The writing life

Kenwood woman writes first novel at the age of 86

"Write what you know" is an adage familiar to nearly anyone who has ever put pen to paper. Whether the phrase is regarded as transcendental advice or merely an old cliché, it is hard to argue with experience.

At 86 years old, Ruth Brin has experienced quite a bit. The diminutive mother of four is an outgoing, talkative woman with a rich history shaped by family, war, religion, education and nature. And she has just written her first novel.

"The Most Beautiful Monday in 1961" focuses on six Jewish people on a boat ride in the titular year. The tension is high as the characters, bound together by the recent war and their varying degrees of faith, struggle through the rivalries and pain caused by business and romantic relationships as well as private losses.

"It’s a very short novel, but it deals with a lot of fundamental life issues," said Brin, appearing comfortably cozy in her Kenwood apartment, recounting her book’s journey to publication.

"I always wanted to be a writer," Brin said — something she has definitely accomplished. Although "Beautiful Monday" is her first novel, it isn’t her first published work. She has written several children’s books, as well as a memoir and a few volumes of poetry. She wrote book reviews for the Minneapolis Star Tribune and continues to write reviews for American Jewish World, a Twin Cities-based publication. One of the poetry collections, "Harvest: A Collection of Poems and Prayers," along with her memoir, "Bittersweet Berries: Growing Up Jewish in Minnesota," are still in print.

Brin’s background helped foster a love of literature.

"My mother was always encouraging me," she said.

Her mother’s love of nature inspired her, and many poems — as well as the title of her memoir — are derived from time spent on wilderness hikes on summer vacations with her family.

Brin majored in political science at Vassar College before she married her husband. After starting a family, she attended the University of Minnesota to work toward a master’s degree in American literature, writing all the while. Her work, both academic and published, led her to an opportunity to teach at Macalester College for several years.

Her years of teaching, learning and raising a family all contributed to Brin’s work on her novel. She admitted that she began it years ago, and even started and later discarded other manuscripts before finding the story for "The Most Beautiful Monday in 1961."

"I might have been able to write the book 10 years ago, or maybe finish it, because I had started it before then," she said. "But not before that, no. It has reflections about getting older and things that I’ve come to realize over time … as you remember things, it makes you reconsider what you did and why you did it."

She paused for a moment, taking a sip of ice water.

"Sometimes, some things you thought were important in your life turn out not to have mattered that much; some things you haven’t thought over carefully turn out to be really significant."

Reworking the material she had, she said, was a major part of her process — something that didn’t go unnoticed by her family.

"The fact that my mother is a writer has always influenced me because whether I was a child or older, I knew artists had to work and rework and rethink and reframe what they put down first on a page," explained Brin’s daughter, Judith Brin Ingber, a dancer and writer living in Minneapolis. "Improvisation and inspiration are part of the creative process, but so is honing and reworking."

When Brin was done editing her book, she began to look for a market. Not surprisingly, she sighed, it was a slow and difficult process.

"When I was looking for an agent," she said, "They told me, ‘Well, we can’t sell regular fiction; we can only sell mysteries and thrillers.’"

She finally came upon Lerner Publishing Group, a Minneapolis publisher with an emphasis on educational or Jewish children’s books. Despite the target of their literature, "Lerner Publishing Group very occasionally publishes an adult title of Jewish interest or by a local author," said Joni Sussman, a director at Lerner.

Brin expressed relief and gratitude at finding a happy ending for the book’s long journey.

"It’s difficult for the arts," she said. "I’ve been a working writer all along, and I didn’t make a living from it. Fortunately, my husband worked full-time; I couldn’t because of our family. I’m very satisfied that I’ve published what I have and that I’ve been able to get this novel out."

"The Most Beautiful Monday in 1961" has already gotten a rave review from fellow Minnesota poet Phebe Hanson, and Judith Brin Ingber has no doubt that Brin’s years of work on the book have paid off.

"My mother originally wrote her first draft of this novel when I was in junior high, I think," Brin Ingber said. "Then it waited like wine in a bottle and she took it out only very recently and reworked it, so I’m sure it’ll be special when it’s finally opened for the reader of today."

Now that she has accomplished something she’s dreamed of for years, will Brin continue to write?

"I certainly don’t plan another book. I have a few poems. It’s possible I could get together another little collection of poetry," she said. "I feel good that I’m still able to do book reviews and get them published. Most people at 86 don’t get to do that!"