Q & A
Ann Brashares on the Second Summer of the Sisterhood
The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, your debut novel, received much critical praise, awards, and adoration from readers of all ages. What are your thoughts on its success and why do you think it resonated so heavily with readers?
Its success has been a wonderful surprise each step of the way. From the outset I tried to keep my expectations very low. I know how hard it is to get a book published let alone have it succeed. I’ve read many excellent books that did not succeed commercially. Here I give credit to the publisher, Random House, and to the booksellers. They supported the book wholeheartedly.
To the extent that it has resonated with readers, I am grateful for it. I sense that they have responded, more than anything else, to the unconditional love and loyalty that the Sisterhood represents.
I tried not to let the success change anything, but it kept creeping into my consciousness anyway. I worried that I wouldn’t live up to the hopes of my readers. I worried that I would forget how to write. I worried that I never knew how to write in the first place. I worried a lot and I wrote very little.
When I finally forced myself back to my computer, I worried I had fallen out of touch with my characters. They felt to me like friends with whom I'd been intensely close, but hadn't seen in a long time. It's painful, in a way, to have to ask clunky, anonymous questions of people you used to know in an intimate, hour-by-hour way. Luckily, though, when I started to spend real time with Carmen and Bee and Tibby and Lena, I relaxed. I grew close to them again and enjoyed being with them so much, I forgot all the things I was worrying about.
As for expectations, I still try to keep them in check. But I do allow myself to hope. I hope that readers who liked the first book will like the second one, too.
It didn’t start out that way exactly. As I was working out stories for each of the girls, I realized that most of them involved their mothers to some degree. So I just went with it. The mother-daughter bond is about as rich a subject as any I know. And I felt those relationships could give a center of gravity to a book that otherwise ran the risk of going in too many directions at once.
My relationship with my mother doesn’t resemble any of the ones in the book precisely. There are some thematic similarities to Carmen, though, in that my parents were divorced and I had to come to terms with my mom having a romantic life of her own.
Even though I’m closer to the age of the mothers, I related more to the daughters. I think that’s because I wrote the book from the girls’ points of view. Although I tried really hard to imagine how the mothers would feel, I didn’t actually spend my days thinking their thoughts the way I do when I’m writing in a character’s point of view.
Also, my daughter is not a teenager yet. When she gets to be a teenager, then I’ll really understand what those mothers go through.
Female friendship remains a central theme in the second book, do you have your own Sisterhood? In your writing, you seem to have a real understanding of the importance of those bonds, how have you come to know that?
I have a few very good old friends from childhood and some more recent friends whom I love dearly. But truthfully, I think the Sisterhood is more fantasy than reality for me. I grew up in a house full of boys (wonderful boys, I should mention), and always dreamed about sisters.
Next summer will be the girls’ last before they split up to go to college. That’s going to be a big deal for them. I suspect Tibby is going to fall in love for the first time. I have a feeling Bridget might encounter Eric, the soccer coach, again. I have a few other plans up my sleeve, but I think I better keep them secret.
I don’t really write with the idea of trying to teach any lessons. I want to tell a story as truthfully and engagingly as I can, and then let the chips fall where they may. But I realize when I get to the end of the story, I care very much that my characters evolve and grow. In spite of their torments and their selfish impulses, I care that they are guided by a spirit of goodness. I want them to set a high standard for compassion and for friendship.
Ann Brashares on The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants
The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants was born in an unusual way. I was working as an editor at the time, chatting in the office with a colleague and friend who told me about a summer when she and some girl friends shared a pair of pants. She told me the pants had sadly been lost in Borneo. My mind was immediately filled with all sorts of wonderful possibilities.
I think pants have unique qualities, especially in a woman’s life. Whatever bodily insecurities we have, we seem to take out on our pants. In high school, my friends would have their skinny pants and their fat pants. I like pants that allow women not to judge their bodies. The Traveling Pants are the kind of pants that always love you. They fit my characters’ bodies in a non-restrictive way.
At the moment, my favorite pair of pants are bright red. They are cropped, slightly flared summer pants. Like a good friend, they are flexible, forgiving, and boost my confidence even on really off days. They are low maintenance pants–never requiring dry cleaning or even ironing. The waistline is zippered and definite, so it doesn't have that subtly defeated quality of elastic. And these pants manage to make me feel loved even through major body transitions (like having a baby!).
The concept of The Pants is directly related to my experience with my wedding dress. Before I had chosen a wedding dress, I had a picture in my mind of what mine would look like. One day, my mom and I were touring wedding venues in the Washington, DC area where I grew up. Our guide showed us some wedding photographs, and one of them showed a bride wearing a dress just like the one I had imagined. The tour guide invited me to take the picture home, so I did, and I left it in my drawer.
A few months later, the sister of a friend, a young woman named Hope, asked if I had picked my wedding dress. I hadn't. Hope’s recent wedding hadn’t worked out. She wasn't broken-hearted about the groom, but she was broken-hearted about her beautiful, amazing dress not being worn. She asked me if I would consider wearing it at my wedding. I didn't know Hope very well, so I politely declined a few times. Yet she was strangely insistent and later arrived at our friend's apartment with a huge box. Through the clear plastic front I could see that the dress inside was remarkably familiar. It was exactly the same as the dress in the photograph I had put in my drawer. I was ecstatic.
I tried to give the dress back to Hope, after I had worn it in my wedding, but she didn't want it.
So I decided, in the spirit of her generosity, that it was a fortuitous, serendipitous kind of dress, and needed to be shared some more. Since then, it has been worn beautifully by my older brother's wife, my middle brother's wife, and my lifelong best friend. These are probably the three women I am closest to in my life–my own sisterhood. I'm hoping it will be worn again. In fact, I am imagining that instead of the next bride throwing the bouquet at the end of the wedding, she can ball up my wedding dress and throw that.
I love to travel and have taken a lot of trips, but have never actually been to either Baja or Greece. I did a lot of reading and imagining for those stories. They existed more in my imagination than any place else. I love islands. I loved that Oia, the town where Lena’s grandparents lived, was stuck in time and had this geological drama in the background.
I grew up in Chevy Chase, Maryland, which was very Plain Jane. When I was a kid, I had a scrapbook that I used to write letters in from places I wished I could have gone. I would imagine being in Argentina and then write about all the incredible things I was seeing there. This book is almost like a continuation of those imaginary years.
I first fell in love when I was 14 or 15, but it wasn’t immediate falling in love, it was a slow… slow fall. The person I fell in love with immediately was my husband. He is an artist and we met during my freshman year at Barnard. He sat across from me and drew a picture of me in the Columbia University Philosophy Reading Room. I hadn’t even noticed him, but a friend of mine saw what he was doing and told me. As soon as I went out with him, that was it. It was the first time I felt like I loved someone instantly. We’ve been together ever since.
Oddly enough, they aren’t. They are composites of different people. I based Lena's story on the Greek myth of Artemis, the proud, boy-hating goddess of the hunt who, when spotted bathing by a suitor, turns the poor guy into a stag. I wanted my Lena to be less pleased with herself, though, and for her suitor to be more formidable. The story of Tibby and Bailey I based on the great, great movie It's a Wonderful Life. Bailey started out more like an angel than a person. I imagined her as an angel who revealed the cynical little prejudices and presumptions that I remember finding so seductive when I was fifteen. Carmen was the girl who said things I could never say and Bridget was the girl who did things I would never do.
There’s a little bit of me in each of them. I would say I have more in common with Lena and Carmen than the other two. I have some life experience in common with Carmen, but we are considerably different too. I am a little like Carmen in that I sometimes feel as if I lose myself when I'm out of context. Also, I have dealt with issues of divorce and step families. For the protection of the innocent, though, I must say that my own family circumstances were completely different than hers. As for Lena, I guess I know what it is to feel awkward and inward sometimes, and romantically, to feel like a big chicken. Sometimes the girls provided me with an escape or a fantasy.
Carmen struck me as the person who was most conscious–who recognized the importance of the girls’ friendship. She didn’t just live it, she knew it inside and out. I think she’s the most introspective of the four.
Loyalty and love. And I mean the kind of love that parents have–unconditional. So often, relationships become competitive or marked by pettiness or envy. For relationships to really transcend the negative stuff in life, they need to be without judgement. I wanted to create a story about a rare bunch of girls who didn't succumb to malice or jealousy and, instead, learned to grow alongside each other and in support of each other. I like the idea in this book, particularly for Carmen, that they are just going to love each other whole-heartedly, no matter what.
I think that relationships do change over time. And that’s another reason why Carmen has the role she does. She has an awareness that the relationship is fragile and that so many other priorities, like boyfriends or distance, can get in the way. People’s lives inevitably go in different directions as they get older, when they stop having so much in common. They have to work not to let it go.
Honestly, I mostly hope they'll enjoy it and take pleasure away. I want it to be the kind of book that will stick with them a bit, the way books I liked when I was that age stuck with me. If there's a message, I guess it's just this: love yourself and your friends unconditionally.