Tracey Lange, Author of the Debut Novel We Are the Brennans, on Big Families and Keeping Secrets

We Are the Brennans follows a big, Irish Catholic family in Westchester, New York, as they struggle with the weight of the secrets they’re keeping from each other. Celadon Books sat down with author Tracey Lange to find out more about her and the Brennans.

By Jennifer Jackson

Congratulations on your debut novel! How did you come up with the idea for We Are the Brennans?

I’ve always been intrigued by themes of family and loyalty, and the idea that no two families work the same way. Each has its own code, often passed down through generations. I started thinking about a woman returning home after being absent from her family for several years. All sorts of interesting questions presented themselves, such as what drove her away in the first place, how they would all deal with old and new resentments, and how her return could help shed light on the dysfunction in the family as a whole — because even the most loving families have their struggles. 

We Are the Brennans is a study in how people deal with secrets in different ways — and how those secrets can affect generations within a family. What drew you to this theme?

A large part of it was coming from a family that has been influenced by the Catholic religion for generations. Growing up I attended church and catechism classes until I was 13 — when my parents finally gave in to my incessant nagging and allowed me to stop going. I went to a Catholic high school because my mother thought I needed the structure (I did). By then I was definitely lapsed, but when you grow up steeped in that culture, I think it’s part of you forever.

This isn’t exclusive to the Catholic religion, but there was such an emphasis on guilt and shame, hiding mistakes and flaws. I’ve seen how this cycle of keeping secrets — even if it’s for well-intentioned reasons — can carry through and impact the next generation in damaging ways. I wanted to write about a loving but complicated family that ultimately finds forgiveness and redemption in facing the truth together rather than hiding it from each other.

Each main character in the book is able to tell pieces of the story from their point of view. Was there one character that you felt most connected to?

Although I could very much relate to Denny’s need to keep it all together and maintain confidence at all costs, it was probably Sunday I felt most connected to — specifically her ability to pile guilt on herself like a heavy blanket whenever possible and wallow in it. Most recovering Catholics I’ve met can relate to that, with little to no explanation.

The novel is set in the suburbs north of New York City in a tight-knit, Irish Catholic community that felt very warm and familiar. What is your experience with that area? And why did you choose to set the book there?

I come from a big Irish Catholic family. My dad was born in Northern Ireland and is one of fifteen siblings, and my mother’s side is also largely Irish, though they’ve been in New York for a few generations. I was born in the Bronx but moved to Manhattan after my parents became the superintendents for a building on the Upper East Side. We had extended family and friends throughout the city, up in Westchester and on Long Island, so I know that part of New York well.

I chose to set the story in Westchester because I wanted it close to the city, but in a smaller suburb where you could still find that kind of tight-knit neighborhood, especially a few decades ago, when Mickey and Maura Brennan would have settled there.

The Brennan family is large and flawed and complicated, but they rally around each other whenever there is a problem that needs to be solved. How are they similar to your own family? And would you want to be one the of the Brennans?

Who wouldn’t want to be one of the Brennans? This is a family that knows each other so well, will always have each other’s backs — even sacrifice for one another. That’s not easy to find. One thing my husband and I have tried to instill in our boys is the idea that nothing comes before family.

My own extended family is flung far and wide, from California to Ireland, and lots of places in between. I have relatives I haven’t seen or talked to in many years. However, I believe I could show up on most of those doorsteps tomorrow and I’d be welcome.

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