My guest this month is Maureen Morrissey. Maureen is a writer, retired educator, wife/mother/grandmother/ daughter/auntie/dog mommy, avid reader, photographer, traveler, blogger, and most recently, half-marathon runner. In her spare time, she volunteers at animal shelters and investigates the quality of rooftop bars in New York City, her hometown. Oh, and she loves concerts, museums and Broadway shows, too.
Maureen began writing her first novel, Woven: Six Stories, One Epic Journey, the day after retiring from teaching fourth grade, in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic. Housebound, and with the mind-space and time, finally, to dedicate to the undertaking, she dove in to a daily routine of researching, composing and revising Woven; finishing the first draft in Autumn and self-publishing in December 2020.
She is recently published a second novel, Sonder: Janie’s Story, and is enjoying the companionship and support of her new community of writers and authors.
I was interested to interview Maureen because her books are set in the 1970s and 80s which are now being explored through historical fiction. It’s very daunting to discover I could now be used as a source for ‘oral history’!
What or who inspired you to first write? Which authors have influenced you?
I have always loved stories: family stories, black and white movies from the 1940’s and 50’s, radio shows like The Shadow and The Green Hornet and, of course, reading books. One of my consistent early memories is walking a mile to the public library by myself and getting lost in the stacks for hours.
My first rejection as a writer came when I was seven years old. I had set up a publishing center in my room, where I wrote, illustrated, and stapled together stories on that thin beige-colored drawing paper common in the 1960’s. I went to my mother with my first self-published book, as proud as a peacock, and asked if she wanted to buy it for a nickel.
At the time, a nickel would have bought five Hershey’s chocolate kisses or half a fried chicken wing from the kosher butcher. I figured I would sell a second book for the other half or wait for my six-cent allowance on Saturday to make up the difference. At any rate, she just said, “No.”
That hurt, but it also gave me a resolve to keep trying. Through these many, many (many, many, many) years, I have written countless short stories, published articles and book chapters for teachers, and continued my learning through endless Writing Workshop experiences and lectures and classes. And all of that brought me through to retirement in the middle of a pandemic, giving me time and mind space to sit down and write my first novel, Woven.
I learned to tell stories from the work of Roald Dahl, Judy Blume and later, Stephen King. Their ability to weave and build a tale around the foibles of their very human characters continues to inspire me today. I learned how to engage readers in historical fiction through Ken Follett and Herman Wouk; and one of my favourite writers about family and culture and characters is Amy Tan.
What is the inspiration for your current book? Is there a particular theme you wished to explore?
I belong to several online groups where writers share ideas, problems, successes, and failures (you can sometimes learn more from the latter than the former). It was in one of these groups that someone posted a “Word of the Day.” That word was “sonder,” and its definition (a realization that every single person you pass on the street without really noticing has an entire complex and interesting life story, and if you stop to think about that and engage, you learn infinite life lessons) galvanized me to begin writing Janie’s Story that same day. The theme of Sonder is personal growth or surviving adversity by learning from others.
What period of history particularly inspires or interests you? Why?
All eras have incredible stories. I loved Greek myths growing up, imagining a time and place and life that would inspire such stories and what it would be like to be part of that. I also love books with time periods like Clan of the Cave Bear for the same reason. But now I really enjoy stories that take place in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I guess this is because the stories feel more current and real and possible, and I can imagine them happening to me or someone I know. I connect and relate strongly to them. It is hard to believe that the 1970’s are now considered historical, but that is how time works! I’m sure my grandmother, who was born in 1898 and lived for 87 years, felt the same about her lifetime. She was a holocaust survivor and there were so many fictional stories about that time period published while she was still alive.
What resources do you use to research your book? How long did it take to finish the novel?
My own experiences often sneak into my work, as do family stories. But most of my research comes from travels around the United States and the world. My husband and I prefer not doing the “tourist” thing when we travel; it’s so much more interesting to engage with local people and experience their lives for a short while. Much of my background material comes from reading memoir or informational texts, especially in narrative form. Having access to the internet means a nearly overwhelming abundance of information. Sometimes I spend more time researching and reading than writing.
Woven, my first book, had been in my head and heart for ten years, but once I retired and made writing my full-time job, it took less than six months to complete. Sonder took just over a year. When I am working on a novel, I schedule 3-5 hours a day for writing and research. This helps me keep the momentum going.
What do you do if stuck for a word or a phrase?
I love thesauruses (or thesauri), best invention ever; and the internet makes so many of those readily available. If I can’t find the right word, I don’t get stuck or trapped. I trust that I will be able to eventually find it, so I highlight that part and keep on truckin’, as they say. If you don’t do this, it can paralyse you and stop you from writing. When I taught Kindergarten, the grade-level team wrote a weekly letter to parents, and it was painful because every week my colleagues would argue over one single word. It made the writing of a simple newsletter take hours!
Is there anything unusual or even quirky that you would like to share about your writing?
I discovered that I am not a commercial fiction writer, but rather a literary fiction writer. I did not know there were such divisions in style until I wrote Woven. I believe history is a collection of stories and so I wanted my book to be written in that form, as a series of stories that weave together. Many people told me I needed to follow the format of introduce character and setting, introduce a problem, show failed attempts to solve the problem, solve the problem and live happily ever after. That did not resonate at all with what I was trying to do, and it was only after I discovered this commercial vs. literary difference that I understood that it was okay to write my story my way. I continued in this vein with Sonder, which has short stories embedded into the main frame of the work.
Do you use a program like Scrivener to create your novel? Do you ever write in long hand?
I use Word to write most of the time; it has features like navigation pane, read aloud and editor that are helpful for organizing, editing, and revising. I use pencil and paper for mapping out timelines and for jotting down ideas. I also keep a small journal in which I write “I am grateful for…,” “I hope…” and “I wish…” almost every day.
Is there a particular photo or piece of art that strikes a chord with you? Why?
I love photography and most especially photos of the big rock stars when they were teenagers in the 1950’s and 60’s who had no idea what was coming. I think it is the combination of knowing the rest of their story and seeing the hope, expectation, and youthful hunger in their faces. I also love black and white candid photos from those years that show people just doing their thing. Every one of those has a story.
What advice would you give an aspiring author?
Write, write, and then write some more. Put aside all worries about style, skill, grammar, and lack of confidence in how your work will be perceived, and just write. Like most things, the only way to improve is to do it over and over. Don’t get stuck on a phrase or word or whether a paragraph belongs; that is what revising is for. I often later remove an entire section from my work, which is initially very painful; but I never ever throw it away. Some of those have found their places in other work or have even become the impetus for an entire other story. In my new book, , there is a piece I wrote thirty years ago that never found a home until now!
Also, read, read, and then read some more. As an educator, I learned (and taught my students) to read like a writer. Every book or story you read will have a gem or two that inspires your writing. Even text you dislike can teach and inform your writing; when you realize what you don’t like as a reader, you strive not to do the same to your own audience.
Tell us about your next book.
I did not even know there would be a first book, and after that one was done, I had no idea there would be a second! This is why I suspect there may be a third, but I will have to let you know if and when inspiration strikes! For now, I am focusing on short stories that literary magazines might publish and blogging about this new life in which I am constantly surprised to find myself.
Downtown New York City in the 1970’s and 80’s is a dark and dangerous place for Janie Thompson.
Her indifferent parents and her working-class Queens neighborhood offer too many opportunities to fail. Janie moves to Greenwich Village to attend New York University. She finds herself unequipped to make her way through the temptations and pitfalls of the era; at every turn she is in and out of danger. The journey takes her deep into rabbit holes as she tries to navigate a path through before it is too late. The people Janie meets, all of whom are on their own journey through that time and place, offer her paths forward. Some of those paths take her further down and some offer better opportunities.
A “sonder,” the realization that she is not truly alone, may be the only thing that saves her. Janie calls herself “a solitary part of a million-piece jigsaw puzzle whose cover picture she could not see.” If she can truly “see” the people around her and learn from them, she might be able to survive.
Thanks Maureen – fascinating to learn the meaning of the word ‘sonder’ and how it inspired you to explore the rabbit holes down which your character journeys. And I love those photos! Such joie de vivre!
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