STARRED REVIEW
March 29, 2011

Threads of a mother’s memories weave the fabric of a debut novel

Behind the Book by
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Some writers have always known they wanted be writers. Others have felt a calling to the profession. I, however, fell into fiction writing literally. After slipping and twisting my ankle my second year at college, I needed to find a class I could get to easily on crutches. It was late in the registration period, and I was left with a choice between only two courses: Descartesian Theory and Creative Writing. I might have been clumsy, but I wasn't stupid. I chose the writing class.

Years later, with two master's degrees in the subject behind me, I found myself at an impasse. I'd finished my first book, a collection of short stories called Destination Known, and was ready to write a novel, but needed funding to make that possible. Uncoordinated or not, I wasn't likely to trip into any mounds of cash on the street. Then a classmate of mine from the Iowa Writers' Workshop told me about a fellowship offered to alumni and suggested I apply. It seemed like I had fallen into some luck without actually having to fall. My decision to apply only started to feel like a misstep once I faced the task of beginning the book. Up until that point, I'd only written short fiction, and the prospect of embarking on a novel, even a portion of one to submit for the fellowship, was daunting. In spite of all my writing experience, I genuinely had no clue where to begin.

I tried hitting up friends for family stories, plumbing my own past, even chatting up strangers, but nothing piqued my interest. One night, while complaining to my mother about the glare from my blank computer screen, I happened to ask if she remembered any striking or odd stories from her youth. She mulled it over for a bit, then told me that she recalled the rumor of a priest who'd been buried in a potter's field, but no one would ever say why. The forbidden quality of the secret surrounding the priest intrigued me. I tried to imagine what he could have done that would prohibit him from being buried in consecrated ground, and that was where the root of the story took hold.

The setting for my novel, The Grave of God's Daughter, is based on the place where my mother was raised. All throughout my childhood, we had made trips to her hometown in Western Pennsylvania, and to a young girl, it was like a foreign land that was just a car ride away. I remembered eavesdropping on people as they spoke in Polish, and attending mass at Saint Joseph's Church, the foundation of which my great-grandmother had actually helped dig. Some of the streets were still cobblestone, and there was an enormous neon cross perched on the mountain on the other side of the river that glowed through the night. I'd grown up hearing the tales my mother told about collecting glass bottles to make change, the strict nuns who were her teachers in school and how she'd never seen a mosquito while growing up because of the chemical plant on the other side of town.

While thinking out the novel, those stories began to blend with my own memories. One in particular was the time I visited my great-uncle's house, where he raised pit bulls. The sound of more than two dozen dogs barking was as frightening for me as a child as it became for the narrator of the novel. Though the fabric of The Grave of God's Daughter has many threads of fact, they are only the framework for a story about the unwavering bond between mother and child. Given the source of the story, the theme couldn't be more apt.

If I had a dime for all of the times I'd heard the phrase "write what you know" in creative writing classes, I might not have needed the fellowship grant, but I also might not have written this book. I couldn't have predicted that when I injured my ankle I would stumble onto a career that I love, nor could I have planned that the inspiration for this novel would be a strange scrap of memory from my mother's childhood, but like any good story, even the one behind the novel has plenty of twists and turns.

Brett Ellen Block's debut novel, The Grave of God's Daughter, explores a young girl's coming-of-age in an isolated small town that is keeping a terrible secret. A graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Block now lives in Los Angeles.

 

The Grave of God’s Daughter
By Brett Ellen Block
Morrow

ISBN 9780060525040

Brett Ellen Block

Get the Book

The Grave of God’s Daughter

The Grave of God’s Daughter

By Brett Ellen Block
Morrow
ISBN 9780060525040

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