Tuesday, April 4, 2023

Q&A with Donnaldson Brown


Photo by Kate Burton



Donnaldson Brown is the author of the new novel Because I Loved You. She has worked as an attorney and as a screenwriter, and is now a facilitator and trainer with The Equus Effect. She lives in Brooklyn and in western Massachusetts.


Q: What inspired you to write Because I Loved You, and how did you create your characters Leni and Caleb?


A: I had been primarily writing screenplays for about 10 years. I had a couple projects that were optioned, and one that was in pre-production. That deal fell apart (it’s a common story) at the same time my mother passed away suddenly and I had a health issue. When I resurfaced from dealing with all that, I found I had lost my gumption for the film business. But not for stories or writing.


I was in a small writing group, when during a prompt, this girl – a teenager – galloping over the Texas chaparral on her gray mare streamed into my consciousness. I couldn’t shake her. She and her mare chased me around, always running, sweat lathering the mare’s neck. I couldn’t abandon them, not with that bank of clouds, dark as a bruise, creeping over the horizon.


The next thing I knew, a boy, also a teenager, landed inside a sprawling brick ranch house, drenched and angry. What happened to him? What’s that girl running from and where is she headed? One scene led to the next.


While the story has a lot of action and is quite “cinematic,” these characters inspired me to think about deeper issues I wanted to explore. They got me thinking about first love, about the dreams we have for our life, and the decisions we make when we’re young that reverberate through our lives.


They got me thinking, also, about the ways we find to move on, and about family and loss. I wanted to follow Leni and Caleb and find out how they came to terms with all that in their lives. I wasn’t sure I had enough words in me to write a novel, but they led the way.

Q: The writer Mary Morris said of the book, “Brown brings her characters from the darkness of loss and betrayal into the light of forgiveness and ultimately peace.” What do you think of that description, and did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it?


A: I’m deeply gratified by that description. At its core, it’s a novel about love – romantic love, familial love, love of place, even love of horses – and forgiveness, which touches our divinity, yes? We can cause one another great pain. We can also heal deep wounds by our presence, by our acknowledgement and understanding.


The novel spans Leni and Cal’s lives by looking at three distinct periods of time. It’s something of an epic in that regard. It opens in 1972, against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, in a small ranching town in Northeast Texas. We meet Leni and Cal again in New York City in the mid-1980s amidst the City’s burgeoning downtown art scene and the financial and real estate bubble. And the novel ends in the pre-pandemic present day.


I had no idea how the novel was going to end when I began it. I am not an outliner. In fact, I get myself into trouble when I try to wrap things up or plan them out prematurely.


Leni and Cal both have ambitions that are too big for their small town. When tragedy strikes, they have to make choices that set them on their life’s course. So, Leni and Caleb, and a couple of the secondary characters as well, had their own stories to tell.


Through their stories, I got to explore not only romantic love, but how our dreams shape us – whether we choose to follow them or not. Also the importance of place in shaping us, motherhood and art and activism, how a family’s expectations impact one’s sense of accomplishment and self-worth.


Q: How was the book’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: The publisher helped me with the title, actually. I had another working title for the book. I like the title because it signifies the impact of love in our lives. It gets me thinking about how many choices are inspired by love or made in reaction to love. Whether we go towards love like moths to a flame or recoil – those are important choices, and don’t always feel under our control.


Q: Did you need to do any research to write the novel, and if so, did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: I really didn’t do any research. My father and his siblings had a ranch in northeast Texas. I grew up in Connecticut, but spent time there as a girl and a teenager. You can imagine how different Texas’ chaparral country is from New England. And I was always crazy about horses. So, the time I spent in Texas was incredibly impactful.


I also moved to New York City in the early 1980s. A few years later, when I was in law school, I met and fell in love with a wonderful man who was an artist. He introduced me to the downtown art scene, while my professional life at the time was in the city’s white-collar world. The art and activism I describe is all from my imagination, fed – I’m sure – by observations from that time.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m several drafts into my next novel, which is set on the campus of an imaginary Shakespeare theatre company in Vermont. A couple of years ago, I did a month-long theatre residency at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Massachusetts. For 14 hours a day six days a week, we studied acting, voice, clowning, and movement. It was incredibly intense and wonderful, and I met some amazing people. I’m having fun with it.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Thank you for the opportunity to speak about the book. I appreciate it.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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