Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Interview with Debra Brenegan, Author of Shame the Devil

Joining us today is Debra Brenegan, author of Shame the Devil .

Debra worked as a journalist and taught at Milwaukee Area Technical College. She currently teaches English and Women’s Studies at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri.

Welcome to The Book Connection, Debra. It's wonderful to have you with us. Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

I grew up in the Milwaukee area and graduated with a B.A. in journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I worked as a journalist and taught at Milwaukee Area Technical College before beginning my graduate work. I received my M.A. and Ph.D. in English/Creative Writing from The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where I also taught. I now teach English and Women’s Studies at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. For my fiction, I have received a Ragdale residency and was a recent finalist for the John Gardner Memorial Fiction Prize, The Cincinnati Review’s Schiff Prose Prize, and the Crab Creek Review Fiction Prize. My work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Calyx, Tampa Review, Natural Bridge, The Laurel Review, RE:AL, The Southern Women’s Review, The Cimarron Review, Milwaukee Magazine, Phoebe, and other publications. My novel, Shame the Devil, is a historical account of nineteenth-century American writer Fanny Fern (SUNY Press, Excelsior Editions). When not teaching, writing, or spending time with family, I enjoy cooking, gardening, reading and traveling.

When did you begin writing?

Writing has always been a part of my life, but I didn’t always think of myself as a writer. For example, I loved reading and writing more than any other subjects in school, although I did well in all subjects. I kept a journal from the time I was about 9-years-old, and I wrote a short story when I was in sixth grade and gave it to everyone as a Christmas present. I started out as a science major in college and, one day, while walking in the rain, it dawned on me how much I missed my writing classes. Even though I did well in Chemistry, Biology, and Physiology classes, I didn’t feel the same passion toward them that I felt for the occasional literature course I allowed myself. I decided then and there, to change my major to journalism so I could try to make a living as a writer.

Do you write during the day, at night or whenever you can sneak a few moments?

My favorite time to write is in the morning. The afternoon works fine, too, and I can force myself to produce in the evening, if I have to. I find that my sharpness fades as the day wears on – most things I write after 8:00 or 9:00 p.m. end up being deleted anyway, so I usually don’t even bother writing if it is that late.

What is this book about?

Shame the Devil is a novel based on the life and works of nineteenth-century American novelist, journalist and feminist, Fanny Fern. The book covers Fanny Fern’s life (1811-1872), but concentrates on the 1850s and 1860s when her literary career became established and her personal life was a rollercoaster of highs and lows. Fanny Fern was the most popular, highest paid, most published writer of her era. She outsold Harriet Beecher Stowe, won the respect of Nathaniel Hawthorne and served as literary mentor to Walt Whitman. She scrabbled in the depths of poverty before her meteoric rise to fame and fortune. She was widowed, escaped an abusive second marriage, penned one of the country’s first pre-nuptial agreements, married a third man eleven years her junior, and served as a 19th-century “Oprah” to her hundreds of thousands of fans. Fanny Fern’s weekly editorials in the pages of The New York Ledger over a period of about twenty years help to chronicle the myriad of controversial issues of her era while her novels, and the critical response to them, both in her day and through subsequent eras, make clear how America’s literary tradition began to and continues to define itself. This novel strives for historical accuracy, not only regarding Fanny Fern and the events of her life, but in regard to other historical figures of her time including Walt Whitman, Catharine Beecher, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Harriet Jacobs, Charles Dickens, Nathaniel Hawthorne, N.P. Willis and James Parton.

What inspired you to write it?

In graduate school, I took a nineteenth-century American Literature class with a professor who told me, “I know a writer you’re just going to love.” This writer, Fanny Fern, wasn’t on our reading list that semester, so, he added her book, Ruth Hall, to the reading list of a course I took with him the next semester. And, he was right – I adored her! I became so interested in Fern and her amazing life that I started writing papers about her. I applied for and got a graduate school fellowship to visit Fern’s archives at Smith College in Massachusetts. As I learned more about Fanny Fern, I couldn’t stop telling people about her. And people were amazed with her rags-to-riches story. They couldn’t believe that they had never heard of her. When it came time to write my dissertation, I combined my interest in creative writing, literature and Women’s Studies to write a historical novel about this forgotten journalist, novelist and feminist. I wanted everyone who hadn’t heard of Fanny Fern to learn about her; I wanted to bring her back to life.

Are you a member of a critique group? If no, who provides feedback on your work?

I have always tried to be a member of some sort of critique group. The group I’m in right now consists of two other creative writing professors and one retired creative writing professor. We’ve been together for over four years and try to meet about once a month. Not only do we give each other very thoughtful and supportive feedback on our projects du jour, we catch up about our families and teaching – in short, we’ve become friends. I am so grateful to my writing group members because they have unfailingly encouraged me and have helped me to become a better writer.

Do you have an agent or are you looking for one?

I’m looking for one!

Where can readers purchase a copy of your book?

Shame the Devil is available through,,,,  and

Do you have a website and/or blog where readers can find out more?

Indeed! My website is  and my blog is

Do you have a video trailer to promote your book? If yes, where can readers find it?

My video trailer can be found on youtube:

What is one piece of advice you would like to share with aspiring authors everywhere?

The only difference between an aspiring author and a published author is perseverance. Keep at it! If you want to publish your book, and you don’t give up, you will do just that.

What is up next for you?

I am currently working on another novel, set in Missouri, and on a short story collection.

Is there anything you would like to add?

Thank you very much for interviewing me!

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