Interviewed by Sommer Schafer
Read Sara Brody’s fiction piece, Ocean Beach, 1963
Sommer: The assassination of John F. Kennedy plays an integral part in your very moving story because, it seems to me, it unifies the brothers, and, perhaps, for the last time. You also end the story with it. Why use the assassination as the point upon which the story, the relationships, hinge instead of, say, the mother’s abandonment, George’s prosthetic leg, etc.?
Sara: I actually got this idea from a Peter Orner short story, “Dyke Bridge,” which focuses on the relationship between two brothers with the death of Mary Jo Kopechne as the frame narrative. I draw inspiration from Orner’s work quite frequently, and with Simon I’m situated in a time in history that isn’t my own, so I was also interested in the emotional impact of the Kennedy assassination in American society. I liked it in particular as something that would take a toll on Simon’s father, whose triumphs in World War II made him feel that he had helped to restore society, a belief that is eventually dismantled by the turmoil of the 1960s and his older son’s rejection. It shakes the way all the characters perceive themselves and their world. Lastly, I think the Kennedy assassination was a moment of existential disillusionment for Americans, and disillusionment is a central theme in this story.
The bouquet of flowers almost seems like a character, it has such a presence. And I love that. You make something non-human, something in the environment, such a multidimensional being. How did you decide upon the bouquet, and at what point did you know it had so much agency?
I wanted something seemingly benign to trigger George, and flowers definitely worked because their father is not the sort of person who would buy flowers. There is something gentle about them, which goes against his character and how he tries to present himself, so for George—who gets a kind of validation from his blind resentment—the flowers evoke the realization that his father is more complex than he is willing or able to admit. It’s not something he wants to face, so tension stems from that and motivates him to leave home.
This story is part of a larger novel, correct? What is the novel about, and what tools did you use to accurately write about this very specific time in history?
The novel is situated in the early 1990s and follows Simon and George in middle-age. Their relationship remains the focal point of the story, and scenes from this piece are woven into the book as flashbacks. Thematically, it deals with loneliness and the frantic search for connection that comes for Simon as he ages and discovers himself more or less alone in the world. George never recovers emotionally from Vietnam, and Simon’s feelings of loyalty to his brother conflict with his dawning realization that George is causing a lot of people pain. As for writing other eras—I do research, but more than that I just imagine how life in other times would feel with my own experiences as a frame of reference.
Do you have any advice for writers on handling rejection?
I think I must be addicted to it because I’m already at 102 rejections this year! I set a goal for 200 for the sake of getting my work out, and I’m more or less on pace to meet that. A few things keep me motivated and unfazed…for starters, when a story genuinely fails—when I realize it’s not going to be picked up anywhere, which hasn’t happened too many times because of my persistence—I remind myself that I will eventually have new, better stories to send out. I also love tiered rejections and especially personal ones! They’re votes of confidence and invitations to try again. Your work can’t always match up with a magazine’s aesthetic, so it’s best not to take rejection personally.
What are you working on these days, and where can we next read your work?
I have two other Simon stories pending at many magazines, and my last big project was a novella from the point-of-view of his future ex-wife—which I hope will be out in the world one day because it’s one of my favorite things I’ve written, although I’m saving it to close a short story collection instead of sending it out. My current project is the novel, which has been in the works in this incarnation for about a year.
Thank you for doing this interview with me, and congratulations!
Thank you too!