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Author Adrienne Brodeur on what keeps her writing about family secrets

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Four years ago, on this program, you heard me interview the writer Adrienne Brodeur. She had a book out - a memoir about family secrets and infidelity - and it was set on Cape Cod, Mass. Well, Brodeur has just published a new book - a novel titled "Little Monsters." It's a story of family secrets and infidelity, and it is set - wait for it - on Cape Cod. Adrienne Brodeur, welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

ADRIENNE BRODEUR: Thanks so much for having me.

KELLY: So your earlier book, "Wild Game," was one of the most gripping memoirs I have ever read. And I am curious, having tackled these themes and this setting so beautifully in a work of nonfiction, why revisit in fiction?

BRODEUR: You pegged it when you indicated how fascinated I am by family secrets, and I think it was just a delight to write about a different family. And although you've pointed out a few similarities, I'd say this family is very, very different from my biological family. It was also especially fun to go into various characters' heads. It's a multiple-point-of-view novel, and so I wasn't stuck in one character...

KELLY: In only knowing what you knew.

BRODEUR: ...In only myself.

KELLY: Yeah.

BRODEUR: Yeah.

KELLY: Well, let's talk about this family - the fictional Gardner family - who, if you were an outside observer, would think, gosh, they're perfect. They've figured it all out. Briefly introduce us to the Gardners.

BRODEUR: Right. So the Gardners are a small family. It's a father and his two adult children. There's Adam Gardner, who's the patriarch and a renowned marine biologist. He's about to turn 70. And he's on the brink of making just an enormous scientific discovery that will keep him relevant. His ambitious son, Ken, is 41, and he's just sealed a real estate deal that will catapult him into a new stratosphere of wealth and privilege. And this is really going to enable and help his run for Congress. And then the other child, Abigail, is 38. And she is finally finding her voice as an artist and is about to be discovered in a big way. But what you quickly learn about this family is that they're all holding some information. And they have all, for a variety of different reasons, decided to reveal their big secrets at Adam Gardner's 70th birthday.

KELLY: Which I won't give anything away, but it does not go as any of them would have hoped or planned.

OK, I want to follow up on Ken.

BRODEUR: OK.

KELLY: Let's start there. I did not like Ken. Like, I really didn't like Ken. He's not nice to women, even the women he allegedly loves - his sister, his wife, his daughters. He's - there's a scene that I couldn't get out of my head where he's hanging on his porch. And he's pounding beer with his buddies, and they're leering at young teenaged girls. To the extent that you can explain without giving things away, why is he so awful? Does he have to be so awful?

BRODEUR: I worked hard to make him less awful (laughter). I actually...

KELLY: Really? This was the less awful...

BRODEUR: This is...

KELLY: ...Version of Ken?

BRODEUR: Well, I actually - what I tried to show about Ken was he's wounded. He's the most wounded character in the book. And humans are like any other animal, which is they're at their most aggressive when they're hurt. I am always interested in the gray area of characters. I'm not someone who's excited about heroes and villains, but more in what's courageous and corrupt in all of us.

KELLY: The father - the patriarch, Adam - he wrestles with mental illness, and you have a chapter where you write in heartbreaking detail about his depression. I know because you told me the last time we spoke that you have wrestled with depression, and I wondered what it was like to write that chapter.

BRODEUR: He is a character who, when the novel opens, is in a bout of mania. And he, interestingly, wants to extend that mania because he is excited by what his brain can do when it's not anesthetized by his medication. So he actually stops taking his medicine, which is playing with fire and which does ultimately lead to quite a sinking depression. But I actually didn't relate Adam to me at that moment in terms of writing about his depression. He was at a very different point in life. He's really anxious about his fading relevance. He was so convinced of this brilliant idea and his - what he was about to discover, and then he isn't sure that it's real in the end.

KELLY: Yeah.

BRODEUR: And so his was just completely different than my own 20-something-year-old depression that I talked about in "Wild Game."

KELLY: Yeah. There's one more character, Steph. She is a member of this family, but she grew up not knowing that. She's the product of a one-night stand decades ago - one of the many secrets kept in the book. She spends the whole novel trying to figure out, does she want to be part of this family? Does she want to be a Gardner? It so intrigued me, her storyline - that idea of being able to choose your family and whether you can.

BRODEUR: I love that, too. And I will say that that was not conscious as I was writing it. Both my parents happened to have half siblings that they didn't know about. So I've always been fascinated...

KELLY: Really?

BRODEUR: ...Both from the point...

KELLY: Both of them? OK.

BRODEUR: Both of them (laughter) - both from the point of a half sibling entering a family, but also how it must feel to make that discovery that the truth of your history is not as you understood it before. But the unexpected question that I took away from the book, which I actually loved sort of as a discovery in the final chapters, is that we're all born into families, and we kind of accept the terms of those families without thinking we have a choice. And what Steph showed me is, well, some people do. And so, you know, what if we all did have a choice? What would we do then?

KELLY: I am struck by how many secrets are in the book - how intrigued you obviously are by family secrets. They pervade your fiction and pervaded your memoir. It makes for such a compelling book. It makes for a really exhausting life - to never quite know what's going on. Just speak a little bit to that - about what fascinates you so here.

BRODEUR: Well, I think probably what's fascinating is that I'm afraid it's much more normal in my own childhood and upbringing than it probably is for most people. I think one of the things that I find interesting is the assumption that everyone makes about others based on their own experience. So each of the characters in this book - and probably every person on some level - somehow assumes that they know most of the information, when, in fact, we all know so little. I mean, sometimes we don't even know what motivates ourselves. But someone looks at you a certain way, and you develop a story around that 'cause we're all storytelling animals and we create these stories. But, by and large, they're rarely accurate. And I just find that fascinating.

KELLY: Yeah. Adrienne Brodeur - her new novel is "Little Monsters." Thank you.

BRODEUR: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: June 30, 2023 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous web introduction incorrectly said that Little Monsters was Adrienne Brodeur's fiction debut. It is her second novel.
Elena Burnett
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.

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