The other night my husband and I went out with some family and friends for dinner at a local restaurant here in San Francisco’s North Beach Neighborhood. It’s a familiar restaurant for us and we all know the owners. The place was packed and loud, but the owners found us a table relatively quickly and the wine and tapas soon arrived, and the night came alive around that warm familiar feeling you get from good food and great conversation.
All of us are passionate readers, and so it wasn’t long before the discussion rolled around to the topic of books – specifically that question of what are the five most important books to each of us. There were the books you would expect – the Melvilles, the Dickens, the Tolstoys. In fact, my brother went on a rant about how all of the most important books are by Russian authors. One friend talked about her love of South American literature. When my turn came around, I chatted away about a few of my favorites like Mary Renault’s The Charioteer or Summerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge. But as I found myself focusing on the characteristics that made each one of those books important to me, I started thinking about how that should factor into my own writing.
I guess, at the center of it, I gauge how important a book is to me based on how much it caused me to re-examine my world. The conversation that night made me reflect on my own writing and how I had chosen the themes that were most important for me to write about.
The answers to that question is different for every author. When I started writing my first book, Brothers (out this month from Bold Strokes), I wanted to make a single point about the importance of family – specifically siblings. I wanted to ask my reader to think about the relationships they had with their own brothers and sisters. Yes, there is a love story at the center of the book, but it is through the help, nurture, and support of siblings that that the romantic components of the story are successful.
Writing Brothers was not too much of a stretch for me. It is fiction – there isn’t a single character that is based on a specific person in my life. But the abundance of love and the bits of conflict in the book come from the fabric of my world growing up in an Irish-American family. My mother always told my brother and me that there is nothing more important in your life – nor will there ever be anything more important – than your brother (and your spouse – but we were little boys when she said this and spouses weren’t on the horizon at that point). Your job is to look after each other. Well, there were only two of us, and that made it relatively easy – she was the oldest girl of eight brothers and two sisters (now that’s a lot of responsibility).
The novel is set in a part of Boston that I lived in only briefly – South Boston. But my mother’s family had originally lived there when they first came to Massachusetts. The ten years I lived in Boston was spent mostly in the South End – which turned out to be another key setting in the book. As I wrote Brothers, I spent a lot of time reliving my experiences in that city, and it always brought a smile to my face. It’s such a great city with a rich history and a beautiful soul. But my focus always came back to family, the struggles that two sets of brothers face as they tackle the world around them.
Writing Brothers was one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. Does the book succeed in making a point about siblings? I hope so, but I’m not the one who gets to answer that question. Did I say everything I wanted to say in the book? Yes. I think it’s safe to say that I did.