research. I couldn't risk having my former students be disappointed in me for "faking it."
Why is your fifth novel a comedy?
After four serious novels probing human existence under the pressures of society, war, culture, or mileau, I needed a break, and I wanted to try something light-hearted for a change. Don't look for deep themes in Mama Told Me Not to Come, but you will laugh. I don't think there are any heavy themes, except perhaps the unusual ways in which two strangers can become lifelong friends. But maybe that's a more serious theme today than we realize. In an age when people can sit at the same dinner table and each hold a cell phone or texting conversation with someone else, (which I see as the epitomy of rudeness) perhaps my comical characters will become role models in a future Psychology class. How do we start as completely different and opposed people and yet learn how to see into each other's hearts, and come to trust each other for a lifetime? It's a mystery. Maybe someday, a story like this will become a "required" course on how to actually live with others and not leave them isolated, as I see so many people, especially our young "techies," doing these days. A seventy-something friend told me how she fainted and fell down at the dog park, and not a single person offered help. I fear our techie culture has disassociated us from each other. I almost foresee a time when human creatures stare at a screen in air-conditioned rooms, have cell phones embedded in their ear so they never miss a call or a text, yet they become disillusioned and lonely, and wonder how it ever got that way. What happens when the lights go out? When did they lose the art of socializing through just having fun with others--becoming friends with someone, going outside to play, to sing and dance, to have a bit of adventure and travel to appreciate nature and beauty? Those are the skills these two zany teachers exhibit. Today, it seems folks merely text or Facebook, or tweet each other, isolating themselves from any real contact, and reducing their actions and emotions to twenty-word "tweets" with a smiley face. They can't communicate with another human being without a text message to "distance themselves." I fear they are becoming afraid to risk face to face contact. To me, this is sad, since the impersonal nature of that kind of communication will lead to the loss of the personal interaction and compassion that makes human beings a wonderful breed. The two major characters in this story come off as accident-prone as the famed comediennes, Ethel and Lucy, and they get into trouble everywhere they travel. Yet, through it all, they are reluctantly forging a life-long habit of friendship and trust. From a simpler time, we watch a friendship unfold into something special. I hope our generation was not be the last to find friendship as a form of "art."
How close to autobiographical material can you go?
Sometimes, when writing, some detail may be missing. For example, one of the three POV characters in Between Duty and Devotion is a widow who expresses her fear of losing someone again. My own pain from having lost my first husband to an early heart attack is probably as relevant as anyone’s, so I can give that character my emotions to go with her actions. I think you will always find much emotion and experience of the author in any work of fiction, so to that extent, every novel is somewhat autobiographical. My sixth novel, I Think I Can, I Think I Can, however, is almost totally autobiographical, or perhaps it is a memoir. People use the terms interchangeably these days. Readers kept e-mailing me to ask how Kate and Phil (in Street Smart on a Dead End) got together and were able (or weird enough) to take in several additional children that no one wanted, kids who were in trouble. It finally seemed appropriate to come out with the true backstory, or the "prequel" to explain those questions. I find you can go back in time much earlier than you think you can by trying to remember early influences you didn't realize you'd been under. A Victorian guardian who implants her views of the sinfulness of the human body by forcing a young child to hide behind a screen, for instance, may be responsible for that child growing up with quite a few hang-ups. If you marry an abandoned young woman to an abused young man, you may get a couple who cannot ever turn away a child away. One must learn to understand "what is" before he or she can forgive the mysteries of the past he tries to hide. For me, the "trigger" if you will, was remembering a couple of people long dead who had a startling amount of influence over my growing up years. "Katie," my persona in this novel, is searching for a way to be accepted, and that is so appropriate to all of us who have ever just wanted to belong someplace with someone. Children of Depression and War make their own survival. It's a universal story, with a unique child's voice.
Why did you choose to explore an elderly person in Dancing in the Wind instead of more military people?
Actually, I think this problem happens to military people as well as anyone else. It's a universal problem, and universal problems need to be exposed and debated. I've been observing for awhile now, that many people of mid life have become the "sandwich generation," trying to take care of elderly parents while still dealing with a younger group of family members. It's a tough place to be, and no one knows when it is "time" to allow elderly parents to go into a retirement home, or live with grown children, or try to remain alone. Even approaching the topic in most families may start fireworks. This novel explores the ways in which a family can hurt each other and love each other, often over the same events. Entering the mind of a ninety-two year old woman is quite a challenge, but Martha teaches me as I go along. From her point of view, we can see ourselves twenty or forty years from now. What will be important to us then? How will our children and grandchildren respond to our little ideosyncracies? How will we interpret their attempts to choose for us? When will they take away our car keys? How do we face the end of life with grace? I've seen too many of us who don't have all the answers. I sure don't, but my elderly Martha may.
What was the purpose of turning to a deaf person as your hero?
Stand Silent, Stand Free is the story of prejudices we had in the America of the 1800s and the teens, twenties, and thirties of the 20th century. Most people don't realize that there was a time when county officials could take children away from their parents and put them in orphanages, if the parents were handicapped in some way. Handicapped people were frequently put in "asylums" as though they were imbeciles, or hidden away in their homes by anxious parents. The uneducated even thought a handicap could be contageous, so they were apt to isolate any individual who was different. It's hard to believe today, but the types of crisis and pain during a time like that, when authorities thought they knew better what was right for you, seems fraught with drama. I struggled a bit though, because I wanted the deaf-mute father in this story to be the point of view (POV) character, until I tried to write dialogue and realized there wasn't any dialogue! He didn't talk out loud! I re-wrote the opening from several points of view until I was cross-eyed, but I was trying to avoid going to an omniscient point of view...all knowing, all seeing. I wanted to see the story through Freeman's eyes, with his feelings, but he could not respond to what he could neither hear nor ask. There were some ticklish obstacles to solving that puzzle. But it is a challenge, and I love challenges. It will be interesting to see how you like my story of a young handicapped man who refused to be hidden away..
What is your latest novel out?
The Voices Know My Name is the story of a suicidal soldier with PTSD. A civilian woman doesn't want to get involved, but she does stop his attempt at killing himself. But this act leads them to discover that they both hear voices telling them what to do. Many times we find that a traumatic event can hang around in our memory for a very long time...even after you think you've buried it forever. The fact that all my interviews and research led me to the fact that all of us experience stress after a trauma, made me feel it was time somebody should expose its depth, and show some ways to lead to hope. I'm no psychologist, but it's time we lay people understood this difficult condition, and helped ourselves or friends through it.
What about your only mystery? How did that one come about?
Truth Lies Six Foot Under is the crime mystery of a terribly botched murder. I've never tackled a true crime before, and this is a Cold Case that still was uninvestigated, and unpunished, all these years later. Much research here, to find people old enough to remember for interviews. I'm hoping the story will at least give surviving family members of the murdered ones a bit of peace and closure. I'm also finding out that a lot more people like mysteries than I knew.
I don't really know. I spent three days of my first Pikes Peak Writers Conference trying to figure out what genre I was writing with Mutti's War. As I said before, I tend to write only what interests me and I like to try new challenges. so doing the same thing all the time probably wouldn't do for me. I've been asked a lot about what genre I write, and I guess most all of it falls into historical fiction because I'm interested in how we got to this place in history. That is important to consider in knowing where we're going from here. You probably won't find me writing a romance, or science fiction, or fantasy, but I just finished something about PTSD, since it is so devastating to so many people. As usual, I'm not sure what genre it would fall into, and again,the research was daunting, but it's out there now, and so far, people don't seem to care what genre it is. They just want the next book, so I don't worry about genre anymore.
Tell us about your own autobiography. How did you come to writing?
Heck, I told stories to the cat when I was three years old, because nobody else would listen. I've always loved reading and writing. I guess coming from a lot of places and situations while growing up and a wide variety of occupations helped--soda jerk, ballet dancer, choreographer, USO entertainer, news reporter, office steno, literature and journalism teacher, think tank member, and ski club sponsor. You meet a lot of "characters" that way, and everything you see becomes a story. If you like writing, wide experience gives you an unending supply of potential scenarios for new stories.
As for the real me in a nutshell, I was born in Kansas City, abandoned just before three on an isolated farm with strangers and only the animals for friends. While there, I learned to read, established a vision to someday be a "pink ballerina," and contracted rickets which left me crippled...probably not ballerina material, but as a three-year-old, I fortunately didn't realize that. I also thought I had it figured out that I must have been such a "bad" baby that nobody wanted me. That established a pattern clear into young adulthood of being quiet and withdrawn, trying never to do anything "bad" that would make somebody leave me again. That insecurity didn't work, either, but the fear lasted until I was grown. At 5 1/2, I was taken to California, and overcame the rickets bone damage somewhat through painful ballet lessons, and a sideline career in dancing and choreography. until my own young marriage at 18 to Ken, my best friend since we were ten. That brought a new security and trust. We raised our own two children plus half the neighborhood, it seemed. Did those early traumatic events influence writing? Probably. All experience seems to find its way into your writing.
But Ken died suddenly in his early thirties, and I took the teaching job overseas with DoDDS to get away for a year to get my head together. Grief is a tough taskmaster. I wound up spending 21 years teaching in Germany, seven of those years on the infamous Cold War Border, hence more "experience." But I was recovering, and gradually enjoying travel, friends, the military life, and my great DoDDS students. Twelve years after my arrival, I met and married Eric, who was an Army pilot for European Command in Stuttgart.
In 1995, we retired in Colorado Springs, and I had time to write the stories I'd been carrying around in my head for years. We enjoy the wildlife that lives around our home, great hiking and skiing, and the retired life in Colorado. That's about it, Folks!