FQ: Upon learning you were an ‘Air Force brat,’ I was curious to know what led you to decide on Ukraine as the backdrop for your story.
BROWN: My decision had nothing to do with being a military brat, though I guess my love of history probably does! The reason for the setting has to do with a chance meeting and conversation with my daughter’s friend from Ukraine. She came to the US for the summer to work at a camp and was a counselor with my daughter. She was unable to go home because Russia attacked Ukraine and displaced her family. She kept in touch with my daughter and came to visit a couple of years later, once she had obtained permission to stay in the States. While visiting, she told me the most incredible story. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing and figured I had misunderstood due to her accent. I repeated what I thought I heard, and she nodded her agreement. Still not believing, I posed several questions, each getting the response that led to this amazing story. This was a story that needed telling but there was no way to know the beginning….so, I made it up. Essentially, I created a backstory so the ending could be told. The last chapter is mostly true, but the epilogue, once again, is of my own creation.
FQ: In line with my previous question, did you spend time in Ukraine?
BROWN: I’ve never been to Ukraine. In fact, I’ve never been to a former Soviet Bloc country. I’ve been asked how I could write about something so foreign, and the answer is twofold. Firstly, I did a lot of research to understand what it was like in Ukraine from the early ’70s until the present day. Secondly, and I believe most importantly, Ukraine was a backdrop for the story. The real story is about family. It is about survival, love, and longing. It is about emotions and situations we all experience wherever we live or whatever our circumstances. So, although I had to research the setting, all I had to do for the rest was create real characters living real life in a real way so readers could connect. That’s my goal, and that’s why I say that I connect readers to characters they’d love to invite to lunch.
FQ: I am also quite impressed with the adventure you and your husband embarked upon to ride a tandem bicycle across the United States. Clearly, there is more to this event than a passing sentence in your bio. Can we expect a book that highlights the experiences in detail in the future?
BROWN: I actually have two books planned based on this amazing event. The first is a technical book to help other cyclists plan a multi-week adventure. My husband is the cycling expert and will help me craft this book. While on the road, we came up with a matrix to help us decide how many miles we could go on any given day. The book will be an explanation of this matrix along with lessons we learned while on the road.
The second book is the one I’m most keen to write. It is about life lessons learned while on a great adventure. Whether someone chooses to ride 3102 miles across the United States, walk the Appalachian Trail, or simply change careers midlife, this book will help them navigate their challenges. For me, this adventure helped heal me from a former emotionally abusive marriage. I no longer had faith in myself and didn’t believe that I had much worth. If it weren’t for the ride, I don’t think I would have had the ability to get my first novel published.
I’ve begun the writing process on this second book and have come up with 20 lessons from “finding peace in the journey, not in the minutia” to “enduring to the end is difficult.” It is filled with stories about the ride but also about life in general. These stories are funny, difficult, and inspiring, even for those who aren’t cyclists.
Finally, while peddling across the US, I had a lot of time to think. So, I also came up with two children’s book ideas – one about trains and one about oil wells. My granddaughter, who just turned three, is pushing me to get the one about trains done. When her mom showed her my book, Sunflowers Beneath the Snow, she said, “I want Gigi to write a book for me – one that I can read.” I guess that is going to have to happen sooner rather than later!
FQ: Of all the places you have lived and visited, if you had to recommend the number one place to live, where would that be and why?
BROWN: I would have to say the North Carolina coast. I’ve wanted to live on the coast since I was a pre-teen and finally got that chance when I left that abusive relationship I talked about earlier. For me, the ocean provides a sense of peace. When I’m feeling uptight or stressed, I just head to the ocean and watch the waves. They come in and they go out. Every minute. Every hour. Every day. No matter what is going on in my life, those waves come in and they go out. It gives a kind of clarity to my issues and helps me see the bigger picture. Plus, the characters in my head must love the beach, too. Whenever I’m walking, they begin to tell me stories. I always have a lot to write down after a sunrise walk.
If I couldn’t live in the US, I would pick Kotor, Montenegro. I spent a day there while on a cruise from Rome to Athens and fell in love. I told my mom, my cruise partner for the trip, to head on back to the ship, and I’d just stay in Montenegro and write. I loved everything about Kotor and even saw a little flat to rent above a shop. I was ready to put my money down and stay until the next great American novel was written!
FQ: You have many beautiful passages in this book. One that I was quite taken with is: ‘...If you step forward with facts and proof, you possess knowledge, and knowledge is a great thing, but knowledge isn’t what God is seeking from us. He wants us to learn faith...’ This was an immensely powerful passage and is this something that came to you, and you wrote it down or was it one of those moments in writing when the passage wrote for you?
BROWN: I love that this passage meant something to you! When I finished writing that passage, I just sat and stared at it for some time. I can’t quite explain it, but it is like something I’ve both known forever and have been searching for. It is now part of my own faith journey, and I try to remember it whenever doubt begins creeping in where faith should be. It goes hand in hand with my other favorite line that “everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.” I firmly believe that there is a reason behind all that happens to us in this life and that it is for our eventual good – even when we can’t see or understand the “why” behind it. To get to that end, one must be willing to walk forward in faith.
FQ: In line with my previous question, when you sense that transgression from fluid writing to forcing your pen, how do you get back to fluid writing?
BROWN: Sometimes words just don’t flow well, and everything feels forced. I handle it one of two ways. I either put the pen down (in my case, I shove the keyboard to one side) and get out in nature OR I just keep writing knowing that it will be trash. Here’s the why behind those. Getting out into nature is my spark. There is something about fresh air that does wonders for the mind. If I can add in a water element, even better!
But why would I keep writing even if I know it will be trash? Sometimes you just have to get through. The trash will move the story from one place to the next, and maybe it is in that next place that fluidity will return. I can always go back and fix the forced writing later.
In general, I don’t worry about it too much. My characters have a story to tell, and they are going to get the words out one way or another. I just listen and write it down.
FQ: It was interesting to see the dynamics and differences between characters Yevtsye and her mother Ivanna and how you bridged their differences with the development of Yevtsye’s daughter Ionna. I often smile and say there is ‘no such thing as fiction...rather, it’s bending the truth to how one wants the story to play ou...’ Were there real people you fashioned these characters after and if so, do the real people recognize the similarities?
BROWN: There were a lot of real people who molded these characters, but no one character is modeled after any one person. It’s more of a conglomeration of character traits and experiences. If my mom or children or husband look closely, they will each find something of themselves. That is also true for friends and extended family. There’s even quite a bit of me in all three women. I asked one of my daughters whether she saw similarities in the characters. She said she did. She recognized both my oldest grandson and oldest granddaughter in the Ionna as a toddler. She recognized herself in some of the camp counselor scenes. She recognized my mom in one of Ivanna’s scenes.
My hope is that everyone can see a bit of themselves in these characters, cheer for them, cry for them, and sigh when the book finally ends.
FQ: In your bio you also mention you are a mother and grandmother. What is one moment in being a grandmother that stands out for you where your child has reminded you that ‘...you never let us do that...’ when it came to allowing your grandchild to do something? How did you justify your action(s)?
BROWN: I love being a grandma. It is everything I loved about being a mother without any of the things I didn’t love as much. My husband often quips that if he’d known how much fun it was being a grandparent, he’d have done that first. I have to agree!
I have 10 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Six of the grandchildren and the two greats are my “bonus” grands – grandchildren I inherited when I married their Papa three years ago. My four biological grandchildren are all four years old and younger, so I’m just in the beginning stages of “you never let us do that” with them.
During the first few months of COVID, my oldest daughter, her husband, and my then 15-month-old granddaughter lived with us. I spent two months as her playmate and loved every minute. I tried really hard to not ‘break the rules’ her mom set up, but I have to admit that I would sneak treats, sing extra songs at bedtime, and never forced her to eat anything she didn’t want to eat.
How did I justify it? I didn’t! I’m the grandma and this is just what grandmas do. I just smile and say, “You just wait. You’ll get your turn, and I promise, you’ll do the same thing!”
FQ: How do you ‘mentor’ others in the writing process?
BROWN: Most of my formal mentoring comes through my volunteer work with teens at church. I love teaching and leading by example. When it comes to writing, I do the same thing. I’ve had several of my children’s friends send me their short stories and ask for advice. I always make time to edit or give praise or offer suggestions for making a stronger piece.
Mostly, I just encourage anyone wanting to write to do it. Don’t wait. Don’t think you have to get it perfect. Don’t think you have to have a fancy degree. Don’t think that you will never be able to write the way ‘insert some author’s name here’ writes. Don’t let someone tell you that you’ll never be enough. Write. And I promise that the more you write, the better you’ll get.
FQ: It has been a pleasure to chat with you today and I thoroughly enjoyed reading Sunflowers Beneath the Snow. Are you working on your next book and if so, are you able to share any details?
BROWN: My next book is well into the editing phase. This historical novel, An Enemy Like Me, is set in WWII, but once again, the setting is the backdrop. The true story is about the angst of war as a first-generation German-American finds himself in the throes of WWII in the middle of Germany. He has to come to terms with who he is – German, American, or both. The book explores the concepts of xenophobia, intrafamily dynamics, and the recognition that war is not won and lost by nations, but by ordinary men and the families who support them through the eyes of the soldier, his wife, and his four-year-old son. I’m hoping to have it ready by the end of the year. To get a sneak peek at this novel, you can sign up for my newsletter at www.terimbrown.com.
Thank you so much for chatting with me about my writing. I appreciate your interest and am so glad that you enjoyed reading about my characters as much as I enjoyed writing about them!