Brenda Janowitz knows how to write relationships. The Grace Kelly Dress, her newest novel, is told through three points of view. Each woman’s story takes place in a different decade, but all of the women have a connection to the same wedding dress. In addition to being the books correspondent for POPSUGAR, Janowitz is also an acclaimed essayist. Her recent New York Times Modern Love piece, He’ll Never Put That Shirt Away, captured the nuances of married life in a humorous yet poignant way. Janowitz’s work has also appeared in USA Today, The Washington Post, Salon, Redbook, Publishers Weekly, Writer’s Digest, and The New York Post. She lives in Long Island with her husband and sons. Holly Rizzuto Palker spoke with Janowitz about the art of writing familial relationships, her process for creating robust characters, and her thoughts on motherhood in conjunction with being an author.
Holly Rizzuto Palker: I enjoyed The Grace Kelly Dress. It was beautifully done. The three distinct points of view worked because the characters were so well-defined. It was different than your other books, though. I felt a maturity to it. Did you have fun writing it?
Brenda Janowitz: I had a lot of fun writing it. As you mentioned, it’s different from my other books, and that’s very much by design. I wanted to do something that stretched me creatively, and I think I’ve done that. This book is more complicated in structure, with the three timelines that all connect, and the themes are more complicated as well. I’m tackling heavier issues than I’ve done in the past, and I hope that readers respond to that.
They say that writing is rewriting, and the one thing I’ve learned most after six novels is to trust the editing process. The book changed dramatically from the first draft to the second draft. I wrote the storylines separately and then wove them together. My process is that I have to write it before I can figure out what I think. It was a challenge. But I pushed myself, my editor pushed me, and my agent pushed me. There was a lot of pushing. I feel good about the result.
HRP: Tradition is a major theme in the book. What sort of role does tradition play in your family? Are there heirlooms, like the Grace Kelly dress or Rocky’s silver frame, that you hold dear? Will you pass them down?
BJ: Tradition plays such a huge role in my family. In my last novel, The Dinner Party, cooking was one of the ways the family came together, and it’s something that’s important in my family, too. For this novel, I thought a lot about the things that are passed down through a family. One of the things I’m asked most is if there’s an heirloom dress in my family, and, unfortunately, there’s not. But there are many heirloom pieces. In fact, one of the rings I wear every day belongs to my Grandma Dorothy, and I love that ring. On particularly important days, I’ll wear a few of her rings together, and it’s like I can hear her encouraging me, the way she’s always done. That’s an example of an heirloom that I treasure, but I have not yet passed it down. When I’m with my sons, they will comment that they are going to take the rings for their future wives. It’s cute. But yet when you have sons it’s a different ball game, isn’t it? In terms of what you pass down.
HRP: I’ve noticed that you’ve heavily explored mother-daughter relationships in your novels. What is your relationship like with your mother?
BJ: I do write about mothers quite a lot. I wrote a lot about mothers, even before becoming a mother myself. One of the most important relationships in my life is the relationship I have with my mother. I wrote an essay about this for Writer’s Digest. She was upset that all the mothers were so awful in my books. She wanted to know when I was going to write a nice mother because she thought that everyone obviously assumed that she’s awful. I explained that in fiction, you need conflict, and if I wrote about our relationship, it would be boring because there’s nothing to really explore. In the book, the relationships the characters have with their mothers are dramatically different. But bits and pieces of my relationship with my mom and my dad make their way into the book.
HRP: Do you think that mother-son relationships are different than mother-daughter relationships? What about a mother-son novel?
BJ: The mother-son relationship is so different. I’ve also written about the concept that I always thought I would have girls because I’m a girly girl, and I’m close with my mother. So I have a lot to learn about these mother-son relationships.
I recently read an article about Tom Brady and about how he’s dealing with the fact that his son does not like sports. I do not expect that my sons will be like me, but I think if I’d had a daughter, I would have wanted her to love the same things that I love. My relationship with my sons is more about helping them to become who they are, and not who I want them to be.
I haven’t done a mother-son novel, and maybe that’s a good idea for the future. I think I’m a little too in it to write about it just yet. When I’m going through something, I can’t write about it at that moment. I need the idea to percolate, and that takes a long time for me. I’m still in the early motherhood thing, and I’m still processing how I feel. But parts of my relationship with my sons are actually in the little pieces of the novel. I think that when you’re a writer, everything makes its way into the book.
HRP: How do you tackle complicated family issues in your work without exposing personal details?
BJ: It’s hard to strike that balance. I’m always learning, each day, how to do it. Before I publish a personal essay, I let my family read it to make sure it’s okay with them to put it out there. If they start saying they want me to change things, then I know I’m not going to move forward. With fiction, I try to be sensitive. It’s funny; I’ll change a character because I’m mindful of something, and then I change it in the other direction. The truth is the people who are close to you are always going to find themselves in your book. My best friend always says, “The protagonist is me!” I think readers project their own lives and experiences onto your book, and they make connections that aren’t necessarily there sometimes.
HRP: When you spoke at award-winning writing professor and bestselling author, Susan Shapiro’s class, at The New School, you said you’d steal 10 minutes to write whenever you could. That was important for me to hear. What are your thoughts on being a full-time writer and a mother? Do you think your children benefit from seeing you do both?
BJ: Being a writer and being a mom is the same as any other job. It’s a balancing act. It’s hard most days, and some days it’s nearly impossible. You’d like to strike a balance, but the truth is some days are more heavily weighted to some things than others. So it is about finding the time. Now that my kids are older, I have more chunks of time. But it’s like any working mom. I have to prioritize. If you want to do it, you make the time.
It’s perfect for me to have a creative outlet that is work, so I’m forced to take it seriously. That’s the hard thing before you’re published, to take it seriously. It can feel like this impossible goal, and you can feel like you’re wasting your time or being fanciful to devote this much time to a hobby, or more fairly stated, to a dream that you hope will come true. But our creative selves are important, and nurturing that side of ourselves is important, too.
I think it’s important that my kids know that I have other things going on. They’re certainly proud of me. When my Modern Love essay came out, they were happy, and they’re excited for my book to come out. So I do think that it’s good, but I guess their therapist will tell me whether or not it was good.
HRP: You’ve concentrated on a shirt in your Modern Love piece and a wedding dress in your novel. Do you think, as humans, we often become obsessed with particular objects that signify something deeper?
BJ: I think everything is a metaphor. Objects often become symbols. That’s why we wear wedding rings, isn’t it? In The Grace Kelly Dress, the heirloom wedding gown means something different to each woman in the book. These characters are all so distinct from each other, from their ages, to where they are in their lives, to their relationships with their families. It was important for me to show these three generations and how things change throughout time, and yet some things stay the same.
I do think we become obsessed, not only just with objects, but also with little things, and sometimes the object is the eye of the storm. In my Modern Love essay, I was trying not to nag my husband, but I ended up doing something worse.
HRP: All of the characters in the book put up facades before they can become whole. How do we, as mothers, put up facades for our children and others?
BJ: I’ve been giving my ten-year-old advice related to a problem. It’s similar to a thing going on in my own life. He said, “At your age, you’re having these problems?” And I said, “Yes, I am, believe it or not.” You have to put on your mom armor to do your kids justice. You have to act like everything is okay sometimes, even when it’s not.
As for the rest of the world, Instagram. With the rise of social media, I think now, more than ever, we put on these facades. We’re creating images of ourselves that aren’t necessarily based on truth. But we’re putting our best foot forward, and then people accept that as reality. One of the comments on my Modern Love piece was, “Why are you complaining? Go enjoy being a doctor’s wife.” It’s so interesting how the outside world sees us.
On Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, we don’t always show our weaker moments because that wouldn’t make a good photograph or story. Someone recently had a family photo-shoot where she posted all the pictures of the kids crying and screaming and then, the one perfect picture. Social media is mostly just that one perfect picture.
HRP: When I heard you speak at the Writer’s Digest conference, I was intrigued by your process for creating robust characters. Can you elaborate on some techniques that you’ve used?
BJ: I think the mistake some people make when they’re creating characters is that they don’t know their characters well enough for them to react to the big plot points in the book. Walk a mile in her shoes. As you go around in your day-to-day life, have your character with you. How do you react versus your character on day-to-day things like missing the bus? Consider the little things. I like to ask how the character perceives herself versus how the world perceives her.
I’m always interviewing people and asking lots of questions. I draw on all of the people I’ve met throughout my entire life. There is a lot that goes into the process. I usually dive into a book and start writing, but then at a certain point, I realize I don’t know who these characters are. So, I give each character a word or two. When I get lost, I can go back to that word. For Rose, our seamstress in 1958, hers was lonely. One of the things I wanted to infuse besides the glamour of Paris was how she was left out. Her loneliness was a big part of it. I tried to keep the word in mind. In other books the word could be something as simple as sad. For Rose, it would always come back to loneliness.
It’s also important to gain empathy and see things from others’ perspectives. In The Grace Kelly Dress, it was important for me to represent a wide range of people. When I wrote Recipe for a Happy Life, which came before The Dinner Party, my editor challenged me and asked if I could make characters who weren’t like me. I think part of being a writer is to step outside of yourself. Through research, speaking to people, and just plain old imagination, I tried to show a wider range of experience and reflect more of the world as it is now.
HRP: Each character in the novel rebelled against the social constraints of the time. Why do you think it’s important for women to question social mores and move beyond what is expected of them? How do you think social standards are changing for women?
BJ: I love that question. I didn’t realize that they all rebelled quite so much. One of the throughlines in the book was how life had changed during these time periods for all of these women. It’s always important to challenge the status quo—when I think about the “Me Too” movement, and about my time as a lawyer in Manhattan, it makes me wonder why I didn’t call out the inappropriate behavior I saw, why I just accepted it as the way it was. This movement and the conversation about consent is changing things for women in a dramatic way, and even though we still have a far way to go, I do think things are moving in a better direction.