The Last First Day
by Carrie Brown
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The Last First Day: The Challenges of Writing About An Extraordinary, Ordinary Life
By Ellen Birkett Morris
In The Last First Day, Carrie Brown examines what at first glance seems like an ordinary love story between an aged couple, Ruth and Peter. By the book’s end, the reader discovers it is a complex love story, fraught with pain and beauty.
The book is told in two parts, The Last Day, during which Ruth and Peter experience their final first day of school where Peter is headmaster, and The First Day, which delves more deeply into Ruth’s personal history and the challenges the couple faced.
| “We think we know them and then we learn something else about them that changes who we thought they were. . .”
“Ruth and Peter are like anyone we come to know. We think we know them and then we learn something else about them that changes who we thought they were,” said Brown.
Brown said the title was fitting because “. . . it folds in on itself and includes the beginning of Ruth and Peter’s lives and also the end. The past is always with Ruth, and I think the title conveys that.”
The story began for Brown with imagining a particularly dramatic event in Ruth’s young life — to describe it in any detail would give away one of the important moments of discovery in the novel — but it is one that changes Ruth’s life in an instant and profoundly shapes her future. The rest of the book developed from an exploration of how this moment stays with and shapes Ruth.
|“I am drawn by the drama of the quotidian.”
|“I am drawn by the drama of the quotidian. Raymond Carver said there are ordinary moments in everyone’s day and that is what you should write about,” said Brown.
She sought to have the reader peel back the layers of Ruth’s character, preserving the drama of daily life, and gradually growing in amazement at what Ruth lived through. The reader is left with what Brown described as “the sense of loss that sometimes present even in the midst of great happiness.”
Her greatest challenge in writing the book was negotiating the book’s complicated time structure. “I was not interested in telling it chronologically,” said Brown. “I was drawn to Ruth’s later years. I worked hard to control movements in time to capture that seamless sense of time, that feeling that the past is always with us.”
In an early draft she had placed an explosive scene first. Brown quickly decided to start in Ruth’s later years and placed that scene in the second half of the book. “The pacing of the book is slow and deliberate, but there is an odd suspense because you can feel there is a whole life behind Ruth,” noted Brown.
She credits her editor Deborah Garrison with helping her work carefully in particular scenes to suggest the drama to come, but meanwhile not give away any of Ruth’s secrets too soon. So readers get a look at a lifetime bit by bit.
Brown’s advice to new writers taking on daunting projects is to “be prepared for months and years of great silence.”
“You need to cultivate the habit of being workmanlike as a writer.”
“You need to cultivate the habit of being workmanlike as a writer. While you are writing, try to forget the world and allow yourself to live with the pleasures and problems of the work,” said Brown, who relished structuring her story for maximum impact.
She had the advantage of working as a newspaper reporter earlier in her career, which “trained me to sit down and write for hours.” She also learned to work on deadline and how to gather and synthesize information.
Now she teaches. Brown is distinguished visiting professor of creative writing at Hollins University, and a believer in the power of creative writing workshops.
“Everyone in a workshop learns something. Experienced writers get a deeper sense of language. Beginning writers learn that the first thing they write won’t be the last and not to be afraid of rewriting.”
She encourages writers to go inward and nurture their stories.
“There is great pleasure to be had in the making of something from your own mind, if you can get rid of the anxiety that comes with writing. I encourage writers to recover that enjoyment. The world is hell-bent on distracting us from our own minds. Look for ways to turn the world off and see what your imagination will provide.”
Brown’s next book, her eighth, will be an historical novel. She is currently immersed in research.
|About the Author||
Carrie Brown is the author of six novels and a collection of short stories. Awards she has received include a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, the Barnes and Noble Discover Award, the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize, and, twice, the Library of Virginia Literary Award.
|About Regular Contributor
Ellen Birkett Morris
|Ellen Birkett Morris is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in national print and online publications including The New York Times. She also writes for a number of literary, regional, trade, and business publications, and she has contributed to six published nonfiction books in the trade press. Ellen is a regular contributor to Authorlink, assigned to interview various New York Times bestselling authors and first-time novelists.|