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Writers on Writing, Volume 12: Mary Volmer

Mary Volmer is the author of two novels: Crown of Dust and Reliance, Illinois. Her essays, reviews, and short stories have appeared in The Farralon Review, Women's Basketball Magazine, Fiction Writers Review, New Orleans Review, Brevity, and Ploughshares (online).

Mary has been awarded residencies at the Vermont Studio Center and Hedgebrook and was the spring 2015 Distinguished Visiting Writer in Residence at Saint Mary’s College, where she now teaches.

This spring Mary will be teaching a weekend class on novel writing at Left Margin LIT called "So, You Want to Write a Novel?" The class will take place on Saturday, April 20th.


Mary, you've written two historical novels. What is it about historical subject matter that draws you in?

I’m fascinated by forgotten voices, by the people ignored or written out of history. My first novel (Crown of Dust) is set during the Gold Rush after most of the alluvial (river) gold had been mined. The book imagines life in the afterglow of the get-rich-quick years through the eyes two women alone in a ramshackle town full of men. My second (Reliance, Illinois) is set about ten years after the Civil War, during the rise of Jim Crow and after the women’s movement had split into competing factions. It tells the story of a mother cursed by beauty and her deformed daughter as they struggled to find a vocation and a voice.

I love the labor of historical research: digging around in libraries, reading old journals, autobiographies, text books, newspapers; rummaging through antique shops for objects my characters might have held. Still, I approached the work as I imagine a science fiction writer must, using history to create a world of offset parallels that speaks to the current day. I’m careful to remain loyal to documented history, fashion, language and technology. But gaps in the historical record give me space to create characters inspired by people about whom little is individually known.

How did your method evolve between the two books?

I was living abroad in Wales on a Rotary Scholarship when I wrote Crown of Dust. I had no smart phone, no social media accounts, no distractions or responsibilities, no expectations. I wrote with an outline, researching as I went. After a year I had the shell of a novel to which I added flesh and revised over the next three years when I returned to California.

Reliance, Illinois took considerably longer. The story was more complex and the center kept shifting on me. I wasn’t nearly as familiar with the landscape or the history. I wasn’t yet skilled enough to write in the first person with the nuance the story required. Trying to apply the linear, systematic approach by which I wrote my first book didn’t work. I was teaching by then, with less time and focus for the story. The book arrived in standalone scenes and fragments of dialogue, description, and plot, which I then pieced together. I threw a hundred of these early pages away before I had a draft, but revision was, by comparison, a breeze.

How long does it take you to finish a draft of a novel? And how much time does it take to complete a project?

A project takes as long as it takes. I don’t mean to evade the question, but it’s true. I have a poster on my wall that says just that: “As Long As It Takes.” I look at it to ward off anxiety and impatience that can accompany the writing process. By the second book I’d become a better story teller. I knew more about dramatic structure and craft, but this meant I had more options and more decisions to make. And knowing is different than doing. The book I’m working on is different from the first two in style and subject. I know what I want to do with the story, and now must learn to do it. To prescribe a time limit (especially in a project that demands a great deal of research) makes no sense. It’s not only the story that has to grow and develop. You have to grow and develop enough to tell it.

You’ve mentioned before that the characters in Reliance, Illinois feel real to you. Where did you get the inspiration for the protagonist Maddy? Why did her story need to be told?

Miss Rose was the protagonist when I began writing. She’s a flamboyant and theatrical presence, a woman with noble goals and questionable motivations. She might well deserve a book of her own. But as I wrote, Maddy’s voice emerged with an urgency I couldn’t ignore. I live in a residence hall at a small college and spend countless hours listening to the concerns of young women, modern Maddys, caught between crushing love and hate for their mothers. Young women full of hope and shackled by fear. Young women held hostage by impossible ideals of beauty. The birthmark on Maddy’s face is in some ways an outward expression of their insecurities and fears. Her story is their story.

From the moment we meet Maddy and her mother, Rebecca, they’re on a quest to change their social status and have a voice of their own. How do women’s rights play an overarching theme through the rest of the novel? Would you say the story’s theme is relevant to our present social climate?

To the last question, yes. In this country, the battle over women’s rights has become even more relevant in the last few years. It’s a very old battle, but why? Surely everyone deserves freedom from sexual and physical violence. Surely people deserve economic and political autonomy, the right to develop talents and control their own bodies. Why, when we add “women” to “rights” are those rights called into question? It’s not a question I can answer, but one I played with throughout the novel.

Novel writing is an intricate process, what part(s) do you find the most exciting/difficult?

I love research and note taking. I love getting to know characters -- their desires and contradictions – and discovering the small telling details that make them come alive on the page. I even like to revise and edit. The first full draft is difficult, getting the story out of my head (where it’s perfect) and onto paper. With the second book I had a tough time letting go of my original conception as the story took its own direction. I’m stubborn and that kind of surrender is hard for me.

You're teaching an upcoming one-day novel class at Left Margin called "So, You Want to Write a Novel?" What advice do you have for potential participants and first-time novelists?

Be easily inspired and be patient. Allow yourself to grow into the story you have to tell. Read and reread books that inspire you. Study how they’re made, like a painter studies the masters. Study the elements of craft, especially dramatic structure, so that even if your book comes to you in disjointed scenes, you’ll be able to recognize where (or if) those scenes fit the whole.

Finally, don’t apologize for your desire to write. The activity is neither selfish, nor superfluous. Mary Zimmerman, says it is through story telling that we cultivate empathy. We have never been in greater need of empathy.

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