I’d like to introduce you to the sixth interviewee in my ‘Meet the Author’ series. She is Marlene Lee.
Question: Hi, Marlene! Welcome to Susan Finlay Writes blog site. Can you tell us a bit about your background as a writer?
Answer: I never really wanted to be a writer. I always wanted to be an English teacher. I’m still an English teacher at heart. But throughout school, from elementary to graduate school, I’ve written a great deal, both fiction and nonfiction. At age 40 I got serious about it. I had to. My life had reached a dead end and I had to do something right.
Question: You have written eleven novels and numerous short stories. Do you have a favorite, or one that is more meaningful to you? Are your books related, or is each independent of the others?
Answer: Perhaps some of my best work is in a novella called The Jury Is Out, part fiction, part memoir. The review of Simenon’s short book The Crossroads posted on the Grey Cells Press web site came together nicely. I experienced a satisfying sense of creativity while I was writing that. The Limestone Wall, set in Jefferson City, Missouri and focused on the old state prison at the east end of Capitol Avenue, is a favorite of mine. And I like the historical novel, Daughter of the World. It took five years to write, with lots of travel and research. Actually I like all my novels except one. In that one I was trying to make a husband into a hero, and he wasn’t a hero, and so the book didn’t work. As to whether some books are related, only the three mystery novellas, gathered under the title Three Blind Mice, have the same characters and setting.
Question: Your literary novel, The Absent Woman, was released today by Holland House Books. Can you tell us a bit about your book? What inspired you to write it?
Answer: For a few years I spent almost every weekend on a wooden sailboat in Anacortes, Washington, the true name of the fictitious town called Hilliard in the novel. My husband and I had friends who lived in an abandoned hotel at the lower end of town, so the old hotel is real. But the characters Twilah and Arturo Chan are pure fiction, as is their son, Gregory. The piano lessons and musical moments reflect my own experience: I’ve played the piano for as long as I can remember. Virginia Johnstone, a character who undergoes late and painful maturity, is pretty much me, with a lot of imagined details. I hate to admit the degree to which my books are autobiographical!
Question: You’ve lived in numerous states in America. Why did you choose the Pacific Northwest for the setting of The Absent Woman?
Answer: It is a glorious part of the country, with wonderful skies and water and ferries. And that is the corner of the country where I found myself living when I hit some particularly difficult years. Difficulty, after it’s been overcome, is inspirational.
Question: The book cover for The Absent Woman shows the outline of a woman sitting at a piano? What is the significance of that picture?
Answer: The pianist is absent, an absent woman, not filled in as a person. I think that’s the significance of the outlined figure. Throughout the novel she is becoming a present woman; present to herself. It is painful growth. And she is always conscious of being absent day by day to her children. But during visits she begins to offer them the example of a mother living at full capacity.
By the way, my editor and the publishing house included me in every step of the cover design, asking me first if I had an idea of what I’d like. From my original concept of an upright piano in an old hotel room, the graphic artist designed the cover, always asking the editor (who, in turn, asked me) about colors, placement, emotional tone, etc. My editor suggested the starfish. If I hadn’t known it before, when I saw the care they were taking with the cover art and the way they included me in its creation, I knew Holland House Books was the place for me.
Question: What has your experience with your publisher been like? Is it everything you’d hoped for?
Answer: It is superb. The intellectual partnership with the editor is beyond good. Holland House Books has been worth waiting for. Thirty years!
Question: How does it feel to be a newly published author? How are you dealing with marketing and advertising? I know you have scheduled numerous book readings and book signings? How will you prepare for those?Are you excited about them?
Answer: Being published has given me a level of confidence I didn’t have before, but it’s not as life-giving as the act of writing and the give-and-take of the editing process. As to your second question, I’ve set up the readings myself. I just march into the store and ask for the events manager. I haven’t planned exactly what passages to read where. I assume I’ll decide a day or two in advance of the events. It’s going to be fun to read to real people and answer questions spoken in the human voice. Social media are difficult for me: I can’t figure out Face Book very well, and I certainly can’t write when I’m spending hours a day reading blogs and self-promotional chit-chat. I’m going to write my own blog soon with the title “I Want a Divorce From Face Book But I’m Afraid to Live Alone.” Of course I’ll include my novel title, publication date, publisher, publisher web site, blog address, manifold successes, along with fascinating thoughts and displays of winsome prose.
Question: You have an MFA in Creative Writing. How do you feel about the “rules” of contemporary writing: no adverbs, no dialogue tags, show don’t tell, etc.? In your opinion, how important are they to writing? Are there any that you particularly adhere to?
Answer: Rules can be helpful. I used to fill up space because I didn’t know how to proceed. (“Hi, Bill, how are you?” “Fine, Jane. And how are you?” “I’m fine, too.” “Good.”) A teacher gave me a rule: don’t write just to be writing. That was helpful. Also, excess verbiage and explanation. That was the first thing my editor said to me when I submitted a manuscript: “You explain too much.” That, too, is a good rule. He strikes excess verbiage left and right. It’s like seeing an obese person after the weight is off; they had beautiful bones all along and you didn’t know it.
But the crux of the matter is not rules versus no rules. At some point the writer stops craving rules. She/he may seek direction, but that’s different than rules. I’d like to have so much going on in my mind and in the writing that I don’t even think about rules but about truthful representation and aesthetics.
Some teachers, classmates, readers, critics have rules that really aren’t worth listening to. Suggestions, reactions, intuitions, yes. They’re all good. But your story is your baby. How are you going to raise it? You’re the one who sits up with it all night when it’s sick and you’re the one bursting with pride when it takes its first steps. Sometimes you have to forget what other people think. Look at that baby. If you let it develop, it’s going to walk, regardless of what people say or think.
Question: What is your favorite or least favorite part of writing?
Answer: I don’t like the first 10 or 15 minutes before I start to write. I usually feel that my writing is hopeless and that I have nothing to say. But the act of writing saves me. The flow of words is my drug of choice.
Question: If you could meet any book character, who would it be, and what would you do with them?
Answer: I would have a long-lasting affair with Atticus Finch!
Question: Of everything you’ve ever written, whether it’s to be published or not, what’s your favorite piece or scene?
Answer: The Jury Is Out. It’s an imagined trial that a court reporter subjects herself to. The plaintiff, her life companion, has accused her of workaholism. She hires a friend, a lovable but inept attorney, to represent her, and she reports the proceedings herself. I’m a retired court reporter, and of course the main character, c’est moi. My deceased partner, Vincent, always wanted me to work less. Poor guy. If I wasn’t transcribing compulsively, I was compulsively writing novels.
Question:What books are you currently reading?
Answer: I’m re-reading Middlemarch, a great work. And my friend Ella Leffland has written two modern classics that I am re-reading: Rumors of Peace, and The Knight, Death, and the Devil, a Novel of a Life Corrupted By Evil. It is a historical novel about Hermann Goring, and a masterpiece.
Question: Please list any websites or social media links for yourself or your book. Thanks!
Answer: Here is my Achilles heel. I don’t have many links. The only two I can think of are my publisher’s web site (http://www.hhousebooks.com/about-us/) and my blog address (http://marlenelee.wordpress.com/). Please suggest more! You’re a great help, Susan, on the social media front. I need a full-time publicist, but I know you’re busy writing your mystery novel.