Introducing Debra Rose Brillati
October 26, 2023
Debra Rose Brillati joined our little TGLR fam in 2022 reading nonfiction for Issue #9, after which she agreed to step into the role of editor. From the get-go, Debra Rose has been wonderful to work with. She’s diligent, dependable, and thorough with her review of all the writing in her care. She’s also kind and lovely to talk with.
I asked her a few questions about her life, writing, influences, and what she gets from working on the journal and her response was, not surprising, succinct and beautifully written…
I am happily retired, living with my husband in an 1820 farmhouse in Auburn, NY. The house is rambling enough for me to display the many treasures that have come down to me from our family homestead near Scranton, Pennsylvania. I pursued my MFA particularly to write the book about my family’s history that I had always felt called to write. The many artifacts, photos, and documents from both my Italian and German immigrant families that are all around me helped me to channel the life and times of those people whom I have called the “constellations in my childhood sky.”
I am grateful to have finally gotten on paper the stories I have always felt it was a sacred trust for me to tell. I sometimes wonder why I didn’t do it sooner—what kept me from writing for so long. But I think writing happens when it is supposed to. No book can be written before or after it is actually written—because then it would be a different book.
Currently I am trying to find a publisher for my book, an arduous process. If I thought it was hard to write the book, it is even harder to try to get it published and requires a completely different skillset. While I haven’t done it yet, I will set a deadline for myself soon and if the book has not been picked up by then, I will go through yet another arduous process to self-publish. Don’t let anyone tell you being a writer is not hard work!
For a time in the late 80’s, I transcribed oral history interviews for the civil rights history series Eyes on the Prize. When I pressed “play” on the very first tape, the voice I heard, trembling yet powerful, was that of Mamie Till Bradley, Emmett Till’s mother, telling the horrific story of her son’s murder. It was a life-changing moment for me. Eventually I would develop and implement several oral history projects of my own. In my oral history work—interviewing, writing, and teaching—I experienced over and over the joy that comes from helping interviewees re-live times in their lives, dramatic and ordinary, and come to recognize the value and beauty of their own stories. This work sparked an enduring belief in the importance of sharing our truths through storytelling and ignited an intense desire to listen for the voices that too often go unheard.
Some of those unheard voices had been calling to me since my childhood. Growing up in the family homestead built by my Italian great-grandfather in 1917, every space I entered, every wall and window and banister I touched, connected me to those who had come before. Every door in this house of many doors whispered secrets and I was compelled to listen. Relatives who had long since moved on from this house were still here in the worn spots on the front porch steps and the indentation in the wall left by a doorknob after an angry slam. They were in the knicks in the porcelain sink and the stains in the clawfoot tub. They were in the creaks in the floors and the frayed ropes in the double-hung windows.
Over the years, I have read a wide variety of historical novels and non-fiction histories and biographies. I love immersing myself in another time, imagining myself there, and walking in the shoes of the real people who lived through events we usually only understand from a distance. The books I looked to for inspiration for my own writing are those that look back to explore the history of a place, an event, a community or a family in a way that artfully reveals the hidden threads connecting the story to the contemporary narrator and reader. I don’t make a sharp distinction between fiction and non-fiction; I have found both capable of beautiful lyrical prose and poignant storytelling.
Two classics stand out for me: Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood. I have found myself hypnotized by Scout’s reflective voice looking back on her own childhood and the history of her community and family while her rhythmic prose has immersed me in the foreign world of the not-so-long-ago South. Annie Dillard’s reminiscences have a more familiar quality that resonate with my own family stories. Her deeply-layered narrative not only paints a portrait of the author but also of a particular time and place in our country in a way that allows the contemporary reader to sense the currents of connection that run throughout all of our stories.
Before the MFA program, revision was tortuous for me. Over the course of the two years, I came to see the process of revision as the place where the real writing happens—where I figure out what it is I am trying to say. I have always been praised for my ability to describe places, people, and events with such detail that readers feel they are there. But in the program, I learned that those descriptions must be in service of something—they must contribute to the piece’s knot of meaning. Both my descriptions and my narratives have improved as a result.
Working on the staff of The Good Life Review gives me an opportunity to read an array of nonfiction writing and use what I have learned in the MFA program to critique brand new works by fellow writers. My favorite part is the end of the review process when a submission is selected and I allow myself to imagine the author getting the notification that their piece is being published.
For all its difficulties, and the truly hard work that it is, the writing life IS a “good life.” As writers, we are free to put whatever words we choose on the page—and know that no one on the planet can put them together in exactly the same way.
When I am not reading or writing, I serve as a Pastoral Care Leader and co-chair of the Racial Justice and Reconciliation Commission for my Episcopal Church. I am also on the board of the Harriet Tubman Boosters (Tubman lived the last 50 years of her life in Auburn, NY).
Debra Rose… Thank you taking the time to share about your life and writing and for your work on the journal. I appreciate your efforts as an editor also the organization and communication skills you bring to the team. I’m glad we met!!
PS. More about Debra Rose and all of our TGLR editors is available on the Masthead.