Martha Brockenbrough ’88: Writing for those with open minds (young or otherwise)
by Mary Ann Gwinn
Author Martha Brockenbrough ’88 was already a publishing veteran when she came up with this idea for a novel: A 17-year-old boy and girl fall in love. The boy is white, the girl is black. They live in different worlds on different sides of a town split by class, race, and hate.
So far, so Romeo and Juliet. But Brockenbrough, who had binged on Greek mythology as a young reader and studied classics at Stanford, recalls that “when I was a kid, I loved the idea that the gods were walking among us.” She had an idea. What if the two lovers were pawns from birth in a terrible game, a match between Love and Death, two metaphysical beings jaded and wearied by their eternal struggle? What if their love, stoked at every opportunity by Love, was blocked at every turn by Death?
The magic of fiction is that you can make almost anything up and make it sing. Thirty one drafts later, the story of star-crossed teenagers Henry and Flora had moved from its original time frame, contemporary Seattle, to a 1937 version of the author’s hometown. The lovers struggle against segregation, racial violence, homophobia, and other hard truths left out of conventional narratives of Depression-era Seattle. Their story plays out in a lively jazz-infused milieu the author recreated with the help of history books like Paul de Barros’ “Jackson Street After Hours” and Zora Neale Hurston’s novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God.”
The result was “The Game of Love and Death” (Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic), a young adult novel in which mortals are shadowed by two extraordinary characters: Love, who has lost every game with Death he has ever played, and Death, cloaked in the guise of a brazenly attractive woman who can’t live without the souls of humans.
Brockenbrough’s risky idea paid off. Her novel won a 2016 Washington State Book Award and was a 2015 finalist for the prestigious Kirkus Prize for young people’s literature.
Brockenbrough was editor-in-chief of the Stanford student newspaper, worked briefly as a journalist and at Microsoft, and made up questions for Cranium and Trivial Pursuit. She’s written about parenting and pop culture. She’s taught at Lakeside twice, most recently journalism and yearbook classes from 2004-2006. Her next book, a biography of Alexander Hamilton for young adults, comes out in September.
A petite, dark-haired woman with catseye glasses and a fondness for red and black ensembles, Brockenbrough talked recently about the writing life, how Lakeside helped shape it, and how she came to write her book.
Q: Your book has a lot of grown-up themes. What made you decide to write it as a book for young adults?
A: Kids that age are just starting out in their lives. First love, first sexual experience, first betrayal, first heartbreak. That is really rich territory. A lot of people with no knowledge of YA pass it off as stupid stuff. There are some wonderfully complex stories about people of a certain age. … I enjoy creating books for people whose hearts and minds are so open.
Q: What did Lakeside do for you as an aspiring writer?
A: Jane Palais, the Middle School librarian, guided me to my first book set in Seattle, “Go to the Room of the Eyes” by Betty Erwin. You learn how a novel works by reading novels — if you don’t see your part of the country represented, you think, I can’t see my home in a novel. I’m grateful to Ms. Palais for getting me that book. My instruction in English was outstanding. One of my little bones to pick with the Lakeside Upper School is that they don’t do much in the way of creative writing. That’s not particular to Lakeside, but you understand novels best when you write them yourself. I loved my teachers there (Tom Doelger, Rob Doggett), and I’m still in contact with them. They come to my book launches.
Q: Did you always think of Henry and Flora’s story as a book for young adults?
A: My first two books were nonfiction for adults but I was interested in writing kids’ books. … I initially thought I would write picture books, then I started going to conferences for children’s writers and I thought, wow, it’s a very wide-open field. In part, it’s a marketing thing. “Harry Potter” started out as a middle grade book, but those books were enjoyed by adults. It helps to have categories, but anybody can enjoy any book.
Q: Do you approach the writing of a YA book differently than if you were writing for adults? Do you place any restrictions on word use?
A: No ... I think about it as, are these sentences beautiful, do they evoke what I want to evoke? Some adults don’t have any appetite for complexity, some teenagers do. YA books are about $8 cheaper for a hardback. My guess is that young adult books sell more and reach more people. … People said I should write “The Game of Love and Death” as an adult book, that it would be a more important work. My goal is not to be important — it’s to create an excellent book.
Q: What inspired you to create Love and Death?
A: I had read “The Book Thief ” which is narrated by Death. I thought, well, what would love be? I thought that the real enemy of love is not its opposite, hate, but death.
Q: What inspired Flora, jazz singer and aviatrix?
A: She’s partially based on the black aviatrix Bessie Coleman (Flora is both a jazz singer and an aspiring pilot). I thought, why is she not as famous as Amelia Earhart? She came first. The answer is because she was black.
Q: What was the biggest challenge in writing the book?
A: When you are telling a story from multiple points of view, weaving those points of view together must work toward the highest drama. I wrote 31 drafts, until I got it to where I really liked it. It sold after the 29th draft. You have to keep on slugging.
Q: I hated Death, but in many ways she is the most interesting character.
A: Both Love and Death are very flawed characters. There’s lots of ambiguity. They both play dirty. No one thinks they are the villain of their own story. Everyone thinks they are the hero. But Death is full of self-loathing — I can relate to that. I know what it feels like to hate myself; it’s embarrassing to admit, but I know how it feels, whether it’s immutable characteristics and/or choices I’ve made. I think I have made her sympathetic, even though she’s the grand villain of all time. No one is all good and all evil, and to be able to convey that on the page is a wonderful and meaningful challenge.
Mary Ann Gwinn is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who writes about books and authors for The Seattle Times, Booklist, and other publications. She was a juror for this year’s Pulitzer Prize in fiction and is co-host of “Well Read,” a books and authors television show that airs nationally on PBS. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.