Author Deborah Reed Sets Things on Fire

I sat down with her to talk about her upbringing, how her pseudonym let her write thrillers without giving a shit, and why her latest novel, <i>Things We Set on Fire</i>, took 16 years to write.

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Jan 10 2014, 6:02pm

Deborah Reed looks like one of the sweetest women you could ever meet. She’s blond, hazel-eyed, tiny, and bright. I first met her in a small town that borders the Black Forest in Germany this past summer and my immediate thought was of a canary, small-boned with a harmonious voice. This image was further solidified after I heard her give a reading the following evening. In spite of the thick, humid July heat, total lack of AC, and the jet lag, Deborah’s voice was clear and spirited as she read a vivid passage from her then-unpublished novel, Things We Set on Fire.

Don't let her looks fool you—this is a woman who can throw a pretty decent punch. Born to blue-collar parents in Detroit, she eventually ended up in Florida, where she spent much of her days drinking, fighting, singing, and playing music with her large Southern family. “Sure, one could say that growing up with a bunch of hellions who beat the shit out each another one day and then professed their love and protection the next—yeah, that could have given me some insight into complicated human nature,” she told me when I asked about her upbringing.

Deborah’s writing is complex, layered, diverse, and, much like the writer herself, a bit paradoxical. Just when you think you’ve got a handle on what’s happening, everything falls out from under you. When I was reading her first novel, Carry Yourself Back to Me, I was delighted to find that things took a turn for the worse when I least expected it. Maybe I'm a little cynical, but I prefer when books and films present some sort of emotional realism, which she does with ease. At times, her works seem reminiscent of Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone or Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine.

Her work isn't comprised of pure tragedy. Sure, people fight, people cheat, and people die. But people also live (she's not trying to go all Lolita on you). Her characters are complicated and flawed, but that’s precisely what makes them real, likable, and human.

She's currently working on her fifth book, a novel written under her pseudonym, Audrey Braun—the name she uses when writing psychological thrillers. We sat down a few weeks ago to discuss her newly released novel, her childhood, the richness of Florida, and how she learned to say “vaginal bleeding” in German.

VICE: You have said that your latest novel, Things We Set on Fire, took you nearly two decades to flesh out. Can you describe what the process of writing this book was like?
Deborah Reed: It took 16 years to get right. Frankly, it was hell. The last thing I wanted was to put a novel out there that could be construed in any way as cliché or downplayed as “chick lit” just because it’s a story about women written by a woman. But more than that, the story is very emotionally complex and I did not want to get it wrong lest the characters veer into stereotypes against my will. I had to figure out how to tell a story that closely resembles life—where not everyone can be wrong and not everyone can be right—where the misconceptions, prejudices, and family secrets that haunt us all in real life could be held up to a light and examined for what they are, giving everyone a chance to have her say. I wrote three other novels while continuing to work on this one. It was extremely emotionally draining.

It seems like it was worth the wait. It was the top seller in the literary section of Amazon’s Kindle store. Do you feel any relief since it's come out?
To be honest, no. Not really. This stuff never gets easier. It’s too nerve-wracking to think about how it’s being received, so I just keeping working and worrying about the book I’m writing now, whether it can measure up, whether I can pull it off, and whether I’ll actually finish it. I’d rather have my nervous energy go toward writing a new book than have it disperse into thin air over things I can’t control.

Things We Set on Fire has a similar setting to that of your earlier work, Carry Yourself Back to Me, and there is even a brief mention of a character from that novel in this new story. Does Florida hold any specific significance for you?
Yes. I came of age in Florida. I moved there from Michigan as a teenager and the strangeness fully captured my imagination. I’ve never been able to shake it. To go from the stoic suburbs of Detroit to lizards in the sink, snakes in the trees, gators in the rivers and lakes, flying cockroaches, sharks, manatees, and hurricanes? I mean, God almighty. Florida also makes for a great backdrop on the page. It’s full of texture and sensory details and has a built-in tension with the heat, humidity, and man-eating creatures.

The characters in both novels are very troubled and very complex, yet you seem to have a good handle on all of them. Do they relate to the people you grew up with?
Originally, I’m from Detroit, and I moved to Westland with my parents a few years later, “the only city in the country that was named after a mall,” as Charlie LeDuff put it in Detroit: An American Autopsy. My parents divorced soon afterwards, but my dad was always around, even after my mother remarried. When I was 17, we all moved to Florida. Most of my family is originally from the South. Nearly everyone played an instrument. And nearly everyone liked to drink. Our food was Southern; our stories were long and drawn-out and loud and funny as hell. Lots of fighting. Classic country on the radio and on the guitars my father and uncles would play and we’d all sing along. Lots of Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings. My father has an insanely beautiful baritone voice. I spent a great deal of time outdoors and barefoot all summer long. I was a tomboy through and through. I’m convinced at some point my parents must of thought I was gay. I turned into a more feminine heterosexual when I became a teenager.

But I was always a brooder, a watcher, a reader. I imagine the combination of these things was good training for a writer.

In your work, both familial and romantic relationships are complicated and often destructive. Do these relationships mirror any of your own?
Yes and no. My imagination and sense of empathy come into play more than anything. The layering of complicated, destructive behavior and emotions comes from all kinds of sources, be it witnessing a mother holding her child’s hand in a market square or a couple trying not cry as they break up in a restaurant. It’s all right there in the world for the taking. No need to stay close at home.

Since you're not attached to a certain location, does that give you the freedom to move around?
I spent many years living in Germany, raising my first child after a short marriage and speaking very little of the language. My first year there was one of the worst of my life. I had severe morning sickness and was losing weight and began having early contractions at five months, so I spent the majority of my pregnancy on my back in a hospital bed and could not speak a word of German. Everyone I’ve told this story to says, “But, of course the nurses and doctors spoke English…” No. They did not. None of them. The nurses were brought in from various Asian countries to fill a shortage and spoke French instead of English. The doctors, whom I rarely saw, also spoke French, if not Polish or Russian. I was on my own, having to learn German as best I could. I became versed in the German words for fevers, vaginal bleeding, vomiting, and my weight. Other than that I was at a loss until after my son was born and I was released into German society. I’m now fluent, by God, and wear it like a badge.

When did you move back to the US?
The first time I returned to the States was in the early 90s when my son was five years old. Years later, I married an American who ended up taking a marketing job in Germany and we moved back for another three years, and I’d already had another young son. Both of my boys lived in Germany until they were five. It was a very strange coincidence. I spent nearly a decade living over there, and now I return every summer to teach at the Black Forest Writing Seminar in Freiburg, Germany, where I would love to live full-time someday.

What compelled you to write A Small Fortune and its sequel, Fortune’s Deadly Descent, under a pseudonym?
The truth is somewhat embarrassing to admit, but here it goes: I’d never tried my hand at writing a thriller and had no idea if I could pull it off. I decided to use a pen name in case it flopped so that no one would know it was me. It never even occurred to me that if it were a success, no one would know it was me either. Live and learn.

The books you've written under your pseudonym are vastly different from those penned under your birth name. Does your writing process differ depending on which genre you’re focusing on? When you’re writing as Audrey, do you get into a different mental state?
Yes, the process is quite different. When I write as Audrey Braun, I feel a sense of freedom that comes with focusing a bit more on plot, less on the murky nothingness where literary fiction finds writers fumbling around, grasping for something, anything, to help get to the next page. As Audrey, I have this innate sense of not giving a shit about anything. I don’t judge or self-edit nearly as much as when I’m writing as Deborah Reed. It’s quite liberating, and dare I say, fun.

I recently came across another Deborah Reed on Amazon who apparently also writes thrillers. Please tell me that this isn’t your other alter-ego...
Oh, God, no! But isn't it weird? Same name, but she appears to be Australian and her books are similar in title to the ones I write under my pen name. I'm pretty sure she self-publishes. The covers are hilarious as well, they're kind of like 80s glamor shots.

Do you enjoy writing one genre more than another?
Not really. I like both for different reasons. Writing literary fiction is more of an art form and takes a lot more out of me in the process. It's terribly hard work. But the flip side of that is that finishing the work is extremely rewarding. Not to say that writing thrillers isn’t, but carefully constructing a complicated world using an artistry that requires me to go very deep over a period of years to get it right is in a category by itself. Writing thrillers is simply a joy. I write much quicker, and there is nothing quite like allowing my imagination to run off into foreign countries where the stakes are terribly high and the sex is wild and crazy. It’s a riot, albeit a bloodthirsty one.

Things We Set on Fire isn't a thriller, but it does start off with a murder. Was that a difficult choice to make? Did you always know the intentions behind that murder, or did you find them out as you wrote the story?
I used to have a different prologue that began the story instead of that murder, though the murder was always a part of the plot. I shifted things around a lot over the years until I realized that single act affected everything that came after and I chose to put it up front because the reader doesn’t understand it any more than the characters do, and therefore everything unfolds for everyone at the same time.

When discussing As I Lay Dying, Faulkner said, “I set out deliberately to write a tour de force. Before I ever put pen to paper and set down the first word I knew what the last word would be and almost where the last period would fall.” Not to place you in the shadow of a literary giant or anything, but is this how it is for you?
John Irving says the same thing as Faulkner. I don’t write like that. It’s all pretty murky for me from the start. I tend to begin with more of a feel or tone of something than any kind of storyline and I find the story by writing the story. That’s just me. I do a little more plotting when I write thrillers, but even then, things always take turns and the characters do what they want anyway, so who am I to dictate? That may sound trite, but I’m serious.

Well, as a writer myself, that definitely brings me relief. Since we’re on the topic of literary giants, who are some of your favorite writers?
Per Petterson, Kent Haruf, Kate Atkinson, Marilynne Robinson, William Gay, Donna Tartt, Raymond Carver, William Trevor, John Banville—who also writes crime novels under [the name] Benjamin Black—and Kate Walbert.

What is next for you? Are there any new books on the horizon for us to look forward to?
I hope to be done with the new stand-alone Audrey Braun novel sometime next year. It isn’t part of the series I started. I’ll try and get to the third in that trilogy after I finish this one. Either that, or I’ll start a new literary novel that you might hear about in a few years.

Deborah Reed’s latest novel, Things We Set on Fire, can be purchased here.

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