Elena Bowes caught up with bestselling American author Adrienne Brodeur about her latest novel, Little Monsters. Praised by the Washington Post, ‘Juicy, simmers with tension’ and The New York Times Book Review, ‘So alluring.. I raced happily through the pages’, this family saga with echoes of Succession is a gripping page-turner set in Cape Cod about complicated families and long-buried secrets.
To kick off, what was your path to becoming a writer?
My path to becoming a writer was a crooked one. I started my professional life in politics and public policy until I realized my heart lay elsewhere, namely in the literary world. Armed with that knowledge – and some lucky breaks – I launched Zoetrope: All-Story, a fiction magazine I co-founded with Francis Ford Coppola, and later became a book editor at Houghton Mifflin. Although I dabbled in writing throughout my career, it wasn’t until I moved into nonprofit work — I’m the executive director of the literary nonprofit Aspen Words (a program of the Aspen Institute) that I found the time and creative space to write seriously.
Your three main characters – Adam Gardner and his two adult children Ken and Abby are so well-drawn. Can you tell us about each of them? And their connection to Cain & Abel.
Adam and his adult children, Ken and Abby, all have something major at stake at the onset of the book: Adam is on the brink of making a scientific breakthrough about whale communication that will ensure his legacy; Ken has sealed a real estate deal that has catapulted him into a new stratosphere of wealth, enabling him to run for Congress; and Abby has finally found her voice as an artist and is about to be discovered in a big way. Everything seems like it is going well for the Gardners but, of course, everything is not as it seems and long-buried secrets are surfacing.
How do you develop characters in your head – do you brainstorm various scenarios before you start the novel? What’s your process?
I find there is only so much character development I can do in my head. At first, I know some basic facts, maybe where they live or what they do, along with some broad personality traits – smart, insecure, funny, apathetic, etc. But until I start writing, my characters are the equivalent of stick figure drawings – circle heads on top of straight-line bodies. I have to put them into scenes and have them interact with other characters for them to reveal themselves to me. Usually, it takes me a full draft before I know my characters well. This used to terrify me, but with three books behind me, I’ve learned to trust the process.
Each of your chapters are from different character’s perspectives. It’s a great way to see how misunderstood people can be, or rather how people can see the same thing differently… Did you know from the start that you would use that technique?
I did know that I would be telling this story from all of the main characters’ perspectives. My goal with Little Monsters was to take an intimate look inside a family and to do that well, I wanted to understand each person’s unique perspective. Hence, the kaleidoscopic points of view.
When the journalist first sees Abby’s highly personal painting she says, “there’s turmoil, but also hope.” Is that the impression you were wishing your book would leave with readers?
One unexpected part of publishing a book is learning how differently readers interpret the same material. No two people have ever read the same book, or so the saying goes. In truth, I don’t think about the reader as I’m writing – I’m focused only on my characters and their journeys. That said, I’m always fascinated – and often surprised – to hear about their impressions.
Let’s discuss Ken’s wife Jenny. She practices the ancient Japanese art of kintsugi, namely repairing broken ceramics with gold lacquer to make them even more beautiful. How does the art of kintsugi tie in with the theme of broken families?
I think embracing what is broken is what enables us to heal.
Can you tell us about how AI plagiarized parts of Little Monsters?
I don’t think most of us understand exactly how our books are being used to educate and train ChatGPT. I think the issue is less about plagiarism and more about copyright infringement in as much as these companies are not paying authors or asking permission to use their material in this way.
Good question. I think so. I hope so. Development is a long process with lots of setbacks and leaps forward. When I last heard, Nick Hornby had written a script and the writer/director Deniz Gamze Erguven was revising. Stay tuned!
Which books are you excited to read next?
Currently, I’m reading the longlist for the Aspen Words Literary Prize (AWLP), which I do every year at this time. The AWLP is a prize for a work of fiction that shines a spotlight on a vital contemporary issue, demonstrating the transformative power of storytelling. You can find the longlist here.