Book Club Discussion: And She Was

Today and tomorrow (Monday and Tuesday), we’ve got an open forum for discussion of Cindy Dyson’s And She Was. Leave your comments and/or questions using the comment feature, tagged with either your Google ID, a name of your choosing, or Anonymous. If you have questions or comments for the author, start them with “Cindy.” Stop by as often as you like over the next two days to get back in the discussion thread.

To open the dialogue, I’ll pose this question: What do you think of Brandy as a protagonist?

37 thoughts on “Book Club Discussion: And She Was”

  1. Brandy is so different from me yet she is such a seeker, non-judgmental, open-minded, not superior to others in her interior monologues that she is the perfect guide-protagonist. Though she is so different from me, I can stand in her skin and see and "get" what she does. I really remember the book through Brandy rather than through me-the-reader. No patience with critics who dismiss her as a good-time girl in a bar. She's a lot more like Christian in Pilgrim's Progress.

  2. Overall, Brandy left me cold and I don’t know if that was the author’s intent or not. I guess I wanted Brandy to find a friend but she pretty much refuses to – part of her M.O. She has moments of near-warmth but keeps her distance. This bugs me because I have shades of that myself, so of course I like to read about and be around people who are a bit more socially adroit.
    How funny that the previous commenter and I have such opposite reactions to Brandy. But that's art, eh? Very subjective.
    My favorite parts of the book were the Aleut women, particularly the historical ones.

  3. Cindy, do you like Brandy? I notice on your website that you emphatically declare that you are nothing like the characters in the book and would not even hang around with them…Is this tongue-in-cheek? I'm guessing it is but I'm not too sure.

  4. A fascinating comparison, to Christian in Pilgrim's Progress. Both are seekers, for sure. I can't recall whether Christian shares Brandy's sense of self, which to me is one of the most fascinating aspects of her character. I found myself suspending disbelief at her full awareness of her behavior and her intelligence, which was of great interest to me as a writer.

    Cindy, did Brandy change much as you drafted the novel, or did she appear more or less fully formed, directing the narrative?

    I agree that the Aleut women were fascinating counterparts to Brandy. It seemed like each of the modern-day Aleuts mirrored one of the conflicting aspects of Brandy's character.

  5. Yes, I loved Brandy from the beginning. The website text is meant to be funny, but also to get to the notion that just because we like someone doesn't mean we should hang around with them.
    For me, maybe Brandy is like that girlfriend we all had back in our daring youth. She's way TOO much fun; you get in trouble every time you hang with her.

    I love Brandy, but I steer clear of the Brandy-ish types in real life.

    Brandy did change through the drafts. In early drafts she was too cool, not desperate and dispicable enough. With each revision, I made her worse. I think in the beginning, I wanted everyone to like her as much as I did so I protected her from revealing who she really was. I kept having to strip that away and let readers really know her.

    She's based, at least initially, on my best friend in high school. For decades now I have watched my friend waste such talent and insight because she can't get passed her upbringing. But what made my friend somewhat unique was that she never clutched the victim-of-my-parents mentality.

    I think for both my friend and for Brandy, it's harder to enjoy them because they won't let you see them as victims, which is how we, especially women, are used to explaining and identifing with diffcult women. I didn't want readers to have that option with Brandy.

    I fought pretty hard with my editor not to put more of Brandy's upbringing into the novel, although my editor won on two scenes. I'm glad she did, but I'm also glad I stood my ground some and kept that easy victim-equals-sympathy stuff to a minimum.

    Fun to discuss. And many readers have not liked Brandy. In some ways, she's the kind of chic who doesn't care much. But I do.

    I'm trying to delay finishing the scene that will complete the rough draft of next novel. Once I finish the scene, darling husband gets to read.

    So the more questions the better. I still don't know how novel two should end.

  6. Cindy – This is good stuff.

    "I think for both my friend and for Brandy, it's harder to enjoy them because they won't let you see them as victims. I didn't want readers to have that option with Brandy."

    Excellent – I appreciate this. I was waiting for Brandy to transcend even non/victimhood and the kill-or-be-killed mindset to get to where she would like herself and hence others. Did she do this and I missed it?

    (For clarity, not "liking" a character is not a slam of the story or author. It takes guts to write this sort of character.)

    I got the sense that it would be a while before Brandy would get over the never give up, never give in, never surrender mode.

    PS – I love tough broads and I don't hate Brandy. Probably on some level I love her and want her to find Peace.

    This is one of those stories that did not wrap up with the kind of satisfaction of resolution/redemption but rather keeps agitating my mind about how this character is going to save herself. You told us that ultimately she does, but the device she used to do that is not clear.

    Since you are asking for questions, I must ask. How did she transform to ultimately find love/peace?
    Or is that for the reader to decide?

    Thanks for your willingness to discuss.

  7. Cindy, I really appreciated that you didn't allow Brandy to become too much of a victim, and that you held firm on not overkilling the parent issues. There's a fine line between showing enough motivation to help readers understand the reality of characters and turning them into psychological case studies.

    My thinking on the Aleut women is this: Bellie mirrors Brandy's wild, acting out side; Liz mirrors her (mostly) repressed hurt; Anna reflects her intellectual nature; Ida the deep and mysterious archetypal female part of her.

  8. Eeegads! You guys are deep.

    I can't tell you how many times I've complained to my patient husband, after readings and interviews and such, about the vapid questions.

    It's really fun for me to get some provocative interaction. The difference between, I suppose, conversing with writers as opposed to readers. Such a different level of discussion.

    Reader, no worries. Brandy is hard to love, and I didn’t write her that way. I wanted her to feel uncomfortable.

    I'm thinking about your dichotomy with the kill/be killed thing. Brandy didn't have that level of morality. She was amoral — pre-moral, before Eve bit the apple, innocent. I wanted her to leave the islands satiated with the notion that morality demands kill or be killed. Choose. Bite the apple.

    So I didn't want her to find peace. Sorry. I wanted her to find the opposite, to be ready for the battle, for the things that she’d be wiling to kill or be killed for. Like the Aleut women, I wanted her to be wracked with moral dilemmas, with thought and intention.

    She encounters a very different set of ethics with the Aleut women — women who were willing to kill and sacrifice to save their children, to save something of their culture, of themselves.

    What I tried to convey, in the last couple of scenes, is that Brandy transcends amorality — whatever goes — to lurch into morality, lurch into something we can judge. She can't be an immoral Eve any longer. She's tasted the apple, learned the burden of discerning right and wrong. No matter what she does, no matter where she ends up, she knows this. And that, for me, was the point.

    I suppose I'm more fascinated with the notion that it's incumbent on us to figure out what we believe, to fight, and yes, maybe to kill for it. I'm more critical of the what-ever folks. I'm less critical of the immoral folks than the amoral folks.

    Does that make sense?

    raiShe knows she must be an active moral force, not the amoral one she's allowed herself to be. She has to take a stand, multiple stands in everyday life.

    Perhaps the crux of the issue lies within your use of the word Peace. Brandy doens't find peace. That's not the result of her adventure. It's not something I'd want for her. There's humoungous problems, in the world, in our everyday world. Peach is only available if you ostriage-head yourself. I wanted Brandy to direct her innate fighter tentancies to something beyond herself. I wanted her to loose the immorality and become moral.

    Goodness, I'm afriad I've had too much honey whiskey. But I'm almost done with the shitty first draft.

    Keep me up.

    And please don't worry about offending me. I love it. Keeps me moral.

  9. Deb,

    Please excuse the cut and paste mistake. Don't know what I did wrong.

    I love it when readers/writers see an aspect I didn't.

    Yes, I think Bellie, Anna, Ida do represent parts of Brandy. I wanted the Aleut women to give Brandy what she'd missed, but hadn't thought of it in such concrete terms.


  10. All this Eve talk has me wondering about the Adams. In the bible story he was there, but not paying attention. The men in Brandy's life just aren't there when it is important. Thad is such a nice guy, but she won't accept his help.

  11. When Cindy says "She knows she must be an active moral force, not the amoral one she's allowed herself to be. She has to take a stand, multiple stands in everyday life," I wondered how much awareness Brandy had of these two paths. Since my 2nd reading of the novel left me gripped by the elemental force of the place and the people of it, their power, I wondered if Brandy had been branded by it and from now on would tease out the sense and the morality for herself bit by bit. I didn't see an epiphany for her yet. Touched profoundly by the elemental power and changed forever, yes.

  12. I've been listening to the Talking Heads song and watching their video and feel "And She Was" — she was herself more than before Dutch Harbor.

  13. Wow, I'm really enjoying the depth of the discussion as well. Kay, I like how you bring up Brandy and "branded" – I hadn't thought of that aspect of her name. And I also like that you distinguish – if I understand correctly – between an epiphany and being changed forever: that you can have one without the other, because there's always a bit of us that is hidden from ourselves.

    The observation about men in interesting. I think of this as primarily a woman's book, which probably isn't a fair distinction, but it seems like it's tough to have strong male characters in books where women are wrestling around with tough and visceral issues. It's like as soon as you introduce strong men you've got the potential for real relationships, which take on a life of their own and complicate our vision (which could, I suppose, be a real life "hazard" as well.

    I also love Cindy's ideas about premorality and taking a stand. Traditionally we'd think of premorality as a state of innocence. Brandy seems anything but innocent, and yet perhaps she really is innocent in the ways that matter most.

    Also love the idea that you're galloping (trotting, cantering?) toward the end of that draft as we speak…

  14. This comment came in from Dorrie, via email: "I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know Brandy, as she got to know herself. The book was memorable, and I have recommended it to friends. I look forward to reading more by this author – you go girl!"

  15. Ah, the man thing.

    Here was/is my premise. In women's fiction, perhaps the backwaters of literary fiction (don't let that get out), MEN are usually the monsters.

    Look at most the male author/protagonist novels, where we have corrupt government, sea monsters, aliens, secret societies. It's true. Whereas for women-centric novels MEN are often the monster to be slain — bad husband, bad father.

    I wanted Brandy to have a she-centric monster. Herself. So, yes, Adam goes along — "Here. have a taste and become like God knowing the difference between good and evil." He's all okay, probably staring at the apple juice running from her lips and competely forgetting the big Commandment of not eating of this fruit.

    So much of the time women's fiction focus on him, on Adam, on The Monster. And, I've been wondering, if by doing so, we don't forget the sinful impulses of the female. We've been so sick of being blamed for lustful male attention, perhaps we're forgotten that we have our own pact with good smf evil. that wer'e moral agents against more than MAN, but againt dragons and principalities unseen. (My Christian upbringing and current fascination.)

    So I left the men out, or floundering, to force the issue. Who are we, as women morally, without a man to shame?

    I didn't want a hunky, nice guy to save Brandy. She wasn't good enough for him anyway.

    Sorry for mispellings and so forth. Not my forte. Almost done with last scene. Still a half glass of honey whisky left.

  16. I’m not sure where I want to jump in. I’ll start with this: when a story ends with important things that the character still has to do, or areas where there isn’t resolution it compels me to do that work in my own story. I don’t always like it. With Brandy I’m not satisfied, but then I’m also pushed toward giving my choices meaning.

    But you guys have moved on to morality. I really appreciate that you make morality a part of, well, maturity. It’s not religious; it’s human. As a Christian I have made the mistake of thinking God was guiding my choices, which meant that I didn’t have to have the kind of morality that Brandy comes to. Basing choices on religion is little better than Brandy following men around. Anyone know what I’m talking about?

  17. I think Brandy's epiphany is in her realizing that she not only can finish the sentence And She Was…, but that she must finish it. When she writes on the wall I am not what I was She is picking up her power to decide. She doesn't really say what she has decided (the final chapter gives us a good glimpse of her as someone who is passionate about the people she loves and vigilant in watching over them). What makes this great though, is that it does leave us with the question What is she? And then of course the next question is What am I?

  18. Strange, I've found myself frustrated, oh let's call it mad, when I read short stories that leave us wondering how it all works out.

    And yet, this was a major struggle I had with my editor. I didn't want to spell it out. Because, for me, it didn't matter. Once Brandy accepts moral complicity in the twirling of the world, she's by deinition in the ring, hands raised. And that's all I wanted or expected from Brandy.

    Jana, I'm a bit shocked about what you elude to here. A post-Christian morality?

    I'm going to have to think about that. So much of the the book was, for me, wrestling with my Christian precepts.

    Okay, I've had another swish of the honey whiskey and so…

    I'm kind of scared of what you wrote there, that Brandy's choice of following men/ease is similair to following a moral code laid out in ancient texts, in the Bible, or Koran, or the Bavegitia (sp?).

    Choose your morality first; pick your god as a consequence?

    Tell me more.

  19. Jana, I'm with you 100%. Calling all fallen Catholic girls…In grammar school we learned about the "misinformed conscience" which basically meant, sorry Catholic kids, we've taught you morality so you can't claim to be misinformed and hence not responsible. Damn, too late, we know better…

    Then in high school I learned about Existentialism which was a bit more pragmatic way of saying the same thing (in my view). Official high school english class definition: Man sees so meaning or value here on this earth therefore he creates his own. Man is free, man suffers because he is free, man is responsible for his actions.
    So, Jana, I'm with you. Blindly following any dictate without taking full responsibility is no good. Boyfriend, Jesus, Allah, whoever, we've got to remake our beliefs according to our own understandings all of our life. Crap – I used to think I'd figure it all out someday and the floor keeps shifting.
    I am a girl of faith still though not in the way I was as a child. Because, after all, I am not who I was.

  20. Van,

    Brandy wasn't "Brandy's" original name. And the idea of branding her, through her parent's brandy haze, was intentional.

    I always have trouble with names because I write the rough draft with someone in mind for many characters and then have to go back and sanitize. Does anyone else have that problem? Got a couple in WIP, if anyone wants to help.)

    I'm thinking there's a big difference between epiphany and change. We languish years in the gap, which is the subeject of Novel.2.1. But, for me, once Brandy has the knowlege, she's fair game. She's at fault if she fails to make good on it.

    She was a lot of bad things, but never deluded, never hiding. If she didn't make good on what she'd learned…well, I'd shoot her myself.

  21. Also consider myself a woman of faith (perhaps most of us do?), but a radically different sort than when I leaned on the church for Truth. Did Brandy lean on men or use them? Is there a difference?

    Probably the YA author in me, but I see Brandy's as a coming of age story, as are many "grown-up" novels, an often painful transition from selfishness and self-protectiveness to genuine empathy with others. Interestingly the Aleut cultural taboos broken by the women could be perceived as for the good of the group, moral codes that worked in the small context of culture that's not challenged to its core, which probably isn't that different from how churches function.

    Cindy, I'm game for the name quandry. Tell us more.

  22. Name game:

    Setting: modern, using gothic and western lit elements.

    Character is Penny, name chosen simply because I have no baggage associated. But I don't like it either.

    She's 42, two kids, wants more but too late. Came from Texas oil money family but escaped debutant life when fell in love with cowboy from Montana.

    Lives on mini-ranch, interior designer, plays electric guitar. She's all about being moral, about righteousness, but needs to learn mercy and humility. Always trying to fix the people around her. Always on task. Disallusioned with husband, life, self.

    Pretty and well kept, but not stunning. Wears practical shoes.

  23. Cindy Dyson, thank you for being interactive on this book discussion. Your contributions and all the discussion around the book has really made it richer for me!

  24. Cindy – Since you explained Brandy's moral position and your objective for her (awareness VS Peace) I get the plot a bit better. Thanks

    I read through my prism of looking for redemption because I am concerned with the people who have killed for all the reasons you discuss. But that is not your story line here – I get it now.

    But since we're talking about morality – what becomes of those who had to kill, wether they're the Aleuts, or today's or yesterday's soldiers?

    It's one thing to be ready to kill if need be. The aftermath, however, is horrific.

    Sometimes I worry that culturally we operate under the delusion that justifiable homicide doesn't torture the souls who had to commit it. Until we get that – we can't help those who find life unbearable because of what they had to do.

    Thanks very much to you and Deb for making this discussion possible!

  25. name game:
    I like Millicent for her. It has airs like a proper dubatant would be given but it can be contracted in later years when she's a hip groovy gal – and be made into a quasi-guy name, MEL. Her bandmates would like the groovy vibe, you can yell it across the bar, but she would still be Millicent when signing papers with lawyers. Every debutant must have a sniffy name for legal papers.
    How fun to play with names…

  26. Cindy – you're right – Penny sounds too bright and shiny. Sandra? She sounds like she's trying to firm up herself and everyone around her, when in the end she'll make peace with the shifting nature of things??? You could have some fun with people calling her Sandy in the interim. I'd think she'd hate anything ending in -y.

  27. a reader,

    If I'm reading your last comment right, I think that's what the Aleut women for genertions have been dealing with (in book). They get worse and worse, the baggage of their heroic and sinful acts. They're damned, is how I wanted it to feel.

    Here's a question I often ask readers and I think it's along the lines of this topic.

    Did you ever feel that the Aleut women went to far? Did killing become murder ever? Is so when?

  28. Millicent feels pretty old fashion to me. Like that Millie and Mel could be nicknames.

    Perhaps I need to do some TX deb name research.

    Sandra is a possiblity. Like the idea of her name shifing from the more formal Sandra to Sandy, then to Sand as her character changes. She does have to learn not to control so much, to shift and blow. Cool idea.

  29. "Did you ever feel that the Aleut women went too far? Did killing become murder ever? If so when?"
    The killing was murder, wasn't it; not subsistence hunting. It is always momentous to try to say killing another person is OK–in the Christian world. But what is killing for the Aleut culture? Could it have different weight than in Christianity? How can we see it from inside the Aleut culture–I can't manage it and just have to believe there is a morality there that I don't know.

  30. In the Christian culture – perhaps most cultures, for that matter – war is considered justifiable killing. The Aleut women made a war of sorts on those who attacked their society in various ways. Terrorists, both domestic and foreign, would probably justify killing in similar terms. So the question perhaps becomes whether the "officiality" of a decision is what passes for morality.

  31. Cindy – Right – that is what the Aleut women were and are dealing with.

    Regarding your questions "Did you ever feel that the Aleut women went to far? Did killing become murder ever? Is so when?"

    I think the historical Aleut women went as far as they had to, the contemporary ones had other options, in my opinion. But this is the crux of the problem for me;they did what they had to do and now they are all screwed up and I don't think my opinion about it matters.

    I want them to get healed.

    The Aleut women did what they had to do. A combat soldier does what he/she has to (yes, women are in combat). Then, for multiple generations people suffer because the tortured souls could never resolve their agony.

    My worry is what comes after the phase where killing is done. Sure you had to do it – at the time that was that. Now you're suicidal/alcoholic/drug addicted/wife or husband beating/ whatever.

    Does our culture take responsibility for what happens after we tell people that we need them to kill for us and that we have made it "acceptable" for them to kill.

    NO. Most of us probably know a tortured soul or the child of one. Every one leaves a legacy several generations long of pain as you so aptly showed in your story.

    I think I went on a bit long here. Your Aleut women were an excellent example of how this trouble goes down the centuries.

    I guess my question about that is, what then, must we do?
    We must admit our complicity and work with the suffering to resolve the pain. If they killed for the good of us all, we are all complicit, we are all responsible, we have work to do.

  32. So I guess I differentiate killing and murder in much the ways Van talked abut. We might say we killed a man when it was during an act self or other defense, or in times of war. For some cultures at some times, it's simply killing if the man is from a different tribe or culture. In some cultures, blood fueds are considered killing. Murder is unsanctioned by such conventions.

    One of the things I was interested in were those lines. How they've changed over time and across different cultures. And then what happens to cultures that are being folded into another culture.

    How do we handle the messy spots, where it's not clear?

    For me the Aleut women start slipping. The last death, Nicolas, they actually hunt him down. Did they murder him?

    About the notion of the curse or burden these women carry, and whether they can and should find some sort of peace, I don't know. But it brings up the archytpye of the sacraficed or tragic hero. The guy who's gone too far in his heroic acts to be accepted back into his social fold. It's an interesting and pervaisive archytype so I'm assuming there's something profound there. Perhaps the rest of us non heroes can never set it straight. Perhaps some sacrifices and premanent.

    Are the rescued as much to blame for sacraficed heroes? And what is their/our responsibililty?

    Certainly religious stories deal with this notion. And the idea that if you save a life you're responsible for it. Similiar idea for the rescued, that they owe their savior all.

    It's part of the questions I'm looking at with WIP. Four women who save a little girl. Their heroism ends up ruining their friendships and perverting their lives. The rescued girl, once all grown up, believes it's up to her to fix the curse. So I'm very much interested in heroim's dark side.

  33. ***
    Fair warning ** extreme response

    Cindy – Let's take this out of the theoretical for a moment and into the real.

    -I'm having trouble with your ambivalence about whether tragic people should find peace.

    In America right now we have, for all practical purposes, abandoned generations of veterans who did what they were called to do. Kill

    While Americans keep having "morality" conversations about whether they agreed with the war, whether this killing was good or bad or whatever, they can all feel good about denying their complicity and responsibilities.

    Tragic heroes couldn't care less about being mythical to anybody.

    Most would much prefer their life back, which it is too late for. Many would simply like sanity.

    For anyone seeking a morality test, I have one for you that requires boots on the ground.

    Find a veteran who is all messed up, advocate for them to the VA. Witness the monumental effort it takes to get a n y thing done for that soldier. I'll tell you – it takes hell, high water, a senator, several years, heartache, tragedy and sometimes grace and salvation.

    So, if you will forgive me for going on like this, it is really not personal but this ambivalence about peace/healing and tragic heroes is something that I find terrible in our culture.

    While we all talk about how we feel about morality our immorality is playing out generation after generation after generation.
    Thanks for listening.

  34. a reader,

    It is tragic to watch vetrans suffer like they have. I admire your passion and compassion.

    I'm always more interested in writing and thinking and talking about the areas that are gray for me, where I find a tinge of ambivilance in myself. So that's where I focus.

    I think your use of the word "should" is probably crucial here. I think vetrans and suffering heroes of all sorts "should" find peace. But I don't get to decide. So when I talk about these ideas, I'm not talking about what I think should happen, but what does, and therefore what the rest of us must do with that.

    I'm thinking the sacraficial hero archetype in literature and movies is testiment to our angst in witnessing the difference between what we think should happen and what often does happen.

    In most cases, with vetrans, we're not talking about heroes who went outside conventional moral grounds, although I understand that for those who did, it's even tougher. Here we have a social and policy issue in that society isn't taking care of our vetran warriors.

    Perhaps I'm wanting to dig deeper into exploring whether peace is/can/should be the ultimate goal.

    I know I both emotionally and intellectually balk at the notion that happiness is the goal. So is peace the goal? Or is it a step in the direction of the goal?

    Great provocative stuff.

    I'm really enjoying you all.

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