Photo: Tim Brelinski / Max Boyd
An interview with Val Brelinski
Val Brelinski is a woman unstuck in time. Raised in the rural town of Nampa, Idaho, she grew up unaccustomed to the innovations and upheavals happening in the more thoroughly gridded parts of the country in the 1970s. Add to that her Evangelical upbringing, which forbade things like bowling and dancing. Now she lives in the Bay Area, more aptly referred to as “The Future.” She’s written a novel about her past, which is itself couched in the idea of memory and time. I met with her in the backyard of her grown son who, because Brelinski looks so young, is often mistaken for her partner. He himself has just run away from home in Northern California and started a new life for himself in the rocky west, mere hours away from—you guessed it—Nampa, Idaho.
“Jory was quite sure she had forgotten that incident completely,” the narrator in Brelinski’s new novel, The Girl Who Slept with God, tells us as her main character recounts a painful childhood memory. Her narrator spends the novel slipping in and out of memories, in and out of childish innocence, in and out of Brelinski’s actual life. It’s a nautilus. It’s quite a ride.
The largely autobiographical novel charts several months in the life of the Quanbecks, an Evangelical family in rural Idaho composed of a scientist and devout man of God, his depressed and quietly intricate wife, and their three adolescent daughters. Frances is the youngest, Jory, the protagonist, is the middle child, and Grace is the zealot who comes home from a mission trip pregnant, allegedly with the child of an angel. This is where Brelinski’s novel begins.
Throughout this compassionate and deeply honest book, the reader glimpses bits and pieces of Brelinski embedded in the prose—her memories, her fascinations, her playfulness, her abiding tenderness. What you can see of her in the novel is exactly what you can see of her in real life: a person who can look around and recognize the value in experience, even the painful ones, even the ones it takes a long time to understand. That, and her unruly head of sandy blonde curls, shared by Jory.
I met with Brelinski in her son’s backyard. I drank water, she drank a Diet Cherry 7 Up, and at one point she momentarily left the interview to let her son’s whining dog out of the kitchen. We talked about religion, mercy, Freudian notions of adolescent independence, and the deceptive convenience of revelations. We started with what we weren’t talking about, and ended with the future.
— Hannah Withers
I. “This seemed like the ultimate betrayal.”
VAL BRELINSKI: It’s fun this time around [after the book tour] not to have to talk in too great detail about Evangelical fundamentalism. People seem to be vastly interested in that aspect of my background. Growing up, it just didn’t seem that interesting to me at all. It was just the way my family was, and who wanted to know about that?
Since I grew up in this weird state where lots of people were very conservative, it was just an accepted thing and no one thought much about it. It’s a continual source of surprise to me to find out how many people know so very little about that sort of thing and find it so mysterious.
I think people are shocked. They’re like “you couldn’t do that? Why couldn’t you do that?” And to me it was just… that was life.
THE BELIEVER: You moved your family across the country to get your MFA. Was that a move of confidence, or was it just—hold on to your hats, everyone?
VB: I had no idea what I was doing, but I didn’t care, because I was so ready to go. I had been deeply ensconced in the world of Nazarenism forever, and here I was, 40 years old, and my parents were still watching every move I made. My husband couldn’t drink a beer in their presence. It was very stifling. And yet I didn’t know how to extricate myself. My whole family was there, sisters, parents. My parents bought 14 acres and we were all supposed to live there together. So when I got this offer to go to UVA I was thrilled.
BLVR: By the time you got to UVA, you were no longer active in the Evangelical church, correct?
VB: No, I wasn’t. I had never been the best Evangelical. I was always the rebellious kid in my family. My two sisters were saints, and I was the sinner. I got kicked out of my house when I was 16—my mother had repeatedly tried to kick me out of the house in a sort of symbolic way. Any time I did anything, the most minor infractions, I would come home and the front door would be locked, and there would be a grocery bag with some of my clothes on the step, and this was the signal that I was in trouble and I should go somewhere else. So there was a certain amount of familial ostracism throughout my childhood and adolescence. If I did something wrong, my mom wouldn’t set a place at the dinner table for me. She wouldn’t let anyone talk to me.
I tried not to publicly offend them, but I was very happy to be able to completely shuck that off. That was a relief, that no one was looking at me and going “oh dear…”
BLVR: Does having this book out in the world feel a little bit like moving out of the family house again?
VB: Yes! And I’m the type of person who doesn’t think things out thoroughly ahead of time; I’m terribly spontaneous, for good or for ill. I wrote the book because I had literally run out of short stories to hand in for workshop. I thought, what can I write really quickly, what do I know? Well, you know, the story of my adolescence, which was pretty weird. I just started writing it, and it was the easiest thing I’ve ever written. I didn’t have to invent anything. The whole time I was writing, though, I was very worried that if it did get published, my parents would never speak to me again. It wasn’t exactly the most positive portrayal of either one of them. It felt like a kind of final break. Because we were always a very private family; we never admitted anything publicly about…anything. This seemed like the ultimate betrayal.
I’ve mentioned how the first draft was much more positive and had a happy ending. Then both my parents died, and I rewrote the book and allowed it to be as dark and negative as my actual life was. But sometimes even now I wonder, what have I done? If my parents were alive, I can’t even imagine how they’d respond to it.
II. “I think you can have momentary bits of insight that you think about, but then daily life continues on in the same way.”
BLVR: Memory is such a huge factor in the book—especially for Jory. Every event triggers a dozen memories for her. Was that intentional, or just reflective of the process you were going through while writing it?
VB: I don’t think it was intentional. As I was writing a scene, something would happen to remind me of an earlier childhood episode. I tried to resist putting too many of those flashbacks in, because I’d heard many admonitions about flashbacks and how they can get really boring. My editor later on had something to say about the flashbacks—the ones we should trim, the ones that seemed like filler, the ones that actually provided needed insight. Most of the time, I tried to add in things I thought might provide a bit more emotional insight into how these people ended up the way they were: so closed-mouthed and traumatized by things that were kind of off the page. But some of them got cut, and probably wisely so.
BLVR: You’ve said that the ending the book has now is much darker than the one you’d written before. But it also factually strays from what actually happened to your family. So, how did this become the more truthful ending?
VB: I really feel that the ending is a sort of—I don’t want to use the word symbolic, because that isn’t what I mean. But, when my sister became a full time missionary in Bolivia, her first child died there. She was this adorable little baby who we’d met and fallen deeply in love with. And she didn’t receive adequate medical care, and she died horribly of viral encephalitis. It was very traumatic. I think that was really the moment at which—if I’d had any faith before that—I thought: this is bullshit.
The missionary board sent her back to the States to have a period of grieving. My sister, unsurprisingly, became deeply depressed and suicidal. Those experiences, I just transferred slightly and had them happen to her at a younger age.
But that was the moment at which my family really split apart. Faith became a very doubtful thing for all of us, and especially for me. I don’t think my sister ever regained her interest in missionary work. It just split and changed our family forever. I transferred those experiences, but it wasn’t much of a stretch, really.
BLVR: Emotionally, it sounds the same.
VB: It’s pretty much the same. And that was the point at which my father and I started really having discussions about, this is wrong, we shouldn’t have allowed this to happen, we shouldn’t have let her go. You know, what kind of God allows things like this? What do you believe in?
BLVR: Without being too explicit about the end of the novel, it felt like Grace was the only character who really arrives anywhere. Everyone else seems on the cusp of epiphany, but not quite there yet. Were you intentionally avoiding that sort of epiphany?
VB: Well, yes. I’m kind of suspicious of short stories and novels in which people say “well then I learned BLAH, and life was forever different.” Life doesn’t seem like that to me at all. I think you can have momentary bits of insight that you think about, but then daily life continues on in the same way.
So yeah, I did not want it to seem as if A happened and then people learned B and then they went on and lived life C. Grace is the only one who truly takes an action. She does something very gutsy, and she changes everyone’s lives. But the rest of the characters continue on in a fairly messy fashion that I think replicates what real life is all about. You just keep kind of grunging along with this new information, and the changes you make may be fairly small.
And at the end I hope you wonder what’s going to happen to the mother, and the youngest daughter, and will this family ever get back together? It’s impossible to know. The knowledge that seems to come at the end is fairly small and quiet, which was what I was after. I’m not sure that pleases every reader but that’s the book I wanted to write.
BLVR: That’s how families operate.
VB: That’s how my family operated, anyway.
III. “It absolutely is me re-raising myself, and that’s kind of embarrassing.”
BLVR: Was there anything that you wanted this story to be about? Did you have an agenda going into it?
VB: The main thing I had in mind was that I was fascinated by the fact that my older sister had always been something of a cipher to me. That I had grown up in the same house with her and did not know her at all seemed weird to me. Consciously or unconsciously, I wanted to write a book in which I attempted to figure her out.
That was actually the hardest part of the book for me because even now—even now!—I don’t think I know her on the same level that I know my younger sister or even my parents. She’s a very unusual person, very guarded. She’s very loving, but very self-protective. She was so different than I was. And I think my conflicted feelings of being ashamed of her and also admiring the hell out of her, all of those things together made me feel compelled in some way to try to pin her down and explore her. Even now I’m not sure I did that adequately, but that was my underlying desire. To put her on center stage and see what would happen.
BLVR: It felt like at some points the character Grip existed in the book to allow Jory to be confused by Grace, and then have a character who is just amazed by her. As if the overflow of wonderment from Jory needed a body.
VB: Yeah, exactly. He also exacerbates her jealousy of her sister. Up until that point Jory’s just like why do you have to be so annoying and weird? And then Grip shows up and Jory thinks Grip is sort of her personal private property, and she’s then astounded at how much he admires Grace. That starts to make her question her own views of her sister, and also makes her somewhat jealous.
So yes, he is this figure who comes in and both enlarges the sisters’ world, but also sort of puts people in new categories that Jory hadn’t quite considered. Grip sees Grace as someone who’s got a lot of guts, and I don’t think Jory had considered her sister in quite that way.
BLVR: It’s almost as if Grip is you now, looking back and re-raising yourself.
VB: You know, somebody asked me is he based on a real person? And, no! Because he’s someone I wish had existed—he and Mrs. Kleinfelter are these two fantasy figures. If I could have had a family who understood me and allowed me to be more like a normal kid, it might have consisted of two people like that. Pragmatic and understanding, but who are more worldly-wise than her own parents.
It absolutely is me re-raising myself, and that’s kind of embarrassing. I’m rewriting my adolescence and saying oh if only I’d gotten to live alone in a house far away from my biological parents and gotten to meet these interesting people. How cool would life have been.
And I think it’s suspiciously sort of Freudian in that I’m kind of wishing my parents away, like if they were gone or maybe even dead, if they were out of the picture then I might get to grow and evolve and meet these other far more interesting people. Which is sort of terrible, but I’m guessing every kid feels that way.
BLVR: I mean that’s Hansel and Gretel, right?
VB: Yeah! You know, we’re way out there on the edge of town, living in this deserted house that’s supposed to be a punishment, but that turns into this kind of marvelous situation.
BLVR: It’s the darkness on the edge of town, where you find all the hidden things.
VB: Yes. And it’s scary and loads of fun all at the same time.
IV. “It sounds really boring but actually it’s very dark.”
BLVR: Had you found that, before writing this book, you were writing about the same themes or situations covered in The Girl Who Slept with God?
VB: No, not at all. I don’t know what to say about that. My stories had been about much more recent, adult situations. Much more adult concerns. I had written one story about little kids being essentially abandoned by their parents, and that just got published not too long ago in VQR. But obviously, if you think about it, there are certain obsessions of mine about parental abandonment of kids, whether that’s wish fulfillment or a fear, either way. Which might be two sides of one coin.
BLVR: What are you working on now?
VB: I have started two things. A memoir, which feels frightening. Only because I obviously have spent most of my time writing fiction. Fiction for me, even though it’s often autobiographical… I have the feeling that I’m hiding, that there’s a screen behind which I’m safe. And this would completely do away with that screen and I’d essentially be saying here I am, it’s me, I did this. So I’m working on that and trying to get over my fear of writing in the first person.
I’ve also started a second novel that has grown out of a long short story that I wrote, which concerns my grandparents—which sounds really boring but it’s actually very dark. But I love writing dark stuff, so I’m having a lot of fun.
Hannah Withers is a fiction writer from Southern California. She’s a second year at the University of Montana MFA program. Her work can be found at The Kenyon Review Online, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Red Branch Journal, and NPR.org. She used to make rent by performing improv at Bar Mitzvahs.