The Sweetest Debut: Jennifer Brown on The Sad Timeliness of Her Historical Novel About Unplanned Pregnancy


Welcome to the Sweetest Debut, a regular column in which we reach out to debut (or near-debut, we’re flexible!) fiction, poetry and nonfiction authors, working with presses of all sizes, and find out about their pop culture diets, their writing habits, and their fan-fiction fantasies.

The 1930s have been evoked frequently of late — the rise of Nazism giving many Americans pause in the era of Trump. In Jennifer S. Brown’s Modern Girls, the era is revisited through the unplanned pregnancies of a Jewish mother and daughter in New York City. With Planned Parenthood and Roe v. Wade under direct threat, her story is sadly relevant.

What is your elevator pitch to folks in the industry describing your book?

In 1935 New York City, an immigrant mother and her unmarried 19-year-old daughter both must face the consequences of unplanned and unwanted pregnancies.

What do you tell your relatives it’s about?

It’s inspired by my great-grandmother who got knocked up during the Depression.

How long was this project marinating in a draft or in your head before it became a book deal?

I had the germ of the idea almost 14 years ago, but I didn’t sit down to write it until about six years ago. Three years I spent writing it, and then it was a year and a half from selling the book to publication.

What can women facing potential restrictions on their reproductive freedom learn from your characters?

I wish I had an uplifting message to impart, but options for pregnant women in the 1930s were extremely limited, expensive, and dangerous, and I worry we are headed back to those dark ages. I think what women can learn from Modern Girls is that we need to do everything we can to maintain our reproductive rights, whether that’s speaking up, protesting, writing your congresspeople, donating and volunteering at places like Planned Parenthood, and whatever else you can think of. It’s important that women understand where we came from and why it’s vital we don’t go back. Legislation against abortions won’t prevent abortions; it’ll merely prevent safe abortions.

Name a canonical book you think is totally overrated.

The Old Man and the Sea, though really, anything by Hemingway. A Movable Feast was tolerable but I find I have to slog through his novels.

What’s a book you’ve read more than two times?

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera.

“La Ville” by Fernand Léger

Is there a book or other piece of art that influenced your writing for this particular project?

Fernand Léger’s [1919 painting] “La Ville” helped me envision the claustrophobia of a city. I so admire it that I placed a scene in the novel in the Museum of Modern Art and have my character looking at that specific painting.

What’s your favorite show to binge watch when you’re not writing?

At the moment, it’s The Crown on Netflix, but in the past it’s been Stranger Things, House of Cards, Downton Abbey, and Transparent.

What’s the last movie you saw in theaters?

This is a little embarrassing, but it was Bridget Jones’s Baby. The embarrassing part is not the movie, but how much I enjoyed it. My tween daughter is terrified of all movies except rom-coms, so we had a mother-daughter date.

Do you listen to music while you’re writing? If so, what kind?

Because I write historical novels, I create playlists on Pandora for different decades. I listened to the 1930s one whenever I wasn’t feeling motivated, and it would help set the mood. My current work-in-progress takes place between 1912 and 1926, so I have 1910s and 1920s playlists to listen to depending on which section I’m working on.

If you could buy a house anywhere in the world just to write in, where would it be?

I grew up in South Florida, and I would love to return there (from New England) to write. However, by the time I could even remotely consider doing something like that, Miami Beach will be completely submerged under water because of climate change. So in that case, maybe somewhere in Provence?

What did you initially want to be when you grew up?

I recently found a worksheet I wrote in 6th grade that said I wanted to be a psychiatrist, live in Texas, and have twins. I’m happy to say none of those things came to fruition.

Do you prefer working in a buzzing coffee shop or silent library?

Buzzing coffee shop, but not because of the noise level; because of the caffeine. My local library has a gorgeous reading room I like to work in, but I don’t go as often simply because of my need for coffee by my side. After having kids, I learned to write no matter how quiet or loud (though quiet was more nerve wracking, because it meant they were up to no good).

Do you work at a desk, bed or couch?

I’m a nomadic writer. I write in bed first thing in the morning and occasionally on a lazy Sunday. My desk has a yoga ball chair so I sit there when my back needs a little love. The kitchen counter is where I spend most of the time, and when I get tired of that, I moved to the couch.

Do you prefer morning writing or late-night writing?

I’m a morning person all the way and I’m happiest when I’m in bed by 9.30pm with a book to read.

Does your process involve writing it all out in one big messy draft and then editing, or perfecting as you go (or something in between)?

Somewhere in between. I write huge chunks and then the plot usually veers in a direction I wasn’t expecting, which means I need to stop to go back and revise what I’ve already done before I can continue moving ahead.

How do you pay the bills, if not solely by your pen and your wit?

For many years, I paid the bills writing and editing for anyone who would pay me. If you’ve read an annual report you particularly loved, it’s possible it’s my work. Fortunately, once my kids got a little older, I was able to dedicate myself full-time to mothering and writing.

What is your trick to finding time to write your book while also doing the above?

When I was freelancing and mothering, I wrote mostly shorter things, essays and short stories that were published in literary journals. When I began to work on the novel or when I was participating in NaNoWriMo, I would write wherever I could, which often meant sitting in the waiting room while the kids had swim lessons or in the break I took for lunch. Now I write while the kids are in school.