Writer Nic Brown was just another Chapel Hill townie, working at the Ackland Art Museum, when he published his first novel, “Doubles,” in 2010. A funny and poignant story about a tennis prodigy returning to his hometown after a family tragedy, the book was a huge critical success.
Things happened quickly after that. Brown, his wife and his newborn daughter moved to Colorado, where Brown got a teaching position at the University of Northern Colorado. After a writer-in-residence stint at the University of Mississippi, and a brief return to Colorado, he landed at Clemson University in South Carolina, where he now teaches in the English department.
But Brown’s heart has always been in North Carolina, as evidenced by his new novel, “In Every Way,” which is again set in Chapel Hill – with a significant detour to the coastal town of Beaufort. The book tells the story of Maria, a UNC freshman whose life is upended by an unexpected pregnancy and the terminal illness of her mother, an English professor. It’s funny and heartbreaking at the same time, with carefully observed details on its people and places.
Brown recently spoke about writing, teaching and the hazards of French pronunciation.
Q: The new book is set in Chapel Hill and Beaufort, and the descriptions of both towns are very vivid and specific. Did you spend time in Beaufort growing up?
A: No, I didn’t go there growing up, but a really good friend moved to Beaufort when I was still in Chapel Hill. Visiting him, I spent a lot of time down there.
It’s a place I’m very interested in, historically and geographically. My wife and I went on our honeymoon there. In the very early stages of the new book, I had just read “You Lost Me There,” by (Chapel Hill author) Rosecrans Baldwin. He set the book in Maine, and I knew he loved it there, and I could feel a special part of him coming off the page when he was writing about this place. It was important to him.
And I had this realization – when you write about a place that’s beautiful and you care about, the writing is better. It was like literary tourism, planning a trip. I was like – where do I want to put my mind on the page? I thought of Beaufort. It was the stage on which I could tell this story.
Q: What was the genesis of this particular story?
A: This is the first book where I’ve written the entirety of it as a parent. That’s been the main thing on my mind for the last six years now. So I wanted to find a way to write about parenthood. When I started, I was writing from the point of view of the (biological) father, then the adoptive father. Then I had the realization that the birth mother’s story is just so much more interesting than these men’s stories.
So that’s how I ended up in consciousness of Maria. I wrote a short story from her point of view, just as a sort of exercise. And it was so much fun. That story ended up being the first chapter of the book. That’s how I landed in her head.
Q: The book has a lot of very interesting details on the actual process of adoption. Did you do a lot of research for that?
A: No, I didn’t actually, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some of it isn’t right. Essentially, I knew one young woman who was a birth mother in an adoption situation, and she shared her story with me. She was really open about all the details, the process and the letters you receive from potential adoptive parents. It was so fascinating – the odd bureaucracy around it all.
I thought at one point that I should do more research, but I worried that it would just stop my fiction process, and become more of an essay about the adoption process. There’s obviously a lot of powerful, emotional stories about adoption out there. I felt like it could take a lifetime to really dig in.
Q: In the story, the baby is named Bonacieux, after a character in “The Three Musketeers,” because Maria’s mom is an Alexandre Dumas scholar at UNC. How do you pronounce that?
A: It’s funny you ask, (as I was) getting ready to do “The State of Things” (on WUNC) I thought: I’ve got to call Rosecrans – he speaks French – and make sure I have the pronunciation right.
One interesting thing I learned, from the birth mother I talked to, is that parents planning to give up a child for adoption will often give them really odd names or weird spellings so that they’re easy to Google later, if they want to find them.
I couldn’t believe that was a thing. That would have never, ever, ever crossed my mind. It made me think about the whole modern situation of adoption, and that comes into play in the book. And it speaks to the consciousness of a 19-year-old in today’s world. That’s the fun of fiction right there, getting this thing out into a story that I would have never thought of on my own.
Q: Now that you’re in the academic world, how do you like teaching?
A: I love teaching. I really do. I think if I hadn’t found a way to teach creative writing at the college level, I would have tried to get there through a traditional Ph.D., or just taught at the secondary school.
It suits my personality. I’m comfortable talking to people. And it’s really great me for me. Because fiction writers, you know, it can get really lonely. You spend hours alone just imaging things. So for me, it’s great to have an excuse to go into a room full of other people who are totally ready to talk about fiction.
I’ve had this experience before – several times with the new book – where I’m giving a student advice about writing fiction and I have an epiphany about what I’m working on. I do things in my writing that are the exact thing I’m telling my students to avoid doing. The exact thing. It’s so hard to get perspective on your own writing. Classes help keep me thinking about the craft.
So yeah, I just love it. For example, I’ve been sitting here this morning writing a lecture on “The Great Gatsby” and it’s like – I just can’t believe I get to spend my morning this way.