Oh, Brettne. Where to begin? Brettne is so many things. Most famously, she is a supremely accomplished literary agent. She is a partner in Kneerim, Williams & Bloom and represents such fine authors as Courtney Sullivan, whose The Engagements I recently loved.
Brettne has several books out this fall that I’m excited to read, including bloggers Erin Gates’ Elements of Style: Designing a Home & a Life, Camille Styles’ Camille Styles Entertaining: Inspired Gatherings and Effortless Style, and The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, by PTSD expert Bessel van der Kolk. I’m also really looking forward to Glamour book editor Elisabeth Egan’s first novel, A Window Opens, about a woman trying to have it all, which Simon & Schuster will publish next year.
Brettne is also a devoted mother, an enormously thoughtful reader, and the most gifted editors I have ever met. I’m also honored and privileged to call her a dear friend of mine. We talk often about the challenges and joys of juggling work and motherhood, about the books we want to read and those we’ve loved rediscovering with our children, about what it means to be a thoughtful, engaged human in a world that can devastate and amaze in equal measure, sometimes in the same day. Brettne is a relatively new friend but she has become very dear very quickly. I hope we’ll be close friends for the rest of our days, and am deeply grateful for her presence in my life. I was delighted when she agreed to answer my questions on How She Does It. I know you will love her answers too. If you want to know more about Brettne, she is active on Twitter and Instagram.
Tell me about the first hour of your day? (I often describe mine as being “fired out of a cannon”)
Ha! That’s hilarious. Well, I’m not a morning person, so the first hour of my day is like stumbling through a fog until I’ve had my first cup of coffee. My two daughters share a room and they’re usually up and raring to go pretty early. They have a lot of energy in the morning. My husband makes breakfast for the girls and gets the coffee going while I get ready for work. We gather around our kitchen bar to eat and caffeinate, and then I get the kids dressed, coiffed, and out the door. I try not to check my email or social media accounts until after I drop the girls off at school so that I can focus on them. That was one of my New Year’s resolutions–no iPhone until 8:20am. Very hard. It’s a work in progress.
Do you have a work uniform that you rely on for getting dressed? What is it?
If I have meetings I’m usually in a shift dress and heels, or my favorite black pants, a silk tank and a blazer. And then I try to remember to throw on a fun piece of gold jewelry to accessorize. Add mascara and a smile, and I’m on my way. I have this tweed blazer from Theory that I bought eight or nine ago because it reminded me of something my very stylish grandmother would have loved. I call it my security blanket–I wear it at least once a week. On Fridays I’m often in yoga pants disguised with a long sweater on top even if I have meetings all day!
How do you and your spouse resolve conflicts about scheduling?
We try to avoid such conflicts before they happen. For example, Lawton plays soccer after work on Wednesdays, so I avoid making plans that night. He also travels a few days each month. We work hard to stay on top of our schedules so that at least one of us can be home to put the kids to bed by 7:30. Lawton is supremely accommodating; he understands that my profession is very social–I go to lots of readings and work dinners; I’m also in two book clubs and I’m involved in the girls’ school. So I’m usually out two or three nights during the week. I’m also fortunate because our phenomenal babysitter, who has been with us for five years and who is basically my other spouse, is very flexible if one of us is running late or has a last-minute obligation, which is key for us because we don’t have family nearby who can help out in a pinch–my parents are in Houston and Lawton’s are in Atlanta.
Do you second-guess yourself? What do you do when that happens?
Daily! Hourly! I feel like I’m constantly making choices between my work and my family, and I don’t want to look back on these precious years with young kids and feel like I missed out on the everyday moments. Luckily, I have a great role model in my own mother, who worked outside the home throughout my childhood and who was always fully present when she was with us. I also have a very supportive spouse and an amazing network of girlfriends from all areas of my life–including you, dear Lindsey– who I draw on for support, comic relief, perspective and inspiration. I think we’re all just trying our best to balance our various roles as gracefully as we can while accepting that we will never be perfect and that a little messiness is ok.
What time do you go to bed?
My intention is to be in bed every night by 10pm. But the truth is I’m often not asleep before midnight. So many books, so little time! I always have something I have to read for work. And then I like to read something non-work related right before bed to clear my head and help me shake out any tension from the day. Usually it’s a novel or a New Yorker article. Or Vogue. The pile of books next to my bed is my Mount Kilimanjaro. I also have this Shakespeare app on my phone that gives me a scene a day and dissects it. I often read that before bed. I know that sounds super nerdy but I find reading and/or listening to Shakespeare relaxing. One of my clients who specializes in anxiety says it’s the iambic pentameter. The rhythm is soothing.
Do you exercise? If so, when?
Exercise is my therapy. I feel my best, both physically and mentally, when I’m exercising at least four or five times a week. I’m more present at work and more patient at home if I can burn off some of my daily stresses. I also do my best brainstorming when I’m running or cycling. I recently came up with an idea for a client’s novel when I was in spin class. But finding time to exercise is a challenge. Mornings are my prime time with the girls, and my days are usually filled with meetings and reading and conference calls. Still, I try to squeeze in some form of physical activity as often as possible, whether it’s half an hour at the gym, a barre class at lunchtime, or a brisk walk through Central Park after I drop the kids off at school. I always carry workout gear in my bag just in case I have an extra hour. I wish I were an early-morning-run person like you, Lindsey! If I had you as a running partner we probably would have dreamed up the next Harry Potter series by now.
Do you cook dinner for your kids? Do you have go-to dishes you can recommend?
We have family dinners every weekend–that’s when we do most of our cooking with the girls. The kids love to help out in the kitchen. As far as go-to dishes, we like simple foods like grilled salmon, sautéed green beans, roasted Brussels sprouts, corn on the cob, rotisserie chicken, pasta. My kids love to sprinkle sea salt on their vegetables, which cracks me up. I’ve found most young kids, including mine, love pesto even though it’s green and green is usually verboten. For inspiration in the kitchen I highly recommend Jenny Rosentrach’s two cookbooks. Her recipes are delicious and kid-friendly. And her whole attitude about family dining is so sensible. On school nights, our kids eat dinner with our babysitter at around 5:30. It’s tough for me to get home in time to make a proper dinner for them, as much as I wish I could. I feel really guilty about this because I know how important it is to eat meals together; hopefully our routine will change when the girls are a little older. My mother managed to pull together a delicious dinner for our family of five every single night. I don’t know how she did it.
Do you have any sense of how your children feel about your working?
That’s an interesting question—to be honest, I’m not really sure they think about it that much because it’s all they’ve ever known. I didn’t take long maternity leaves. Now that they’re older, and books are such a huge part of their lives, they’re becoming a bit more interested in what my job entails. Then again, there are plenty of times when I have had to hide in my bathroom to make a call because the girls don’t understand that my work doesn’t always stay at the office. All in all, though, I think and hope my children understand that I love my family more than anything in the world, and that I also enjoy and value my work, and that these are in no way mutually exclusive. And I hope that in some way my enthusiasm for my work will inspire them to pursue their passions and dreams.
What is the single piece of advice you would give another working mother?
I would want her to know that there is no right or wrong choice when it comes to parenting and caregiving decisions. You have to do what feels right for you and your family. Mothers face a lot of criticism these days, particularly on the internet–I don’t feel the judgment as much in real life, but I certainly see women attacking other women online, where it’s so easy to cast aspersions anonymously. But as long as you feel like you have made the choice that works for you and you have a strong support system in place, I think you can find that perfectly imperfect balance.
And, inspired by Vanity Fair, a few quick glimpses into your life:
I studied art in college so this is a tough one. My favorite living artist is Elizabeth Peyton. Her portraits are so intimate and compelling; it’s impossible to look away. My favorite artists of all-time include John Singer Sargent, Frida Kahlo, Pablo Picasso, Edgar Degas, Henri Matisse… I am obsessed with Monet’s giant water lily murals, which I’ve seen several times and always find breathtakingly beautiful and modern. I also saw two incredible James Turrell retrospectives last year in New York and Houston. He is a genius; his work helped me appreciate light and space in a whole new way.
Shampoo you use?
I have very fine hair so I have an extensive collection of volume-boosters in my shower. Right now I’m trying Living Proof.
Another toughie, given my line of work. Leaving aside books by authors I represent… One Hundred Years of Solitude changed my life when I was 16. That is my desert island book. My mother let me read Gone with the Wind when I was in fifth grade. Questionable decision on her part, maybe, but Scarlett O’Hara remains one of my favorite characters in literature. I am named after Lady Brett Ashley in The Sun Also Rises, so I always feel like that one needs to be on the list even though my favorite Hemingway novel is A Farewell to Arms. And it just goes on: Heart of Darkness, Rebecca, The Hours, The English Patient, The Glass Castle, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Seabiscuit, Crossing to Safety, A Tale of Two Cities, To Kill a Mockingbird, Charlotte’s Web, Manhattan When I Was Young, the plays and sonnets of William Shakespeare…My favorite memoirs are Katharine Graham’s Personal History and Willie Morris’s North Towards Home. And of course I have read and reread every word that Jane Austen and Nora Ephron ever wrote. One of the many unexpected pleasures of parenthood is revisiting children’s literature and poetry with your kids. We are currently deep into the Little House on the Prairie series and I cannot get over her descriptions of the wide open landscape. So evocative.
“We are all works in progress.” –My mother
“Think of all the beauty still left around you and be happy.” –Anne Frank
Bob Dylan. Also, being from Texas, I grew up listening to country music, which I still love for the storytelling. We listen to a wide range of music at home thanks to Spotify.
Favorite item (toy, clothing, or other) for your children?
The pink stuffed cat my dear friend Elisabeth Weed gave Eloisa when she was born. His name is Mr. Whiskers. He’s worn beyond repair, but he’s our Velveteen Rabbit and a vital member of our family. We all look out for him like he’s a pet.
I love this picture of Brettne’s girls on the walk to school, which she describes as the highlight of her day. I can relate.
The bookshelves in Brettne’s office conference room. I can’t wait to see them in person!