A Conversation with Mary Vensel White on THE QUALITIES OF WOOD

Mary Vensel White  tlc tour host

See my review of The Qualities of Wood here. And be sure to enter to win a copy of The Qualities of Wood (details in the review).

The Qualities of Wood is your first novel, but if you’re anything like most writers, it’s not the first book you’ve written. Can you tell me about your writing background leading up to this book?

I started out as many writers do, I suppose, with a diary or notebook. But when I think about what influenced my writing from early on, I always think of reading. Yesterday, I saw a quote by Sandra Cisneros, who claims she became a writer not because she went to school but because her mother took her to the library. I’d have to claim the same: my journey to writing started with lots of books, and the library, and a mother who read. And you’re right, TQOW is the second novel I completed. The first is called Sissy Longlegs and it’s about a young woman who tracks down her biological mother, thereby altering the path of the three women involved—the girl and both of her moms. I still think it’s pretty good, actually, and maybe one day I’ll do something with it. I had no formal writing training, although my degrees were in English so there was lots of reading and literature analysis.

Most readers aren’t familiar with your publisher, Authonomy, which is a new venture of HarperCollins. How did you come to be published by Authonomy? 

I came to Authonomy.com in 2010, I think, and posted part of my novel for critique and feedback from other writers. The site offers a review by a HarperCollins editor for the five most supported books each month. By March of 2011 I had received my review, which was quite positive. Up to that point, few books had been published by HC as a result of being “discovered” on the site. I realized that, but still thought it would be helpful to have a professional opinion. Plus, the collateral benefits of participating in the site were great—meeting other writers, giving and getting advice on writing, etc. I actually had an offer from a small press for the book around the time I got my review from HC. Shortly after the review, I was contacted by Scott Pack, who had just taken over the Authonomy site and coincidentally, was the editor who initially reviewed my novel. They were planning to start a digital-first imprint, he said, and wanted my book to be the first. They hoped to publish 10-12 titles a year and from those, take a few to print based on performance. And so, mine has eventually become one of the digital editions that will now be in book form too.

What was unique about the experience of being an Authonomy author?

After all this time, I would have to say that the very best part of being published via Authonomy is the network of friends and support I’ve gained through the process. Writing is such an isolated vocation and it’s been great to share the pitfalls and triumphs within the community. I’ve made some good business connections and some great friends through Authonomy. And I truly believe that participating in the site by critiquing and ingesting the critiques offered to me really improved my editing process and enriched my perspective in many ways.

What inspired the characters and plot of The Qualities of Wood?

When I wrote the book, my husband and I had just moved to Chicago. It was my first experience living in a big city and I started thinking about the ways setting can influence people, especially an urban surround vs. countryside. Would people behave the same in both? Would they be more in touch with their natural, or animal side, when surrounded by the natural world? Really, the first inspiration for the book was the thought of Vivian’s airplane touching down amidst that unfettered green, the expanse that would possibly cause her to look beyond her previous, day-to-day hassled existence in the city. As for the plot, I was very interested in playing around with the notion of genre, of writing a mystery that wasn’t really a traditional mystery, but more the story of the greatest mystery of all: the human condition. In the same way that things perhaps aren’t what they seem for Vivian, they wouldn’t be for the reader either. That was my goal.

I enjoyed the complicated nature of Vivian and Nowell’s four-year-old marriage. They are close, but often struggle to communicate and experience many misunderstandings. Vivian has too much time on her hands and not enough occupying her mind since she’s not working. Nowell is prickly, secretive, and defensive, which makes him a more complex creation and also inherently suspect in the mysterious goings-on. I’m interested to know how this relationship developed in your imagination and during the writing of the book.

I was pretty newly married at the time, and thinking about the break that occurs between childhood and adulthood. At some point, we try to figure out our childhoods and move forward and yet, most of our relationships seem to relate, one to the other. Marriage is a big step that can really force this break, as we join or really, create a new family and leave behind the old one. I wonder, sometimes, about perception and whether any person can truly understand another. The brief separation and move from city to country disrupted Vivian and Nowell’s marriage and made them see each other in a new light. This is an endless process in relationships, I think, but maybe the first big shift for them.

I was impressed by how quickly you established a sense of foreboding and how consistently you were able to maintain it. You had me figuratively crossing my arms and examining the motives, body language, and behavior of every character (even Katharine!). Early on, I was wondering whether the residents of the town were going to turn out to be straight out of Twin Peaks or just regular ol’ people from a small town. (For the record, I live in a town of 15,000 about 20 miles outside of Bakersfield.) How do you go about creating that feeling and mindset in the reader? What’s the key to establishing and controlling tone, which is so crucial in a book of this kind?

There’s something about small towns that make them desirable locales for fiction. I am no stranger to Bakersfield because I grew up in Lancaster, which had a population of 37,000 in the 70s before the aerospace boom propelled it towards its current numbers. But it definitely felt like a small town when I was growing up. The Antelope Valley Fair was the biggest event of the year; we had one movie theater and no shopping malls. In TQOW, the small town setting helped in terms of controlling the tone of the story. Vivian feels somewhat cut off from things, with only so many sources of stimulation coming her way. Writing the story from her perspective was key, too. Because she is suspicious and becomes increasingly agitated, the reader feels that way.

I loved the use of the woods behind the Gardiners’ house. They act as a buffer between their property and the land of the laconic and seemingly threatening Mr. Stokes. Chanelle Brodie’s body is found there, which is central to the story because it sets the plot in motion. And, of course, we can’t ignore the powerful symbol of the woods in stories like Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown.” Can you describe the meaning of the woods and what you had in mind in making this location so crucial to the novel?

Again, it comes back to setting for me. It was the primary impetus for the book and I wanted the surroundings to be almost like a character within the story. The woods symbolized a literal break from Vivian’s existence within the house and the grass-covered land surrounding it. A different setting, a different world, a place where maybe people behave differently. A place where the natural world is difficult to ignore because it looms overhead and presses up against you. Growing up in the desert as I did, it was easy to build this wooded, leaf-filled land into something larger-than-life, to imagine it as somewhat idyllic yet dangerous too.

Are you considering setting a novel or story in Orange County, for instance, in Newport Beach or Laguna Beach? I’m surprised that more novels aren’t set in these distinctive locales, with their unique sub-cultures and strong sense of place.

Actually, I just finished a collection of stories set in southern California. The setting has to meld with the project and for this one, southern California’s unique structure, with its patchwork quilt of cities connected by freeways, seemed a perfect complement to the stories, which are about the unlikely connections between people and how archetypal stories can be upended in a modern setting. Some of the characters live in LA County and some in Orange County; I know people like to think these two are so distinct and separate and yet one bleeds into the other in cities like Anaheim, Huntington Beach, Cerritos. And I think there may be more stories set in California than you think!

What books and/or authors have inspired you, both as a reader and a writer?

See Mary Vensel White’s guest blog post about the book that changed her life.

The writers who cause me a shiver of excitement with the release of a new book (or new translation): Per Petterson, Kent Haruf, Marilynne Robinson. These three could write about toast and I would be enthralled, probably. My favorite books include Anna Karenina, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and as you know, Lolita. Biggest influence on the writing of TQOW: Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson. Book that would have most influenced TQOW, had I read it before writing: Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. And three books I read recently and highly recommend, all story collections (read more short stories!!!): This Close by Jessica Francis Kane, This is Paradise by Kristiana Kahakauwila and Burning Bright by Ron Rash.

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Ten Unforgettable Female Characters

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday topic, as suggested by Jamie at The Broke and the Bookish, is “The Top Ten Characters Who ____________.” She has left it up to individual bloggers to complete the sentence. I chose to write about The Top Ten Female Characters Who Are Unforgettable.  In the spirit of this blog, all 10 characters are the creation of female authors.  Admittedly, this is an idiosyncratic list; it discusses characters I liked and/or found memorable. It is not intended to be an objective or definitive list. (I don’t want readers scolding me for omitting Scarlett O’Hara.)

I hope you’ll comment with some of your favorite female characters.

Characters are discussed in the order in which the books were published.


 

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Elizabeth Bennett, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813)

Lizzie Bennett is one of the most popular female characters in all of literature, and for good reason. She is confident and self-possessed, capable of both charming wit and biting commentary, attractive without being able to rely on her appearance, and interested in marriage but only with a man worthy of her and whom she actually loves. Yes, she is judgmental and opinionated, “prejudiced” as Austen would say, occasionally hot-tempered, and prone to misplaced fits of righteous indignation. But those all-too-human foibles only make her more loveable. As portrayed by Jennifer Ehle in the 1995 BBC production with Colin Firth, she is radiant and irresistible. Only someone with a stone for a heart could fail to be charmed by her Lizzie Bennett.


 

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Anna Karenina, Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

One of the first modern women in literature, Anna Karenina is a beautiful, sophisticated, and intelligent aristocrat who rejects societal constraints and the double standard applied to adulterous men and women by pursuing an extra-marital relationship with Count Vronsky. She is an ardent romantic who desires happiness on her own terms and pays the price for her iconoclastic attitude. Anna shares her loving heart with her children, to whom she remains devoted, despite her rejection of their father. Her fiercely independent spirit, dedication to love at any cost, and maternal streak make Anna Karenina an admirable, if flawed, character. In short, she is unforgettable precisely because she is so fully human.


 

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Esperanza Cordero, The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros (1984)

Young Esperanza knows little beyond her Chicago barrio. She is full of dreams large and small, quirky in the way of all memorable young girls, vulnerable in countless ways but with an inner toughness born of poverty, struggle, and the patience that comes from doing without. The vignettes in The House on Mango Street allow us to get to know Esperanza in much the same way we become familiar with real people: in bits and pieces, trying to complete the picture so we can figure the person out and decide what kind of relationship we would like to have with her. By the end of this deceptively simple 110-page novel, the reader is certain that Esperanza is a very special girl, destined for life beyond her neighborhood. Cisneros has created a very memorable character for young readers — and everyone else.


 

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Taylor Greer, The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver (1988)

High school senior Taylor Greer wants out of her tiny Kentucky town, and as soon as she is able, off she goes in her little VW bug, headed west to who knows what. A stop near an Indian reservation in Oklahoma becomes a life-changing moment, and soon she and her baby, Turtle, are settling in Tucson and trying to create a life for themselves. Taylor is gritty and resourceful but yearns for a family, which develops over time among a small group of outcasts, misfits, and unfortunates with whom she finds herself surrounded. Taylor’s huge heart, compassion, and determination make her a young woman to admire and love — and remember long after the reader puts the book down.


 

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Lee Fiora, Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld (2005)

Sittenfeld’s junior high protagonist is one of the most memorable teenage girls in literature. Hailing from a middle class family in Indiana, Lee is a scholarship student at a prestigious New England boarding school. Prep depicts her efforts to make friends, become self-sufficient, and pass her classes. Lee’s desire to understand and be like her privileged classmates is palpable and heartbreaking. She is a sweet, earnest, bright, and ambitious girl worth more than most of her classmates put together, but try telling her that. Her struggle to create herself is full of awkwardness and embarrassment, laughter and love, accomplishments and disappointments. She is a young woman you will not soon forget.


 

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Katniss Everdeen, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (2008)

This choice might surprise some people, but I liked and admired Katniss for her devotion to family, selflessness, modesty, and unexpected depths of character. If Katniss were not so likeable, despite her intermittent prickliness, we wouldn’t be so deeply invested in her success in the Hunger Games. Her mixed emotions about Gale and Peeta make Katniss more realistic and plausible, just like one of us, despite the unfamiliar and unforgiving setting and circumstances. As with Jennifer Ehle in Pride and Prejudice, the film version benefits mightily from the charisma of Jennifer Lawrence.


 

For Names - 09names - The Cutting Season by Attica Locke. (Handout)

Caren Gray, The Cutting Season by Attica Locke (2012)

Locke’s second novel channels James Lee Burke through a female perspective and protagonist. Caren Gray is the general manager of an antebellum plantation that doubles as a historic landmark visited by schoolchildren and the setting of wedding receptions and other posh events. She is building a life for her young daughter, Morgan, and herself. When the body of a migrant worker is discovered on the property line between the plantation and the adjacent corporate farm’s property, Gray finds herself pulled into the plantation’s brutal and sordid past. The Cutting Season reminds us, once again, of Faulkner’s famous line: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Gray is a typical concerned parent who quickly realizes she is a better detective than the ones working the case. But she is soon in over her head, as the murderer becomes an ever-increasing threat to Caren and Morgan. Locke has created a realistic, likeable, and gutsy young woman in Caren Gray, and it is a pleasure to watch her unravel the history of the plantation and, surprisingly, her own family. I’m hoping for another book featuring the estimable Ms. Gray.


 

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Georgia Ann “Sweet” Kirkendall, Kind of Kin by Rilla Askew (Jan. 2013)

If ever a young wife and mother had her hands full with challenges of every kind, it is Sweet Kirkendall of tiny Cedar, Oklahoma. Her husband is away much of the time working on a pipeline, leaving her to raise their clueless pre-teen son, Carl Albert, and care for her invalid father-in-law. Sweet’s father, Bob Brown, is arrested for harboring illegal aliens in his barn as a statement of Christian principle. That drops Bob’s 10-year-old grandson Dustin (and Sweet’s nephew) into her lap. Carl Albert resents Dustin, and the boys fight like angry Tasmanian devils. The plot weaves several other threads, both personal and political, into a tapestry of working-class Oklahomans (and Mexican immigrants, both legal and undocumented) struggling to support their families in an increasingly callous society. Sweet would not appear to be cut out to carry the many burdens of her family and town, yet the crucible of a battle over an anti-immigrant law allows her to discover her true character. She is a young woman with will, determination, and compassion who manages to hold herself and her family together. She is a character to admire and remember.


 

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Chava, The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker (April 2013)

Chava, the mystical golem of the title, is an immensely sympathetic character. She finds herself a stranger in a strange land when the German ship docks in New York City in 1899 and she learns that her owner/husband has died on the transatlantic journey. Seeing turn of the century Manhattan through her eyes is akin to reading a “first contact” story, as she does not know what to make of the city or its denizens, and those she befriends are nearly as perplexed by her not-quite-human persona. Chava’s struggles with loneliness, adjustment, language, and the most mundane aspects of human activity, as well as her eventual encounter with the jinni, serve to make her, ironically, all the more human. She is in many ways the ultimate immigrant. She is a character worth knowing.


 

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Rosemary Cooke, We Are Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler (May 2013)

Rosemary is the narrator of Fowler’s PEN/Faulkner Award-winning novel about a family in which Rosemary and a baby chimpanzee named Fern are raised from birth as “sisters.” It’s all part of her university professor/psychologist father’s research. Things go relatively well for several years until something goes very wrong. Rosemary is now a 21-year-old UC Davis student looking back at her childhood and trying to make sense of what happened. When her older brother Lowell reappears in Davis after a decade spent incommunicado, she learns she has been burdened by the kind of misinterpretations commonly made by self-centered children. Rosemary is by turns funny, sardonic, clever, sullen, and depressed. Her relationships with friends, roommates, classmates, and her parents are fraught with confusion and misunderstandings. Rosemary is in many ways a “normal” American college girl; yet she also strikes others as slightly “off.” As Rosemary says, they experience the “uncanny valley” sensation with her, since she is as much chimpanzee as Fern is/was human. The experiment, not surprisingly, had unintended consequences. Rosemary is an unforgettable character, as is her sister Fern.