Lisa Braver Moss tackles two of life’s most difficult topics; child abuse and domestic violence, with wit, insight, and, as you’ll read here, personal experience. Although fictional, her new book, Shrug, is a step back in time to America during the 1960s scene at Berkeley College. Those were interesting times indeed, full of protests, drugs, and rock and roll; it was also a coming of age for the main character, Martha, and the author. This is an excellent read for anyone, but especially those who may have had similar experiences. So, grab your favorite beverage, get comfortable, and meet Lisa.
Interviewer: Debbie A. McClure
Q I have to start by asking this, Lisa; how much of Shrug is autobiographical?
A Shrug is largely autobiographical. Some elements of the story are different from my own, of course, but I did personally experience most of what’s in the book, both factually and psychologically, and lived to tell the tale…
Q This must have been a difficult book for you to write, for many reasons. How did you make decisions about what to fictionalize?
A Certain images and ideas would come to me as I was writing—or while I was taking a walk. For example, it occurred to me that the story would be tighter with three kids in the family instead of the four in my own family. I felt the main character, Martha, should be more musically gifted than I am. There are other examples where I wasn’t personally at an event that took place, but wrote it such that Martha is witnessing what’s going on.
Q You’ve stated that much of this story is based on personal experience. Why did you opt to write a novel rather than a memoir?
A I felt that in tackling a memoir, I would have gotten way too bogged down by the issue of accuracy. I knew Shrug would be difficult to write, and I didn’t want to throw any more obstacles in my own way than absolutely necessary. I could easily see myself getting lost in the weeds. Of course, one has to get the details right in fiction, too—but in fiction, “right” doesn’t necessarily mean accurate. In short, I felt that I’d have more freedom with fiction. And then additionally, once I “got” the teenage voice, the manuscript fell into place.
Q Most of us can only imagine what living those experiences was like. Was it triggering for you to write this book, or more liberating?
A There were a few times when I cried while writing, but it wasn’t often. Most of the time I was too focused on setting scene, being precise, and creating believable dialogue to have the luxury of reacting (or maybe I should say re-reacting) to the content. The writing was extremely liberating, as was the publication of the book, but my goal was not that. My goal was to write a book that would be absorbing, funny, and interesting to read, and that would make people feel less alone if they had similar experiences as a kid.
Q Martha, the main character in Shrug, seems to stand on the sidelines of the 1960s Berkeley protests. Was this your experience?
A It was. I was way too focused on dealing with family madness, and trying to do well in school, to really engage in the social protesting of the time. I missed out, but I had so much on my plate emotionally that I really didn’t have the bandwidth to join my peers at rallies and protests.
Q Martha focuses on academics and music rather than turning to drugs or other self-destructive behaviors. Why do you think is this her path?
A I think this is a great mystery, i.e., why some people turn to drugs and risky behaviors while others focus on what needs to be done. In Martha’s case, a combination of temperament and drive enables her to work hard despite all that’s going on at home. I don’t think we can really know why some people take one path while some take another. However, I think Martha is way too scared of seeing what it’s like to let go of achievement to really experiment much. It’s one of the sad parts of her life; she really misses out on being a kid.
Q Clearly you’ve given the whole question some thought, but why do you think children living with domestic violence tend to blame themselves?
A That’s another mystery. Many psychologists and researchers believe that it’s too painful for children to acknowledge their own powerlessness in the situation. Instead, in blaming themselves, they can force the situation to make sense. It’s my fault; if only I could be a better daughter, if only I could convince my parents to stop all the hitting, things would be different. But batterers hit because they’re batterers, not because of anything the children do or don’t do. This matter of responsibility may seem simple, but in a lot of kids it causes more cognitive dissonance than self-blame does. Kids want things to make sense.
Q It’s interesting to note that the music of the time plays an important part in Shrug? Why is that?
A I’m passionate about much of the music in the book, and before I knew it, it was permeating the manuscript and Shrug had a running “soundtrack.” That part is true to life—my father really did have a record store in that location (as well as opinions about everything). The “soundtrack” was a good way of enriching the world I was creating. Everyone at that time remembers what songs were popular. They may not have as strong a response to them as Martha does, but the music was a way to enable the reader to experience 1960s Berkeley.
Q Did you have a “shrug” as a child?
A No, that idea just came to me as a stand-in for childhood problems I had that I desperately needed help with, but that didn’t have easy solutions. I also liked the various possible meanings of the shrug, such as I don’t know, I don’t care, and I don’t feel like talking. There are also ways in which Martha knows a lot, and cares too much, and does feel like talking (hence, the book, in her voice). And then there’s the issue of her ability to ignore what’s going on at home (i.e., to shrug it off) in order to achieve her own goals. The shrug has more than one possible interpretation.
Q For personal reasons it couldn’t have been easy writing this book. What do you hope readers take away from reading it?
A When you grow up as I did, with domestic violence and psychological brutality, it’s difficult not to feel ashamed. Though a child is obviously never at fault in a situation like that, many survivors of childhood domestic violence carry shame into their adult lives and may not even be aware of its crippling effects. So I would like for any trauma survivor reading Shrug to feel a little less ashamed, and less alone for having read it. In general, I’d love for readers, trauma survivors or not, to experience Shrug as an entertaining, thought-provoking ride.
Q What’s next for you, Lisa?
A I’m happy to say that I’m working on some essays and gathering my thoughts for another novel.
Thank you, Lisa. We wish you all the very best in your future endeavors. Below are a few relevant links to help our readers connect with this author, and discover her work.