The kickoff of Sweet Briar College’s Fall 2016 Writers Series is bound to be special.
Husband and wife John Gregory Brown and Carrie Brown both will read from their recent novels at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 14, at Cochran Library. Beyond the accomplishment of seeing their latest works released this year, the occasion marks a reunion with two beloved members of the Sweet Briar community.
After a year away, John Gregory Brown is again the Julia Jackson Nichols Professor of English and director of creative writing — positions he’d held since 1994. His fourth novel, “A Thousand Miles from Nowhere,” was published June 28.
Brown has set all of his novels in his native New Orleans, but his latest protagonist —Henry Garrett, whose life is already in shambles — has fled the city ahead of Hurricane Katrina. Like the author, he watched the devastation from a small Virginia town, albeit under different circumstances.
In a poignant interview for Literary Hub, Carrie Brown asks her husband if the book is an “elegy for New Orleans and what was lost there.”
“I think it’s kind of an elegy for my childhood, for the place where I’d grown up,” he says. “It’s also a kind of recognition, as I guess all my novels are, of the complicated relationships of family, of their powers of destruction and, if you’re lucky, regeneration.”
Themes emerge as tragicomic events unfold at the hotel where Henry has landed. New York Times reviewer Amy Rowland in the Sunday Book Review writes: “This is a deeply humane look at the vulnerability of black lives, the changing contours of the New South and the restorative potential of literature in the aftermath of catastrophe.”
Stories, poetry and sad lyrics — the novel takes its title from a Dwight Yoakam song — assume center stage next to characters critics hail as crafted in the best Southern tradition.
“Salvation,” writes Faye Jones in the online journal Chapter 16 of Henry’s redemption from his past, “does not come in the form of a psychotic killer or a Bible salesman who steals legs, but Flannery O’Connor would recognize a kindred spirit in these characters. And approve.”
That salvation comes instead from art, especially sad songs applied liberally throughout the book.
“Like Henry Garrett — like so many people, I think — I’ve always got songs banging around in my head, and I’m drawn to songs of anguish and longing because they seem to possess a deep and abiding beauty,” says Brown, who also noted in the Literary Hub interview that Henry’s musical tastes are mostly autobiographical.
“I’m interested in the ways in which art uncovers the beautiful in loss and grief, how it finds a kind of redemptive grace in that awful component of our lives.”
Hurricane Katrina adds yet more layers to the novel’s themes. Brown had begun writing parts of the story long before the storm struck New Orleans.
“It changed shape, changed focus, when I realized that I wanted to contend with this specific kind of loss in addition to all the other kinds of loss the novel addresses,” he says.
Carrie Brown also is reprising a role at Sweet Briar, that of Margaret Banister Writer-in-Residence, which she held from 2007 to 2012. Since then, she has taught creative writing at Hollins University and at Deerfield Academy with her husband in 2015-2016, and published her last two novels. She’ll read from her latest, “The Stargazer’s Sister,” a historical novel that’s been garnering fans since its January release.
At 22, the real-life Caroline Herschel went to England to live with her older brother, the famous German astronomer William Herschel. For many years, she was indispensible, running his household and assisting his work — and making her own noted contributions to astronomy. But when her beloved William, 12 years her senior, decides to marry at age 50, the happiness “Lina” has known is destroyed.
Brown’s Lina is the one biographers don’t reveal, creating “not a historical personage but a sympathetic fictional character,” says Washington Post reviewer Andrea Barrett.
“Look her up, if you want to learn the facts of her remarkable life. … But if you want to get a sense of how her life might have felt, then turn to ‘The Stargazer’s Sister,’ Carrie Brown’s intriguing seventh novel. Wisely, sometimes brilliantly, Brown skips over much of the familiar material, instead training her gaze on the blanks in the record and emphasizing experiences a biographer might scant.”
Nevertheless, Carrie Brown learned what there was to know about Lina’s life — whom she first discovered on the public radio program “StarDate” — as well as William’s and 18th- and 19th-century astronomy.
“Many of my novels have required some element of research, but none have challenged me as fully as this one,” she says.
It took two decades and she reports giving up several times, fearful she “simply wasn’t up to the task.” Meanwhile, she wrote other books even as she stayed with it despite what she describes as year-after-year defeat.
“I just couldn’t seem to put the novel aside entirely, and drafts of it kept mounting up. Now I’m grateful that I was able to spend all these years in Lina’s company. It’s a privilege to open up the vault of someone’s life and try to understand their experience. I was full of both sympathy and admiration for her.”
The Browns, who raised their children from the ages of 9, 3 and 2 months on Sweet Briar’s campus, are happy to be back. It was a good fit in 1994 when they arrived shortly after the publication of John Gregory’s first novel, and it is a good fit today, he says.
That it coincides with them both publishing in the same year is even better.
“It’s something we’ve never managed before, and it’s great fun,” John Gregory says. “I hope it will happen again some day.”
In addition to her acclaimed novels, Carrie Brown’s works include a collection of short stories and short fiction and essays, which have appeared in journals such as Tin House, The Southern Review, One Story, Glimmer Train, The Georgia Review and The Oxford American. Her work has been translated into several languages. She is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, the Barnes and Noble Discover Award, the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize for work by an American woman writer, the Great Lakes Book Award, and, twice, the Library of Virginia Award for fiction.
John Gregory Brown’s other novels are “Decorations in a Ruined Cemetery,’ “The Wrecked, Blessed Body of Shelton Lafleur” and “Audubon’s Watch.” His honors include a Lyndhurst Prize, the Lillian Smith Award, the John Steinbeck Award, a Howard Foundation fellowship, and the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities Book of the Year Award.
Sweet Briar’s Writers Series will continue on Oct. 18 and Nov. 1 with readings by Stephen O’Connor, author of the novel “Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings,” and children’s literature writer Kathryn Erskine.
For more information, email John Gregory Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (434) 381-6434.
Click here for more from the Browns about their novels and their return to Sweet Briar.