Summer is Peak Season for Sibling Rivalry in “Little Monsters”
After a 20 year career as an editor, Adrienne Brodeur discusses moving from memoir to novels
Adrienne Brodeur’s novel Little Monsters follows the Gardner family over the course of a summer on Cape Cod, the windswept peninsula—alternately wild and painstakingly tamed—where they have lived their entire lives. Abby Gardner is a painter on the verge of an exciting career opportunity. The tensions with her brother Ken, an aspiring politician who obsessively measures his sea-front property to track erosion, are played out via real estate. Ken technically owns Abby’s studio, which their mother left to him after she died in childbirth. The family’s patriarch, Adam, is a brilliant marine biologist living with bipolar disorder. When the novel opens, he is actively courting a manic episode because he believes it will lead to a breakthrough in his research into whale sounds.
Adrienne Brodeur demonstrated her ability to closely and compassionately observe the most complex family dynamics—even when they involve her—in her memoir Wild Game. Now she has turned that talent and attention to a family of her own invention, with captivating results.
Little Monsters is a deliciously simmering novel, with the same arch that summer brings: a slow build of excitement into a heated climax, and then cooling into an autumnal crescendo where the characters must look ahead to, and face, the next year of their lives.
I spoke to Brodeur at the Rough Draft Books Store in Kingston, New York, in front of a packed house.
Halimah Marcus: I want to start with your evolution as a writer, publishing a memoir first and then a novel. They’re both about family secrets. They’re also both set on Cape Cod. What more did you need to get out of this place, to write a whole second book set there?
Adrienne Brodeur: I feel like I could write a hundred books set on Cape Cod. I think it’s just the most provocative, beautiful landscape. It’s so rich in metaphor, but it’s also just an endlessly fascinating place to me. You have year-round people, and you have summer people, so there are issues of class. But really, in the end, the thing that I’m just so taken with is the natural beauty there. I feel a little bit like Pavlov’s dog as I go over that bridge: the brackish air, the gulls, the sounds. Every town on Cape Cod is so different. As you go out the arm, it gets more and more wild. And ultimately, there’s the fragility of the whole spit. We all know it’s not going to be here forever; it’s really just a gigantic sandbar.
HM: You’ve dealt with your own family secrets in your memoir, Wild Game. Now you get to make them up. In what ways was that liberating, and what were the unexpected challenges?
AB: The beauty of memoir is you do know the perspective it is being told from, and you know the story. It still takes a lot of skill to sculpt the narrative out of the book that is your life. I’m not saying it’s in any way easy, but it is a lot easier than fiction.
We all have trouble making decisions, and every single thing is up to you in a novel. Anything can happen. Someone can die, someone can get pregnant. It is overwhelming.
It also takes a lot longer to know your characters, because when you’re writing a memoir, you know all the characters already. With the novel, ironically, the only character who I really knew at the outset was Adam. I channeled Adam. I don’t know why a bipolar, 70-year-old crotchety man was the person who just came to me. The others were a lot harder for me. I had to write my way in, until I knew enough to be able to have a character make that offhand comment. It’s like an iceberg. You show the little tip that’s above, but you have to know everything—you have to know how they would respond in almost any situation. And for me, that didn’t really happen until I wrote about half or two thirds of the way through.
HM: Ken must have been one of the hardest characters to write, because he is a very difficult person. He embodies a lot of what we might consider toxic masculinity, in that he is so out of touch with his feelings that he acts out his hurt on other people. He’s very much an antagonist in the story, but we have to have sympathy for him. How did you approach that challenge?
AB: People react most strongly to Ken. But I actually feel incredible compassion for Ken, and maybe that’s just because I wrote him. He’s the most tortured character by far. He lost his mother at about three-and-a-half years old. Abby also lost her mother, but she was a few days old. The loss was really felt by Ken. There were stepmothers that came and went, which Ken experienced more than Abby. And because their father is unreliable at best, Ken really relied on his sister and loved her so much. So when Abby pulled away, because it was a suffocating relationship for her, he felt it deeply. Humans are like any other animal. We’re at our most aggressive when we’re wounded. He’s wounded and he cannot get out of his own way. He really wants to be another type of guy. And hopefully there’s some glimmer of hope that he might get somewhere. But time and again, you see him trying to make everything perfect, and he just can’t do it.
HM: One of the relationships that was most fascinating to me was between Abby and Jenny. Jenny is Ken’s wife, and Abby’s sister-in-law. They were also best friends in college, and are now trying to navigate this new role. How did marriage change their friendship?
AB: I didn’t know Jenny was going to have a point of view, and she’s actually the character who I feel like has the most that was left unsaid. She came in after I’d written most of a draft.
When I started writing this book, I had a question that was in the back of my head that I had to push aside in order to write: Why is this harder for women to have power, and why is it harder for women to find their voice? Why does that seem like a difficult thing? Both Abby and Jenny are trying to find their voices in different ways.
This is too much information, but I’m going there. I have one recurring dream in my life. In this dream, I always have some really critical piece of information. Like, I want you to know that there is a fire behind you. I’m trying to let you know to get out of the house. But as soon as I open my mouth to say that, the volume goes up on the dance party that’s happening, or whatever happens, and my message of great importance can’t get out. This idea is something that informed their friendship. They’re both dealing with trying to find their voices as artists, as people, as women.
It’s a complicated friendship because their friendship came first. Then Jenny fell in love with Abby’s brother and they got married. Abby holds onto information about Ken that he’d prefer his wife not to know. Ken is wildly successful and handsome, but he was also a chubby teenager who was ridiculed and bullied. Abby is supposed to protect his past from Jenny. And Jenny was a wild child. They met in art school and she had a drug and alcohol problem—arguably still has an alcohol problem. There are these ways in which Abby is protecting both sides, which make it very hard to have an open friendship.
HM: Abby expresses herself and communicates with her family through her paintings. Over the course of the book, she is making this painting that she’s going to give to her father at his birthday party, to deliver a message. There’s a line about how her paintings reveal themselves like novels. Can you talk about how Abby relates to her art?
AB: When I was first conceiving of the book and I knew it was going to be about siblings, I remember having this thought that I should just go to the original sibling document, Cain and Abel, and that I’d find a lot of answers there. Well, for anyone here who’s read Cain and Abel, it’s like three sentences. There is nothing. But what I did get from that allegory, was the structure of the book. I discovered how these kids would express this rivalry: through giving gifts. The momentum of the novel moves towards this big 70th birthday, and the gifts reveal so much more about each of the characters than they do about the father.
Audience Question: How hard on yourself were you, as an editor for 20 years or fiction? When you were working on your first novel, was it easier for you because you’ve been through so many processes, or were you second guessing yourself a lot?
AB: Like every writer, sometimes you’re like, “This is genius.” Or, “I’m an idiot.” We’re all just going back and forth. I’m a slow writer. The common wisdom is you write a really crappy first draft to the end and then you go back and you edit it. But I have to have a solid scaffolding, and feel comfortable at the end of the first chapter that it can hold the next chapter and the next chapter.
I’m sure I got an incredible education as an editor because I did it for so long. I don’t have an MFA. I’ve never studied creative writing. I just read a lot. I mean, a lot, a lot, a lot. I’m also so grateful to my editors. I remember having some people really not wanting to be edited, and they let me know that they didn’t want to be edited. I’m like, “Oh yeah, help me!” Anyone who can actually make your work better seems like a great thing.