Friends With Benefits
Rebecca Kelley Talks About Her Novel of Modern Relationships
I first met Rebecca in a fiction workshop at Portland State University in the Spring of 2002. I sat down with her recently to learn more about her writing style, her process, and her thoughts on how writing changes the writer. We also talked about her new book. —Christi R. Suzanne
Christi R. Suzanne: Writers, editors and publishers often give writers common advice. What do you find most helpful?
Rebecca Kelley: The best advice I ever got was when I was agonizing to a professor about whether or not I could make it as a writer. I remember that he told me that only 10% of the writers he knew made it as writers, but that the 90% that didn’t make it, didn’t make it because they stopped writing altogether. I always remembered it because it just makes me think that if I quit writing then of course I’ll never make it as a writer, but if I keep doing it, maybe I could.
Suzanne: Least helpful? One that comes to mind is Write what you know.
Kelley: I don’t like the “write what you know” advice, either. Especially if you are a fiction writer—because you have to make stuff up! Another piece of advice I don’t like—and I’ve heard this more than once—is when people say that you should not put your characters alone in a room. They should have people to interact with at all times. But I really enjoy reading scenes where characters are alone. Think of, like, Robinson Crusoe or any of those survival stories. I like even those quiet moments where characters are alone because in real life we don’t really get a chance to see people when they are all alone. I like seeing those moments in movies, too. I just like seeing how people behave when they’re all by themselves, and imagining what the characters would do.
Suzanne: How does writing change the writer?
Kelley: I think maybe it just influences the way you look at the world when you’re a writer. I know that John McPhee, I think it was, says that writing is about finding the story. I like that idea that as a writer you’re kind of living your life looking for a story to tell.
Suzanne: And even the most boring person has a story.
Suzanne: How did you come up with the idea for Broken Homes & Gardens?
Kelley: For some reason I remember coming up with this idea that I wanted to write about two people that are in a friends-with-benefits arrangement, but then I wanted them to eventually fall in love. I thought it would be an interesting challenge. Most people in a friends-with-benefits arrangement are in that type of situation because they don’t want to be in a serious relationship or they don’t like each other enough to commit. So I liked the challenge of trying to figure out how two people would go from a friends-with-benefits relationship to something more than that. And the novel was born!
Suzanne: As I read through this book I couldn’t help but think back on my own early twenties. I think you captured the mindset of someone who is feeling a little lost and somewhat passive in her own life decisions. Not everyone in their twenties behaves like this, but I definitely identified with some of the decision making/lack of decision making Joanna falters between. In your opinion, what did Joanna have control over in her own life and how did that affect her relationships?
Kelley: I don’t think that Joanna was that passive. I think actually she was pretty active, but what she was active in was creating boundaries and keeping people away from her...which maybe is a form of passivity, in a way, because she was trying to avoid life. She was always trying to create rules in order to keep herself from getting hurt.
Suzanne: I was struck by Joanna’s freedom in her sexuality. I think it’s great that she could act on her attraction to Malcolm with little trepidation, though initially she keeps him at arm’s length. You show their attraction for each other in an authentic way. A lot of writers find it difficult to write sex scenes, me included. Did you stumble over these sections at all? I don’t think you used the “fade to black” more than once. I was impressed, so if you can talk a little bit about that...
Kelley: Yeah, well, I did struggle with writing some of those scenes. Sometimes I found myself getting a little too obsessed about the logistics of the sex scene. Like, “if her left arm goes there, that means his arm would go here,” but that was too complicated. I read somewhere that it’s best to rely mostly on emotions rather than the physical components of the scene.
Suzanne: Well, it worked, and there were some logistics in the scenes, and some mixing it up a bit. So what makes this love story different from other love stories?
Kelley: In classic love stories, love and marriage were often a matter of survival for women. We don’t need to find love to be fulfilled these days, but that doesn’t mean we have relationships all figured out. We have new concerns now, and my characters deal with those concerns in what I hope are original ways.
Suzanne: Are you working on anything new right now?
Kelley: I’ve finished two novels and am working on a third one now. It’s about college students in an off-the-grid cabin in the Wallowas, in Eastern Oregon.
Suzanne: Between Gatsby and Rochester, which life partner would you choose?
Kelley: Gatsby?! I would choose Mr. Rochester, for sure. Even though he’s a little older than I would go for.
Suzanne: And he’s a bit stuffy.
Kelley: He’s dark and brooding. He’s blind, but that’s okay.
Suzanne: Do you think you are most like Katniss from The Hunger Games or Emma from Jane Austen’s Emma?
Kelley: I’m actually offended that you asked if I related to Emma. I am just like Katniss. And I would win the Hunger Games.
Suzanne: I’m sure you would.
Christi R. Suzanne is a writer living in Portland, Oregon. She recently finished her first novel and is working on her next.
Rebecca Kelley will read from Broken Homes and Gardens on June 22nd at Powell's Bookson on Hawthorne in Portland. You can follow her on twitter at @rkelleywrites.