Member Monday: A Tribute to Deborah Brodie (1945- June 27, 2012)

Last week saw the passing of two great women in the literary world.  On June 26th, the world mourned the loss of Nora Ephron, the screenwriter, novelist, playwright, and journalist who was perhaps most widely known for her films such as When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle.  But, closer to home, the Women’s National Book Association also lost a beloved member on June 27th, Deborah Brodie.  A gifted editor and teacher, Deborah Brodie will be truly missed.  The following tribute by Sheila Lewis remembers her as a coach and as a friend.

We were greatly saddened to hear of the death of Deborah Brodie on June 27 after a year-long battle with cancer. She was known as a children’s book editor extraordinaire, New School instructor, and more recently, as an independent editor, book doctor, and writing coach. Deborah was to have served for the second year as a judge for the WNBA’s Pannell Awards and reluctantly dropped out as her illness progressed.

I knew Deborah, as did many of the people in the overflow crowd at her funeral on June 28, as a dedicated member of Ansche Chesed, our synagogue, where she tirelessly served on many of its committees. People spoke of Deborah “taking them under her wing,” whether as a gracious dinner host, or as an editor for emerging writers. Nathan Englander recounted how he got his literary break from Deborah. When her son Daniel mentioned that Nathan, a friend, was an aspiring writer, she invited him to dinner “with a story.”  He described how she “beat me up” with red penciled revisions, and after many months, whipped that story into shape and sent him “out of his room” to publish. The story became part of his sensational debut, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges. Months ago, Deborah asked Nathan to speak at her funeral because he was “funny and literate.” He shared some editorial pearls:

1. Advice to an aspiring children’s writer: “…Too many rabbits, too many mice.”

2. Never use unnecessary words, as in He shrugged his shoulders. What else what he shrug, his thighs? No story should begin with “This story is about…”

My first contact with Deborah was after I sent a fairly terrible manuscript to her at the now defunct Hebrew Publishing Company. I was surprised to receive a constructive, three-page, hand-written critique letter back from her a few weeks later. Years later, I religiously attended her monthly New School Forum sessions featuring noted children’s authors, illustrators, editors, and agents. The last time I saw her was at one such session, and despite weakness and having to use a walker, she optimistically was looking forward to the Fall 2012 season. Deborah was never a whiner, she hated that, but did enjoy a juicy tidbit of gossip. She was genuinely interested in others, and always asked me about my family. When she first struck out on her own, she did it in her usual thorough manner, asking people for advice. “How do you charge?” she asked my husband, then a freelance health editor. “I charge a PITA—pain in the ass—fee for difficult people.” She loved that. And she gave back, compiling a helpful list for freelancers that she freely shared.

Her son Daniel reported that when she was told she did not have long to live, Deborah’s comment was characteristically positive “Why me?” adding “Why have I been so blessed, with such wonderful children, grandchildren, and my life?”

We offer condolences to Daniel, Deborah’s daughter Rachel, son-in-law Adam, and grandchildren Sophia and Ariella.

The family has asked that donations in Deborah’s name be made to “any causes you believe in,” to the organization “Mazon, the Jewish Response to Hunger,” or to “Ansche Chesed’s Minyan Ma’at Chesed Committee” (251 West 100th St., New York, NY 10025). Read more about Deborah in an upcoming issue of WNBA’s newsletter.

To read the Publishers Weekly obituary for Deborah Brodie, click here.

To read the New York Times obituary for Nora Ephron, click here.

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