An interview by Bryan Michielsen
BRYAN: Can you start us off with a brief introduction of yourself?
MARIA: My name is Maria Brandt. I am a full professor of English at MCC. I originated and chaired the creative writing degree when it started, and now I’m on that committee. Angelique Stevens is the current chair. My primary role at MCC is still to nurture the creative writing students. I write fiction and plays primarily, but I’ve had one piece of nonfiction published too. My son’s name is Will, and he’s fourteen years old. He attends the School of the Arts in the city. He plays the cello and Dungeons and Dragons.
BRYAN: What’s your favorite part about teaching creative writing?
MARIA: There’s so much. I’d say when I’m working closely with students on their writing, whether it’s questions of craft, or concept, or process, I grow too as a writer. I think that as writers we know it’s very rare that we’re going to make our living off of just writing. For me, having a career that allows me to nurture my own writing–in a selfish way–has been amazing. So, the work I do with my students does funnel into the work I do myself. So, that’s part of it.
The biggest thing is all of the students though. It’s so exciting watching you all have those aha moments where you understand something more deeply about a story you’re working on, yourself, your process or craft, or something about the world. There’s nothing that we don’t touch on. That’s part of why I teach in the classroom and not online, because I live for those moments. I love when those little explosions happen.
BRYAN: In 2014, your novella, All the Words, won the Grassic Short Novel Prize. What inspired you to write about the Great New England Hurricane of 1938?
MARIA: I grew up on the southern coast of Long Island. The specific part on Moriches Bay where the novella takes place is where my father’s family–his polish parents–had a duck farm. I interviewed my grandfather before he died about what it was like to raise ducks, and what the line looked like with all the polish women who would kill the ducks and eviscerate them. I wanted to know what it was like during the Great Depression and how much he felt he was struggling.
My grandfather had ordered a barometer from Sears, and he went to the post office and took it out of the package, and everyone started laughing because the needle was pointed to the hurricane and they were like “look outside,” but then it ripped apart a couple days later.
Shinnecock Inlet on Dune Road is where I used to go a lot when I was younger. I used to climb over the rocks, and it’s a violent passageway where the ocean meets Shinnecock Bay. But that inlet was not there. That inlet was busted open by the hurricane.
The ocean is in my blood growing up where I grew up. Anything that has to do with the rage of the ocean and the cold, gray waters… I mean, I love beautiful, tropical waters, but they don’t get under my skin the way the cold, gray ocean does.
I knew when I was writing my first book that the ocean was going to be a big part of the world for the characters.
The ocean is in my blood growing up where I grew up.
BRYAN: How do you manage or keep up with your writing? Do you have a schedule or is it more of a spontaneous event when you have the inspiration or “the itch” to write?
MARIA: There’s no way I could just be spontaneous anymore. That doesn’t mean there aren’t spontaneous moments where I get the itch, but I’m a single mom who’s in a relationship with a single dad, and I have a full-time job that’s very demanding.
It doesn’t matter what your writing schedule looks like but at some point, it’s crucial that you develop one.
For me, I’ll use my calendar and write the name of something I’m working on and set aside time to work on it. I’ll also go through my submission log and see which stories I might want to send out. Once that day comes, I’ll pick another day on the calendar. All the things I want to do with my writing are somewhere on my calendar, so I know they’re there, and I don’t have to worry about it. If I get the spontaneous itch, great, but chances are I have to pick up my kid or go grocery shopping.
That’s the system that I use. It’s crazy, but whatever your system is, will probably be crazy too. Otherwise, I feel like months and months would go by and I’d start feeling anxious that I’m not doing this thing that I love to do.
It doesn’t matter what your writing schedule looks like but at some point, it’s crucial that you develop one.
BRYAN: In a previous interview with The Hickory Stump, you mentioned how it’s important to break out of the myth that writers are highly isolated. How have you personally fought that mindset and won?
MARIA: Yeah, there’s so many ways. Number one, I’m involved with two writer’s groups. I’m a founding member of Rochester Playwrights Group, and I’m a founding member of Straw Mat Writers, so I’m always writing in the community with other writers. Number two is involvement with local organizations–Writer & Books, Words on the Verge, MCC–and developing relationships with the creative writing series at Brockport and at Geneseo, and having a relationship with Nox, which is a cocktail place, allows me to host readings there.
The other thing is having a job that’s not just sitting in my room writing all day but being a teacher, being an active member of my neighborhood association, having political interests, raising a child and being a part of his various interests, just living in the world and paying attention. If I’m not writing about the world I’m living in, then it’s all solipsistic. It’s like masturbation. It’s not really engaging in the human experience, just a myth of my own whatever, and I don’t want that. So live, live, live. Get your hands dirty.
If I’m not writing about the world I’m living in, then it’s all solipsistic.
BRYAN: Do your characters have lives outside of the slice you’re showing your readers?
MARIA: That’s a great question. I’m trying to think. I don’t know. On one hand, no, and that’s a horrible thing to say, but people will ask what she is going to do the next day, and my response is always “I don’t know.” It’s really just what’s in the text. All the other stuff, I don’t know because I haven’t gone there yet. But on the other hand, because I do go so deeply into the text, I might not know why the guy said the thing to my character, but I know why my character thinks the guy said it to her.
There are lots of things about my characters that are real that I do know that aren’t explicit in the text, if that makes sense.
BRYAN: What was your hardest scene to write and why was it so hard?
MARIA: Right now, I’m working on a play, and I’m almost at the point of throwing it away, which is tough because I’ve been working on it for more than a year. I think a big part of it is that this is one of the few things I’ve written that’s started with a concept and not a character. So, I know what the concept is for the play; it’s very clear to me and I still love the concept, but I feel like it might be better served–because it’s so clear–as an essay.
My characters are struggling to be their own authentic selves because the concept is so heavy. When I sit with my characters, it just doesn’t feel like they’re living and breathing; it feels like they are still props for the concept. I’ve tried restructuring it, I’ve been workshopping it with both of my writing groups, and my boyfriend has read it with me out loud. I’m trying things, but I think that’s what it is, starting with a concept versus a character in a moment, and I don’t know where it’s going yet.
There is a story that I wrote where in the first few sentences, the character is talking about her mother’s copper-colored hair. I didn’t know why, but I knew that detail was important. By the end of the story I knew exactly why.
The story when I’m reading it always feels fresh and alive because I’m discovering what happens next as I write it. After I get a little into it, I start knowing what’s going to happen, but all the knowledge is coming from asking questions about why a character did something. I wonder, “why did she do that?” and I need to figure that out.
BRYAN: Do you have any spots around Rochester that you draw inspiration from?
MARIA: I write once a week in one of the Starbucks because I take my son to Dungeons and Dragons and I just go to Starbucks, but I don’t think that’s inspirational as much as it’s practical.
For my actual writing, it’s all inside me already. I don’t need to go somewhere to be inspired to write, but I love the parks in the city. I live right on Highland Park right now, so I spend a lot of time walking there and running there and riding my bike with my son there.
I love the city parts of the city, the dirty parts, the parts that feel very alive. I love spying and eavesdropping. If something catches my attention, there’s a little seed. Wherever I write, a lot of the time on my sofa with my laptop, that thing I saw or heard comes back and its the spark to something.
I love the city parts of the city, the dirty parts, the parts that feel very alive.
BRYAN: Your plays have been produced or been finalists not only in NYC, Boston, and Fort Lauderdale, to name a few places, but even in London, England. What has your experience been with that and how has that impacted your writing career?
MARIA: A lot of that is remote, so I didn’t go to Fort Lauderdale, I didn’t go to London, I didn’t go to Los Angeles, and I didn’t even go to the New York City one. My family went and videotaped it so I could watch.
Obviously, it’s amazing. For the Fort Lauderdale one, I think I got a check in the mail for like $15. I was like “yay!” You want to give me $15, great; I will gladly, gratefully accept that.
It’s tricky because these are contests where there’ll be like 400 submissions and they’ll pick five, so I’m not saying I don’t value it. They’re just things that were super fun when they happened. I got to have conversations with these people. It’s the big stuff, the full lengths that really shape you.
BRYAN: What’s the most constructive thing you’ve learned that has elevated your work?
MARIA: Part of it is community. Starting and nurturing Straw Mat Writers has absolutely changed my life. We’ve hosted workshops for other people; we’ve hosted readings for other writers; we’ve hosted readings for ourselves. We meet regularly. We go on retreats like twice a year where we workshop the whole time. Finding that community has been the biggest catalyst for me.
BRYAN: Tell me more about Straw Mat Writers.
MARIA: For my 40th birthday, my family, who are all still in Long Island, wanted to know what presents to buy me, and I don’t really need things; I shop at thrift stores, like I don’t really need things. So, I said, “I would like an adventure.” My youngest sister, for our adventure, took me to see a play in Brooklyn. We went out to a bar, we played pool, we played this buck-hunting game, and then we played this game where you had to figure out which underwear were different for these male models. We won that game, so we had to put in our name, but since it was two of us, we wrote “Mae” because her name is Emily, so it stood for Maria and Emily.
Anyways, that same night–she’s a writer too, and she hadn’t really been generating, and I hadn’t been generating–we said that in June we were going to prompt each other via email every day by eight in the morning, taking turns. Then, we’d have a day to write. I would write a short play every single day and she would write a poem every single day. We called it Project Mae.
I ended up with thirty short plays, three of which I threw out, and twenty seven of them I chose to develop.
I had the plays and I was talking to Angelique Stevens and Pam Amy Murphy at a party, telling them about it. Angelique said “I’ve got some essays,” and Pam said “I’ve got some journal entries.” We started meeting and thought, Elizabeth Johnston writes poems, let’s see if she wants to join us, and she did.
On our first retreat we did a prompt with the words “straw mat,” and we all wrote something. Then, a few months later, Angelique was like, we need to name ourselves, so we came up with the Straw Mat Writers.
Pam doesn’t really work with us anymore, it’s just Angelique, Elizabeth, and me. Since we’ve started this, all three of our writing has gone from just closet writers to fully out in the public marketplace. We push each other. We get in fights–good fights. We love each other.
BRYAN: What was it like to visit Charles Dickens’ home in London? What did you take away from that experience?
MARIA: As a graduate student, I took a seminar on Charles Dickens, and I really loved his work. I’m an Americanist; that’s where my real heart is, but I really loved his work. When I went to London, I wanted to go to his home. You know, you’re sitting at the same desk where this person wrote some tough things. All of his work is tough. It’s just as simple as being in a place and the ghosts are there, the energy, some residue of this human being lingers in the air, and I was there for a moment being quiet, saying hi, and that was big.
It’s just as simple as being in a place and the ghosts are there, the energy, some residue of this human being lingers in the air…
BRYAN: In your experience, how do you feel the literary landscape has evolved for women and where would you like to see it go in the future?
MARIA: I think we’re in a really good place right now, and it’s not just for women, it’s for people of color and people across sexual categories too. Within the hierarchy of literature, there’s a consciousness that we kind of mess up. It seems honest, but there’s at least a spoken desire to rectify that. So, you’re seeing calls for only queer writers, only women, or only people of color. I think that’s necessary.
In large part, I don’t think in intentional discrimination, but because the water we lived in was so muddied with structural discrimination and invisible discrimination, we have centuries of this idea that good work was only by white men. The reason we have dead, white, male writers is because only they wrote the good stuff. Now there’s more consciousness, and that’s obviously not true, and it never has been true. To rectify that, there needs to be intentionality.
I think where all of us would like it to go eventually is that we’re in a more equitable and just society so that we don’t have to have calls for any particular group of people, but right now we do need those. It’s not going to fix itself, but I would love for the point where we don’t need that anymore.
Within the hierarchy of literature, there’s a consciousness that we kind of mess up.
BRYAN: In your play, Swans, you tackle some hard-hitting topics including domestic abuse and the way gender roles are defined. How has the community responded to this play?
MARIA: A big thing is that we partnered with RESTORE and Ignite. On two separate nights we had talkbacks. People in the audience were coming out and were sharing their stories and saying things like, “We never see this on stage.” I felt so silenced. People talk about it in dark rooms and we know it exists, but people will say things like, “nobody’s really like that,” but the people who saw the play were like “that’s exactly what it’s like.”
The mother in the play who was the victim participated to a degree in her own victimhood, and a lot of audience members were so mad about that, but then people were like “that happens too.” We raised a lot of money for those two organizations.
Another big thing was that Ignite wanted to do an all-deaf show. Their whole mission is to serve communities in Rochester who are deaf or hard-of-hearing who experience domestic or sexual abuse or assault. I learned through this process that there are high instances of that. So, they had an all-deaf cast and an ASL speaking director. I went as an audience member and I had to wear headphones for the interpretation. Someone from the crew had to translate the script into ASL English, which is different from our English, so what I heard was not the words I wrote. It was so weird and out of my own experience. Most of the people in the audience were not hearing, so I would hear people in the audience laughing before I would get to the joke, even though I knew it was coming. Then there was a talkback after that too for this very specific audience.
I went to XXI and I was on Fox News to talk about it, and I received feedback and phone calls after that too. This issue just hits so many people and it’s something that so many people are uncomfortable talking about, so we need to have stuff out there.
BRYAN: Thank you for being a part of Burgundy Balloon. It’s been great talking to you and learning a little more about you and your writing career. I think it’s important to have conversations like these because it exposes us all as human. Something I’ve learned since first starting college to now, is that everything in high school is so…
BRYAN: Yes, exactly. We all play these roles, you know, teacher, student, parent, etcetera, but after high school, in the real world, there’s more than just the labels that distinguish all of us or separates us. At the core we’re all human and these conversations expose that, and they expose unique perspectives, and I love that.
MARIA: I totally agree.
BRYAN: Thanks again for being a part of the conversation.