B’nai Shalom, Diablo Valley Hadassah and
Contra Costa Jewish Book & Arts Festival
for including this author and
Brenda Corrigan Went Downtown
in “Story Tellers: Writers On Writing”
Thursday, November 6, 10 am
How do writers conceive their stories and bring them to life?
Join local authors to learn how their recent novels
evolved from concept to print.
Donna Kaulkin (Brenda Corrigan Went Downtown)
Debbie Cohen (Keeper of the Scale)
Leslie Rupley (Beyond the Silk Mills)
Thursday, November 6, 10 a.m.
Congregation B’nai Shalom
74 Eckley Lane, Walnut Creek, CA 94596
“Story Tellers: Writers On Writing” is sponsored by
B’nai Shalom and Diablo Valley Hadassah
for UNDER ONE TENT
Contra Costa Jewish Book & Arts Festival 2014-2015
Locally, Bookshop Benicia held an event on Sunday, October 13. Thanks to proprietor Christine Mayall, and to Kristine Mietzner who organized everything and invited her writing workshop to join us. Sunday in Benicia by the water — heaven!
Also in October, I had the great pleasure of visiting the Lafayette Seniors’ Book Club, at Lafayette Recreation Hall. Thank you to fellow writer Barbara Baratta, who invited me, and the lovely women who engaged me in a stimulating two-hour discussion about our girl Brenda and her friends and family.
“If a child hears fine music from the day of his birth and learns to play it himself, he develops sensitivity, discipline and endurance. He gets a beautiful heart.” — Violinist Laurie Carlson, who teaches violin to young students using the Suzuki way.
I’ll read a chapter or two of Brenda at International Night on Saturday, November 16, 6 – 11pm at The Keys.
HOT OFF THE PRESS: A reading planned for May 6 at the American News Women’s Club in Washington, DC, has been postponed. I was president of ANWC, 1999-2000, so I look forward to seeing old friends and colleagues.
Many readers write to ask for book group discussion questions. Here are a few suggestions. I’d love to hear what your book group discovered in the text.
We are alone – the sole captains of our own ship
“People’s lives, their innermost feelings and motivations are largely unknown to others—even to their own families. Indeed, one’s innermost emotions are often inscrutable even to oneself, with answers buried in the unspoken histories and struggles of one’s dead parents. We are not necessarily lonely, but we are alone—the sole captains of our own ship. This existential fact is pitted against the role of random, accidental, and often cruel events which affect the voyage. Brenda Corrigan’s story illuminates the universal search of the individual to understand oneself and one’s relationship with others—especially one’s family. The novel poignantly describes the efforts of loving friends and family to affect the outcome of adverse events, but without success. In the end, only Brenda herself controls the outcome, along with the unrelenting hand of time and chance.” — Barbara Robeson
God graciously granted Brenda the desire of her heart
“Brenda fought a good fight, a long and tiring one and she fought it with the help, strength and support of her family and close friends. As a woman who believes in the power and presence of Jesus Christ in my life, I pray that if I were faced with the challenges, pain and discomfort that Brenda faced, that I would not only have the help and strength she had from her family and friends, but that ultimately my determination to live and continue the fight would come not from within me but from Him. On my own strength and might, I am unable to do this as I am human and have limitations. I am unable to save myself, or anyone else for that matter, from all that life sends my way. But with Christ, I have hope—not in my body that is temporary, not in my circumstances that are forever changing, but in Christ. I have hope that He is with me in the midst of my pain and my suffering, and I have hope that goes beyond this life, which is fleeting. It appeared that Brenda didn’t have that hope. She was tired and weary and wanted to be “done.” . . . Brenda didn’t choose to end her life by taking it. She ended it by giving up. I believe that God is the creator and sustainer of our lives, and that it is He who determines when we are born and when we will die. So I don’t know that Brenda could have given up her own life without God being the one who graciously granted her the desire of her heart.” — Lisa Vande Wege, Director of Women’s Ministries, Walnut Creek Presbyterian Church
I have always refused to consider [this disease] a major part of my identity
“Oh, does the aroma of freshly-brewed coffee smell good in the morning, even if I cough and sneeze sometimes while drinking it. But the coughing and sneezing are a small price to pay for having what, for me, is the perfect welcome to a new day. And I surely did miss my morning brew during those endless months of recuperation following two surgeries and radiation therapy resulting in a loss of my ability to swallow that beloved morning “fix.” I consider myself an optimist . . . Although this disease is a definite part of my physical being, I have always refused to consider it a major part of my identity. It is not the core part of my psyche. That’s not to say that I am unrealistic. I just prefer to compartmentalize that aspect of my life and put that bundle of worries somewhere “over there” while I live as best I can. Of course, sporadic moments remind me each day of my post-surgical deficits and that this disease and I are inextricably intertwined.”
I said I would stop living passively
“I was diagnosed in December 1982, two months after my 40th birthday. I had a mastectomy (right) in early January 1983. Later that month with my women’s support group we were discussing what changes we would make in our lives in 1983. I said I would stop living passively, would have a new job, a new man and enough money for me and my children to live comfortably. And that all happened. The job opened the door to working for WHO. The man was a strong support for the several reconstruction surgeries and is still a good friend. It took a while to get permanently on a solid financial footing, but we made it. However, after living aggressively for so many years I found in 2000 that I needed to be softer, more compassionate, less judgmental. So that is what I am working on now.” — Julie Milstien
The meaning of life is the most urgent of questions
“I felt that Brenda was rational and thoughtful even as she explored the tragedy and absurdity of her situation (we can’t know until we’ve walked in their shoes).” — Donna Greene
also from Donna: “I see many people die because they judge that life is not worth living. I see others paradoxically getting killed for the ideas or illusions that give them a reason for living (what is called a reason for living is also an excellent reason for dying). I therefore conclude that the meaning of life is the most urgent of questions.” — Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus
We are complex products of our past
“I finished your book yesterday and I found it to be of value … reminding us that change happens continuously and we are complex products of our past. Not every trauma has a happy ending, and there was a lot of growth with Brenda and her family and friends after her “accident.” Everyone became closer, more “real.” I commend you for writing about this hostile event to this woman. You also included another invasive event … those men who broke into her home. That was also realistic. I liked the portraits of her friends, the women and Charlie. You also dealt with child abuse, a sadly common problem in our country, that needs more discussion. Bad things don’t just happen in Afghanistan!” — Cassie Tzur
How grateful I am for my recovery
“Having grown up in an abusive home, I could relate so well to Brenda. Her lack of trust in and intimacy with family and friends reminded me of my life before recovery in Adult Children of Alcoholics. And her decision to not fight for rehabilitation rang true to me. The vision that came to me was a tall, apparently vibrant tree that was compromised internally so that when a windstorm arrived, it could no longer stand. Brenda’s family and friends saw the solid outside and only gradually came to accept her frail core that caused her to say “enough.” Your book reminded me how grateful I am for my recovery which included coming to believe in God and trusting Him to see me through tough times. And, I can be open and vulnerable, asking for help from loved ones, partly because I have addressed my past. Of course Brenda was more complex than just a victim, coming to terms with events in her life during her final months.”
An experience that terrifies all women
“A great read—such a sensitive and valiant portrait of a woman who has to contend with an experience that terrifies all women … Having been through sexual violence myself, I know what that is like … Brenda’s courage is certainly a balm. Thanks for writing this story.”
Reprinted with permission from The Benicia Herald
By Kristine Mietzner
September 17, 2013
FINISHING A BOOK PROJECT takes talent and persistent effort. Author Donna Kaulkin and I shared many hours in the same writing group a few years ago, at a time when she was starting “Brenda Corrigan Went Downtown,” a novel she completed earlier this year.
Donna’s work of fiction is set in an imaginary suburb near San Francisco, a place not unlike our town. She will read and sign copies of her debut novel next month in Benicia, and she answered my questions about her intriguing tale.
What inspired you to write “Brenda Corrigan Went Downtown”?
The idea for the story evolved over a long period of time. I suppose the final catalyst to sit down and write the novel came on Super Bowl Sunday 2009, when I was walking alone on a nearby trail and found that no one was around. I felt vulnerable. I recalled that a woman had been raped and murdered on one of our trails a few years earlier. In my book, Brenda is attacked on Super Bowl Sunday, but not murdered. The story that evolves encompasses many subjects that interest all of us: family dynamics, friendship, romance, violence against girls and women, violence generally, and PTSD.
How much of the story is drawn from your life experiences?
“Brenda Corrigan Went Downtown” is fiction. It is not autobiography. I certainly never knew anyone like the psychopath who attacks Brenda; I’ve never been to Rwanda or Saudi Arabia; I never traveled on a posh Boeing 747 owned by a sheik; I was never a secret agent, nor did I ever sleep with one, to my knowledge. That said, we write what we know. I have been in aviation since 1984 — aviation is what I know — so Brenda and her husband are in aviation. There are other instances drawn from my experience, but more are drawn from what I have observed in the lives of others. For instance, I never had a daughter, so this mother-daughter relationship grew out of what I’ve noticed in friends’ interactions with their daughters.
How do you find time to write? Do you write on a schedule or wait until the muse inspires you?
I am at my computer by 8:30 each day to do a monthly newsletter covering the aviation industry. I spend my mornings doing that, then take a break and work on creative writing in the afternoon. I am blessed with an ability to concentrate deeply on my work. My friends and family respect my deadlines and I get a lot done. As for the muse, in retrospect I understand that she has been with me since I was a little girl, tapping my shoulder impatiently, urging me to write write write. I have always been a writer, for work and for my own pleasure. I always kept a journal. My poems and stories have appeared in anthologies, and two plays were performed in staged readings. “Brenda Corrigan Went Downtown” is my most ambitious project.
In regard to the woman losing her beauty/the facial damage in this story, what are your feelings about plastic surgery for an accident or assault victim?
Plastic surgery is a necessity for people with damage due to assault or accident, and thankfully there are so many new methods that can help an injured person live a normal life.
Why did you decide to go with self-publishing instead of looking for an agent and a traditional publisher?
I am an impatient sort and realized I could publish my book very quickly. I also like to be master (mistress?) of my own universe, and by self-publishing I could choose my own cover, my own title, my own editorial style — in traditional publishing the average author has little say in those matters. The publishing industry is changing rapidly. Self-published books are selling well, even appearing on bestseller lists. The stigma of self-publishing is a thing of the past.
Where do you get your ideas?
For most of the writing on my blog, “Donna Tells Stories,” my ideas come from prompts in a weekly writing workshop. The Amherst Method is used; we are given a word or sensory item, then we write for 20 minutes. The pieces that result are terse, alive. The workshop, called Hummingwords, is led by Cynthia Leslie-Bole in Orinda.
Are you writing another novel?
So many of my readers say they didn’t want the story to end, so there is a temptation to continue to write about some of these characters — I know them so well and love them. But I probably will try something new. I suppose one day the perfect theme will appear to me, the timing will be right and I’ll be at it again.
Donna Brookman Kaulkin will read from her novel, “Brenda Corrigan Went Downtown,” Oct. 13 at 2 p.m. at Bookshop Benicia, 636 First St.
327 people requested a free copy of “Brenda Corrigan Went Downtown” in the Goodreads Giveaway, from September 1 to 5. Congratulations to winners Crystal Mitton of Hillsboro, In; Daniella Shimoonov of Brooklyn, NY; and Elisja Shumaker of Pittsburgh, PA.
I’ve read umpteen articles about “The Pitch,” but when it comes to answering that five-word query—What is your book about?—my expertise on pitching vanishes. I stutter and stammer and gaze at the ceiling, while trying to compress the story of a captivating woman into a few scintillating sentences.
For I am a writer, after all, and not a pitchman.
I started out in advertising, but that was long ago, in the Mad Men era, and I turned to editing because that better suited my personality—not exactly shy and retiring, but tending to prefer solitary quiet pondering and paring, while leaving team efforts to the unruly.
As a magazine editor in a huge publishing company, I was classified as a “creative,” meaning I was paid less than execs who sold advertising. But I hobnobbed with the latter long enough to learn by osmosis how to pitch.
So why is that knowledge failing me now? Why does it not enter stage front when I am faced with those five little words (not facing, exactly—more aptly, evading), at book sales, when guests take me aside and ask what Brenda Corrigan Went Downtown is about:
315 pages, I joke, then get serious,
a woman coping with a catastrophic event,
the men she’s loved,
her experiences in a career that took her around the world,
her loyal friends and children
Now I’m cooking. Brenda Corrigan Went Downtown is about faith and the lack thereof, what kills faith, what restores faith. It proposes a dilemma: What would you do, dear reader, in similar circumstances? It is about the joys of friendship and children and grandchildren, about love and failed love and failure to love, about loss and death.
“But is he really dead?” I am asked at book groups. “I wanted him to rescue her, marry her, carry her off on his muscular white steed to a land where they will live happily ever after.”
“That is a different book,” I suggest.
“A sequel!” someone shouts. A scattering of applause, big smiles.
“Perhaps,” I grant. “Perhaps I will call it, Brenda Corrigan Came Home.”
Perhaps that will be easier to pitch.