It’s the Book Stop’s first author interview! I talked with Mary Vensel White, author of The Qualities of Wood (reviewed here) and she was gracious enough to answer my questions about her book. I hope you’ll find my questions, and her answers interesting. Please comment if there’s other things you’d like to ask.
1) This is your first published novel. Tell us a little bit about how it came to be published.
I posted the book on HarperCollins’ website for unpublished writers, authonomy.com, in March of 2010. The site offers a great opportunity to have your writing read and critiqued, and to connect with other writers. Manuscripts are ranked by other members and at the end of each month, the five with the most support are sent off for a professional review by a HarperCollins editor. I participated on the site, reviewing other books and soliciting readers for mine. Meanwhile, I did many of the things writers do—queried agents, looked into other publishing options. My novel made the “Editor’s Desk” on the authonomy site in January 2011 and I received my review in March. The editor seemed to really like the book and the review implied it would be forwarded for further consideration. I started using some choice quotes from the review in queries to agents and publishers and began to get some interest, eventually an offer from a small publisher. And then HarperCollins called. By a twist of luck or fate, the editor who had reviewed my book had just been put in charge of the entire authonomy community, and they wanted to start a new HC imprint for books from the site. Mine was chosen to be the first.
2) Why did you choose the setting you did for this novel? Is it based on an actual house or town? I appreciated your attention to the town’s history, from many different perspectives. Why is this important?
When I wrote this book, I had just moved to Chicago; it was my first experience living in a big city. I noticed the lack of natural setting in the city—you know, you have trees and parks here and there but mostly, you’re surrounded by concrete and metal, man-made structures. I started thinking about the dichotomy, urban and rural, and how people feel in either setting. Additionally, I was intrigued with the idea of history and memory, and how history depends on the memories and testimonies of people who were there. And how everyone can have a different impression of something witnessed. But in a small town, I felt that certain shared interpretations could be allowed to germinate and form sort of a collective story. I wanted the town to be anonymous so readers couldn’t make associations—good, bad, or neutral—before the story began. Because everything is interpreted through our own lens—events, people, places. So no, it’s not a particular place or a specific house although I can picture the house in my mind, having spent so much time there!
3) Your characters talk a lot about their names and nicknames. What did you think about when you chose names for your characters?
I think that goes back to the theme of perception again. Everyone is perceived by someone else in a unique way, and that’s reflected even in what we call each other. Nicknames can have a myriad of connotations, evoke all types of feelings. When I was young, older relatives in my family called me Mary Frances. Of course, I hated it (or thought I did) but now that I’m older and hardly anybody calls me that anymore, I miss it. It evokes childhood.
4) You chose to make a secondary character, Nowell, a novelist like yourself, while your main character struggles with Nowell’s devotion to his writing. What made you decide to make Nowell an author? Do his struggles to complete his second novel reflect your own experiences as a writer?
I suppose whether you’re a writer or not, everyone occasionally feels misunderstood or out of touch. Writing is such a solitary, contemplative activity, and I think it can be difficult to live around that, make it even more difficult to connect at times. As much as art can be a communal or universal thing, it is usually created in isolation. And yes, I can relate to that very much.
5) Nowell raises the question of whether a book should sort of “write itself” or whether an author should have total control over where a book is going. What are your thoughts on that question?
I think a book should write itself within the constructs of the author’s control. Is that a cop-out answer? Maybe other writers have a more organized mind than mine and are able to put something out without much planning, but I need a framework to work with, a general plan within which unexpected things can happen.
6) One thing I really appreciated about this book was Vivian’s conflicted emotions about not wanting children, and that you didn’t portray this as a simple or easy-to-resolve issue. Since you are a parent, what did you draw upon to create her character, and why is this important to the story?
Interestingly enough, I wrote this book when I was roughly Vivian’s age, before I eventually had children. For me, the urge for motherhood was very strong and we had to struggle to build our family. It did not come easily or entirely “naturally.” Like Vivian and Nowell, we had been married a certain amount of time and people just kind of expected that you would have kids. They didn’t know why we didn’t and or really, why anybody did or didn’t. It’s a private thing, a personal choice, and should be respected as such. I felt strongly about that then and still do. I have a unique perspective in that regard because I was adopted, and because I eventually had a multiple pregnancy (triplets!)—something people have varied opinions about as well. In the book, I also wanted to deal with the transition from childhood to adulthood, and how at first, our adult relationships are colored by our relationship with our parents, so the whole parent/child theme figured into the story in many ways.
7) At one point in the novel, you describe the “qualities of wood” as “like a fingerprint, each section unique to itself and to the seer”. How did you decide upon the title and what do you want it to convey?
The title was apparent to me the moment I wrote those words. It was so perfect, really just summed everything up and even alluded to the woods behind the house. It’s again about perception, about impressions, about the uniqueness of being human and how we see each other. I wish other titles came as easily but they usually do not!
8) You’ve said that this book might appeal to readers of Anne Tyler or Anita Shreve. Aside from those two authors, who are some of your favorites? What are you reading now?
The comparison to Anne Tyler (whose work I’ve read quite a bit) and Anita Shreve (whose I have not) was made by my publisher and I’m happy to spread it around because they are both so renowned! I just finished Stardust by Neil Gaiman for my book club, something I would have never chosen on my own and that’s one of the great things about book clubs, isn’t it? And next up is Per Petterson’s I Curse the River of Time, which I’ve been saving for a treat. I would consider Petterson one of my favorite modern writers, along with Marilynne Robinson and Kent Haruf. It’s one of my goals of 2012 to read more of Russell Banks’ previous works.
9) What advice do you have for people who are working on their first novel?
You have to spend an inordinate amount of time at your desk, table, or wherever you write. There’s no way around it. Don’t be afraid to get opinions, but don’t get discouraged by them. Always tap into the original reason you write in the first place—hopefully, because you love it.
10) What are you working on now?
I’ve just completed a novel tentatively titled Fortress for One. It’s about Gina, who, over the course of a weekend in March, is disrupted from her life of routine by a shock from the past and the promise of a changing future. The book moves from Chicago to Korea and back again, as we follow Gina on a liberating journey of discovery. I’m also working on a story collection and starting to amass notes for another novel.
Mary Vensel White was born in Los Angeles and raised in Lancaster, California. She graduated from the University of Denver and lived for five years in Chicago, where she completed an MA in English at DePaul University. She lives in southern California with her husband, four children and two badly trained dogs in a chaotic but happy home. Her husband is an attorney and she is the mom with a book or laptop at the little league game, soccer field or dance studio.
The Qualities of Wood is her first novel but she is currently at work on a second, set again in the Midwest, a place that lives and flourishes in her imagination despite her current sunny surroundings. Vensel White is also working on a collection of interrelated stories, a method of writing which the esteemed women of her book club refuse to acknowledge as a novel.