As I get older, I often turn to my community for additional inspiration. Writing a novel, riding a motorcycle, or going back to school - you can do it. Age is just a number. Instead of keeping these inspirational friends to myself, I am starting a monthly interview to highlight their amazing stories. Do you have someone in your life who is doing something to inspire you? Leave your thoughts (or their names!) in the comments section.
Today’s interview is with my cousin, Brenda Bevan Remmes. She spent her career in healthcare education and is a Peace Corps veteran. She is also a successful writer, with contributions to a variety of southern publications, journals and even Newsweek. Her first novel, The Quaker Cafe, was published in 2014, brimming with southern heart about a small town where, regardless of what happens behind closed doors, the neighbors meet to try to solve local problems in entertaining ways. The Quaker Café is based on a real restaurant, in a small town, in eastern North Carolina that was settled by Quakers. Brenda and Bill have been members of the Society of Friends (Quakers) since 1974 and all three of her books carry the Quaker theme. Her second novel, Home to Cedar Branch, tells of the Quakers offer of sanctuary in an effort to avoid a violent standoff in their town. If you don’t know much about Quakers, you’ll find insight to modern day Quakers in her stories.
Brenda and her husband, Bill, were recipients of the Sargent Shriver Award which is given to former Peace Corps volunteers who continue to contribute to their local communities. Part of their involvement in eastern North Carolina is apparent in her third novel, Mama Sadie, when they formed a grassroots movement to stop the building of a hazardous waste incinerator nearby. Her story demonstrates what a group of rather unassuming people can accomplish when motivated to action.
So, get to know Brenda. You will love her as much as I do!
GITNB: Tell me what it was like growing up in a family of storytellers?
BRENDA: I honestly never realized what a gift I’d been given until later in my life. Surrounded by story-tellers within my family I would sit for hours at the dinner table listening to them spin everyday occurrences into entertainment. You never asked “How was your day?” and expected to get a one sentence response. There was always a story involved. I quickly learned that the truth was only important as the way to get the story rolling. The entertainment factor was far more important, especially if it gave everyone a good laugh.
GITNB: What was the biggest lesson you learned from your experience in the Peace Corps?
BRENDA: The Peace Corps changed my life. I realized that I could take off on my own, live in a foreign country without the luxuries of running water and electricity, solve problems that years earlier seemed insurmountable, mainly because there was no one else around to solve them for me, and live quite well on a little bit of money. I learned that strangers are kind and most people just want to get to know you and have you know them. I learned a foreign language, something Americans are woefully inept at. I learned not to be afraid of what I didn’t understand and I met some very wonderful and special people who have lasted a lifetime…most important of course, is my husband.
GITNB: What started you on your path to writing?
Brenda: I wrote a lot while I was in Peace Corps. At that time there were no phones or internet access back home, so I wrote letters almost daily. I should have written my first book then, but I realized that too late. During my work-years, I wrote mostly grants and curriculum designs for educational projects. It wasn’t until I retired at 65 that I decided to try writing a novel. In 2002, I moved to South Carolina into an old family home of one of my relatives. Along with a cousin we found a barrel in her attic that contained, literally hundreds of letters dating back to 1827. These were letters written by our family members. I began to read them and put together threads of stories. My first book Everything Happens at the Crossroads is a family history based on the stories around the dinner table and the letters we found in the barrel. There was just too much wonderful information to not get it recorded in some form for future generations. We published enough copies for each of our family members. But it’s also available online for anyone to read. Everything Happens at the Crossroads.
GITNB: What advice would you give young inspiring authors?
BRENDA: The writing world is changing almost faster than I can keep up with it. It used to be you couldn’t get published until you could find a publisher and an agent. I have been very lucky (and I do mean LUCKY) to have a great agent and publisher, but in recent years online publishing has made it easier and easier to publish your own book without the need to have an agent. Places like Createspace will walk you through how to set up your book online and then sell it through Amazon. Kindledirectpublishing (KDP) is another online access to publication. However, before you worry about getting published, I strongly advise you spend significant time learning the tools to be a good writer. There are some really fine books that have been self-published, but there are also some real duds. We’ve lost the quality control by letting everyone who wants to write a book be able to put it online without any censorship. I have been a member of a top notch writing group for 15 years now. We meet monthly and read parts of whatever writing project we’re each working on at the time. We give constructive criticism and encourage one another to expand and improve our work. It’s not uncommon for me to rewrite a chapter a dozen times. I’ve even thrown away the entire second half of one of my books and started all over again. That’s what writing is all about...turning your characters and plot into sympathetic people who are believable. It takes me two years to write a book—a year after that before it gets published.
GITNB: What are your top three favorite books you would suggest to readers?
BRENDA: So much to choose from and more coming out every day. A lot depends on your interest. I always tell people that the book that got me writing was John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. I read that book and I wanted to write one just like it. A mystery surrounded by quirky characters with a lot of history around them that was both amusing and in some ways quite funny. In addition I love everything Rick Bragg writes: All Over but the Shoutin’ would be a good one to start with. Rick writes biographies that have you laughing out loud on one page and sobbing on the next. He can evoke more emotion in a few pages than any other author I know. If you want to be inspired to write, definitely Ann Lamott’s Bird by Bird. For me: a beautiful religious inspirational book is Philip Newell’s Listening for the Heartbeat of God. When studying about non-violence, before I wrote my second book on sanctuary, I read El Canto by Ann Patchett, a beautiful book. So many…I could go on and on.
GITNB: Any additional nuggets of wisdom you can impart to aspiring writers?
BRENDA: One of the most beautiful letters I read was written by my great-great-great grandmother to her granddaughter in 1879. She begins by saying, “I am now 74 and beginning to forget dates, but I want to tell you a little something about my life.” She proceeds to write 10 pages back and front describing her life: the War of 1812, the Civil War, the illness and death of her only child and husband, her challenge to be the mistress of a plantation with 99 slaves. It’s an amazing story. I tell people that until I found that letter, I only knew this woman as the name on a grave stone in the family cemetery. Ten pages introduced me to a person and the type of life she led. I encourage everyone to write a letter telling someone about your life. Write it to one of your children, to a niece or nephew or a best friend and leave it as part of your will. You never know who will come along someday (someone like me) who will find it and want to write a book around your life. Every life is a book waiting to be written.
Click here to find out more about Brenda