IT HAS LONG BEEN ROSELLEN BROWN’S habit to write from morning to late afternoon, moving from room to room in her airy, wood-frame house in Houston, pad and pen in hand—”to follow the light,” she says. Brown started that ritual when her children were at school, but since they left home, it has become tinged with melancholy. “I loved being a mother, and I really miss that,” says Brown, 53. “As a parent, you have to accept that your children become strangers. Your children have secrets.”
That brooding thought is at the heart of Before and After, Brown’s wrenching new novel about the Reisers, a seemingly happy family in a small New Hampshire town—and how the family unravels after the teenage son. Jacob, bludgeons his girlfriend to death. “I cannot remember any recent fiction that is so poignant in showing how raising children means losing them inch by inch to their own lives,” wrote reviewer Judith Dunford in the Chicago Tribune. Full of compassion and intimacy, Brown’s book is also a gripping detective story. It has hit the bestseller lists, the screenplay is already being written, and Meryl Streep is set to star under the direction of Barbet Schroeder (Reversal of Fortune).
The author, naturally, is overwhelmed. “Usually when you write a book, it disappears into this great anonymous maw,” she says. Not that she’s a stranger to praise; for more than 20 years Brown has been writing prizewinning poetry, short stories and novels. She often explores the inner workings of everyday family life—and how family members react to one another in times of crisis. In Before and After she heightens the drama by having father, mother and daughter—but never the murderous, impenetrable son, Jacob—take turns narrating chapters. “I wanted Jacob to be the person around whom everything else circles,” she says. “I didn’t want to solve him.”
The book is loosely based on the real-life crime of David Port, a Houston 17-year-old who killed a young female post office worker in 1984. Claiming a privilege recognized in Jewish religious law, his parents refused to testify against him and were jailed for contempt of court. (Port was convicted of murder and is serving a 75-year prison sentence.) Before that case, says Brown, “I had never thought about the fact that parents—if they have am kind of evidence against their children—are not protected by the law that protects husbands and wives from testifying against each other.” That is the dilemma she constructs for the fictional Reiser family: Father Ben, who is Jewish, feels compelled to protect his son at all costs, and he alienates his wife and daughter, who believe the truth must come out. Their delicate shelter of normality Stripped away, the Reisers, says Brown, must confront “domestic life when it cracks open.”
Born in Philadelphia, Brown and her two older brothers grew up all along the East Coast as her father. David, pursued sales jobs in the textile industry. “Moving a lot made me very insecure,” she says. “I started writing because I was alone and didn’t have any friends. I could take my little notebook with me to school and always have someone to talk to.” She wrote her first poem at 9, and her first short story, “Murder Stalks at Midnight.” at 10. A year after receiving a master’s degree in English from Brandeis in 1962, she married Marv Hoffman, then a Ph.D. student in clinical psychology at Harvard. While raising their two daughters—Adina, now 25. and Elana, 22—both worked as teachers (at Tougaloo College near Jackson, Miss., during the ’60s) and later lived in placid Peterborough, N.H. Ten years ago they moved to Houston, where Brown is an associate professor in the University of Houston’s creative writing program and Hoffman is an education instructor at Rice University. He also leaches writing at an inner-city high school.
All the while, Brown kept writing. Many of her short stories have appeared in annual O. Henry Awards anthologies. Her 1984 novel, Civil Wars (“Not the TV show,” she says, but a story about two civil rights workers who must care for the orphaned children of bigoted relatives), was critically acclaimed. So was 1978’s Tender Mercies (“not the movie”), in which a man is involved in a boating accident that leaves his wife paralyzed. “They have a momentum of their own,” says Brown of her novels. “I just sit back and watch them go.”
Fortunately, Marv, 53, reveres his wife’s passion for literature. “There isn’t any competitiveness between us,” he says. “My primary identity is as a teacher.” Marv helps Rosellen make time for her craft by doing much of the cooking and baking all the bread in the house. Both love puttering in their vegetable garden, and Brown still scours thrift stores for clothing for fun. “Our life,” Brown says, “is quiet and dull.”
But she loves it and is eager to return after her current book tour to finish her next novel, set in New Hampshire in the 1880s. As always, her characters will find life has no easy answers. “Everyone keeps asking who I identify with in Before and After,’ ” she says, smiling. “The fact is. I don’t know how I would react. I guess I’ve done my work well.”
ANNE MAIER in Houston