The Story Behind Shame the Devil by Debra Brenegan

In graduate school, I took a nineteenth-century American Literature class with a professor who told me, “I know a writer you’re just going to love.”  This writer, Fanny Fern, wasn’t on our reading list that semester, so, at my request, he added her most famous book, Ruth Hall, to the reading list of a course I took with him the next semester.  And, he was right – I did love her!  Fanny Fern was the highest-paid, most-popular writer of her era.  She served as a literary mentor to Walt Whitman, earned the respect of Nathaniel Hawthorne and was friends with Harriet Beecher Stowe.  Fern’s personal life was a rollercoaster of highs and lows.  She was widowed, escaped an abusive second marriage, then married a third man, eleven years her junior.  I became so interested in Fern and her amazing life that I started writing papers about her.  I wasn’t alone – other scholars were also smitten with Fern and her work, and wrote about her.  I applied for and got a graduate school fellowship to visit Fern’s archives at Smith College in Massachusetts.  I got to see snippets of her wedding dress, a notebook with her last (hand-written) newspaper column scrawled within its pages, a ceramic tile from her childhood home’s hearth.  I read letters she wrote and letters she received and looked at daguerreotypes and photographs of Fern and her family.  I read most, if not all, of her professional writing.  Her story started forming in my head.  Not just the well-documented biographical account of her life, but a fully story, a deeper story.  More than a few people had written biographies about Fern, but I wanted her story to be accessible to readers outside of academia – as a creative narrative.  I wanted to bring her back to life to a wider audience.  As I learned more about Fanny Fern, I couldn’t stop telling people about her.  And people were amazed with her rags-to-riches tale.  They couldn’t believe that they had never heard of her.  When it came time to write my dissertation, I combined my interest in creative writing, literature and Women’s Studies to write a historical novel about this largely forgotten journalist, novelist and feminist.   My goal when writing was to inform, yes, but it was also to craft an enjoyable, exciting read.  Hopefully, I’ve done just that!

Debra Brenegan grew up in the Milwaukee area and graduated with a B.A. in journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She worked as a journalist and taught at Milwaukee Area Technical College before beginning her graduate work. She received her M.A. and Ph.D. in English/Creative Writing from The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where she also taught. She teaches English and Women’s Studies at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. For her fiction, she has received a Ragdale residency and was a recent finalist for the John Gardner Memorial Fiction Prize, The Cincinnati Review’s Schiff Prose Prize, and the Crab Creek Review Fiction Prize. Her work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Calyx, Tampa Review, Natural Bridge, The Laurel Review, RE:AL, The Southern Women’s Review, The Cimarron Review, Milwaukee Magazine, Phoebe, and other publications. Debra Brenegan’s novel, Shame the Devil, is a historical account of nineteenth-century American writer Fanny Fern (SUNY Press, Excelsior Editions). She is currently working on another novel, set in Missouri, and on a short story collection. During the school year, Debra lives in a 130-year-old house in Fulton with her husband, Steve, and their elderly cat. They spend summers and school breaks in their native Milwaukee. When not teaching, writing, spending time with family or driving back and forth to Wisconsin, Debra enjoys cooking, gardening, reading and traveling.

You can visit her website at or visit her at Twitter at or Facebook at!/debra.brenegan;!/

2 thoughts on “The Story Behind Shame the Devil by Debra Brenegan

  1. I’ve never heard of Fanny Fern; your book sounds wonderful! I enjoy fictionalized accounts of the lives of real people, most notably, Susan Vreeland’s “The Forest Lover”, about Canadian artist and writer Emily Carr. I’m adding your book to my “to read” list. Thank you for bringing it to my attention!

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