Interview with Author Marianna Boncek 

Welcome to BookView Interview, a conversation series where BookView talks to authors.

Recently, we interviewed author Marianna Boncek, about her writing and her debut book, Diamond City, an engrossing, beautifully written mystery. (Read the review here.)

Marianna Boncek is an author, scholar, and educator. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Mississippi University for Women and a PhD from Union Institute and University. She is the author of several non-fiction books and a young adult novel. Her poems and stories have appeared in many journals and anthologies. Several of her plays have been featured in the Hudson Valley Short Play Festival. She lives in New York’s Hudson Valley with her partner, Dave.

Twitter: MarnieB611


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 entire novel started with a single scene where Art and Becky meet in kindergarten. Once I had that scene set, I knew I had to tell their story. If I didn’t tell their story they would just exist in my imagination. It’s a strange sense of moral responsibility writers have towards their characters. Once I create a character, or set of characters, if I don’t tell their story, no one else can or will.

Cult dynamics play an intriguing part of Diamond City. What kind of research did you do to be able to portray a convincing cult? How did you get into the right mindset to do that writing?

I did a lot of research on isolated religious groups. I read about the Jackson Whites of the Ramapo Mountains and did research for another book on Pang Yang, a community outside of Highland, New York. Also, I am a Quaker and a Marginal Mennonite, so I have some experience being inside a religion that is often considered outside the norm. I know what it means for a religion to both define a person and divide a person from the mainstream culture. I think Quakers are often misunderstood. I wanted the Diamonds to be like that. I wanted the Diamonds to be isolated, misunderstood and yet peaceful people who just want to live their lives.

Rural, small-town American life is also a theme in Diamond City. Do you have any experience living in small towns that inspired or informed the setting and characters in the book? If not, how did you craft a convincing portrayal of small-town America?

I was brought up in an extremely rural area of the Sullivan County Catskills. It sounds cliché but I didn’t really fit into the small-town life. I always felt disquieted by the subtle racism, sexism and homophobia that was just a normal part of daily life. I did not go to school with a person of color until I was in high school and then, it was only one person out of the entire high school. As naïve as it sounds, I didn’t learn anything, not even in health class, about homosexuality until I was in college. People wonder how we could stay so naïve, but this was before cable TV and satellite radio. We had very little experience outside our small town. Some of my classmates did the morning milking before school and came to class still smelling of manure. Activities centered around church and school. Our town was a dry town, which meant there was no alcohol, no bars, liquor stores or any alcohol sold. Of course, people had it in their private homes but naturally, consuming alcohol was frowned upon. Small town felt to me as if we were trying to make life perfect when it certainly wasn’t. In a small town difference is very rarely confronted. Most of the time anything uncomfortably different is just ignored.

Before Diamond City, you wrote nonfiction books, as well as poetry. What did you learn from writing in those different genres, nonfiction and poetry, that you carried into the writing of this novel?

Believe it or not, I consider myself primarily a fiction writer. I think every genre has its strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes, deciding what genre can best tell the story I’m trying to tell is the hardest part of writing. Poetry allows me to tell the emotional truth of something without having to worry about “the facts.” I write a lot of poems about my teaching and history to try to get to the essential truth of something without being burdened by facts. I like to use fiction to allow flawed characters to bumble through life because I sometimes feel I am bumbling through life, and I like characters who are like me; well-intentioned but deeply flawed. I dislike nonfiction the most because it makes me feel confined. However, sometimes nonfiction is necessary to present the truth, the absolute truth and nothing but the truth. I am an academic as well and have written thousands of pages of academic writing. I alternate between fiction and nonfiction.

I wrote a draft of this novel for my PhD thesis. As a creative person doing academic work, I needed to write the novel. I am a strong believer in creative expression and using the arts to express academic learning. I think we focus too much on the essay in academia when a poem, painting, dance or creative writing can express learning just as well.

What do you enjoy most about writing a novel that you don’t necessarily experience when writing nonfiction or poetry?

When a poem or a piece of nonfiction is done, I always feel its done. I can put a date on a calendar for a piece on nonfiction and say it’s done. Poems are done very quickly compared to fiction writing. A novel is like living an entirely different life. The first scene with Art and Becky I wrote in 2013. I have lived with these people for ten years. I’m a huge outliner and journal keeper when I write fiction. I know as much as I can about my characters; their favorite color or flavor of ice cream, their childhoods, their likes and dislikes, their astrological signs, their hopes, dreams and desires. As I work on the novel, I add more to my outline and journals about them. Diamond City was originally 800 pages and I managed to whittle it down to 412. Writing a novel is like having a peep-hole into another dimension. Most of the time, I have outlined what I am going to write next, but sometimes, I “see” something in that peep-hole that wasn’t anticipated. For example, Rita wasn’t in any of my journals or outlines. One morning, she was just created by my fingers as I typed away on my computer. Who she was or what she was doing in my story was surprising to me. That’s the joy of writing a novel.

Who and what ultimately inspired you to become a writer?

No one really inspired me in the beginning. I have been writing since I knew how to write. I remember I wrote my first story when I was about six. Well, it wasn’t a story, per se, but the beginning of a story. I couldn’t spell and I wrote with a big pencil but I wrote about people in a lodge and I’m not sure I even knew what a lodge was. I wrote my first novel in high school. My mother threw that manuscript out when I went to college. I’m sure it was an act of mercy. It wouldn’t be fair to not mention my mother when answering this question. Why was I writing at six? My mother was a poet. Children need models and I remember from the earliest days of my life watching her scratch on paper and working on her writing. She was one of those writers who wrote everything by hand first. She wrote on scraps of paper and backs of envelopes and they’d be on the coffee table next to her chair. Writing was just something people did—or at least that was my experience. I guess I never thought of not writing.

If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?

Go ahead, be a writer. I think my head will explode if I hear another person tell a young person you don’t have to go to school to be a writer and you can always “write on the side.” That’s a lie. We don’t “write on the side.” Telling a talented writer they can ‘write on the side’ is a lie that really means, “Look, kid, writing is hard. Do something else where you will make money.” Our culture is so focused on making money instead of making a life. I didn’t even feel I had any work-life balance until I began seriously writing at age forty. Forty. It took me forty years to get it through my thick head that I am a writer and writing was the only thing that made sense for me. I’m going to quote Kurt Vonnegut here because he says it much better than I ever could: “Go into the arts. I’m not kidding. The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make our soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.”

What authors do you like to read? What book or books have had a strong influence on you or your writing?

I’m a huge fan of Russell Banks and Eudora Welty. I wanted to write about life the way it is, not some fantasy version, and they taught me how to do that. I wanted to be able to write like them. I remember when I first read “Why I Live at the P.O.” by Eudora Welty. I think I laughed for weeks. Welty was writing about my family, even though I had a immigrant family from New York and she was writing about the South. When the memoir Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala came out in 2013, I read it in one sitting and was blown away by its raw honesty. I think readers want honesty. Even if an author writes fantasy or horror they can present it with honesty.

What’s next for you?

I have notes and outlines for novels already lined up. I’m a little obsessive when it comes to writing. My next novel that is in the editing phase is called Neither Here Nor There and is about two young women who commit suicide, have near death experiences and come back in the wrong body. But my seva in life is to help others write. I hope to be able to conduct workshops, classes, retreats and the like to help those people who were told they should “write on the side” to be able to make the transition to be writers.


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