Con(verse) Interview with C. L. Brenton:
Talking motherhood and loss with assistant managing editor Lauren Furman
Revised on 3/1/2023
An MFA graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts, C. L. Brenton’s work bears witness to motherhood. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Colorado Review, Witness magazine, and A3 Review. She is fond of cats, chocolate chips in just about anything, and mothering her two young sons in Carmel, California. Recently, Lauren Furman caught up with the author to discuss her most recent story, “Mothers of Daughters, and Their Mothers Too,” published in the Fall/Winter 2022 issue of Colorado Review.
Lauren Furman: “Mothers of Daughters, and Their Mothers Too” is such a beautiful, poignant story, and I’m so excited that we get to talk about it! Can you tell me a bit about how you developed the idea for this piece and what your writing process looks like?
C. L. Brenton: With all my stories, my process starts with a series of what-if questions. For this story I was really interested in the challenges presented by infertility. I had a few friend who were going through infertility at the time, and I was really curious about it. I was also eight months pregnant with my second child. And I was starting to think: What if he’s bad, what if he’s born bad? Because some kids are born bad, and they ruin life for everybody, and that’s so interesting and challenging. What would that be like for my older son? All of our siblings challenge us, but what would it be like if you had a childhood with a sibling that challenged and hurt you in irreparable ways, and now you want to have a child of your own and bring a new life into the world? Maybe we have children as a kind of redemption of our childhood, to remake it and remake ourselves.
I also read this wonderful story by Lauren Groff called “The Wind” in the New Yorker. It begins with characters who are initially just called “mother” and “daughter,” and I wondered what it would feel like to write a story like that. I started writing with all those things in mind, and then I got curious about the characters and what they wanted and how they were going to get it. I think for me it’s so important to let the writing teach you, to let a story start out as curiosity then write, get curious, and then, okay, wonder how to develop things further. I start with that poetry, that initial fire, and mold that to make an actual story.
LF: I love that, there’s something so interesting about how characters become round when they have both dreams and dreads, and especially the complexity that arises when those are in the same place, like with this story, how having a child is both the dream and the dread of the protagonist.
CLB: Yeah, I think the truth is always complex. The truth can be all kinds of things. You can want a child and be terrified of being pregnant and of childbirth and of becoming a parent—you can hold those equally. I think that’s true of all things; you can love your child but be challenged by them or love both children even though one child is hurting the other. I think that the challenge of being a human and being a parent is learning how to hold all these truths. That’s where complexity comes from. Art comes from telling the truth about a situation that is complex and doesn’t have an easy answer.
In some ways taking away some choices helps to make the story better. Because then it’s not really about me; it’s about what this story needs and deserves. I think that makes you so much more open to the possibilities, rather than being like, you’re asking me to completely rewrite this, which is what happened in my last workshop. They are the ones who ask you valuable questions before you go any further, like saying, I don’t think the son should be there or name the people, and you have to investigate that and make that decision for yourself because only you know what the story really has to be.
LF: As the title implies, this story hinges mainly on the mother-daughter dynamic. It’s so powerful to see the protagonist reflect on her relationship with her mother as she tries to conceive a daughter of her own. Their relationship is rendered so intimately, yet in many ways, they misunderstand each other. What drew you to the topic of motherhood and how did you go about rendering this kind of complex, contradictory relationship?
CLB: As a parent I have a five-year-old and a two-year-old, and I think a lot about motherhood. I think about how our mothers—and I think this is universally true, but I don’t know—our mothers are the only people who truly understand us, and our mothers also don’t get us at all. Right? You can go to your mom for anything; they see you as a whole person, and yet they never quite get you. I find that’s true as a parent raising my own children—you know—they’re still alone in this world and in their bodies and that’s all they get, and they’ve got to figure out how to be their own person. That’s a challenge because, as a mother, I have to let go.
How do we render that relationship? Again, I think it comes back to telling the truth. I was thinking a lot, during the story and during this time, about motherhood in conflict with feminism. Feminism tells us we can do everything, but there’s still a huge burden on women. We still have to carry babies and birth them. I did that twice and that’s a huge thing to hold. It’s not fair and it’s not equal. In some ways, in the story, Jack being able to walk away is a privilege, and the daughter’s still holding this burden of having a child and all the sacrifices that entails. So it comes back to that complexity of wanting to be a mom and knowing it’s so challenging and unfair to have to hold that all the time.
LF: The story begins by grounding the reader in a view of the ocean, which the protagonist describes as “a mouth, a mother, a womb for the living, a tomb made up of the dead.” Throughout the piece, the ocean continues to hold a prominent role, becoming a symbol of loss and a place where the characters go to seek relief from their grief, such as when the mother and daughter go to collect treasures in the wake of the brother’s death. Can you speak a little bit about why you chose the ocean as this setting and symbol in the story, and how you see it relating to these threads of motherhood and loss?
CLB: I’ve noticed the ocean appears a lot in my work. I live a mile from the ocean, so that’s part of it. But I remember reading something once about how the ocean is a tomb, everything that lives in the ocean dies in the ocean. And fish, as far as I know, are the only creatures that lay their eggs out in the open and then they’re fertilized out in the open, and the ocean cares for them like a womb. And the womb is also like the ocean, and both are researched.
The ocean is constantly changing. As laymen we don’t really understand that it’s full of life and death. Same with the womb. Every month you’re bleeding out a potential life. When you’re infertile there’s a whole other complex relationship with death. The protagonist talks in the story about how ever month when she got her period it felt like a death. I really felt that just trying to have my own children, and that’s where the inspiration came from. The ocean is our ultimate mother, you know? She’s unstable, but we go to her for solace anyway. Both ocean and womb are mystical, magical places, both deeply researched yet so much is unknown. It seemed like a perfect setting for a story about pregnancy and infertility.
LF: Another notable aspect of the story is that most of the characters are unnamed, and are instead referred to by their role in the family: “the mother,” “the daughter,” “the son.” Why did you choose to use this namelessness, this identity through relationality for this story? How did it impact your development of the characters? And why does Jack get a name?
CLB: I started with that idea from Lauren Groff’s piece and wanted the challenge of creating a story that would earn that namelessness. I also wanted to write a story that took place in just one room and in a very short amount of time. I was also interested in how we name one another and how a mother isn’t named “mom” until she makes and names a child. That interrelationality, that’s with you forever; you’re always a daughter and you’re always a mom. No matter what happens to that person, you’re always stuck with them. Jack is outside of that very tight circle that’s complex and contradictory, and he can leave. He’s his own. I think that mothers define their children and children define their mothers. They all help each other grow. That can happen in a marriage, but it doesn’t have to. As much as your lives are intertwined as husband and wife, you can untangle it. In a family, you can’t.
LF: On the note of families, I’m also so intrigued by the role of the brother as a complicated figure in that unbreakable family tie—the way he is both a perpetrator of violence and a source of grief. Can you tell me why you chose to include him in the story and how you developed the family dynamic between the three of them, especially finding the balance between the love he receives and the pain he causes?
CLB: I thought about this a lot, and I have a couple things to say. To your first question, I think everyone in our lives is a source of grief, and yet we rely on them anyway. I think you’ll never get away from that. The people closest to you always hurt you the most—physically in the case of the brother—but I think everyone is a source of grief and a source of love. The other thing about the brother that was interesting is that I really needed him to be in the story, but my first readers did not see why. I’m in a workshop with one of my MFA professors, Connie May Fowler, and she said “just try a draft without him and just see,” so I did and it wasn’t good. I realized that we needed the brother to make the daughter’s desire more dire. She needs to have a child to redeem him and to redeem herself and to redeem her own mother. If he’s not there, then she’s just some lady who selfishly wants a kid, and it doesn’t work. So then I had to do the work to make sure the brother earned his keep in the story.
That was something that I learned writing this story: how important it is to just be comfortable with experimentation and try things. It doesn’t mean deleting things. You can always say, that’s not good, let’s go back. You just keep writing, and you figure out what fits. In in the first draft you’re teaching yourself what the story is. You get curious about the characters, the setting, and ask, why is this? Why does the brother have to be in this story? Why am I not naming anyone? Why do they not want to be named? Your first readers can draw your attention to these questions but rarely can they answer them.
LF: The story has its own intuition, and someone can give you advice, but if you know the story needs something else, you can feel that and dig into it. And I think it’s so interesting that the brother is a lynchpin in that way, and that was something that required exploration to learn.
CLB: Yes, when this story was accepted at Colorado Review, it was actually accepted with revision. The editor wanted to change the ending. I hadn’t worked on it for six months, so I read it again and I was like: Okay, you’re right. Now what do I do? I did a lot of writing. Now there’s this page in my notebook that I sometimes come across with fifteen lines that could be the story’s last line. I just kept writing them and had to figure out which ones were the best for this story.
I think you have to be open to what other people are seeing because ultimately they’re your customer. From a marketing standpoint you have to think about the journey your reader goes on and consider where it is you’re taking them and what gift you’re giving them. What do they get out of it? My job is to sell a story and make people want it. You give me your time; what do I give back to you? You’re never going to please everyone, so you have to find your voice and be comfortable with your specific audience. Just think about them when you’re writing, because like any other product, you’re not going to be everyone’s cup of tea and that’s okay.
LF: Finally, what projects are you working on currently?
CLB: I have a collection of short stories called Mama. Two of them have been published. One has been sent out, and the others are in various stages of revision. I’m hoping for about eight stories. I also have a novel that I started in my MFA program, which I’m hoping to finish this year.
Read more from C. L. Brenton at her website. This interview has been edited for clarity and concision.
Lauren Furman is the assistant managing editor of Colorado Review and a second-year MFA candidate in fiction at Colorado State University.