Friday, April 2, 2021

Brenda Sparks Prescott Interview - Home Front Lines

Photo Credit: Justine Martin

Brenda Sparks Prescott has spent over three decades fulfilling two childhood visions: to write stories and to be part of academic life through non-faculty roles at colleges and universities. Brenda worked at several major institutions—Harvard University, Wellesley College, and Boston College among others—first in information technology, then in fundraising. On those campuses, she became known as someone who gets things done through learning how things function and mastering the art of influencing without authority. She is a graduate of both Harvard University and the Stonecoast MFA in creative writing program. While she pursued the academic life, her family has a long history of military service, with records stretching back to the Civil War.

Brenda is the author of the novel Home Front Lines (March 2021). Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in publications such as The Louisville Review, Crab Orchard Review, Portland Magazine, and the anthology Soap Opera Confidential. She is co-chief editor of Solstice Literary Magazine, an advisory board member for the Solstice MFA in creative writing program, and a founding member of Simply Not Done, a women’s writing collaborative. She practices life and Tai Chi in eastern Massachusetts and southern Vermont.

Her favorite question is, “What if?”

Where were you born and where do you call home?
I’m a native daughter of Texas by virtue of being born in El Paso. I have spent most of my adult life in the Boston metro area.

Tell us your most rewarding experience since being published.
The most rewarding experience I can think of was the first time I had a piece of fiction accepted for publication years ago. Colin Sargent of Maine’s Portland Magazine accepted a very short piece and paid me for it—a rarity in the fiction world, and certainly for an unknown author. They also commissioned an artist to paint an illustration for the story. He offered two choices to the magazine, and they wound up publishing both. I was so elated to think that another artist had been in conversation with my work that I bought both paintings.

What inspired you to pen your first novel?
Since HOME FRONT LINES is my first published novel, I’ve answered that question below.

Can you tell us when you started HOME FRONT LINES, how that came about?
During the uncertain days after 9/11, I was paying close attention to our reactions and how we were defining our roles as ordinary citizens during these dangerous times. A colleague of mine, a military (retired) spouse, compared the actions of President Bush immediately after the event with that of President Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis. That started me thinking about the possibility of examining these issues in a story set during a crisis for which we know the outcome. At the same time, I wanted to explore how the universal impulse to protect one’s children plays out differently for women living under differing circumstances.

What do you hope for readers to be thinking when they read your novel?
I hope readers feel as though they have met real people and care about what happens to them. I also hope readers reflect on how the different storylines resonate against one another.

What part of your characters did you enjoy writing the most?
I really enjoyed creating the family dynamics of the Cuban sisters and how they (s)mothered their little brother. They were characters who definitely took on a life of their own. Chita, the middle sister, was especially assertive in seeking attention and telling me, and thus the reader, how things really were.

If you could introduce one of your characters to any character from another book, who would it be and why?
I would introduce Betty Ann Johnson, the vivacious Maryland Air Force spouse, to Bridget Jones. Betty Ann would love London, and she could teach Bridget a thing or two about snagging a man.

What was the single worst distraction that kept you from writing this book?

  • 1. “Betty Ann had rules. Never worry until you know what to worry about. That was a hard one to keep, with the wall in Berlin, Castro in Cuba, missiles in Turkey, and rockets in space.”
  • 2. “Like so many of our compatriots, our family had discussed the possibility of escape across the water. Now Captain B.’s threat of harm may have closed off less drastic options. Whatever we decided, we would act together.”
  • 3. “Lonnie’s mother was the one who taught him not to worry until he had something to worry about. Now he had something to worry about. Someone, that is.”
  • 4. “Routine could kill a girl.”
  • 5. “Point an experienced wife toward the center of base, and she would find the commissary, the PX, the hospital, and the parade grounds on her own, if necessary. Not that she would be on her own. A base veteran would take the newbie under her wing, tell her about the liverwurst there or the fresh crabs here, which beauty shop to patronize, and who always brings the potato salad (not you) to the potluck picnics and cookouts.”
  • 6. “A man had to be confident to stay married to a woman like Betty Ann. To let her out of his sight.”
  • 7. “Ray remembered the first time he saw her and how much he knew about her from the set of her shoulders. He realized he knew this moment would be in the future, and maybe not even just once. That was the time to make a decision to walk away, not now.”
  • 8. “In only a short time, unthinkable by the hopeful supporters of Batista’s overthrow three years before, sons had betrayed fathers and husbands had stolen away with their children without a word to their wives.”
  • 9. “Our children understood the importance of silence. I heard a faint clanking from the boat but no chatter from the living cargo already on board. They were good children.”
  • 10. “‘A Montero girl does what she must.’”
  • 1. When readers first meet Chita, her sons are supposed to be practicing for a chess tournament at the Capablanca Club in Havana. This fictional club is named for José Raúl Capablanca y Graupera, the renowned Cuban chess world champion of the 1920’s. I cheered whenever he was mentioned in The Queen’s Gamebit.
  • 2. While I distinctly describe the floor of Betty Ann’s dress studio as being covered by a gray Berber carpet, several early readers remembered the flooring specifically as being black-and-white checkered tile.
  • 3. In earlier drafts of the book, Ray was married to Lucy, not Betty Ann.
  • 4. “A Message *to* García” was a popular phrase in the U.S. for many years. It’s meant to show fortitude in getting a job done and was the name of a late 19th-century essay that mythologized the exploits of an American soldier sent by the US president to find the Cuban general Calixto García in the eastern provinces. I name my chapters “A Message *from* García, suggesting that it was actually the Cuban general that showed real fortitude and perseverance, which eventually resulted in Cuba’s independence from Spain.
  • 5. Ray, Betty Ann’s husband, is a die-hard New York Yankees fan who gets a chance to attend a World Series game between the Yankees and the San Francisco Giants in their first trip to the championship since moving from New York. The 1962 series was a record 13 days, with games being postponed by the remnants of Typhoon Freda.
  • 6. The USS Princeton, the ship on which Betty Ann’s son meets Mrs. Fuji, was historically a part of the American forces that helped to conduct open air atomic bomb testing in the Pacific at the same time as the Cuban Missile Crisis was unfolding. Many of those ships were contaminated by radiation, which had health consequences for both military personnel and civilians who cleaned the ships once they were back in San Diego. The Princeton was later the lead ship assigned to recover the astronauts of Apollo 10, the last mission before the historic landing on the moon.
  • 7. The journalist David Wick is named after a colleague who once asked me to name a character after him. Here he is, David!
  • 8. The Japanese characters from Hiroshima insisted on being a part of the conversation about the threat of nuclear weapons being used on civilians.
  • 9. Matanzas, where the Montero sisters lived, is the point in Cuba closest to US soil.
  • 10. Wasn’t it Chekhov who said something about having a loaded gun show up in a story? 
What is something you think everyone should do at least once in their lives?
Take a shower outdoors.

Best date you've ever had?
My husband and I did a walkabout of our city, Cambridge, Massachusetts over about six or seven hours, years ago during the short interlude between the end of summer school and the beginning of the fall semester. The streets were blissfully quiet and the local establishments were largely left to the locals. It was one of those rare times when you don’t really plan anything but everything falls into place for an unforgettable time. Our first stop was at a used bookstore that specialized in zines, the next was at a hipster bar that was quiet enough for its townie dive bar’s roots to shimmer through. We were about to move on when the bartender put Willie Nelson (my husband’s favorite) on the record player.

Hours later, we fell through the looking glass at the Plough and Stars. The bar had recently gone through a major renovation, which included a new floor that raised the stools in relation to the existing bar. “I feel taller,” one regular whispered as he sat at the bar. Next a complete stranger sat down and admired my husband’s homemade necklace, a section of a bicycle chain ring with beads on a leather string. Then the stranger pulled out his own necklace from underneath his t-shirt. It was almost identical to my husband’s. I decided it was time to go home before the portal back to the normal world closed.

If you could go back in time to one point in your life, where would you go?
I would go back to the time when I was about five years old and got to wear my yellow dress with a petticoat underneath and patent leather shoes to see a movie at the posh (to me) Pershing Theater. I always thought of that dress as my Cinderella dress because of the jump rope rhyme, “Cinderella/ dressed in yella/ went upstairs to kiss a fella. . .”

First Heartbreak?
That Kenny Muir didn’t know that I was alive. Not surprising, since he was three grades ahead of me, but still.

Have you ever stood up for someone you hardly knew?
I seem to do that with some regularity, not as a crusader but because my mouth just speaks up on its own. One evening, while we were in New Orleans for the Jazz Festival, we had called for a taxi and were waiting outside at the curb. Two young women came stumbling along, obviously having had a little too much fun at the Fest. One was half carrying the other. We watched as a man in a regular car tried to convince them he was a taxi driver. Luckily, they didn’t get into his car, but I knew that a cabbie would likely pass them by because they were so obviously drunk. When our taxi arrived, I opened the back door and called the two women over, telling them to take it and telling the driver to take them where they needed to go. The one having trouble walking roused enough to look at me and say “Bless you.” She kissed me on the cheek and fell into the cab.

If you had to go back in time and change one thing, if you HAD to, even if you had “no regrets” what would it be?
If I HAD to change one thing, it would be to stay on the West Coast and go to Stanford for college.

Home Front Lines imagines the agency of women of color, acting under the social constraints of 1962, who aim to protect their children during the Cuban Missile Crisis. They are two sets of mothers who are sitting targets during that tense time: African American military wives on an Air Force base outside of Washington, D.C. and Cuban sisters living in Matanzas, Cuba, 90 miles from the Florida Keys.

The American mothers make evacuation plans for their children, while the Cuban mothers plan to send their children away in a boat headed across the Florida straits. Neither set informs their husbands of their intended actions. Life goes on, and the African American women deal with the complications brought on by one character’s past indiscretion with a white officer, while the Cuban sisters send off their children and search for their “disappeared” brother. Their husbands have their own secrets as well.

You can purchase Home Front Lines at the following Retailers:

And now, The Giveaways.
Thank you BRENDA SPARKS PRESCOTT for making this giveaway possible.
1 Winner will receive a Copy of Home Front Lines by Brenda Sparks Prescott.

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