Yesterday I had the pleasure of answering Jo-Ann Mapson’s interview questions.
Mapson is author of, among others: Finding Casey, Solomon’s Oak, Goodbye Earl, Hank & Choloe and, my favorite, Blue Rodeo.
She’s also one of my former graduate school instructors and, if not for her support and encouragement, I would have never written Dolls Behaving Badly.
What I enjoyed most about this interview is how personal the questions were, and how much time Mapson evidently took composing them. She obviously “got” my book, too, which is refreshing since I also “get” hers.
Thanks, Jo-Ann! You are truly a kindred spirit.
You’ve been a writer for as long as I’ve known you: newspaper features and advice column, short fiction in literary journals, poetry, and…erotica. What was it like writing a novel?
It was like birthing a child, really. I went in totally blind. I had no idea. It was so exciting at first, and I was so optimistic. I thought it would be so easy! Alas, by the midway point, I was frazzled, confused, exhausted. I’m still not sure why I kept going. Maybe it was stubbornness or pride or maybe, even then, I believed in my book.
The hardest part was maintaining the tension needed to propel the story forward. I finally had to outline the whole book on index cards and put them together, like a giant jigsaw puzzle. There were so many choices, and that’s what I didn’t understand. The enormity of choices you must confront, and then abandon, in order to finish a novel.
People often say that write a novel is to learn how to write a novel. As vital as the process seems, most of those efforts don’t get published. But yours did. What do you think made it so successful?
I really don’t know. The voice and situations somewhat unique, and of course the fact that it’s set Alaska may have helped selling potential. But honestly, there are so many variables.
Mark Doty gave a talk when I was a graduate student, he looked around at a group of students, there must have been at least thirty of us, and said (and here I’m paraphrasing): “Only one of you will make it, and it won’t be the best writer, it will be the most determined writer.”
Maybe I didn’t give up. Maybe I had more to prove. Or maybe it was simple luck.
Now that you’ve written one novel, are you eager to get to work on another?
I’m almost finished with my second novel, though I’m struggling with the ending, not the ending so much as the moment that clarifies the ending. Such things can be daunting. It’s funny: I thought I’d never love characters as much as the ones in Dolls Behaving Badly, yet I do. I love these people, too, these new characters. Maybe as writers we have a capacity for endless love.
The voice of Carla’s grandmother is amazing. How do you juggle multiple narratives?
I love Gramma! She’s loosely based on my Gramma Lucas, who was my Polish grandmother from my father’s side. She was fattish and messy and smelled of garlic, and she was unconventional, too. She didn’t care what people thought, but because she lived in an era where women were expected to care what others thought, she didn’t have it easy.
As far as juggling multiple voices, it’s as if a group of friends exists inside of my head, and each speaks in turn: Stephanie has one voice, Sandee another, Carla yet another. I found myself adopting certain mannerisms and even clothing styles to match my characters. I bought a pair of high-heeled boots lined with purple fake fur at Valu-Village, because I knew Stephanie would love them. I never wore them, of course. As writers, we are all a bit mad.
Jay-Jay is probably the most adorable character, kind of wise beyond his years. I know you have a son. Has he read Dolls Behaving Badly? How does he feel about his mom being a writer?
I know! I love Jay-Jay. He was one of the reasons it was so hard to let go of the book. I think I was letting go of not just my characters but my son, since he headed off to college around the time the book was picked up.
My son hasn’t read “Dolls Behaving Badly.” He’s in college and I think he needs to view me with distance as he struggles to find his place in the world. Will he read it someday? I don’t know. I think it would embarrass him. I’m still not sure how much of Jay-Jay I “borrowed” from him.
As far as how he feels about my being a writer, here’s a funny story. When he was about sixteen, I overheard him talking to a friend. “Don’t be a writer,” he said in a serious, adult voice. “You’re always exhausted and you never have any money.”
I laughed until I cried. Because it’s true. That’s exactly what it’s like.
You’re a runner. How does running impact your writing? Do you work out novel difficulties while you run?
I do a lot of writing in my head as I run, though of course it’s always easier to write inside your head. It sounds so perfect, so lyrical, so right. Transferring the same thoughts to the page can be a small agony.
I run long distances and love the moment of pushing through pain, love when my ego steps aside and I’m left naked and exposed, nothing but my mind and body moving together. It’s very freeing, very liberating. I often feel that when I write, too, when I connect with a character so deeply that I lose myself. Those are the moments that make it all worth it.
Being a single mom, working to support yourself and your son, can’t have been easy or amenable to writing a novel. Can you describe a typical writing day?
Oh dear, those were busy times. My typical day went something like this: Get up at the last possible moment, dress quickly, shove food in my mouth, make sure my son is up, walk the dog, drive my son to school, work for eight hours, pick my son up and drive home, walk the dog, collapse on the couch for a nap, get up, cook supper for my son, have family time, work out at the gym or run, eat a cold dinner, walk the dog again, sit down and write until 2 or 3 a.m., collapse into bed. Repeat.
I remember sitting at my desk writing and being hit on the back of the head with a Nerf football, or the cat would spit up a hairball in my lap, or the toilet would overflow. It was constant chaos, constant interruptions. I learned to get up, deal with the situation, sit back down and write.
Who are your favorite writers, and what are you reading?
Oh, I have so many favorites, most of them women: Margaret Atwood, Susan Cheever, Lorrie Moore, Lauren Slater, Kathryn Harrison, Gail Godwin; those are just the ones I can think of off the top of my head.
I’m presently reading “Without a Map,” by Meredith Hall; “Ship Fever,” by Andrea Barrett; a young adult novel titled “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” by Stephen Chbosky, because we recently saw the movie and I want to compare it with the book; and “Simple Passion,” by Annie Ernaux.
If you could give just one piece of advice to writers attempting novels, what would it be?
Don’t give up. I know that sounds trite but it’s true. Dig in deep and write until your soul bleeds, and then write a few pages more.
What obsesses you?
I’m obsessed with running gear. When I’m stuck in writing I surf running sites and read up on fuel belts and compression socks. I have at least ten pairs of running shoes and over thirty tech shirts. Yet I crave more. It’s funny, because I’ll never be a fast runner. I’ll never win a race. Heck, I’ve never even placed in my age group. But running is what I think and talk and dream about.
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
Well, it’s not a question but there is something that I’d like to add. One important lesson I learned is that in order to write a book or finish a painting or whatever your passion may be, you need to give yourself permission to be imperfect. You have to put your energy where it’s needed, of course. You have to love your children and nourish your relationships and show up at work and pay your bills. But you can’t worry about a clean house or keeping your car polished or your waistline trim or baking a perfect pie crust for the school picnic, or you’ll go crazy. You have to give up control and allow yourself, and your life, to get messy.