Rebecca Rasmussen grew up in the green and rolling hills of the Midwest. Currently, she lives in Los Angeles, California with her husband and daughter, where she teaches writing at UCLA. She is the author of the novels Evergreen (forthcoming from Knopf in 2014) and The Bird Sisters (Crown, 2011). Rebecca's stories have appeared in or have won prizes from TriQuarterly, The Mid-American Review, Narrative Magazine, Glimmer Train, and elsewhere. She was a keynote speaker at the 2013 Central Coast Writers Conference.
The plot line of your first novel, The Bird Sisters, follows two spinster sisters, Milly and Twiss, and one summer when everything in their (at the time young) lives fell apart. The story was inspired by the journals your Grandmother kept for over 40 years and left for you after she died. How much did the journals shape the story you have written?
For several years after my grandmother passed away, I kept trying to figure out how to create a story that honored her based what she wrote in her journals. There was a lot of unhappiness in her words—to be frank—and a lot of wishing her childhood had been different. Both of her parents passed away within a year of each other when she was a teenager and she was constantly torn between making martyrs out of them and seeing them as real people capable of the very grave mistakes that each of them made. Once I took the pressure off of myself and let Milly and Twiss, my main characters, take their own breaths (mostly by putting away my grandmother’s journals), the story came to me very quickly, and I fell in love with the sisters; Twiss for her adventurous spirit, and Milly for her family-bound one. The two sisters in the novel are different from my grandmother and her sister in that they cling to each other when the going gets rough, whereas my grandmother and sister invested in their new families and children. They invested in moving on. If there is a reckoning in the novel, it’s that while familial love can harm you, it can also save you.
Like The Bird Sisters, your second novel Evergreen also focuses on family relationships, and on those of siblings in particular. What is it about the topic that draws you so much?
I am interested in family relationships in general – the core of most of our lives – and siblings do hold a very special place for me. My older brother and I survived a lot together as kids. We understand each other in a way that no one else does. I treasure my relationship with him. I trust him completely. If he jumps, I jump. This is the lifeblood of fiction i.e. where the heart is.
How would you compare the experience of writing your first book to writing your second one? What was easier? What was harder?
They were both very difficult in different ways. When I wrote the first book, I was in graduate school with only two stories published so far. There was no pressure from agents, editors, the publishing world, readers, etc. yet. I felt really free to let my imagination go wild. The second book was challenging because suddenly I felt like there were people to please (other than me). That did create some pressure. A lot of pressure, actually. I had to find a way to shake it off, to stop judging myself so severely. Editing myself before I had a real chance to begin. My second book caused me a lot of frustration and sadness and doubt along the way. But it was also a project that made me very happy. And proud. Does that make sense? I think we experience a wide range of emotions when we are creating art. I am suspicious of people who think writing should only be fun. It seems limiting to me. Some days I am a mess when I am writing. I am stuck. I am depressed. I am easily irritated. Other days, I am flying, floating, free. It is all worth it, though, for that one paragraph. That one sentence. That one little word that chugs all the way up the hill and hauls everything else up with it.
Beauty—that is what I am after. In all its forms.
You grew up in the Mid-West. You say that you look to the land for inspiration, and the land drives your characters to be who they are and how they live and react. Now you live in Los Angeles, which I imagine is dramatically different. How does that influence your writing?
Yes, Los Angeles is dramatically different! I have been working on some short stories set here and I have to say I have absolutely love writing about things like lemon trees and succulents and the fine sea air. I do believe Los Angeles will make it into one of my future novels—it’s a complicated place and that interests me very much. Place, for me (and everyone, I suspect), is more than just a backdrop. It influences every aspect of who we are, how we choose to live, and whom we choose to live with.
Can you tell us what are you currently working on?
I am at work on my third novel, which I am really excited about. This one is centered on a father and daughter. An accident. A death. Cross your fingers for me!
You teach writing at UCLA. What is the favorite piece of advice you give to your students?
Don’t give up. Even if you have a drawer full of rejections. Keep writing. Keep learning. Keep figuring out ways to make language work for you. Love your ideas. Nurture them. Nurture you. This is your life. This is your dream. Don’t let it go.
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