Call & Response

A Q&A with Aspen Words Executive Director Adrienne Brodeur

With her own memoir coming out this fall, the nonprofit head and writer reflects on dissecting an unusual mother-daughter relationship.

By As told to Julie Comins July 30, 2019 Published in the Midsummer/Fall 2019 issue of Aspen Sojourner

Adrienne Brodeur on Cape Cod

Image: Julia Cumes

Aspen Sojourner: When you were 14 your mother woke you in the middle of the night to tell you about a clandestine kiss she’d shared with your stepfather’s best friend. Her decision to enlist your help in the affair that followed became the inciting incident of your upcoming memoir, Wild Game: My Mother, Her Lover, and Me [scheduled for release October 15 ]. How long was the book in the making and what was your writer’s process?

Adrienne Brodeur: There are two ways to answer that question. One is—my whole life. The kiss was a turning point for me, a before and after. In many ways I’ve been noodling around in this territory ever since. The second answer is that I began writing the story in earnest three years ago, after Hedgebrook [a women’s writing retreat near Seattle], where I figured some things out. From then on, I treated it like a meditation, a daily practice, getting up at 4 or 5 a.m. and writing for three or four hours. Truthfully, at that point it came very quickly. Within a year I had a full draft. 

You’ve explored elements of this story before in print, notably in a New York Times Modern Love column titled “I Am My Own In-Law,” a lighthearted look at your tangled family ties. What drove you to dive deeper into this story in the form of literary memoir, and why now? 

In the past, I’ve tried writing it with humor in short stories. But, generally, humor is a way of deflecting pain. The book had a quiet evolution: My children were growing up. I knew I didn’t want to parent the way I was parented. I felt compelled to come to terms with my mother’s secrets. And, frankly, leaving the publishing world helped. [Brodeur was an editor at Houghton Mifflin before leaving in 2013 to become a director of Aspen Words.] Out in Aspen I got to see so many people with this dream of writing their story, people in the throes of doing it, making themselves vulnerable. There was something in this job that let me open up and write that I didn’t have as an editor. 

What surprised you most while writing? Was there something you discovered that you were not expecting?

Yes. How empathetic I felt toward my mother. Exploring her life from the age I am now, I felt a lot of forgiveness for her. She was a better parent to me than her parents were to her, no question. I note in the epilogue that I’m telling my story, my trauma. But there are so many ways to tell a story. What if I had started the book with Malabar’s child dying in her arms? [Brodeur’s older brother Christopher died at age two, before she was born.] Readers might view my mother differently. Also, I feel protective of Malabar. When I started three years ago, we could still have conversations. I would read her passages and she would smile. She has dementia now; she’s powerless. I imagine it was lovely for her to hear about a time when she had power in her life. 

The manuscript sparked a bidding war in 2017 and garnered you a seven-figure advance. Comparisons have been drawn to the blockbuster memoirs Educated and The Glass Castle. Your publisher is sending you on a nine-city tour this fall. As you get closer to a big public launch of this intimate and deeply personal story, what keeps you up at night? 

That changes each day. For one thing, my boss is going to read it. And, eek—reviews. But you have to shut that shit down. You write with inner blinders on. I feel I wrote the best book I could write. I wasn’t out to settle a score; I didn’t write a Mommie Dearest book. I tried to treat people generously. It’s an honest portrayal. There are no devils or angels in this story. Of course, readers read with their own perspective. I’ve heard, “What a horrendous bitch.” [My mother is] not that person anymore. I feel defensive of her. I’m afraid people will bring things to it that were not intended.

You’ve had a whirlwind couple of years—commuting to Aspen from New York, writing the book, consulting on the screenplay. [A film version of Wild Game is in the works.] And it appears your life is about to get even busier. Are you working on something new? 

I have something percolating, but it’s not there yet. It’s more at the beans-needing-to-be-ground-before-you-make-the-coffee stage. And I’ve got the best job in the literary world. I don’t see any big changes coming.

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