New Voice: Gayle Brandeis on My Life With The Lincolns

Gayle Brandeis is the first-time children’s author of My Life With The Lincolns (Henry Holt, 2010)(author blog). From the promotional copy:

Mina Edelman believes that she and her family are the Lincolns reincarnated. Her main task for the next three months: to protect her father from assassination, her mother from insanity, and herself—Willie Lincoln incarnate—from death at age twelve.

Apart from that, the summer of 1966 should be like any other. But Mina’s dad begins taking Mina along to hear speeches by Martin Luther King Jr. in Chicago. And soon he brings the freedom movement to their own small town, with consequences for everyone.

Gayle Brandeis has written a novel that is at turns laugh-out-loud funny and wise, acute, and compassionate. In My Life with the Lincolns, she gives us the unforgettable Mina Edelman, a precocious girl who faces, along with saving her family, the puzzling experience of growing up.

How did you approach the research process for your story? What resources did you turn to? What roadblocks did you run into? How did you overcome them? What was your greatest coup, and how did it inform your manuscript?

I love research, so I approached it with great excitement and enthusiasm. I spent a lot of time in the library and online looking up Lincoln lore, since my character Mina thinks her family is the Lincoln family reincarnated and is quite obsessed with the Lincoln family.

I was sure to copy down information that made me laugh (such as learning about Tad Lincoln riding around the East Room of the White House in a goat-drawn cart) as well as information that made my heart pound a bit (such as reading about Abe Lincoln opening up his son’s coffin so he could see his beloved Willie one last time.) If I read something that gave me strong feelings or just seemed especially interesting, I was sure to take special notice (since I knew Mina would also take special notice) and find a way to weave into my narrative.

When I was already deeply immersed in the first draft, I remembered that there was a Lincoln Memorial Shrine about 15 minutes away in Redlands, California; which has a great Lincoln library and lots of Lincoln memorabilia (including some strands of his hair), so that became a cherished place to do research.

It’s important to me to research with my senses as well as my mind—it helps me write in a more vivid, engaged way—so I also went to Springfield, Illinois; and spent time in the Lincoln family home, Lincoln’s law office and the family tomb, as well as the fabulous new Lincoln Museum and Library there, and it helped me feel much closer to the Lincoln clan.

I would say my greatest research coup was learning about the Chicago Freedom Movement. I knew I wanted to set the story in Chicago (my hometown), and I knew I wanted the story to address issues of civil rights, so that Mina’s story would resonate with all the social change that happened during Lincoln’s time. I did a Google search on “Chicago” and “civil rights” and learned that Martin Luther King, Jr. had come to Chicago in 1966 to bring the civil rights movement North and address issues of housing discrimination.

I plunged myself into researching the Chicago Freedom Movement and realized it was the perfect setting for the story. I’m very grateful to Google for that find.

I can’t say I hit any roadblocks with the research—there was lots of great, readily available information about both the Lincolns and Chicago in 1966. I was even able to speak with a couple of people who had been involved in the open housing campaign, which was incredibly helpful.

Perhaps the only roadblock to speak of was the sheer amount of information and the time it took to sift through it for the shiniest nuggets (but I enjoyed that process, so it’s hard to think of it in a negative way.)

As someone who’s the primary caregiver of children, how do you manage to also carve out time to write and build a publishing career? What advice do you have for other writers trying to do the same?

I’ve often told people that being a writer and a mom is like being a mermaid, being amphibious. I’ve likened writing to diving deep underwater; then, when I’m needed as a mom, I swim back up to the surface. My day would be a constant leaping in and out of the water.

I think I may need to find a new metaphor now that I have a new baby who requires most of my attention. My older kids are 19 and 16, so I had gotten used to having more time to myself, more time to spend in the depths of the sea. Now, with the baby, I’m pretty much a landlubber. When I have time to myself, sometimes I’m too exhausted to dive into my writing.

I need to figure out the balance all over again, grow new glistening scales.

The advice I’d give to other writers is really the advice I need to give myself right now—if writing is important to you, you can find a way to fit it in to your day. Even if it’s just writing a couple of sentences while you’re in the bathroom or nursing your baby. The writing will nurture you just as you nurture your little ones.