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Lauren McBrayer: On What Our Characters Teach Us

Writer Lauren McBrayer discusses the transformative power of writing her adult debut, Like a House on Fire.

Lauren McBrayer is a graduate of Yale with a law degree from UC Berkeley. A working mom of three, she is the head of business affairs for a television network in Los Angeles. Like a House on Fire is her adult debut. Find her on Facebook and Instagram.

Lauren McBrayer: On What Our Characters Teach Us

Lauren McBrayer

In this post, Lauren discusses the transformative power of writing her debut novel Like a House on Fire, how the idea changed over time, and more!

Name: Lauren McBrayer
Literary agent: Kristyn Keene Benton
Book title: Like a House on Fire
Publisher: Putnam
Release date: April 26, 2022
Genre/category: Fiction/Literary/Women/LGBTQ+
Elevator pitch for the book: An electric and seductive debut novel about a woman at a turning point in her life, and what happens when she discovers the spark that makes her feel whole again.

Lauren McBrayer: On What Our Characters Teach Us

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What prompted you to write this book?

When I first set out to write Like a House on Fire, I would have said that the idea for the story came to me out of nowhere while I was on a girls’ weekend for a friends’ 40th birthday. At the time, it felt as if Merit and Jane just announced themselves in my brain one sunny afternoon and demanded that I pay attention to them.

I didn’t see myself in Merit at all back then; I didn’t yet recognize that she was my literary avatar, a me-that-wasn’t-me, enabling me to venture into territory I otherwise might never had explored. It seems crazy to me now, but I didn’t see the me in Merit at all, which I’m grateful for, because it gave me the unfettered freedom to take her wherever she needed to go.

Now, three years later (to the day in fact), I understand that these two female characters showed up in my mind exactly when I needed them to answer questions I didn’t yet know I needed to ask, and that their fictional journey toward one another gave me the space and the permission to explore my own very real fears, disappointments, and desires.

How long did it take to go from idea to publication? And did the idea change during the process?

Three years to the day. The idea for the story came to me on April 26, 2019, and I began writing it in earnest a few months later. It took me about a year after that to complete the manuscript, and my editor, Gabriella Mongelli at Putnam, bought it in October 2020.

The idea changed quite a bit over the course of the process. When I first started writing, I thought that Merit and Jane would have one hot weekend together and then realize that their friendship was more important than sex. As it turned out, that is not what these characters wanted. These women wanted me to realize that they would become more of themselves together, and that love doesn’t follow a script.

But even once I’d committed to giving Merit and Jane the deep, profound love story they demanded, I couldn’t see how it was supposed to end. So I wrote the best final chapter I could and sort of threw up my hands. Then, the weekend before we went out with the book, a little nagging voice inside me kept insisting “it doesn’t end that way.”

So I gave myself permission to write a different ending, just for me. I wrote it in one sitting, with very little pausing or editing, and when I finished it, I knew I had to include it as an epilogue. There have been several edits of the manuscript since then, but I don’t think a single word in those five pages have changed

Were there any surprises or learning moments in the publishing process for this title?

There were several learning moments in the publishing process. The most significant was the moment I understood that publishing a novel about a woman who falls in love with another woman would require me to declare my own sexual orientation and acknowledge the deeply personal nature of this narrative. It sounds naïve as I say it now, but it didn’t cross my mind as I was writing this book that someone would ask me if I identified as gay.

If I’d stopped to imagine how writing a book like this—much less publishing it!—would light my life on fire, I might never have completed it. But, gratefully, by the time we took my manuscript out to publishers, I’d come to terms with the end of my marriage and my newfound sexuality and was ready to acknowledge how much of my own journey is on the page.

Lauren McBrayer: On What Our Characters Teach Us

Were there any surprises in the writing process for this book?

Pretty much everything was a surprise with this book. The biggest revelation for me was who Merit turned out to be. I didn’t expect her to be the one to initiate the romantic aspect of her relationship with Jane, or to pursue it with such intensity and desire.

The specific trajectory of their relationship was also a surprise to me—both where it started and how it ended. I knew that the tale I was weaving was one about intimacy, and what happens when intimacy develops organically over time between two people who haven’t placed any expectations on their relationship, which required a very particular set-up.

When we meet Merit and Jane, they are co-workers with a power differential, and I know for some readers, the workplace dynamic is uncomfortable. But this was an important initial setting to me, because I wanted these women to have zero expectation of true friendship with one another. The surprise and delight of unexpected connection was the narrative driver for me. Merit and Jane each feel seen and understood and fully accepted by the other, and there is magic in this. That magic propels them forward, toward each other, with growing intensity and emotion.

My job as a writer was just to pace myself and to enjoy all the discoveries along the way. I never imagined they would end up where they ultimately do, but I am so glad I was able to give them the ending they deserve.

What do you hope readers will get out of your book?

More than anything, I hope readers will embrace the complexity of Merit and Jane’s story. Nothing about their relationship or its arc is meant to be black and white. It’s supposed to be gray, because life is gloriously gray.

If you could share one piece of advice with other writers, what would it be?

Whatever story you’re writing, give it room to breathe. Often where we start with an idea is miles away from where we end up, and if we hold too tightly to the original idea, we miss the alchemic magic that happens when a story transforms from the thing we think it is to the thing it actually wants to be.

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