“People like answers. I’m a question person”: An Interview with Richard Mirabella

Richard Mirabella’s debut novel, Brother & Sister Enter the Forest, is an earnest and compelling narrative about adolescence and growing up that examines the depths of human connection through the exploration of loss, identity, shared trauma, and tenuous familial bonds. 

Mirabella investigates difficult questions about morality and human nature through his characterizations of siblings, Justin and Willa, as they work through complicated relationships and individual pitfalls. Though Willa seems, on the surface, to have her life together, both she and Justin have much to learn about life, love, and self-care. These are two adults who have suffered in very different ways and subsequently have learned to cope with their realities differently, so these siblings often struggle to understand one another and usually find themselves at odds, but for better or worse, their love leaves them closely bound through it all. 

While reading Brother & Sister Enter the Forest, I found myself reflecting on my own life experiences, and by the end of the novel, there was a strong sense of resolution for lingering uncertainties in my past. That is the power of this novel. Mirabella’s characters often offer us more questions than answers, but ultimately, there is a sense that questions are okay––there is a sense that you don’t have to have everything figured out. 

With all its ambiguities, Brother & Sister Enter the Forest offers a refuge for those who have struggled to find answers to life’s complicated questions. Mirabella, who lives and works in Upstate New York, answered questions about his life as a writer, his approach to crafting these characters, and his hope for readers. 

Brother & Sister is a novel that continually turns convention on its head, and my favorite example is the twist you took with the all-American road trip. This trope, which signifies things like fraternity and freedom to a larger audience, represents something much different in this tale. What about this literary tradition was attractive to you for this story?

I love a road trip. It’s an opportunity for anything to happen. I wanted the characters to have a chance to be trapped together. To be thrilled, excited, terrified. There are so many strange little towns in this country. So many places to end up. I thought the road trip would be a great opportunity to explore the tension between the two characters (Justin and Nick).

As a queer woman, it is refreshing to read a story that centers around a queer person but does not fixate entirely on that single aspect of the character. In this narrative, you strike a balance between telling a story about a queer man and telling a story relatable to a larger audience. In other words, Justin is gay, but he is an incredibly round and complex character who I believe will be appealing to many types of readers. What was your method when building this character, and what aspects of his identity were most important for you in this process? 

Thank you! Justin is queer, but it was important to me that he isn’t ashamed of this. His life is made difficult by other people. He fully embraces this part of himself, though it’s not easy for him. But, Justin isn’t only a queer character meant to represent all queerness! He’s a person. He has a lot going on in his life. I wanted to be sure his story was about a lot more than his gay coming of age. And really, it’s such a busted concept, this coming of age. Life is infinitely more complicated than: I was born and grew up and became myself.

It is a novel that also challenges traditional conventions about masculinity through two lovers, Nick and Justin. Nick, the older of the two, adheres to compulsory heteronormativity, and projects the energy of someone strong and stable. He is juxtaposed with the slightly younger Justin, who is sensitive and subservient. There is also a fair amount of fragility, and internalized homophobia. Did you feel the need to negotiate a balance among characters? 

I didn’t really feel the need to balance this. The characters just became who they are. Though, Nick represents a kind of young man I encountered many times in my youth, growing up on Long Island. A man trapped in himself and in the jail of masculinity. Whereas, Justin can’t help but be himself, so messy and sensitive, sometimes mean. 

I didn’t think about what they could represent until much later. I see now that my novel is partially about toxic masculinity.

“Found family” is a widespread concept and practice in the queer community, and Justin’s relationship with René represents this idea so well. How essential to you was it to include this concept?

Essential. Not because I believe that found family would save Justin, but because it’s what queer people do. Our friendships often span generational divides, and are often intense, can include love and romance and sex, or are familial and nurturing. Justin connects or tries to connect. I love that for a brief time he has René love and attention and good intentions, but he is sometimes careless, and I think he is with René.  

Your short story “The Sister,” published in American Short Fiction, is clearly written in the style of a fairy tale. Was this style something you intended to carry over in Brother & Sister Enter the Forest or did the novel naturally move in that direction? 

Fairy tales were hugely influential. Later in the process, I realized that I wanted the novel to have a particular style, as far as the prose. It’s clipped, and spare, and minimal, and I hope sharp and brutal. Like a fairy tale. Reading the fairy tale “Little Brother and Little Sister” from Grimms’ really helped shape the novel for me, though it’s far from a retelling. 

Discussing that story in a 2018 interview with American Short Fiction, you and Erin McReynolds discuss your forthcoming novel entitled Justin. Did this novel become Brother & Sister Enter the Forest? If so, can you talk a bit about how the title evolved or changed?

Yes! I had just started it, or was into the second draft maybe. It was a different novel in a lot of ways. Focused more on Justin. I think the novel is now about Willa AND Justin (among other things). It became Brother & Sister Enter the Forest right before my agent submitted it. I’m so glad that title came to me. It just says so much about what I wanted this novel to evoke: fairy tales, the long history of the tales of children running away into the forest, into a place of trouble. I love the atmosphere of it. 

In your 2022 Catapult essay, “On Writing (When I am Not Inspired),” you mention the concept of “idea seeds” which you describe as “nothings that might turn into somethings.” What were the idea seeds that sprouted into your debut novel (which perhaps appropriately became a forest of sorts)?

Thank you so much for reading that! So, for the novel I had the siblings to start with. At first, sisters, then one became a brother. I knew one was sort of troubled, but I didn’t know why. Also, the dioramas came to me right at the beginning. I had nothing else. The rest appeared as I wrote and wrote. 

The relationship between Justin and Willa is strained and sometimes painful to read, but there is a clear portrayal of devotion between the two siblings. As someone from a family with a sometimes tumultuous and traumatic history, I can attest that you have portrayed the complicated and deep love that grows out of shared tragedy and fervent faith. On the one hand, you have wonderfully depicted the phenomenon of trauma bonding, and on the other, you have created a world that exists between Willa and Justin that is much deeper than that. How did you prepare yourself when building the complicated world for these characters? How will readers who have not experienced this kind of relationship relate to these characters?

This is a tough one to answer. I didn’t plan or prepare, really. I write and see what happens, and I think what happens is: I use the stuff of my life. My life as a brother (I have a brother, not a sister), and what I see in the lives of others, and what I read, and the films I watch. And it’s important to me that characters have complexity. They’re not just their pain and trauma. They have full lives, or I hope they do! I’m not sure how readers will relate, but I hope they will, at least to some of it. They might dislike these characters now and then, they might love them sometimes, too. I think they’re relatable, messy people. 

I don’t get the sense that this was a moral tale but rather an earnest attempt to untangle the complicated reality that many queer folks must face. With that being said, if there was one thing that a reader could take away from this novel, what would you hope for? 

I hope people will see the failure of the family to care for their queer child. I think that’s a big part of this. But I also hope they’ll notice the moments of tenderness that do exist in this dark place. 

Willa embodies many of the characteristics of someone living with survival guilt. She leads a relatively normal life as a nurse, but her attachment to Justin and the subsequent turmoil she faces seems to manifest itself in her own life, from her inability to maintain happiness in her marriage with Luke to her peculiar hobby of building miniature panoramas of Justin’s life and memories. How did these more tangible manifestations of Willa’s internal struggles present themselves to you during the writing process? 

I wanted Willa to be her own person and to have a life outside of her thoughts of Justin and his problems. So, everything you mention came about because of how she related to her best friend, Jenny, and to Luke, her boyfriend and then husband. How are her relationships shaped by her childhood, her mother, her brother’s issues? I think Willa is unaware of how much her life has been altered by the disruption in her childhood. 

Justin’s alcoholism and the consequences of drinking follow him throughout the story. I am coming up on ten years of sobriety, and the characterizations of his struggle with sobriety are spot-on. I am wondering if you could talk about how this theme made its way into the novel? 

Congratulations on ten years! I thought about the idea of self-medicating. Justin doesn’t really get the help he needs, or not consistently, at least. I don’t quite remember when his drinking became a part of the story, but it made sense to me that he would try to escape through drugs or alcohol, and that it would be an ongoing struggle, not something that is “fixed.”

I love the opaque qualities of this novel, especially when it comes to larger moral questions about family, identity, and how we characterize love. How important was ambiguity for you in the story? 

Ambiguity, mystery, unanswered questions: I love this. I didn’t want easy answers for this book. The situations the characters are in are complicated and difficult, and these things aren’t easy to get out of. And I like the idea of now knowing where someone ends up, or if they get what they need. It’s a risk. People like answers. I’m a question person. 

This novel is full of literary references––The Marble Faun, The Outsiders, and My Ántonia, to name a few. I can’t help but notice parallels between the references and the plotline of the novel. How and why did you choose these particular texts?

I chose The Outsiders for Jenny, because I had so many friends who loved it. Jenny is a scrappy, tough, sensitive person. I think that book is perfect for her. I named Willa after Willa Cather, whom I love, and My Ántonia holds a special place in my heart. Also, it’s a book about a person trying to hold onto someone they love, a close friend, to hold her in his mind. And Cather’s writing is a huge influence on me. The Marble Faun is just the kind of book you’d find in a free box outside of someone’s apartment on Lark Street or in front of Dove & Hudson bookstore. It’s such a strange, poetic, and dark novel. So beautiful and then suddenly brutal. Justin would be drawn to it, but would have trouble with it. 

When Justin grows up, he becomes a civil servant for a while, like you are in real life. Are there any other parallels between you and Justin or other characters in the story? 

Yes, but only in small ways. This is a work of fiction. But it’s impossible not to use parts of your life in your fiction, I think. Justin is like me in so many ways, but I pushed things. I’m more like Willa now in my everyday life. 

Samantha Ryan (editor; she/her): is a senior at The College of Saint Rose and is interning as a managing editor for the Pine Hills Review. She enjoys reading and creative writing. You can keep up with her on Instagram at @cutpapershadow.

Richard Mirabella photo: Danielle Stevens

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