Interviewed by Sommer Schafer
Read Rachel Brandt’s nonfiction piece, The Moments Before We Woke
Sommer: In this moving piece, you show how disconcerting it can feel when the roles of caregiver and cared-for become reversed. For a brief time, you witness your grandmother’s vulnerability; you become the “grandparent” and your grandmother becomes the “grandchild.” Is it possible to go back to the way things used to be after this realization?
Rachel: I don’t think you can really ever go back to the simplicity that accompanies youthful relationships, and I think that’s across the board. Childhood relationships are less complicated; friendships, family relationships, even the way we see and interact with strangers. At a certain point, we realize our parents and grandparents are people. They are only partially defined by the roles we associate them with. They are friends, lovers, and enemies. They have flaws. They are people whose emotions and actions run the gamut. I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad thing, though. It’s easier to be understanding and patient and kind after you realize we are all just trying to do our best.
Do you wish you had never seen your grandmother so vulnerable and old, or do you think it enriched your relationship? Do you wish the same for your own children?
I live nearly 3,000 miles from my grandmother now so maybe that’s why it took me 30 years to figure out that she was getting older. To cook in her kitchen (she who was responsible for keeping five children, 14 grandchildren, and 4 great grandchildren fed) is an honor as is every day I spend in her presence. I hope my children get to see their grandparents age and their parents, for that matter. We get so bent about crow’s feet and wrinkles and the extra ten pounds that gather around our middles, that we forget how many people never have a chance to lean in extra close to the mirror to examine those gray hairs.
What’s your favorite thing to bake?
This might be the toughest question you’ve asked. I’d say my great-grandmother’s kuchen recipe for caramel rolls is probably my favorite thing to make. It’s something with a lot of steps and waiting, and I enjoy how complicated it is to make. It makes me feel like I’ve earned a couple of them by the time I can eat one.
What’s the biggest difference for you between writing fiction and nonfiction?
When I write nonfiction, I know I am responsible for how my story affects the people or situation I’m writing about. With fiction I am creating a reality, so the only person who has to deal with the fallout is me. Due to that fact, nonfiction is a much more tedious, arduous process.
What trip are you planning these days?
The next trip I’m going on will be back home to the Midwest to visit family for a couple of weeks. My son is only a year old and while he’s been on a couple plane trips, he hasn’t met a lot of my extended family yet. It’s an opportunity for my kids to spend their summers the way I did when I was a child: wandering through the woods, sleeping outside, and getting lost in cornfields.
Any advice to writers about handling rejection?
Whenever I get a rejection letter I give myself a literal gold star, and I aim for 100 rejections a year because it forces me to submit work continuously. Every piece you don’t send in is an automatic “no,” but every submission has the potential for publication. The other thing to remember is that there is a level of subjectivity with any kind of art. Writing is no different. You’ll submit a piece and an editor will tell you everything that’s wrong with it and why it doesn’t work. Another editor will love it and ask for the most minor of edits before publishing it. Take the feedback you get seriously, but learn to cultivate your own voice.
Thank you for doing this interview with me. And congratulations!
Thank you for the opportunity.