I first met Bryn Greenwood in an online writing group a few years ago, and I was immediately struck by how clear and authentic her voice was. She doesn’t equivocate in her conversations or her writing. Her pull-no-punches style may sometimes be uncomfortable, but it’s always interesting.
Bryn, who bills herself as a “fourth-generation Kansan and the daughter of a mostly reformed drug dealer,” has an MA in creative writing and two small press novels, but it is her latest work, All the Ugly and Wonderful Things (St. Martin’s Press) that’s garnering talk. The Associated Press says that “This book won’t pull at heartstrings but instead yank out the entire organ and shake it about before lodging it back in an unfamiliar position.” Library Journal calls it “…so freakishly good and dangerous that it should come with a warning label.”
Intrigued? Then read on to get Bryn’s take on the road to publishing, what makes a character compelling, and whether it’s true that any publicity is good publicity. (And as a bonus, meet her big brown dogs!)
LM: True confession time — I have a big brown dog I call the Slobbering Beast, and my main goal in interviewing you was to get you to talk more about your own beasts. You have two, correct? Are they as much trouble as mine?
BG: I have two boxers, who are the most wonderful, pain-in-the-ass thing that ever happened to me. They were the dog equivalent of an unplanned pregnancy. I dated this guy and in the process of our very messy relationship, he left his dogs at my house. That was six years ago and now they’re my dogs. The one is a pretty pretty princess who lives to be petted and admired. The other is truly a slobbering beast, who hates all but about three people in the world. Her head is approximately the size of a car battery and she becomes unhinged when she has to confront anything with wheels on it. They really are the nicest thing in my life on any given day.
LM: Always nice to have the dogs to lean on during the publishing process, isn’t it? Speaking of which, your path to publication has been a twisted one. You’ve had fiction and essays appear in places like The New York Times and the Kansas Quarterly, you have an MA, and you have two previous novels published with indie publishers. On the surface, it sounds idyllic. Yet getting to this place where you are now — with a well-received book coming out from a mainstream publisher — has been a struggle. Would you talk a bit about that, and what kept you going?
BG: My experience is a reminder that the path to publishing is not linear. In 2008 I had an agent and a novel that went to several acquisition boards, but was never sold. It was enormously discouraging, but publishing is a Sisyphean chore. I had pushed my boulder to the top of the hill and fallen back to the bottom. After my agent and I parted ways, I started over. I wrote another novel and started querying it. Over the next four years, I sold two novels to a small press, and racked up 122 agent rejections for All the Ugly and Wonderful Things.
The thing was, I knew it was a good book, the best thing I had written up to that point. Enough people I trusted had told me that, so never underestimate how important your encouragement can be to a writer. In 2014, having failed to find an agent, I started to talk with a few people about self-publishing the book. Then I got an email from an agent I hadn’t queried. She’d read some of my earlier work and wanted to know if I was represented, and if not, would I send her what I was working on. I sent the manuscript without much expectation. Three days later, I had an agent, and three months later, that roundly rejected novel sold at auction to a Big 5 publisher. It’s a perfect example of how random luck plays into publishing. You do have to write the best book you possibly can, but after that it’s a question of the right agent reading it on the right day and sending it out to the right editor.
LM: This novel has at its heart two kind people in a very damaged world. Wavy is a child of eight when she meets Kellen, a much older drug dealer and con. Eventually, their friendship turns to love. On the surface, it’s a disturbing story, one I wasn’t sure I’d be able to read. But it turns out most of the disturbing parts aren’t the scenes between Wavy and Kellen — it’s the way the other adults in Wavy’s world behave.
Did you set out to write a story where the conventional idea of what is right and what is wrong was turned upside down?
BG: I feel like this is a trick question, because it’s going to lead me to reveal that my ideas of right and wrong look backwards to everyone else. Maybe they do, because I didn’t set out to write a story that would turn things upside down. My goal was to tell a story about these two characters: a lonely little girl and an even lonelier man. The way the story developed was very natural to me. Loneliness turned into love, which turned into something much more complicated. The way it does.
The underlying issue in the book is consent, and that’s where a lot of people become disturbed by what they perceive as my gray view of a topic that is supposed to be black and white. I happen to think my view is rather clear-cut: everyone should have the right to self-determination, even children.
We have elaborate laws to define when people are capable of consenting to sex, but as you point out, the more disturbing parts of ATUAWT aren’t necessarily those that deal with Wavy’s relationship with Kellen. To me, the most disturbing scenes are when Wavy’s consent or refusal are ignored by other adults in her life: When her father tries to force feed her. When police and medical professionals physically override her personal sovereignty. When her aunt disregards her feelings in the name of what’s “right.” Those are all things that Kellen never does. He is the one adult who absolutely respects Wavy’s yes or no. In my personal experience, that’s often how it works. The adults who have power in a child’s life are the ones who are most likely to ignore a child’s right to make certain decisions.
LM: Talk a little about how you’ve marketed this book, given the unconventional love story. Has it been challenging?
BG: I’ve been very fortunate in that St. Martin’s Press did all the heavy lifting and their publicity and marketing team is fantastic. In terms of my contribution to that marketing plan, I have spoken and continue to speak openly and honestly about the personal experiences that informed the book. My father was a drug dealer when I was a kid, and when I was thirteen, I began the first of a series of relationships with much older men. I believe that changes the tenor of how the book is presented, because it’s not intended to sensationalize. These are issues I’m intimately acquainted with.
I will say that I was surprised when I saw the final back cover copy, which includes the phrase “provocative love story.” I had never described it that way, and was more likely to refer to it as “coming-of-age.” I suspect that one phrase is why a fair number of romance novel readers took a chance on the book. Because of a few positive reviews on romance blogs, some people have gotten the mistaken impression that my book IS a romance novel, which has produced some interesting reactions. A lot of people have been supportive, but there are people who are very angry about it being described as a love story, because they interpret that as promoting or “glorifying” statutory rape. In my experience, however, not all love stories are romantic, and I don’t think this one is. That said, there’s no such thing as bad press, so even angry people talking about my book means that people are talking about my book.
LM: I’ve been lucky enough to read some of your other works, and you seem drawn to creating characters who exist on kind of a squidgy line — they are good people, but their choices or lifestyles looked at through a conventional lens would be considered ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’ by mainstream society. What drives you to grapple with these stories?
BG: I suppose because good people making bad decisions are my people. I like to think I’m a good person and that my family is full of good people, but we do have long histories of making terrible choices. I mean, my father isn’t the only felon in my family. Even those of us not prone to breaking the law don’t always make good choices, and things like poverty and addiction and heartbreak can lead to reckless decisions that look downright crazy from the outside, but make a kind of sense when you’re stuck in the situation. After all, in a dark time in my life, I married a man I’d only met three times. More recently, I ended up with the two slobbering beasts as a result of my bad choices. That turned into a good thing, so I’m still Team Reckless Life Choices.
I deeply sympathize with characters who are trying to figure out the least bad thing they can do. Characters in bad situations with limited options are always going to be more compelling to me than characters who have clear boundaries and make neat, practical choices.
LM: Wavy and Kellen are opposite in some ways, especially involving food and weight. Wavy won’t eat in front of anyone, and is quite thin. Kellen has no problem eating, and is described by different characters as beefy, meaty, or even fat. How did their physical appearances and eating habits play into what you were doing with the novel? And how have those physical descriptions been received by readers?
BG: I like to write characters who are opposites in some way, because so often opposite isn’t really what they are, and that’s the case with Wavy and Kellen. Although she is small and he’s big, one of their shared connections is that they both have eating disorders as a result of childhood trauma. Wavy’s takes the form of anorexia and secretive eating, whereas Kellen is a compulsive overeater, but they are both using food as a defense mechanism in times of crisis.
For Wavy, Kellen’s size is part of why she trusts him. He’s so much bigger than she is, but he’s gentle with her, and he’s willing to use his size and strength to protect her. Also, witnessing him eat is aspirational for her. She wants to be brave enough to eat in front of people, to put whole forkfuls of food into her mouth. For Kellen, much of his identity is built on a lifetime of people calling him a fat slob or a brute, but here’s this small, fragile girl who doesn’t like to be touched, and yet she trusts him. Her view of him upends his view of himself.
One of the saddest outcomes of writing a character like Kellen is that I’ve been reminded how much hatred exists toward fat people. I’ve received dozens of reviews and messages from people who are upset that I wrote a book with a “fat hero.” I’m sure some of that stems from readers approaching the book expecting a romance novel, and when they discover I’m asking them to sympathize with someone who doesn’t have washboard abs, it’s problematic. That said, not all of the fat hate mail I get is from disappointed romance novel readers. Some of it is from readers who hate fat people regardless of the genre.
LM: All the Ugly and Wonderful Things is told from the POV of a dozen people. Some, like Wavy and Kellen are central to the story. Others are people they know well, and a handful are virtual strangers. It reminded me of a newspaper story or a police report, with witnesses giving their statements, so that as a reader you wound up with a 360 degree view of what was happening. At the same time, some of the characters who are very important never get their chance to speak.
Was using all these voices a deliberate choice, or a more organic one? And how did you decide who would speak and who would be silent?
BG: It’s a bit of both. It feels very natural to me to approach stories from a lot of different angles. That’s how I learned to write short fiction–by reversing the roles of antagonist and protagonist, and writing both versions. So it’s part of my creative process to tap into a lot of different characters as I investigate the story, but the narratives I ultimately choose are very deliberate. That’s especially true with ATUAWT. I opted to use so many narrators, because I wanted it to have a documentary feel to it.
In terms of who I let speak, some of those decisions were very easy. Wavy’s parents were so focused on themselves that their narratives derailed the focus on Wavy. Wavy’s cousin Amy was key, I felt, in casting the narrative against the backdrop of what we would consider a “normal” childhood. Amy is sheltered and protected, and so her view of Wavy reveals a sharp contrast between their childhoods.
Silencing Wavy’s Aunt Brenda was one of the hardest decisions I made, because I worry that she ends up looking unsympathetic, when in truth, I completely sympathize with her situation. All the same, I felt that her POV was inherent to the situation. At every turn, what Aunt Brenda thinks is what most of our society thinks. If you imagine what you would feel on discovering that your 13-year-old niece is in a romantic and increasingly sexual relationship with a 26-year-old man, you already know what Brenda is feeling. Plus, it seemed like she was constantly trying to retell Wavy’s story to suit her own purposes, and I didn’t want to give her permission to do that.
LM: Finally, I love your title, and the lines in the novel from which it comes: “I liked learning things. How numbers worked together to explain the stars. How molecules made the world. All the ugly and wonderful things people had done in the last two thousand years.” It’s so perfect. Did you choose it? If not, how and why did it become the title?
BG: That line existed in the manuscript from the first draft, but it was not originally the title of the book. In fact, this book has been through three other titles — After Thirteen, The Sun in Cassiopeia, and What Belongs to You. My publisher had settled on one title, but then we learned there was a book coming out several months ahead of mine, written by someone with a similar last name. To avoid confusion, we went back to the drawing board. Both my agent and editor liked the line from the book, so that was adopted as the title. It works, I believe, because it serves as a warning. The book really does contain all the ugly and wonderful things.
Thanks so much, Bryn, for answering my questions. WU readers, now it’s your turn. Have a question for Bryn? She’ll be checking in throughout the day. (And to read more about her and connect with her on social media, visit her website.)