Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Q&A with Holly Brown

Holly Brown joins us today to talk about her new novel, This is Not Over, how to avoid cyber-bullying and her writing process. 

In This is Not Over, a war of sorts erupts between two people, how do you think that social media and internet culture exacerbate the jealousies and misperceptions of real life versus a carefully curated online “life.”

In THIS IS NOT OVER, the women are struggling in their own lives in ways they don’t really want to admit, and they imagine that the other woman has what they lack. So envy is a big part of their feud, and that envy is fueled by what they imagine they know about the other person—which, in truth, is very little. That’s how social media works. It’s a persona, a calculated impression. People are selling an image, and in a lot of cases, when other people buy into that image, they end up feeling worse about their own situation.

Are you an avid social media user? What tips and tricks do you have to avoid things like what happened in your story? How does one fight or deal with a cyber bully? 

I wouldn’t say avid. In the past year, I’ve gotten involved with a few Facebook groups for female writers and readers. I enjoy being part of positive communities. But I don’t spend a ton of time on my Facebook feed.

I think that the way to avoid a situation like in THIS IS NOT OVER is to tend to your own life and relationships. Cultivate self-awareness about what you truly want and need. Know what’s missing, and whether it’s worth pursuing. If you’re angry at your family or your friends or at yourself, admit that and deal with it constructively, rather than finding an outside target, online or in real life. And if social media is exacerbating problems, know when to log out.

In terms of fighting with a cyberbully, it depends on the situation. When possible, it’s better to ignore rather than engage. They’ll generally find a new target who gives them what they’re seeking. Block them. If you feel you need to respond, do it in a way that doesn’t match their tenor but instead calls attention to it: “This feels really hostile to me, and I’d rather not continue the conversation.” I’d avoid using the word “bully” because even if it’s accurate, it’s also name-calling and is likely to inflame the other person further rather than defuse the situation.

Has anything like this ever happened to you?

I’ve never had a situation like in THIS IS NOT OVER, where the escalation continued to a dangerous degree. The initial idea for the novel actually came from a real life situation. I stayed in a vacation rental and then got an email from the host saying that she was keeping part of my deposit because I’d left a “child-sized gray stain” on the sheets. I had a small child at the time, and she knew that, and I thought it was just a crazy way for her to steal my money. So I fired off an offended email, and she fired back an equally offended email. We went a few rounds and then both gave up on ever being understood by the other person. But it left me with the question: “What kind of people, in what type of personal turmoil, would have kept going?” So I created Dawn and Miranda.

And in terms of drawn-out brawls with strangers or cyberbullying, I don’t have much experience with that, fortunately. Occasionally, I write an entry on my blog that strikes a nerve for some people but I control which comments get posted so if I consider someone to be hostile rather than simply voicing their disagreement, I’m able to block them. That keeps the internet dogpile from taking hold.

How did your background as a mental health professional inform the story?

I feel like my background informs every story I write. When I see people for therapy, they’re vulnerable, and even if they’re describing what you might think of as bad behavior, I can see where it stems from. So my job gives me regular practice in empathy and compassion, and that’s something I try to extend to my characters. Dawn and Miranda are in pain, in ways they don’t fully grasp, and they’re projecting onto one another. My mental health background helped me flesh out their internal—and external—conflicts.

What type of research did you do for the novel?

I read a lot of listings on various rental sites. And I have my own experiences with Airbnb, VRBO, etc. (mostly positive, except for that one weird sheet exchange!) Does that count? Mostly, the book grew out of my own imagination rather than specific research, though I did look into some small things (like the ordinance in Santa Monica that prohibits people from short-term rentals that everyone seems to ignore.)

What compelled you to write the book? How long did it take you to write it? 

As I mentioned, I was inspired by my own experience, but compelled by Miranda and Dawn. Once I came up with their characters, I felt like they were just driving the story as they needled each other and tried to get the other to respond in the way they wanted to (i.e. each wanted to be validated by the other person desperately, for their own complicated reasons that are revealed over the course of the novel.) 
I’m a believer in the shitty first draft, and therefore, I can knock that out quickly, in just a few months. But the book went through numerous revisions based on feedback from my agent an editor, so the entire writing process was over a year.

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