It’s Never Too Late: Jamie Brenner in Conversation with Katherine McLaughlin

By: Katherine McLaughlin

I originally met Jamie Brenner at a Manhattan co-working space where I worked as a barista, she was a member. I was a reader with a passion to write, and she was a writer with enough compassion to share her knowledge. When I wasn’t on shift (and sometimes when I was) we’d sit on millennial pink sofas and discuss books, publishing, and the creative process. 

A bestselling author and previous publishing professional, she became equally a source of inspiration and a spring of insight. When I wasn’t talking to her, she spoke to me about the meaning of family, friendship, and female strength through her novels. 

Due to the impact of COVID-19, we’re no longer sitting next to each other on pastel couches, but speaking through webcams hundreds of miles apart. Even so, Jamie’s candor and wisdom transcend technology and distance, leaving any young reader feeling anything but connected. 

Her newest work, Summer Longing, tells the story of a group of unlikely women coming together to save a baby girl who was left on the steps of a Cape Cod beach house. Here we talk about motherhood, creating inspiration, and having something to say.

Katherine McLaughlin: In a lot of your books, the central characters are families —especially strong females— and I’m curious what attracts you to those storylines. 

Jamie Brenner: Well I honestly think I don’t have a good relationship with my mother. And I think my entire life —well my entire adult life— I’ve always been looking for mentors, or mother figures or people who could show me the way — to give me some kind of roadmap to life because I have never really had one. I’ve never had a woman where I’m like “that’s how I want to live my life”, at least not one I’ve known. In some ways I feel like I’m writing the mother I wish I had, the sister I wish I had, you know? I’ve always had this yearning for supportive female energy around me. I have great friends and I have had some great mentors professionally, but it’s an ongoing kind of yearning. So that’s why I explore these women, strong women, and I yearn for them. 

KM: And You’re a mother too. Do you ever write the mother you are of the mother you want to be in your characters? 

JB: Yeah, my fifteen-year-old really struggled with anxiety and OCD and it was very difficult for both of us. I wrote about that dynamic in my book Drawing Home. Having a kid who needs a lot from you and the frustration of giving a lot and not getting a lot back during certain stages, and I dedicated that book to her. It was really interesting because I gave a copy of the book to her therapist and her therapist said to me “I have such a better understanding now of what she’s been through and what you’ve been through.” So that book was really cathartic for me. 

KM: So I remember one time, I don’t remember exactly when, but you said something to me and it really stuck out. You said “living is research for artists”, it seems like that’s true in your novels as well. 

JB: Yeah, definitely. Obviously I wish I’d published my first book when I was 25, but as much as I wanted to write, I didn’t have anything I wanted to say yet. It took a lot of time to feel like I had anything to give my readers. And obviously some people have a lot to say when they’re in their early 20s — I always think of Zadie Smith and White Teeth— but for me personally, and I think for a lot of people, we need to live a little first. 

KM: So let’s talk about your new book Summer Longing.

JB: Yeah it came out May 5th with Little, Brown 

KM: So you live and work in New York, I’m wondering what the creative process is like writing this beach novel and stories about summertime especially when it’s freezing, it’s dark outside, and we’re up in an office building. How do you get in the headspace to do that? 

JB: So I publish a book every spring/summer so the year before I already know where the next book is set.  I’ll spend time in that town, talk to people, research, and take tons of photos. And so I’m researching the summer — I’m also traveling around promoting my current book — but I’m spending time in my next location and I’ll have photos of that town all over my wall. So the visual of the place is always in front of me. I don’t like winter at all, so I love being able to mentally inhabit a summer town and summertime while I’m writing in the winter. It’s my escape. I’m taking my mental escape and putting it on the paper for readers to escape too.

KM: I know that fans of The Forever Summer might be excited because this book is set in Provincetown again and there are some familiar characters. I’m curious what the process was like writing characters you already knew into a brand new story without it being a continuation of an old story?

JB: Well that’s a good question because it’s a bit of a tricky balancing act. I wrote the book [Summer Longing] assuming this is for a reader who has never read The Forever Summer. And at the same time, you don’t want to repeat too much about a character that someone who has read The Forever Summer already knows. But since the returning characters are more like supporting cast, it was easier than if I’d written the whole book like centrally about those characters again. The crazy thing is, I wrote the first book about Provincetown and I realized the second time around how much was left unexplored. The town just has so much going for it, I was like “how did I not write about this the whole time?” I feel like there is so much to mine there, I almost feel bad, I wish I could go back to The Forever Summer and add some stuff in because I keep learning more and more about things that make this town unique. 

KM: Would you ever write a sequel to The Forever Summer or are you kind of done with that particular story just not done with the place? 

JB: I would never write a sequel and at this point, it would probably have to be a progression from the point of Summer Longing. I think I see Provincetown as a character in itself. And I think in any story I want to focus on new people populating the same town and with each story, I can dig deeper and deeper into the town. But I always like to have new families. 

KM: We’ve talked about the ways you’ve turned your family history and your own life into novels, what was the starting point for this novel? 

JB:  I think Summer Longing is my continued reckoning with the gap between idealized mother/daughter relationship, and my own reality. All of my books have some element of wish-fulfillment in them, and with Summer Longing, I really wanted to explore the idea that it’s never too late – not for a marriage, not for motherhood, not for success and most importantly, not for happiness.

KM: And given everything going on with COVID-19, how is this release different than other times?

JB: Typically around this time I have a full calendar of events, going to bookstores up and down the east coast, starting on pub day through the whole summer. So now I’m basically learning how to move what it means to have a book conversation or book launch online. Every author is trying to figure this out and it’s just kind of like the wild wild west of technology. I was always told as a writer you have two jobs. One is writing the book and the other is promoting the book. And the promoting part is just as serious and just as much responsibility. It’s not something you can outsource. So I think a lesson we’ve all learned is we have to be able to be dynamic and open to change and be responsible for being in touch with our audience at all times.

KM: Since you can’t physically be with your audience at this time, what do you hope this novel can give them in solitude? 

JB: I hope Summer Longing can give them a little taste of all the things we’re longing for right now: an escape to a beach in the early morning sun, the bustle of a crowded restaurant, the unexpected joy of running into a friend on the street and sharing gossip. I hope they can get lost in the story, in the drama of other people’s lives so they can – for an hour two – forget the drama of their own. Most of all, I want readers to feel, as I always do, that with a book in our hands, we are never truly alone.

Katherine McLaughlin is an NYC based writer originally from Indianapolis. She lives in Brooklyn and studies at The New School. Primarily interested in creating human connection, she values the power of words that can create the effect. To stay up to date with her writing you can follow her on instagram @mclaughlinkate or visit her website www.bykatherinemclaughlin.com.

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