We Are the Brennans author Tracey Lange on exploring family dynamics and the fictional families she loves
The author opens up about her debut novel, including how her upbringing contributed to the story.
Sunday Brennan is coming home.
In Tracey Lange's debut novel, We Are the Brennans (out now), the author introduces readers to the Brennan clan, who are brought back together when Sunday — the dependable daughter everyone leans on — is injured in a car crash. Having lived in Los Angeles for years, Sunday must return home to her family in New York to rebuild. That reunion forces her to face past resentments, the reasons she initially left, and the secrets members of her family are keeping, which all come to a head upon her homecoming.
While the novel is partly inspired by Lange's own big Irish Catholic family, We Are the Brennans isn't strictly autobiographical. First and foremost, it's an exploration of the idea of returning home. "This was a good opportunity to dive into these family dynamics," Lange tells EW, "and I love writing about a family that is so loving and would do anything for each other but, at the same time, they feel this need to hide their mistakes and flaws, and have secrets."
She adds, "I wanted to explore those two opposing forces, the power of shame versus the power of all this love and loyalty the family feel for each other."
Below, Lange discusses how the Brennans came to be, exploring complex family dynamics, and much more.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What made Sunday the right character to make the driving force of this story?
TRACEY LANGE: To me, she made a lot of sense. [Sunday] coming home is really what sets everything in motion. There were certain things that set her apart, including being the only girl in the family, that she definitely had a different sort of relationship with her mother than [her brothers] did. She carried a lot of burden, as they all did in different ways, but she had some that were individual to her. That eventually led her to decide to move across the country for five years, so she seemed like the right person to be driving the story.
Why did you choose to write through the perspectives of multiple characters instead of having one central figure? Was it difficult to keep track?
I was a little nervous because it was an awful lot of voices. I wanted to make sure they were each individual and we didn't lose track of anybody in the mix. I didn't have too much trouble keeping track of things because I had my own little map just to make sure. The way I transitioned from one chapter to the next really helped give me structure to work from when using so many characters. I really like the idea of using this many voices because it was a great way to show most of the people in this book are really holding on to some heavy secrets, and it let the reader in on some of them when the other characters didn't know.
We Are the Brennans really dives into family and secrets. What did you want to explore about these topics?
The idea that even in the most loving families there's still situations where people feel the need to keep secrets from each other, even if they're simply trying to protect themselves or their other family members. I wanted to explore the whole idea of who gets hurt, what are the known repercussions that could come out even generations later, and how that impacts the entire family. Nobody, or almost nobody, in the book is holding on to these secrets out of any ill intentions, but there are these unforeseen consequences that end up impacting all the people around them. I wanted to dive into all of that.
Mickey is disregarded as the older man of the family whose memory isn't as sharp as it once was, yet there's so much going on with him. What inspired him, and how much fun was he to write?
He was a lot of fun to write! He's not based on my father, but I was able to draw on some of my dad's story as far as immigrating from Ireland, working in construction, and things like that. I was able to build that into Mickey's character, so that alone was kind of fun.
It was really interesting to look at this man who has been a very strong figure in the family at a point now where he's being sidelined. But at the same time, he wants to be in the loop, to help his family, and to know what's going on. He's not sure how to do it, but he's kind of running his own little investigation throughout the story to figure out what's going on in his family and what he can do to help.
There are many characters who are part of the Brennan clan. Did any of them surprise you while writing?
The character that I had a little more fun with than I expected or planned to was Jackie, the younger brother. I would have loved to be able to spend a lot more time with him, but I thought he had an interesting perspective on his family, being young and in on one of the more important secrets of the story and battling with what to do with that. He also kind of had a fun edge and voice for me, so he did end up being surprising in that he came naturally and I had a lot of fun with him.
Which relationship was difficult to write?
The most difficult was Sunday's relationship with her mom, Maura, and probably her relationship with most of the people in the story. It was important to try to get across a balanced view because it would be easy to judge Maura and her story pretty harshly. There's a reason why she behaved the way she did, and I just hope that I was able to present both sides of her.
Another complex relationship Sunday has is with her first love, Kale. What made them an interesting pairing to include in this narrative?
I loved the idea that this family sort of adopted another child, and he was such a big part of the family. I thought that as much as he's part of the family yet just a little bit on the outside, he could offer a really interesting perspective. Imagine coming back home and your former fiancé is your brother's business partner, and he's very much in the family and presence on a daily basis. It nicely complicated things for Sunday, and creates lots of good tension.
What is it about reconnecting with family that is so ripe for storytelling?
It seems like a universal relatable thing. Not everybody is carrying around secrets like the Brennans are, but people are spread out more often. You have your family you grow up in, and you may go in one direction and your siblings go in another; you may all end up living in different places. There's something that is interesting about the theme of coming back home or coming back together to the people that really usually know you best, even if you don't live next door to each other, or in the same house like the Brennans do.
Speaking of the relationships in the book, Theresa and Denny have an extraordinary meet-cute. How did you come up with it?
I would love to take full credit, but a similar thing happened to friend of mine who was a bartender many years ago. He did not end up going out with the girl or marrying her, but I always remember that story because it was just so funny. It always stuck with me, so I thought while it didn't work out for my friend, it could be a way for Denny to meet his wife. I thought it was a cool way for two people to meet and start out.
The Brennans are a great complex fictional family. Can you share some other family dramas that have stayed with you?
Some books that have stayed with me for a long time are I Know This Much Is True, by Wally Lamb, and The Heart's Invisible Furies, by John Boyne. These are very tangled, beautiful, messy family dramas. One that actually made me laugh out loud is This Is Where I Leave You, by Jonathan Tropper. A show that I absolutely have loved is Shameless. One that is more about a family that you create is All The Ugly and Wonderful Things, by Bryn Greenwood. Those are the kinds of stories that I absolutely love.
What do you hope people take away from We Are the Brennans?
Ultimately, to explore being able to face the hard stuff together as a family rather than trying to bury it of hide it from each other, and the forgiveness and understanding that can come with that. That's one of the big messages I hope people take away from the book.