Kate Brandt leads three lives. As a suburban mother she ferries middle school boys around in her black Toyota, and as an adult literacy teacher in the Bronx she ferries bags of books into the classroom in order to get her students to read. As a writer, she crouches in bed, waiting for the right thought.
In 1998, she graduated from Sarah Lawrence College with an MFA in fiction. Her work has appeared in Tricycle: the Buddhist Review, Literary Mama, and a piece about her writing group is forthcoming in a blog called Talking Writing.
When I first began to write, I tried to stay away from great books. I didn’t want a stronger, surer voice to take over in my head. That’s changed as I’ve grown more confident that writing well is not so much a magic trick as a result of hard work. Over the years there have been some books that have taught me important lessons about storytelling.
One of these is The Seven Sisters by Margaret Drabble, a novel made up of a divorced woman’s journal entries. Not much happens in the story—the narrator takes walks; goes to exercise class; strikes up a conversation with a stranger in a store—yet I couldn’t put the book down. The question posed by this novel—how do you recover after losing the life you thought you were meant for?—was too compelling.
The Romantic, by Barbara Gowdy, is another novel about loss. I loved it partly for its structure—in the first line we learn the story’s ending, so we don’t read to find out what happened, but rather how it happened, which I always prefer. Gowdy’s narrator is utterly unsentimental, which is what makes this novel about love so strangely comforting.
In the hands of lesser writers, the Holocaust is diminished, but Mark Slouka’s novel The Visible World is a beautiful rumination on what it is that can survive the destruction of an entire world. This novel circles slowly around its subject until—as I always feel with great books—we must come to the end but we don’t want to because it’s just so good.
Jim Shepard’s stories have appeared in McSweeney’s, Granta, The Atlantic Monthly, Esquire, Harper’s, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Ploughshares, Triquarterly, Playboy . . . essentially everywhere. In them, something bad is always about to happen, and his narrators—neglectful husbands, irresponsible brothers—always wish they could have done better. They make me feel OK to be human, and grateful there are such good stories out there, showing us the things we don’t know how to say.
What books or stories make you feel better about the human condition?