'This Is Not Over,' A Conversation with Holly Brown

01/17/2017 06:48 am ET
Photo: Wm Morrow

Holly Brown is a practicing marriage and family therapist. Her two previous novels are A Necessary End and Don’t Try to Find Me.

This Is Not Over features two women, Dawn Thiebold and Miranda Feldt, who begin an online cat-and-mouse argument after Dawn and her husband spend a weekend at Miranda’s Santa Monica beach house. A disagreement about a security deposit becomes an online feud with the stakes escalating as misperceptions and jealousies take hold.

How did you come upon the idea of two women arguing over a vacation rental?

It was based on a real-life experience. I had stayed in a rental with my family. We had our three year-old-daughter with us. After we’d checked out, I received an email saying my security deposit wouldn’t be returned because we had left a gray stain on the sheets. It was completely preposterous. I fired back saying ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ She shot back and was righteously indignant. We went back-and-forth for about five emails. We were really getting into it to the point where I was almost looking forward to her next email so I could counter her point. We eventually dropped it. She kept part of my deposit, so I retaliated by writing a scathing review on the rental property’s website.

That interaction of mine with a near-stranger got me thinking about what really motivates us to get so embroiled, trying to prove a point. Ego is part of the equation, but there's got to be something more making it so difficult to let go.

Perhaps, it has nothing to do with the dispute at hand, but rather involves some other unrelated issue or person who is actually the cause of the intense anger. That rage then gets projected onto another person in an incendiary way.

I used this dynamic as a jumping off point for the novel.

In This Is Not Over, Miranda and Dawn communicate by email and texting. Talk about the potential risks of this kind of communication.

When you can't hear another's vocal inflections or see someone's facial expression, you lack the visual and auditory cues that help build empathy. Emailing and texting can be dehumanizing, especially when something is in dispute.

In the novel, I used these modes of communication, coupled with Dawn and Miranda obsessively Googling each other, to create a template whereby they projected a great deal of misinformation about each other on top of the matter in dispute. Their fantasies and resentments fueled the fires.

With today's technologies, communication may seem to be easier and more revealing, but can often create distance and misunderstanding between people.

I was impressed by how This Is Not Over kept raising the stakes of tension and suspense. Talk about creating and sustaining tension in a novel.

In the novel, I began each chapter with an email or text that just arrived from the other participant. If it was a Miranda chapter, it began with a communication from Dawn, which would so enrage or upset Miranda that she would respond with an escalating level of emotion.

To ramp up the tension, I put myself in the mindset of each character as each missive was received, and wanted to draft the communications in a way that would send the other person to the next level of anger or worry.

This Is Not Over depicts a petty disagreement based upon misperceptions and assumptions between two people. Is this something you see in your practice as a marriage and family therapist?

I do a great deal of couples therapy. Seemingly petty disagreements between people are often connected to an underlying issue. One couple had an argument where the starting point was something so trivial as the kitchen sponge. Another client came in with what we called the burrito fight. Of course, the real issues weren’t a sponge or burrito. These objects tapped into an underlying emotional current in the relationship. If you drilled down into the sponge or burrito, the real issue was an emotional disconnect, a feeling the other wasn’t on your team or didn’t understand or love you as they should. This can happen to people who are strongly bonded to each other.

In This Is Not Over, Miranda and Dawn end up with a very strange bond between them; but of course, it’s not the same kind of emotional attachment one has with a spouse. It was a version of the sponge or burrito fight, but what appeared to be a petty disagreement was really the presenting issue for deeper concerns with enormous emotional resonance because of their own circumstances and backgrounds.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned about writing fiction?

For me, it’s about having enough of a map for a novel, but not being so wedded to it that I can’t allow the characters to reveal themselves to me as I write. I don’t create detailed outlines, although I have an overall sense of the story and where it will go. I’ve learned to be open to changing the story’s arc. In essence, I’ve learned to allow my characters to surprise me.

What do you read when you’re writing a novel?

I read fiction half the time and non-fiction the other half. I like to read memoirs while I’m writing a novel. I feel it keeps me in touch with real stories. I tend to read things completely unrelated to my own life or that of my characters. I want to stay flexible and receptive to information and inspiration.

What’s coming next from Holly Brown?

I’ve just finished a novel with a large cast of characters. My previous books have an intimate cast, so this is different for me. I enjoyed creating the characters in a neighborhood and working out the dynamics between and among them.

Congratulations on penning This Is Not Over, a novel beautifully depicting how a minor dispute escalates to a boiling point as human frailty and misperceptions take the reader on a nail-bitingly suspenseful journey.

Mark Rubinstein’s latest book is Bedlam’s Door: True Tales of Madness and Hope, a medical/psychiatric memoir.

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