Robert Gwaltney and Jeffrey Dale Lofton interview Richard Mirabella author of Brother & Sister Enter the Forest
Richard Mirabella is a writer and civil servant living in Upstate New York. His stories have appeared in Story Magazine, American Short Fiction, Split Lip Magazine, and elsewhere. He's the author of the novel Brother & Sister Enter the Forest.
Inside Voices (Robert): I read that Brother and Sister Enter the Forest, your debut novel, is inspired by a Grimm’s fairy tale. Share a little bit about that.
Richard: My novel is partially inspired, or shaped, by the Grimm’s tale Little Brother and Little Sister. I started writing a novel about siblings before I read the fairy tale, but when I read it, it jump started something in me and really helped shape the story I was struggling with. It’s a longish tale and sort of involved, so I’ll just tell you the part that stuck out to me and that I ran with. The little brother, after he and his sister run away from their cruel stepmother (of course), drinks from a stream that was cursed by his stepmother, who they didn’t realize is a witch! The brother is transformed into a fawn, and the sister vows to take care of him, but she is distracted by marriage to a king, and then her own problems with the witch. So, my novel is not a retelling, the fairy tale is present. The symbols are there.
Inside Voices (Jeffrey): The audiobook is narrated so beautifully by Eve Passeltiner. It makes me wonder whose story this is, Willa’s or Justin’s?Richard: Eve did such a great job. It’s funny, this is a conversation I’ve had with many people! Whose book is this? Well, it’s both Willa and Justin’s story. Some days I think it fully belongs to Willa, and some days I think it belongs to Justin. While writing, I never decided, though there were periods when I was fully living inside Justin’s story. He has a lot going on, but I’m interested in Willa. Her quiet life, her reactions to Justin, her conflicting desires to help and to escape.
Inside Voices (Robert): What interests you most about sibling relationships?
Richard: I’m most interested in how these relationships change over time, from childhood to adulthood. In childhood you’re kind of stuck with this person. You have no choice but to interact with them. Later, it’s a choice. You’re bound by blood and familial loyalties. These can sometimes be hard to escape. I’m also fascinated by how siblings remember their lives. I think many siblings assume their experience of their childhood matches that of their sibling, but this isn’t always the case. Memory is a funny thing. “I don’t remember it that way!” “We were never as happy as you’re claiming!” That kind of thing. You have a witness to your life to some extent. They may not see you, your history, the way that you do.
Inside Voices (Robert): There are dual timelines within the book: adolescence and adulthood. Talk about that choice and the impact you wanted to make.
Richard: That choice came about late in the process. I’d been writing for a few years, revising a linear version of the novel that just didn’t work. I thought it was boring. So I sat with the document open and moved sections over to a fresh document, and realized it would work better out of sequence. I thought about this emotionally. How moments in the past would feel next to the present, and if I could fit in-between moments (like Justin’s time in Albany) into this collage. This is when I felt I’d gotten close to what I wanted my book to be. Years into the process! You have to have so much faith when you’re writing a novel.
Inside Voices (Jeffrey): A review compared your writing to Shirley Jackson and other writers. Who are your literary titans and why?
Richard: Though I adore Shirley Jackson and want to say my writing is like hers, I don’t think it is. She has more in common with Henry James. Those beautiful, ornate paragraphs. My prose, at least in this novel, is sort of clipped and direct. But I think there’s an eeriness that comes from Shirley. I wanted this novel to be a ghost story, and it kind of is. So many writers inspire me, though you may not see it in my work. My titans are James Purdy, Joy Williams, James Baldwin, Barbara Comyns, and Toni Morrison. And there are people writing right now that make me want to keep writing. People like Leni Zumas, Dan Chaon, and Miriam Toews.
Inside Voices (Jeffrey): Now that Brother and Sister Enter the Forest is out in the world, what’s next?
Richard: I hope another novel. I’m trying. It is really tough. I knew writing a second novel would be difficult after publishing one. I didn’t have pressure before, and didn’t expect to be published. No one is pressuring me, mind you. I’m pressuring me. I have a story collection that needs work, but I haven’t given up on it. I love short fiction and I want to have a story collection in the world.
"This debut novel hits all the right themes: marriage, motherhood, ecological collapse, and the insidious ramifications of capitalism." --Julia Hass, Literary Hub, A Most Anticipated Book of the Year