What a pleasure and an honor to host Martha Brockenbrough on the blog today! An incredibly accomplished writer, along with being the founder of National Grammar Day, she’s probably one of the funniest and most generous women I know. Her latest novel, The Game of Love and Death, has garnered three starred reviews. It launches next week and I know you will not want to miss it.
The Game of Love and Death is, on its face, a book about two teen jazz musicians in 1937 Seattle. They fall in love without realizing they’re pawns being played in an age-old game run by those master manipulators, Love and Death. If Flora and Henry don’t choose each other by game’s end, one of them dies and the other’s heart is destroyed.
It’s a story about how things like race and class influence us, and how our choices play into whatever fate has in store for us, and it’s about choosing your own path in life, even knowing what it will cost you.
In other words, this was way too complicated of a book for me to write, but one I had to, nonetheless. I had the idea almost five years ago, starting with the character of Love. He was jaded but suave, and angry and hopeful, and he had a lot to tell me about humans and their hearts. He first told me about the lovers—who then went by different names because their story unfolded in contemporary times. As I wrote that early draft, I liked how the words felt on the page. There was something magical happening with these characters. But who was their antagonist?
This was when I met Death: angry, clever, dishonest, wounded. A villain in deed, but not by nature. When I started thinking about what it must feel like to spend an eternity hating yourself, well, I could not let go of this idea. I was 40,000 words deep into another novel, in fact—within sight of the finish line. But I had to write The Game of Love and Death first.
Although I’d never aspired to write historical fiction because I’m not that masochistic, I ended up changing the time period anyway after I wrote most of a draft. Something wasn’t working about the story, and frankly, cell phones are not romantic and jazz music is. So are airplanes, Venice, San Francisco, Seattle, and little black tie clubs that no respectable person would be caught dead in, and yet everyone wanted to visit. I spent a lot of time reading, looking at pictures, and looking up words and expressions in the Oxford English Dictionary to make the story as convincing as I knew how.
Another challenge was figuring out the format of the game. How would Love and Death compete? Although Death does play tennis, I knew that wasn’t it. Nor was chess. Or poker (I did have fun researching a Persian precursor to that called As Nas, and contemplated tarot-like cards with moving pictures.) I also wrote riddles, because what is more perplexing than matters of the heart, or more confounding than the fact of our death?
In the end, though, I went with a simple roll of a pair of dice. In life, a lot can hinge on a little—especially in matters of the heart.
I got lucky with the year in a lot of respects. My character was a pilot and a lot of dramatic things happened in the sky that year: the Hindenburg, the German bombing of Guernica, the death of Amelia Earhart. All figure into the story. It was also a great year for Seattle, because a federal program had workers photograph much of the city. I could see my characters walking the streets, the houses, the cars, the storefronts. There’s a lot I imagined, of course, but I was very much guided by the feeling of the time.
And that’s what I hope this book evokes: the timeless feeling of love, and what the discovery of it means to two people the moment they’re coming into their own in the world.
Martha Brockenbrough is the author of two books for adults and four books for young readers (with three forthcoming). She’s the founder of National Grammar Day (every March 4), and she’s written game questions for Cranium and Trivial Pursuit. The former editor of MSN.com, Martha has interviewed lots of celebrities, including the Jonas Brothers and Slash (his favorite dinosaur is the diplodocus). Her work has been published in a variety of places, including The New York Times. She also wrote an educational humor column for the online encyclopedia Encarta for nine years.
She lives in Seattle with her family.