Mary Vensel White on the texture of story

My third published novel was released this month. Starling is actually the fourth novel I’ve written. My first published novel was the second, and the second published novel was written more recently and was the fifth one I finished. Time passes, and these stories and their many versions are interwoven with each other, and with my life.

Of course, Starling wasn’t just yanked from a dusty desk drawer and published. This book, this story, has a long and complicated past. I started writing it shortly after I moved from Chicago, where I had spent five years (including graduate school), back to California, where I was born and raised. My eldest son was a baby, and I began this story, in part, to remember the sights and sounds of the city.

My first published novel, The Qualities of Wood, featured a young married couple having some problems—one of which was their disagreement about having a child. I wrote that novel during a period of yearning and fertility treatments; it seems obvious now that this plot point and the themes of family—specifically, leaving your original family to form a new one in marriage—directly correlate to what was going on in my life. Duh. In fact, there is an older character in that book who has chosen not to have children, and a conversation takes place about that. I can also see now that Starling, begun shortly after TQOW, continues this theme—contemplations about motherhood—with Gina, a character who is middle-aged and childless. Or is she?

A reader once told me the characters in TQOW seemed older than they were, and that I wrote like an older writer. I don’t know what that means. I think the ability, the necessity, to contemplate an entire lifetime for your characters is probably important. What were they like as children? What might they be like when they become elderly? In my young adult novel (number seven), the main character has this exact supersensory ability; she can see what people were and will be. For writers, it’s a practice of imagination and projection. At the time I wrote Starling and the character of Gina, for me, the concerns of a middle-aged person were theoretical. I was in my early thirties and just beginning to build the family I had dreamed of. I could only imagine that, like the feelings I had for my son, Gina must possess a reservoir of love, a resource that needed to be spent somewhere, somehow.

I went back to Chicago annually to visit my sister, who had also moved there but ended up staying much longer. I liked to go in early December when downtown was magical with holiday lights and activity. We’d make our trek up to the 96th floor of the Hancock building and have a cocktail. We’d see shows and walk the Miracle Mile. Sometimes I’d go back to see the places in Lakeview I had lived—the highrise across from Belmont Harbor and its cluster of boats, the ten-story, brick building amidst trees and brownstones like the one Gina grew up in.

I had three more babies, and my life was busy and vivid and impossibly wonderful. We moved to a family-friendly neighborhood that reminded me of a resort town with its lake and white bridges. We made friends and took trips, and I stayed at home with the kids. They became toddlers, went to preschool then kindergarten and grade school. Occasionally, I’d take out the notes for my “Chicago novel,” and I’d write down impressions and the outline of the story that eventually became Starling. I’ve often said that I worked on the novel off and on for ten years, but it was much more off than on, and now it’s been much longer than a decade. I used to think I would never finish it, or any other novel, because my life was too happy and ideal. How could I write about troubled characters in any meaningful, believable way, when I had not been touched by tragedy? I finished the story, originally called “Fortress for One” (a terrible title, but nothing else would come). It had some stylistic aspects that most readers kindly suggested I delete. I put the novel away.

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Years later, I decided to rework the timeline and the way the chapters were arranged. The novel has scenes in the story’s present, 1999-2000, and flashbacks to events from Gina’s childhood and young adulthood. I took many things out and by that time, I’d come to see that the readers had been partially right. I excised some of the less accessible, stylistic writing and created an easier-to-follow time sequence. I was getting older; my parents were getting older. But much of what Gina was experiencing was still theoretical. My parents were living, and I had never been betrayed or abandoned or made to feel that I must defend, then reconstruct myself.

And then loss, trauma, and grief came in a stunning series of blows. I wrote short stories, most of which were about loss, trauma, and grief. Many feature women going through tremendous life changes. I wrote that second published book, Bellflower, a novel-in-moments which began as a writing exercise: brief scenes because I could not harness the mental wherewithal to work on something longer.

Eventually, I got back to work on Starling. This time around, I understood Gina in a way I never had before. She was still the older woman I had viewed from young adulthood, but now she was me, too. I knew why she chose to lock herself up in her fortress, why she told herself the truths that allowed her to sleep, why she spent her reservoir of love on the only place that seemed safe. I knew why and how she had chosen habit over novelty, nest over flight, forgetting over pain. I rewrote scenes and cleaned up some of my younger self’s writing clutter. I still loved these characters—stubborn Gina and her optimistic, little brother, Ian. They felt like old friends who had been with me through a lifetime—and in a way, they had.

At the end of the novel, Gina thinks about what the future holds. The textures of her life are still there—the losses, troubles, misunderstandings—and always, the love. She’s still afraid, but maybe she’s ready to step outside and take a look around. Nowadays, my children are adults but still require a good amount of mothering. Last year, I started writing a story that might become my eighth novel. Like many of my stories, this new one is about a woman coming to grips with what life has dealt her. It’s about choices and the possibility of a new path. And, as always, it’s about love.


Mary Vensel White is the author of Starling; Bellflower, a novel-in-moments; and The Qualities of Wood, the first book published under the Authonomy imprint of HarperCollins. Her short fiction and essays have appeared in numerous publications. She is an English and writing professor, owner/editor at TypeEighteenEditing.com, and host of Creative Space: Chats With Writers (link to channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCiJSKI_LuMZ5qoy3juQrt_A). Born in Los Angeles, she attended colleges in Denver and Chicago and has been back in California for two decades. But she still considers Chicago—the setting for Starling—a second hometown and visits often. Find her at maryvenselwhite.com.

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