Zibby is joined by Tracey Lange to talk about her debut novel, We are the Brennans, which was loosely inspired by her experience growing up in a large Irish Catholic family. Tracey shares her journey transitioning from lifelong reader to writer, why she’s drawn to stories with messy relationships, and the process she went through to develop such a vivid yet wide-spanning cast of characters.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Tracey. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” I should just call it today, “Moms Don’t Have Time to Do Podcasts” because of all the parent-teacher conferences. Welcome. Thanks for coming on to discuss We are the Brennans.

Tracey Lange: Of course. Thank you for having me. It’s so fun.

Zibby: I got so into these characters. They were so realistic to me, the whole family, all the scenes, how everything rippled throughout, the dad getting older, just all the things. I just loved it. I really did it. It was so real. Having to overcome and coming back into the fold, the bar, I could feel it. The whole thing, the financial stress, all of it, it was really good.

Tracey: Thank you. That is so nice to hear. That’s awesome. Thank you.

Zibby: By the way, so many people had recommended this book to me, you should know.

Tracey: Oh, great. That’s good.

Zibby: Maybe you should do a better job at summarizing than my mumblings and telling everybody what We are the Brennans is really about.

Tracey: Basically, the Brennans are an Irish Catholic family in Westchester, New York. They are a pretty tight crew, but definitely have their fair share of dysfunction. When the story opens, one of the four adult siblings, the only girl, Sunday, is actually living across the country in LA. She gets into a pretty nasty drunk driving accident one night. She’s beat up and in the hospital. This all happens in the first couple pages, so we’re not giving anything away. Her big brother comes out and really convinces her to come back home for a while. She’s been gone for five years. He tells her, “It’s time to come home and recuperate with family for a little bit.” As excited as they all are to be back together, her homecoming kicks some turmoil up. Her dad and her brothers are wanting to know why she left five years ago kind of suddenly and with little explanation. At the same time, she begins to realize that they’re maybe not doing as well as she thought they were. Basically, all sorts of long-held secrets start to bubble to the surface. As a family, they have to figure out how to deal with all this if they’re going to get through it together. It’s largely about family and loyalty and shame and what that does to us and our relationships. Then forgiveness is a big part of it too. That’s it in a nutshell.

Zibby: It kind of goes back to this “if there’s a secret, it can be a novel” theory. If someone has a secret, it’s going to be a good novel in some way. Someone’s going to sort something out.

Tracey: It’s going to have some kind of ripple effect somewhere. These guys are all harboring secrets, so there’s all sorts of mess.

Zibby: There are all sorts of secrets in all different combinations. The families are so enmeshed. Everybody is so on top of each other that I almost couldn’t even believe that Sunday had been gone, how they even let her leave. I know she just left. I know that you address this. Still, the absence must have been so huge when she was gone.

Tracey: Yeah, for all of them. In a way, they all sort of went into a holding pattern when she left, and particularly her, of course. They are, they are so tight. They’ve always been. At times, too tight, probably too mixed up in each other’s business. It had a huge effect when she left.

Zibby: Especially with their mother having passed away. They’re the guys left to drift themselves. That didn’t come that far in, I don’t think. That’s just a fact of their family.

Tracey: Yes, mom’s gone.

Zibby: I was interested in what attributes you gave to the different siblings. It was Shane, right, who has a mental handicap of sorts?

Tracey: Right. Yep, he’s got an intellectual disability, the youngest brother.

Zibby: Intellectual disability, I’m sorry.

Tracey: That’s okay.

Zibby: What made you choose to do that? Then Jackie has issues with the law. How did you pick, or did they just come to you fully formed?

Tracey: No. I started with Sunday. She was the first character I really landed on, and that idea of her coming back into the family fold. That’s where it all started. I developed her for a bit. I knew I wanted her to have a big brother, kind of big, domineering type. I think Denny was really the second person I landed on. As I developed each character, to some degree, they were a response to her since the story sort of revolved — they’re all involved. It’s about all of them, but she’s definitely at the heart of the story. Shane, the youngest brother — first of all, once you have two older siblings and you’re the next one, often, you tend to be a little bit more of a wanderer like her younger brother Jackie and trying to find his own way and get in a little bit of trouble. Then when I landed on the youngest brother, Shane, who has the disability, it just felt like something that would really connect them all despite all the trouble and difficulties with mom. He’s, in some ways, the glue that keeps them all together at times. What you see is what you get. Most of the characters are harboring all these secrets. There are a couple like Shane and Theresa that aren’t holding onto secrets. That’s why they didn’t actually get point-of-view chapters. I had to limit it, and so I kept it to the people that were holding onto these secrets. That’s how they all developed, was in response to Sunday and then to each other.

Zibby: Shane is the one who gives a clue that ends up being incredibly important. Sometimes it’s good to have someone without such a filter.

Tracey: An agenda, yeah.

Zibby: I dogeared all these pages. Let’s see if I have a quote that I can read. Why did I dogear these pages? I don’t know. Something was great about them. Having nightmares about Denny bickering —

Tracey: — Denny definitely bickers with a lot of people.

Zibby: Yes. This is just more about the secrets. “Sunday knew a thing or two about that, the terrible fallout that came with hiding shameful secrets from the people who mattered most.” I was like, ooh, what is she talking about?

Tracey: I think that kind of goes to the heart of this, that idea that this — people tend to respond to the Brennans because they do love each other so much. They would do anything for each other. At the same time, they feel the need to hide things from each other. I think digging into that idea was a big part of this whole story.

Zibby: Then you doubled down with the secrecy here later when you were talking about Vivienne. You said, “Vivienne was in middle school when her mother, who loved shared salaciously secrets…”

Tracey: That’s right.

Zibby: I’ll do a word find next time and just circle all the ones. It’s interesting, too, being the woman who has to come in the big shoes of a great love, the next person who has to fill the — I’m not speaking coherently today, obviously, but I think you know what I mean.

Tracey: You’re right. Vivienne’s a super interesting character to me. People react to her different ways. She definitely has reasons for making the choices that she makes. She’s in a tough spot. She’s on the outside of this crew. There was a first love. You may not like her at times, but hopefully, you have some sympathy for poor Vivienne.

Zibby: I did. I did feel badly for her. I did. I was also wondering why you named Kale Kale.

Tracey: I get that a lot. I get that a lot, honestly. It came to me through one of my son’s friends. His name’s Kale. I did know Kalyn as an Irish name. It stuck with me. I get that a lot. It strikes me as sort of different. That’s where I landed on it, honestly. Most of the names in the book did come from family members, cousins near and far. Kale and, actually, Sunday, both those names didn’t come from family. I came across them, and I thought they just fit.

Zibby: Awesome. Love it. Take me back a little bit to how you ended up writing this novel to begin with. When did you first like to write? Is this something you’ve loved since you were a kid? Did you always want to do this type of novel? Why this particular type of — it almost could be a play, the intimacy and the conversations and the dramatic — it’s all in the interactions, really, and the interior lives. Sorry, my words are not making sense, but I hope you are understanding what I’m asking you today.

Tracey: I am.

Zibby: Okay, thank you.

Tracey: As far as where it came from or when it started, I actually had a different career for many years. I was in the behavioral health care field. I did always love to read since I was really young. I really was drawn to writing, but I think that for a long time I thought I just didn’t have that — it was so daunting to me, the idea of — maybe I was such a book fan and an author fan, I just didn’t quite think I could do that. I went another direction for years. Then my husband and I had our own business in that field. Once we were able to extricate ourselves from that, I kind of figured that was my chance to go for it. That was about six or seven years ago. I just went at it full time. I took some classes. I did a writing program that was fabulous. I jumped into it fully. Brennans, I started spring of 2017, probably. All told, it took about two and a half years, but that did include some pretty significant steps back when I just needed to take time, especially with such a big cast of characters and so much going on. There were times I was kind of in the weeds. I’d have to take a break. As far as where that particular story came from, it’s certainly inspired by my own history growing up in a big Irish Catholic family. Although, none of the characters or specific events come from me or my family. I always feel the need to stress that my mom is nothing like Maura Brennan. She’s a tough lady to feel much for. I always like to put that out there. I did know older-generation women like her. I grew up in this fun, huge family. It was amazing to feel part of this clan. From a young age, there were things that I sensed we didn’t really talk about that came from the older generations. That sort of trickles down. We talk about it now. I just wanted to get at all that, the good and the bad and the messy of all of that. That’s definitely where the story came from.

Zibby: Excellent. They’re okay with it for the most part, your family?

Tracey: Yeah, because, again, nobody can look at this and say, oh, she’s writing about me. I did have fun weaving in some of my dad’s history into Mickey Brennan’s, just coming from Northern Ireland and being in construction in New York and those kind of fun things. That’s about as close as it comes to anybody. So far, everybody seems okay with it.

Zibby: It’s funny you say that about your mom. I was trying to write this memoir that I’m working on. My husband was like, “What’d you do about your mom?” I was like, “Oh, I just barely put her in. I felt like it was safer just to –” He was like, “No, she’s not going to like that.”

Tracey: That’s tough.

Zibby: You just have to be so delicate, I guess. When you said that not being based on your own mom, I was like, that’s something I would say.

Tracey: A couple times, people asked. I was like, oh, boy, I hope everyone doesn’t think that, so I like to just put that out there.

Zibby: What did you delete that was originally going to be part of the book? What’s on the cutting room floor, so to speak?

Tracey: My drafts just — there were a lot of them. It was always about just digging deeper into the characters and those relationships. I can’t really say that a whole lot of plot changed from the beginning. A lot of it really stayed the same. Little things changed. It was always more about digging in further, deeper with these guys and how they changed over those five years while Sunday was gone. It’s hard to say what exactly was — a lot fell to the cutting room floor, but it wasn’t really something like, I cut this person or that storyline. For the most part, they stayed. I just had to keep digging deeper and deeper with all of it.

Zibby: I did not see it coming, what ended up being the reason. Well done. It was very emotional. I am constantly surprised by plot twists. I guess it just means I’m reading really good books, right? That’s the point.

Tracey: That’s good. That’s nice to hear too. That’s nice to hear. Everybody has their own particular brand of shame that would cause them to do what she did. It seemed to fit for her in that family. I’m glad it worked for you.

Zibby: What kind of books do you like to read?

Tracey: I read a variety of books, but I do love books that dive into those kind of messy relationships where, for the most part, people have good intentions but just screw up left and right because I think that’s so human. Then looking at it from all sides and trying to work through that stuff, but that idea that nobody’s straight-up good or bad. No situation is black or white, usually. There’s a lot grey. I just love to dig deep into all that stuff and read about that too.

Zibby: Excellent. Are you working on another book now?

Tracey: I am. I’m pretty far into it. I actually just sent it off, another draft, the next draft off to my agent. Fingers crossed. She always has amazing notes. She’s helped me improve it already. That’s where we are at this point. Then hopefully, we’ll see from there. Now I’m just on pins and needles waiting to hear.

Zibby: When you are writing full time, do you like to write early in the day? What does it look like? Do you write late at night? Do you write right there at your desk?

Tracey: Yeah, I’m always in here. I know a lot of people like to go out to coffee shops. I actually do like that, but I get up and down a lot. For the most part, I’m in my little cave here. I tend to write for a few hours in the morning and then take a break of some kind, whether it’s to get some kind of physical activity and try to jog some solutions loose or take care of some errands. Then I usually come back at it in the afternoon for another few hours. That’s my schedule most days, a little bit less on the weekends, maybe, and of course if there’s travel or something unusual. That tends to be my daily schedule.

Zibby: Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Tracey: The two things I would put out there are — probably, everybody’s heard this one. Just keep writing through even those days where you’re like, oh, my god, no one’s going to be interested in this. What am I doing? Just keep writing. When you start hitting some of that stage where you’re maybe getting some rejections, just keep going. Definitely, keep going. Keep writing through that stuff. The other one that I always mention is, I really suggest finding your writer’s group. I know everybody works differently. I don’t know what I would do without my group, those people that — it’s such solitary work. It’s invaluable to have that interaction and that support. Also, they help me improve my work all the time. Listening to that feedback — you’re in such a vacuum that I don’t know how anyone does it without getting some outside feedback and sounding boards. That’s always a big one. I just know how much better I got after I started working with a writer’s group. That would be my tip.

Zibby: Excellent. I love it. Is there an actual place that you modeled this after, the bars and the actual scenery and the place, the house? Was it all in your imagination? The flowers in the flowerbeds, the whole thing?

Tracey: Westchester, I spent a lot of time there growing up. I had family there. It felt right. In terms of location and size, in my mind, it’s kind of Briarcliff Manor. I had to tweak some of the history enough that I guess I felt like I had to name it something different. Definitely, that feel up there and being close to the city and that influence but yet wanting that quieter suburb feel. I spent a lot of time there growing up. Mamaroneck, of course, is in there too. It’s based on that area, for sure.

Zibby: Someone I just talked to said she goes on Zillow and finds all the houses for her characters on Zillow.

Tracey: I’ve done that when you’re looking for the rough cost of houses. You can find anything now. You can walk the neighborhoods.

Zibby: She’s like, I shop for my house. Then I decide, that’s my character’s house. It’s Kaira Rouda who writes domestic suspense and psychological suspense.

Tracey: That’s awesome.

Zibby: That’s great. Why not take a real house and put pretend characters in?

Tracey: Absolutely. You can get on Google Maps now and actually walk neighborhoods. It’s pretty amazing what you can do.

Zibby: No one needs to stand up.

Tracey: I know. That’s not really good, I guess. It’s been helpful the last year and a half, anyway.

Zibby: That’s true. Awesome. Tracey, thank you so much. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Thanks for the enjoyment of the book. I really fell hard into these characters. I really wish them well. I’m curious what’s happening with them now.

Tracey: Thank you so much. I appreciate it. This was great. Good luck with your conferences.

Zibby: Thank you. Okay, on to ceramics. Bye.

Tracey: Bye.



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