A Summer in Europe
Marilyn, thanks for sharing with us a few insights on your new release.
Some of you might remember Marilyn from when she was here and we featured her last novel Friday Mornings at Nine as our month long feature in March of this year and thanks so much to her we will be fortunate to feature this very novel in May of 2012. I have had the pleasure of already reading this and you may read my review again at the end of the interview.
Marilyn, did you research this novel while actually in Europe and tell us a little about that.
Debbie, first of all, thanks so much for inviting me here—both this week, as I’m celebrating the new release, and also for May 2012. I loved getting to be your guest back in the spring and chatting with the B&N book club members then. Can’t wait to do it again!
As for researching A Summer in Europe, I was fortunate to have done a fair bit of traveling back in the early years of my marriage. My husband and I were both teachers then, so we had some time off together during the summer. It was back before we became parents or homeowners, so we didn’t have the number of expenses that we have these days or quite as many daily details to manage. Our son is a teen now, and we haven’t traveled overseas since he was born, so it’s definitely been a while since I was in Europe… I wish I could have gone there to specifically research this novel, though! That would have been great fun.
However, those trips we took in the 1990s were really memorable to me. I snapped a lot of pictures of the places we visited, so I had dozens of photo albums to look through that featured that sites I would later use in the story. And, long before I became a published writer, I kept journals—ever since junior high, actually—so I was able to read through some of my travel journals as I was writing the book, too.
But I think one of the early signs that someone might have the inclination toward being a novelist—and I suspect this is true for many people who are reading this—is that you train yourself to see the world as a writer long before you train yourself in the craft of writing fiction.
Back when I first visited Europe, I was a full decade away from attempting to write a novel, and I wouldn’t have had a clue at that time how to begin plotting and structuring one. But I did bring as much awareness as I could to each unique experience I had, particularly with regard to travel. I paid attention to the sensory aspects of the meals we ate and the music we heard. I noticed what was both similar and different to my life at home in the American Midwest. I people-watched obsessively. And I kept lots of little mementos, like maps and brochures and concert programs, which had details printed on them that I knew I wouldn’t remember on my own. I looked through an entire box of old postcards as I was writing the first draft of A Summer in Europe last year, remembering my first impressions of the cities we visited fifteen or more years ago and recalling all the little things that stood out for me back then. That turned out to be the most important thing for me in my research: remembering my emotions and reactions to every place. The rest—from the floor plan of the Louvre to the Dover-Calais ferry schedule—could be found online, and I did spend a lot of Internet time checking details like those.
Yes, I knew what the ending of this book would be from page one. There were some narrative twists that appeared as I was writing the story that I hadn’t expected at all—things that seemed right for the characters only once I’d gotten to know them a bit better. But as far as big-picture plotting, I wrote my outline for A Summer in Europe before I began drafting, complete with all the major turning points. For me, it just works better to have a basic structure laid out, so I do that for all my novels first. I find I have to be able to visualize where the story is headed—both the highs and the lows of the characters’ emotional changes as well as the rising action of the plot development.
But these types of outlines are never overly detailed. They’re usually just 15 - 20 sentences, with each one highlighting something important in the story arc. It’s like being able to see the skeleton of a creature on an x-ray—nothing is fleshed out, but you get a general sense of the creature’s size and shape based on that image. Just enough so you can tell whether you’re dealing with a giraffe or an aardvark. Or, in my case, a contemporary women’s fiction journey or a light romantic comedy.
One of the great joys of writing fiction is getting to populate your stories with characters you hope will be memorable. Real-life people have a range of fascinating quirks, and I’ve often seen traits in others that I quickly nabbed for my characters. I almost never admit this to the people in question, by the way, and I’m especially cagey when a family member asks, “Hey, I read your book. Is that meddlesome/klutzy/disorganized character you wrote based on me?”
I try to look mystified. “Whatever would make you ask that?!” I shoot back. Then I say, “Oh, look! Holiday cookies. Want some?” LOL.
But that tactic is rarely necessary because, in truth, the characters in a novel must serve the story. You can cherry pick a few traits from someone here or there, and you can combine them with traits from another person or two to create a unique character but, eventually, you’ll need to carve away anything that doesn’t have meaning within the story world.
For instance, my main character, Gwen, and I share a few things: we both are teachers (even though I’m not currently in the classroom), we both are from the Midwest, we both have good relationships with our younger brothers (Gwen has two of them; I have one) and we both love Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals. So, there were a few aspects of her world that I immediately understood.
However, Gwen’s life has been marked with loss in a way mine has not. I’m incredibly fortunate to still have both of my parents with me. The early death of Gwen’s mother affected her deeply and many of her perceptions are filtered through that loss. So, even though I could give her certain experiences of mine in Europe—like eating gelato at my favorite ice cream shop in Italy or going on The Sound of Music tour in Austria—the way her character would react to these adventures is far different than the way I would. And it needs to be, if the character is going to feel authentic.
So, yes, there are little snippets of me and of people I know and love (I’m still not saying who!) in this new novel, but their traits are just sprinkled on top, like candy bits on a birthday cake. Ultimately, the characters need to stand on their own, and their pasts and their futures belong only to them.
I hope I will! At this point, I haven’t planned any bookstore events because we’re heading into winter and the holiday season, so I know it’s a pretty chaotic time for everyone. I’ve got an “Events” page on my website, though, and I always update it when a new program or signing is added. I love meeting readers in person, so if anyone happens to be in the Chicago/Northern Illinois area, I hope you’ll stop by one of my library talks or conferences. And it would be a treat to get to do a signing at my local B&N, too, so I’ll discuss that with my friends there and see what the calendar looks like. Perhaps we can schedule one in the New Year.
Deb, thank you!! I’m looking forward to visiting in May, too J. Happy Holiday, everyone!
Here's my review:
A Summer in Europe
On Gwen Reese’s 30th birthday, it wasn’t the expected gift from her boyfriend Richard (which she didn’t get) but the totally unexpected one from her eccentric aunt Beatrice that turned out to be the life changer for this disciplined and ordered person. Gwen suddenly finds herself the beneficiary of a vacation in Europe complete with scenic and historic sites and in the company of Aunt Bea’s quirky friends and members of her S&M (Sudoku and Math-jongg) club. But something profound happened to this regimented life on this very free spirited journey and as Gwen travels a road she’s unfamiliar with she learns something about herself that was hidden beneath that façade of uniformity, even more surprising is that she’s not the only one on a path of discovery.
Emerson Edwards and his brother, Thoreau, meet the group in Italy and throw a wrench in Gwen’s well-oiled life with their intelligence and their irreverence.
There are consequences that come with discovery and it’s as these two very different roads connect that Gwen will find out if the fear of her past will dictate her future.
This is a brilliant piece of contemporary literature, it’s timeless in its essence. Ms. Brant brings us a rather later that usual coming of age in this story of a woman who’s life has been ruled by loss and fear, then she gives us the hope that this new woman can come out of her chrysalis in tact and ready to take on her whole new world. She does this with her customary prose like dialogue and a narrative that will take your breath away as she takes us through Europe that can vividly be seen in your mind’s eye. Her characters are superstars, every one of them from the 90 year old feisty Zenia to the 15 year old Ani and all the ones in between. But it’s Gwen who shines the brightest, who we will cry with and cry for, who we will root for and scold who we will want for most of all as we see her evolve throughout the novel. Is it a love story, yes it is, but not just a romance, it’s the love of one’s self, of familial and friend love and of course also that love that makes the world go round, the kind of love that heats the coldest of nights and fills the emptiest of rooms.
This is your first must read of December and you’ll want to share with the people who mean the most to you, a perfect stocking stuffer and yes it wraps beautifully. It’s also a read that will be enjoyed by multi-generations and both sexes. If this is your first trip with Marilyn Brant I know it won’t be your last.
Thank you Ms. Brant for another exceptional read.
Buy the book here