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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