Welcome to BookView Interview, a conversation series where BookView talks to authors.
Recently, we talked to the award-winning author Marylee MacDonald about her writing and her memoir Surrender, a searing account of her life as an adoptee and the way it shaped her psyche (read the review here).
Marylee MacDonald is a writer, author coach, and caregiver advocate. A literary writer, her fiction has won the Barry Hannah Prize, the Ron Rash Award, the American Literary Review Fiction Prize, and a Gold Medal for Drama from Readers’ Favorites. She is the author of Surrender, Body Language, Bonds of Love and Blood, Montpelier Tomorrow, The Rug Bazaar, and The Big Book of Small Presses and Independent Publishers.
What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
When I forgot to say “Ma’am” and my grandma washed my mouth out with soap.
How often do you base your characters on real people?
Sometimes, I do base them on real people, particularly people I knew in childhood. That’s because, as children, we are particularly open to close observation of the adults in our lives. We also have access to our own strong and unvoiced emotions. But, just as often, I’ll base a story on overheard conversations or an object—such as a candlestick or quilt. Scrapbooks, yearbooks, and family albums are a great trove of character material, especially for novels set in the past.
How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have?
OMG. Too many to count. I have so much in the proverbial drawer that I’d never have to write another word. The problem, though, is that if I don’t finish a book or story when it’s “fresh,” I lose track of the emotion that drove me to write the story in the first place. Sometimes, I can find it again. Other times, I say to myself, “Now why, exactly, did I find this interesting?” If I’m bored, then I can assume the reader will be bored, so I try never to bore myself by working on a project that is emotionally dead to me.
What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
Does noodling time count as research? Well, it’s different for each book. If I’m working on short stories, I do have factual details that I must sometimes research. Research can be a big time sink, however, so, generally, I will put TK in the manuscript, and when I have the story or novel done, I’ll search for all the TK’s and bundle the research into a two- or three-day Google sprint.
Do you find writing therapeutic?
Not at all. If I wanted therapy, I’d pay a shrink. I’d say writing is more akin to working on a 5,000-piece puzzle—totally daunting in the beginning, but rewarding as the small pieces come together for the “big picture.”
What’s the most difficult thing about writing a novel?
Matching the character’s deep character flaw—a.k.a. childhood wound—with obstacles that will be particularly difficult for that person. Ultimately, if you want a character to change, that character must be forced to change by the sheer weight of circumstance.
How many hours a day do you write?
Six to eight.
Do you try more to be original or to deliver to readers what they want?
I think it’s a mistake to try to deliver “what readers want,” at least for me. Readers’ tastes change. What surprises and delights one generation of readers might bore the next generation out of its mind. Who could have predicted that today there are huge numbers of readers who devour romance and fantasy novels? Fifty years ago, when I began writing, those weren’t even on the radar, apart from what is now called “pulp” fiction.
Back then, noirish mysteries and sci fi novels looked as if they might climb from their place of obscurity on the margins of the literary world to a place of permanence, but I never could have predicted that certain kinds of genre fiction would develop huge followings.
Do you think someone could be a writer if they don’t feel emotions strongly?
I guess it depends on what kind of fiction one writes. For me, tapping into emotion is essential. I need to immerse myself in a scene and experience the anxiety, loathing, or attraction that the character is feeling. Fiction establishes a heart-to-heart connection between the writer and the reader. If we writers cannot connect to our own hearts, I can’t imagine how we can forge a connection with the readers’.
If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
Don’t wait for life to “slow down” and give you big blocks of time to write. Life never slows down. Write leaning forward. Write as if your life depended on it. Which, for a writer, it does.
How do you select the names of your characters?
I often take a look at The Writers’ Digest Character Naming Sourcebook, or if I’m trying to find character names for a certain ethnicity, I’ll go to Facebook and look for interest groups, such as Armenian cooking or matrayoshka dolls. Sometimes, people with interesting names gravitate to those groups.
Do you read your book reviews? How do you deal with bad or good ones?
I do read them. I am buoyed by readers who like my work and feel a gut punch when I read a bad review. I wish I could gird myself for the bad ones, but I don’t seem to be the kind of person who can be indifferent to criticism, especially when there’s a snarky tone to the critic’s words.
What one thing would you give up to become a better writer?
Well, not ice cream, for sure. Ice cream powers the imagination! I would happily give up Netflix, which can become an addiction. That would give me more time to read the books I love.
What is your favorite childhood book?
My favorite childhood book was Toodles of Treasure Town. I read that book to my children, too. Upon rereading it a few years ago, however, I was shocked to see how much racial bias went into the character descriptions and naming conventions. Similar problematic portrayals occur in Little Black Sambo and The Jungle Book. Toni Morrison’s book, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, is a needed resource for all writers who want to create a multi-racial, fictive world and who want to avoid stereotypes and their own racial biases.
Does your family support your career as a writer?
Hubby is very supportive, as is one of my sons. As for the others, they’re busy and at the career-making stage of life. I fear that they have lost the desire to read for pleasure.
How hard is it to establish and maintain a career in fiction writing?
I don’t know anything who thinks it’s easy. Writers who are published by the New York publishing houses gripe that they don’t get enough support from their publishers. Self-published authors groan under the multiple demands of writing and book promotion.
Tell us some more about your book.
Surrender: a memoir of nature, nurture, and love is a book about adoption and the identity issues that arise when children are not raised by their biological kin. Not only was I adopted as an infant (and must have appeared to the outside world as if I were happily so), I am also a birth mother. Like Philomena, portrayed by Judy Dench in a movie based on Martin Sixsmith’s book, I searched for my son and found him. And, like the women portrayed in the nonfiction book, The Girls Who Went Away, during my pregnancy, I hid in a home for unwed mothers.
Tell us a little about how this story first came to be. Did it start with an image, a voice, a concept, a dilemma or something else?
The “story”—meaning the book, not the events portrayed in the book—began with my son’s request that I tell him the story of his conception. When I’d finished the memoir and sent him a checking copy, he told me that he hadn’t meant for me to write an actual book. He just wantedme to tell him what had happened so that he could one day write a book.
By writing Surrender, I’ve stolen his thunder, so to speak, but I do hope he will one day write his own book. Each of us has a story to tell, a particular lens through which we view the world. His will be different from mine.
Which character was most challenging to create? Why?
The most challenging “character” to create was me. That might seem odd to non-writers; but, in fact, when writers draw too much on their own lives, the writing itself gets harder.
Writing autobiographically risks entering the dead zone. The story voice flattens to a drone. Readers listen with an internal ear. If an author has entered the dead zone, then readers will experience the book the way they would experience a tiresome after-dinner speaker. My editor forced me to push past the dead zone.
Are any of your characters based on real people you know?
All of them. This book is as accurate as I could make it. Luckily, I had diaries, official correspondence, newspaper archives, and my mother’s letters. These resources allowed me to recreate the mindset of a sixteen-year-old honor student—me—whose naïve view of the world altered the direction of her life.
Which scene or chapter in the book is your favorite? Why?
My favorite scene—or memory, really—is of my grandfather reading me the funny papers. Psychologists say that if a child has one adult capable of giving them unconditional love, then that child will turn out okay. If I have turned out okay, then it’s thanks to my grandpa.
Which scene was most difficult to write? Why?
Anne Rice, best known for her Interview With the Vampire, said, “Go where the pain is, go where the pleasure is.” This memoir is about teens having sex, so I had to throw caution to the winds and “go where the pleasure is.” The most painful scene to write was the one dramatizing what happened after our son’s birth. I was trying to browbeat his father into marrying me so that we could take back our child.
Which scene, character or plotline changed the most from first draft to published book?
I have been trying not to write this book for too many years to count, which means I had written scenes, but not discovered how to order them. The book’s structure, more than its content, changed a great deal from draft to draft. The big challenge for me as a writer was finding a way to pair the voice and mindset of a young Marylee with the wisdom of the woman I am today.
What do you hope readers will take away from this story?
I hope they will gain a deeper understanding of identity and the myriad ways that it is formed. I also hope they’ll be reminded of how it was in the olden days, before the availability of family planning.
How does your faith life/ethical outlook inform your writing?
In my childhood, my world view—my sense of right and wrong—was based on religious teachings. There was a particular sense of guilt that arose from those teachings. Now, I tell my kids, “guilt is a wasted emotion.” An overpowering sense of guilt did not serve me well, nor help me become a better person.
My guiding principle today is this: Have empathy for yourself and for the other person. We are all trying to get through life the best we can.
What life experiences have shaped your writing most?
Loss and love. My young life was shaped by the loss of my first child and the death of my first husband. Pregnant with our fifth child at the time of his death, I had to quickly get on my feet again in order to raise our little family. My love for my children, rippling down into the love I feel for my grandchildren, is a deep well of inspiration. I can always find hope by drinking from that well.
Categories: Non Fiction