As a blogger you sometimes know that you’d love a book that you sadly haven’t got time to read. Among the Branded by Linda Smolkin is one of those books. However, I am lucky enough to have Linda on Linda’s Book Bag today (and that feels very strange to have so many Linda’s!) to tell me all about Among the Branded.
Among the Branded is available for purchase from your local Amazon site.
Among the Branded
What if a 70-year-old letter from World War II changed the course of your life?
While attending Valor of the ’40s, art director Stephanie Britain stumbles upon a flea market selling letters from the war. She buys a handful, hoping they’ll inspire the redesign for a client’s website at her branding and design firm. She’s at first drawn by the lost art of penmanship, but soon discovers a hidden treasure nestled inside declarations of love from homesick soldiers. Stephanie enlists a coworker to translate one and realizes it’s not a love letter after all. When a shocking discovery about a client causes Stephanie to question her principles and dedication to her firm’s business, she’s forced to make a difficult decision—one that could give her peace of mind, yet ruin her career in the process.
Contemporary fiction with a historical touch, Among the Branded explores family life, an unexpected friendship, and moral conflicts that make us wonder what’s more important: our livelihood or our beliefs.
An Interview with Linda Smolkin
Welcome to Linda’s Book Bag, Linda (and it seems odd to be writing that). Thank you so much for agreeing to answer some questions on my blog about your writing and Among The Branded in particular. Firstly, please could you tell me a little about yourself?
Thank you, Linda. Great first name, by the way! Without boring your readers with too much detail, I live in the Washington, DC area with my family of four (hubby, teenage son, and dog). I’ve been writing forever and fortunately I get paid for it in my day job, which is great because I have very few other skills!
When did you realise you were going to be a writer?
I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was ten and saw my first TV commercial. At the time, I didn’t realize the profession was called copywriter, but that’s what I became after graduating university.
Your day job sees you writing very different materials to novels. What skills are transferable do you think?
So many! Meeting deadlines. Learning how to chop unnecessary words. Being able to work well with editors and colleagues who review my work. Knowing that when people want to make changes—or aren’t crazy about the first draft I’ve written—that it’s not personal. Having a thick skin!
So, which aspects of your writing do you find easiest and most difficult?
The easiest part is when I hand my manuscript over to my editor and wait for her feedback (I take a deep breath and wait), or when I’m having fun coming up with new ideas for books. The most difficult aspect is when I’m editing and I have to dig deep to either get on the same emotional level as my character or understand my characters’ motivations and why they do what they do.
What are your writing routines and where do you do most of your writing?
I work full time so I write/edit my novels in the evening or on the weekends at home. Right now, as I type, I’m in that fun stage of thinking up new ideas for a third book. My editor has my second novel, which will come out in Spring 2018, if all goes as planned. This is her second read-through so I’m hoping (knock on wood) that I’m almost there!
Without spoiling the plot, please could you tell us a bit about Among The Branded?
The story connects the past with the present and follows Stephanie Britain, an art director who works at a branding and design firm. She befriends a Holocaust survivor while, at the same time, finds out something disturbing about her newest client. Throughout the novel, she deals with difficult choices of how to remain professional while taking a stand for what she believes in. The story also touches on friendship, family, and the lessons history can teach us.
The concept of surprising discovery underpins the plot to Among The Branded. How did that story arc come to you and have you had any similar personal experiences?
I never thought of it this way, but you’re right. This concept comes into play when Stephanie deals with a moral dilemma at work based on her surprising discovery. From that, I figured a way to get from A to B by having Stephanie attend a living-history event (Valor of the ‘40s) and stumble upon a flea market where a woman is selling love letters from WWII. There’s a twist with this because one of the letters isn’t what Stephanie thought it would be. So, yes, the concept of surprising discovery plays out in different ways throughout the novel. I haven’t had a surprising discovery to the extent of my character, but for example, I’ve found notes left in library books. When reading the notes, I sometimes feel guilty because they weren’t meant for me, but I couldn’t help myself!
(I think we’d all do exactly that!)
You had an agent rejection because Among The Branded was ‘too controversial a topic’. What is the role of fiction in dealing with the difficult issues do you think?
What’s great about fiction is that there are so many genres and readers who enjoy a variety of books. There’s something for everyone, and I think it depends on what you’re in the mood to read. When I’m writing, I’m not really thinking, “I have to bring this idea/theme home because it’s important to me as an author,” but in general I do think about moral dilemmas, the various types of relationships people have, and how differently people mourn when losing a loved one. Those are some things I tend to write about, and often I gravitate to reading those types of books. At the same time, if someone tells me that they want to escape in their fiction and not having anything too deep, I completely respect and understand that.
How did you go about researching detail and ensuring Among The Branded was realistic?
I read books, did Internet searches, and listened to and read veterans’ stories on the Veterans History Project, which is a project of The Library of Congress. The description on their website says it makes accessible the personal accounts of American war veterans so that future generations may better understand the realities of war. Also, my father was a Holocaust survivor and, although one of my characters was inspired by him, the two are very different. But the one thing they have is common is their ability to have sense of humour. I was always amazed at how my father could have such a great sense of humour after going through what he did. In my novel, I talk about how laughter is the best medicine, and I believe that. Regarding the moral dilemma my main character faced: Stephanie could have responded in many different ways. I don’t want to give it away but it was very important to me to make her decision realistic and not far-fetched. We never know how we’re going to handle a situation until we’re put in it.
If you could choose to be a character from Among The Branded, who would you be and why?
I’d probably choose to be Svetlana. She’s my main character’s friend and colleague. Svetlana is a secondary yet important character in the story. She’s confident, smart, and has skills, such as programming, that I don’t have. And, she’s a bit sassy and likes to use colourful Russian language at times.
If Among The Branded became a film, who would you like to play Stephanie and why would you choose them?
I was thinking about this recently and at that time I chose Jessica Chastain, and I still think she’d make a great Stephanie. But not just because they’re both about the same age and have auburn hair. Chastain is great at playing characters who are confronted with difficult choices and put in tricky situations. Besides, she was fabulous in The Debt, The Help, and Zero Dark Thirty.
I know you’re very happy to Skype book clubs to talk about Among The Branded. How might book club members get in touch with you?
I would absolutely love to join a book-club conversation. I have a contact page on my website at lindasmolkin.com where you can send me a note.
And finally, if you had 15 words to persuade a reading group that Among The Branded should be their next read, what would you say?
Eek, the pressure is on! I’d say:
A modern-day twist on historical fiction about family, friendship, and difficult choices we must make.
Thank you so much for your time in answering my questions, Linda.
Thank you, this was a lot of fun!
About Linda Smolkin
Linda Smolkin always wanted to be a writer—ever since she saw her first TV commercial and wondered how to pen those clever ads. She got her degree in journalism and became a copywriter. Linda landed a job at an advertising agency, where she worked for several years before joining the nonprofit world. Among the Branded is her debut novel.