02 September 2012

Guest Blog: Debra Brenegan


This week, we’re welcoming historical fiction author Debra Brenegan, whose title SHAME THE DEVIL explores the history of writer Fanny Fern in the early 19th centuryDebra is here to talk about the novel and offer a copy to a lucky winner. Please leave your comment with an email address for a chance to win. Here's the blurb:
Shame the Devil tells the remarkable and true story of Fanny Fern (the pen name of Sara Payson Willis), one of the most successful, influential, and popular writers of the nineteenth century. A novelist, journalist, and feminist, Fern (1811-1872) outsold Harriet Beecher Stowe, won the respect of Nathaniel Hawthorne, and served as literary mentor to Walt Whitman. Scrabbling in the depths of poverty before her meteoric rise to fame and fortune, she was widowed, escaped an abusive second marriage, penned one of the country's first prenuptial agreements, married a man eleven years her junior, and served as a nineteenth-century Oprah to her hundreds of thousands of fans. Her weekly editorials in the pages of the New York Ledger over a period of about twenty years chronicled the myriad controversies of her era and demonstrated her firm belief in the motto, "Speak the truth, and shame the devil." Through the story of Fern and her contemporaries, including Walt Whitman, Catharine Beecher, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Harriet Jacobs, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, Shame the Devil brings the intellectual and social ferment of mid-nineteenth-century America to life.

**Q&A with Debra Brenegan**

Can you tell us a little about yourself and how long you’ve been writing?
I was a journalist for years before starting my first novel.  I soon realized I had no idea what I was doing, so enrolled in a M.A. creative writing program to learn how to go from being a journalist to a novelist.  I loved graduate school so much that I kept going and got my Ph.D.  I did finish that first novel, but it still isn’t published (although I haven’t given up on it).  Besides my many journalistic articles, I’ve published poems, short stories, and now, my novel Shame the Devil

Can you tell us briefly what your book is about?
Shame the Devil tells the remarkable and true story of Fanny Fern (the pen name of Sara Payson Willis), one of the most successful, influential, and popular writers of the nineteenth century. A novelist, journalist, and feminist, Fern (1811-1872) outsold Harriet Beecher Stowe, won the respect of Nathaniel Hawthorne, and served as literary mentor to Walt Whitman. Scrabbling in the depths of poverty before her meteoric rise to fame and fortune, she was widowed, escaped an abusive second marriage, penned one of the country's first prenuptial agreements, married a man eleven years her junior, and served as a nineteenth-century Oprah to her hundreds of thousands of fans. Her weekly editorials in the pages of the New York Ledger over a period of about twenty years chronicled the myriad controversies of her era and demonstrated her firm belief in the motto, "Speak the truth, and shame the devil." Through the story of Fern and her contemporaries, including Walt Whitman, Catharine Beecher, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Harriet Jacobs, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, Shame the Devil brings the intellectual and social ferment of mid-nineteenth-century America to life.

Who is your intended audience?  Have you been able to cross over into other audiences as well?
The cool thing about this book, I think, is that it appeals to a lot of audiences.  The book is historical fiction, certainly, and women’s fiction, but will also appeal to people who like nineteenth-century literature and/or who are interested in early American media and the rise of the celebrity.  Like the film Midnight in Paris, the book is peppered with real American writers like Walt Whitman, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Nathaniel Hawthorne.  It is fun to see how they interacted with one another.  I just visited with an all-male book group who adored the book.  We sat and chatted about it for two hours!

Why did you choose your particular genre?
I wrote this book as my Ph.D. dissertation project.  I had been doing a lot of research about Fanny Fern and was writing a lot of papers about her and her work.  I wanted to combine my interest in American Literature (specifically, Fern), Women’s Studies and creative writing to write a historical novel that would entertain and inform.

Where do you write?  Do you have a favorite place?
I like to write at home, in complete silence, preferably with nobody else around.  If my husband is home and he walks by and sees me writing, he knows to just keep going.  When my kids were home, I’d shut the door to my office when I was writing and they knew not to disturb me unless there was blood.

What kind of research did you have to do during the writing process?
I spent about two years reading everything I could find about Fanny Fern.  I read her original writings and the work that other scholars had written about her.  I visited the Fern archives at Smith College in Massachusetts and spent many days combing through everything there.  I took pages of notes and made many copies.  I also researched the era I was writing about – the mid 1800s – and visited museums, read books and watched films about those times.  I made a few trips to New York City to better envision Fern’s world and even got to go into her former house.  For nit-picky details, I’d search the Internet to try to understand the era’s currency or to see when exactly people could buy ice cream from a Boston street vendor.  I’m sure I’ve got at least a few things wrong and am counting on eagle-eyed readers to let me know all about those errors.  ;) 

Who is your publisher and how did you get accepted by them?  Did you pitch your book yourself or go through an agent?
My publisher is SUNY Press, Excelsior Editions.  I pitched the book myself, at a writer’s convention, directly to the acquisition editor.  He graciously listened to me, more graciously consented to reading the manuscript.  It took a little while, but eventually, he and the rest of his editorial board decided to take on the book.  SUNY has been wonderful to work with from day one.  I’m extremely grateful to have found the perfect publisher for this book.

What’s next for you?
I just finished the draft of another novel, a contemporary fiction work tentatively titled Motherless.  This book is about an edgy college student who tries to hide her pregnancy while interacting with a group of dysfunctional characters in a town far away from her roots.  I hope to find an agent/publisher for this work soon.  I also have a short story collection, Standing Heat:  Stories by Debra Brenegan, currently circulating among publishers.


Thank you, Debra, and best of luck with Shame the Devil.

Learn more about Debra at her:

Author blog
Amazon page    


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