Adrienne Brodeur, LITTLE MONSTERS

Adrienne Brodeur, LITTLE MONSTERS

Bestselling author Adrienne Brodeur joins Zibby to discuss Little Monsters, a kaleidoscopic and riveting novel about Cape Cod, complicated families, and corrosive, long-buried secrets. Adrienne delves into her fascinating characters and then reveals how her own complex relationships and experience with family secrets influenced this novel. (You can read all about that in her incredible memoir Wild Game.) She also talks about her job as the director of Aspen Words, a literary nonprofit; the books she has read recently and loved; and her best advice for aspiring writers.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Adrienne. Thanks so much for coming back on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss your novel, Little Monsters. Congratulations.

Adrienne Brodeur: Thanks so much for having me, Zibby.

Zibby: It’s my pleasure. As you know, I was the biggest fan ever of Wild Game, as everyone else in the world was. I still talk about it. I still think about it. That moment when you came to our book club and held up the necklace — remember? Do you know what I’m talking about?

Adrienne: I know exactly what you’re talking about.

Zibby: That was the coolest. I could not wait to dive into this book. Your writing is so beautiful. It did not disappoint in any way. It’s so great to read how you are as a novelist. It’s so exciting. Tell listeners what Little Monsters is about.

Adrienne: For those of your listeners who have read Wild Game, it will come as no surprise that I’m obsessed with family secrets and that they loom large in this book. This book takes a kaleidoscopic look at a different family — thank goodness, a fictional family — the Gardners, which is a very small family. It’s a family of three, a father and two adult children. It comes at this inflection point in all of their lives. Just briefly, Adam, who is the patriarch, he’s about to turn seventy. He’s really worried about his relevance in the world. He’s a marine biologist. He’s determined to have one great discovery still on his horizon. Ken, his son, has just sealed a huge real estate business deal, which has catapulted him into a new stratosphere of wealth. Really, his purpose or what that wealth will enable him to do is run for office, which is his big goal. Then Abby, who’s the younger sister, she’s thirty-eight. Ken’s forty-one. She has finally, finally, finally found her voice as an artist and is about to be discovered in a big way. We know all these things as we come into the novel, that these things are at stake for each character. We also know that they’re kind of holding them secret. The family’s a little delicate. They’re waiting for the right moment to make their announcements. As it turns out, it’s all coming to a head when these disclosures will take place at Adam’s seventieth birthday party, which is during the summer in August. Then what you start to realize as you move towards this big day is that things are not as they seem. The ground is shifting. Everyone is keeping secrets.

Zibby: Yes, perfect. One storyline is that Adam, the patriarch — Adam right?

Adrienne: Yes.

Zibby: Is battling bipolar and has a complicated relationship with his own meds. He has this massive intellect that he feels sometimes is inhibited by his medication. He’s on the cusp of figuring something out. He’s like, I can totally handle this. In terms of mental illness and having a family member who — as an adult, you are in charge of your own care. How do you handle that in a family ecosystem, and the choices that go into that? How were you thinking about it as you wrote about it?

Adrienne: Adam really isn’t thinking about anyone but himself at that time. He rationalizes it the way we all rationalize our decisions. No one’s living at home with him. His children are adults. He truly believes that if his mind is sort of liberated from the anesthetizing effects of his medication, that he will be able to connect these dots. He’s getting little hints. He’s having dreams. He’s writing things down. He’s making connections, which, in some ways, we all can relate to in writing books or what have you. You’re listening and trying to make sense of these things. He’s excited about doing this. He makes this somewhat rash decision to go off his meds in order to succeed. We have to see what happens then. I don’t want to give anything too big away.

Zibby: Dot, dot, dot. I won’t go further than that. You also have the setup with a journalist being wowed by Abby’s work and her studio, which is her late mom’s studio. She has this talent that is nascent, in a way, and, as you said, about to be explored and publicized a lot more. I love how you give us this point of view from the external person who’s coming in so that we all feel like we’re walking on the beach and going through this interview and learning about her. I could just feel the wind from the ocean and all of that because you make it so multisensory. Tell me a little more about Abby and her character and even the painting, the artistic side and how it contrasts or doesn’t with the very scientific brain of her dad and then the financial brain of her brother.

Adrienne: These are three wildly different characters. They’re all ambitious. They’re all successful. In some ways, I set in 2016 because I felt that that was a moment where the ground did feel like it was shifting. With Abby in particular, I was looking at a woman who was finally finding her voice. I think a lot of women at this moment in time can relate to that, even in ways that we didn’t realize we were holding back our voices. It was really thrilling to give her this rising power of figuring out what she wanted to convey by her art and allowing her to do that even though there could be serious ramifications because she was painting some very personal narratives. I found her a very interesting character who is evolving. I feel like with characters, some of them just are there on the page and arrive. I never had the experience before of a character arriving fully formed. At least, Adam did that for me. Why a seventy-year-old bipolar narcissist just came that easily — I swear, I would put my hands over the keyboard, and he would speak. That was great. With every other character, it really was that process of having to write into them. You think you know them as the author, but you have to actually put them in situations where you learn a lot about them. Really, I had to get several hundred pages into the book to understand who they were and then to allow myself to be surprised by their actions and all of that. Honestly, it was really fun to write a novel and have that kind of freedom to see who those people were.

Zibby: For people who don’t know the secrets you were referring to with Malabar and everybody from Wild Game, can you give just a little preview?

Adrienne: Of Wild Game?

Zibby: No, just of your family background and how it relates not to that book, but to this book based the baggage that we all bring to every piece of work that we do.

Adrienne: I come from a family of prodigious secret-keepers. It didn’t just start with my parents’ generations. Even the generations before, there were half-siblings and other families. There was all sorts of stuff. Having grown up in that environment, I feel so attuned to the dark power that secrets have over us. I think Jung called them psychic poison in as much as they keep the holder of the secret sort of alienated from his or her community. It was sort of liberating for me to — in Wild Game, it was very much a particular secret. It was my version of it. Obviously, it was memoir, so it was nonfiction and me walking through that story. What’s delightful about a fictional universe, of course, it’s all made up, but that I could explore it in this kaleidoscopic perspective. This novel is told in multiple perspectives. You see what people think they know versus what they know. There are always these shifting layers, which I really enjoyed thinking about and writing about.

Zibby: You also touch on aging in general and the generational shifts. For example, Adam, when he sees his doctor, he’s like, how did the doctor get so young? Why is the doctor not shaking my hand? What about looking me in the eye? I feel like it’s this bumping up against culture and all of that as well.

Adrienne: There is a lot of that, as there is, I’m sure, at all of our dinner tables with our own children when they’re aghast at our blunders with the current language. I think this is as old as time itself, these cycles of parents and children and how we go from being so darn cool to really so abysmal.

Zibby: How involved are your kids in your work in general?

Adrienne: Let’s see. I scream, “Quiet!” Sometimes they’re quiet. Actually, I gest. My kids are great. Madeline, my daughter, has read this book and really loved it, which was fun. My son isn’t a huge reader and I don’t think is interested on that level. When I come to a struggle or plot point in the book as I’m writing, I often just talk to my family about it, whether that’s while we’re on a drive or on a walk. My son, actually, he solved some big problem. The outside character in the novel, there’s a secret-keeper who comes in from the outside who’s not officially part of the Gardner family but has stumbled upon a secret that makes her very intrigued by them. It was my son who actually came up with how she could discover her identity that was very opaque. It was family banter. How would a character find out this? They think so differently than I do. It’s fun.

Zibby: That’s excellent. Which piece of this made you think, “Okay, this is going to be a whole novel”? What inspired it? Which piece?

Adrienne: I was on my Wild Game tour, and I got sent home like everyone got sent home in March of 2012.

Zibby: 2020.

Adrienne: Thank you. March 2020. I tend to be an intuitive writer. People often ask what I’m planning next and what I’m thinking about. I’d say what happens to me is I start paying very close attention to where my mind seems to go. I think Mary Oliver said it best. She said, “Pay attention. Be astonished. Write about it.” That is very much the way I walk through my writing life. When I came home, which I was actually kind of happy to do after being on the road for so long, I noticed I was just thinking a lot about siblings and sibling dynamics. Several of my friends have complicated relationships with their siblings. I have a lot of siblings from different stepfamilies. I kept circling that territory. Then from there, characters develop. From there, you start writing. I went to the original sibling story, of course, which is Cain and Abel, looking for inspiration. Got so little from that story. That story is so bare bones. What happens? God’s like, yeah, you. You, out. I remember just thinking, what am I supposed to do with that? I thought . I did find the structure there because that made me think this is an interesting thing to move towards, gift giving, that that might be a concept. I didn’t even really realize how firmly that had taken hold because I kept reading different versions and thinking, I got nothing here. Your mind collects things in such interesting ways when you’re constructing a book. It’s such a cliché to say, but it’s really like flying the plane while you’re building it.

Zibby: Interesting. I’m very aware of your work with the Aspen Institute and all the things you do to help so many other writers. For people who might not know, talk about what it’s like running that and how you got involved in that and what kind of resource that is for authors out there.

Adrienne: Sure. Thank you. My professional background was as an editor. I worked as an editor for years, first with the short story magazine Zoetrope, then as a book editor. Then about ten years ago, I did this lovely pivot to being a director of a literary nonprofit, which has been one of those wonderful experiences in my life where I’ve gotten to stay in this world that I love so much, which is all things literary, but tackling it from a new angle. We have lots of programs at Aspen Words. We have a big summer writing conference. We have an annual literary prize which celebrates a work of fiction that has a social theme. We have residencies. We just do all sorts of things. We try to support writers from fledgling to famous. It’s been a dream job for me. I really enjoy it.

Zibby: Who is the target audience for Aspen Words in the summer and all of that? I know it’s probably sold out at this point.

Adrienne: It’s very different depending on our program. We have an author speaking series that’s really for people in the Roaring Fork Valley. Our prize is national and international. We want to celebrate strong works of fiction that also create dialogue around important issues. I would say that is for everyone. Then Aspen Summer Words is really for writers who want to come and participate in a writers’ conference where there are lots of workshops and fiction and nonfiction and poetry and every other thing.

Zibby: Amazing. It was so fun going to the prize ceremony this year and hearing all the great authors who were nominated.

Adrienne: Hopefully, we’ll get to you Aspen one of these days.

Zibby: Yes. I do very badly with altitude, I have to say. Then I took altitude pills once that made me completely crazy. That kind of ruined that trip.

Adrienne: We’ll find you in other places.

Zibby: I know. I’m dying to go. I’m dying to go back. It’s been many, many years. Now that the novel is coming out, and it’s so exciting, are you more tempted to dive back into memoir, personal essays, personal writing, or going into fiction again? Where do you see your writing career going as you plow forward?

Adrienne: I will say I think I’m planning on sticking with fiction. We’ll see if something comes up that moves me. As I said before, I tend to sort of move towards where my heart leads me. I have thoughts, very embryonic, of where my mind keeps landing for the next book. It’s definitely fiction. Also, honestly, it’s just — you’re in the same boat having written a memoir. You have a novel coming out, right?

Zibby: I do.

Adrienne: I will let you know that it is a lot more relaxing to be facing a novel’s publication than a memoir simply because, obviously, your work is going to be judged, but you feel less that your life is going to be judged, which is really a different way. I was incredibly anxious before my memoir came out. I feel much more relaxed. That might change. I’m actually really looking forward to this period of when I have conversations like these. What is that saying? No two persons read the same book. What’s wonderful about when your book comes out is that you actually start hearing what people think it’s about. It might actually be different from what you wrote about. You know what you’re writing about, but everyone brings their own lens. It’s such an interesting time.

Zibby: What books have caught your interest lately?

Adrienne: I just finished — sharing parts of a title — Monsters by Claire Dederer. I don’t know if you’ve read that yet.

Zibby: I haven’t yet.

Adrienne: It is such a fascinating examination of what to do and how to feel about the artists we love who might have been monstrous in their personal life. She’s just got a brilliant mind and an interesting take. I found it pure pleasure to read. I’ve just started Abraham Verghese’s The Covenant of Water, which I’ve been waiting ten years for because I loved Cutting for Stone so much. I actually feel like I’ve had a really fruitful reading period in the last few months. Lots of great books I always read are shortlist for the literary prize, so there were some wonderful works there. I really love the winning book, The Haunting of Hajji Hotak. It’s been good.

Zibby: That’s amazing. What advice would you have both for people writing memoirs and novels? It can be one or both.

Adrienne: I feel like I’m a bore in terms of my advice. My best, biggest, most powerful advice is just to do it every day to try to get into a rhythm. None of us have time. It can seem like such an absurd thing to be doing alone in a room, talking to characters, whether they are yourself or others. Really, there’s something about the diligence and discipline. That is when the muse shows up. You can’t wait for her. I am not a fast writer. You and I have had this conversation. On my best day, I think I write one page. If you do that every day, in a year, that’s 365 pages. When you’re really in it all the time — that doesn’t mean every day has to be a productive writing day. When you’re thinking about it and familiar with it and themes interconnect — I’m a little bit like Adam wanting to connect the dots, minus going off medicine. That’s how it all holds together, at least for me. I do know the people who go off to a hut and churn out a book in a month or in a night. It’s amazing. It’s not me.

Zibby: I understand. Then my last thing is, you have such a gift of writing about the scenery and the place and Cape Cod. It’s just such a sensory experience reading your work, this one and Wild Game too. It’s almost escapist in how many senses you evoke and all of that. Is that a deliberate writing technique? Does it just happen? Do you focus on it?

Adrienne: I feel like it sort of just happens. That said, the Cape is an endlessly fascinating landscape for me. I do have to start writing about other places, I’m sure, because I don’t know how many books I can do that are set there. Obviously, it’s a place of privilege and class. Some people live there. Some people summer there. What really animates me is the natural world that’s there. It’s constantly changing by the hour, by the minute, the weather, the tides, the light. It’s so fragile. It’s essentially a sandbar that is someday going to be swept back into the sea. I think our settings, whatever environment we occupy, mountains, plains, city, these are all huge metaphors for life. I find that when I’m writing, when you’re in your character’s head, it’s such a break and a gift to be able to reflect deeply on a sensory experience. You’re going through plot, plot, plot, but you also put a morsel of food in your mouth. You feel that sour thing on the back from an apple or something. All of that stuff just makes the reading experience, but it makes our living experience so much richer. I think it’s just about slowing down and noticing.

Zibby: It’s like a meditation. Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do when you meditate, notice all that stuff?

Adrienne: I don’t meditate.

Zibby: That’s what I hear.

Adrienne: I think of writing as meditating in some ways because it’s this thing I do for myself. I do slow down. I guess you’re not supposed to think when you meditate. You experience deeply when you’re writing.

Zibby: I think it counts.

Adrienne: Okay, check. Now if I could just work exercising into that… I get my fingers going.

Zibby: Congratulations. You’re just such a beautiful writer. Congrats on Little Monsters. I’m so excited for it to come out.

Adrienne: Thank you so much. I’ve really liked having this conversation. Bye.

Zibby: Bye, Adrienne.

LITTLE MONSTERS by Adrienne Brodeur

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