Mary Ann’s work feels deeper (which is not the same as darker) to me than much of what I read in contemporary romance. I wanted to know why she writes the way she does and asked if I could ask her for AAR. She graciously said yes.
Congratulations on getting your first work published! I have to tell you, The Story Guy doesn’t read like a debut novella. Your prose is clear and confident and your story limned with grace. Can you tell me how you got here? When did you start writing fiction?
Thank you! I am completely honored to be debuting as a writer in the romance community. I’ve read romance since about the fifth grade, which means I’ve been reading romance for twenty-eight years. When I was fifteen, I wrote in my diary that I wanted to be either famous poet or a romance novelist, and when I was eighteen, I wrote to Jude Deveraux after reading Sweet Liar, the very first hardback I had ever purchased, and she wrote back. Now we’re at the same house. So I would encourage diary writing, long-term goal setting, and letter writing in any writer, generally.
I can’t remember not writing. As a very young child, I actually had a poem published in Highlights and the local newspaper. I do remember writing my first novel, in the third grade, which was a rhyming social commentary featuring humanoid elephants. I wrote a lot of horror, romance, and poems as a teenager. I was a voracious reader, of all genres and literatures.
I was a music and English major, and it was in college that I focused mainly on essay writing and poetry, and by the time I was earning my MFA, I mainly wrote poetry. My career in poetry was primary publication in journals and as an editor. When I was in clinical residency as a pediatric nurse practitioner a few years ago, the work was very emotionally difficult and the hours long, and well, there are A LOT of romance novels at the nurse’s stations and on the patients’ bedside tables. I started reading them almost to the exclusion of other books—I had never given them up, but hadn’t read so many or in so wide of subgenres in awhile. I felt like there were so many really important stories being told by so many gifted writers.
I wrote three “learning” manuscripts before The Story Guy, and it would never have been submitted if my husband hadn’t happened to read it and tell me it was good (he’s a creative writing and Shakespeare professor and, well, picky). I submitted it to Loveswept’s online slush portal because I admired the insane variety in Loveswept’s line—which was true back in the day, as well. At this time, I was friendly with Ruthie Knox, we had discovered each other to be kindred spirits, but I had only sort of hinted to her that I wrote. Then, Sue Grimshaw wrote me and asked for a full within this ludicrously short period of time. (I’m uncertain that she ever sleeps.) I confessed to Ruthie what I had done and she sort of took me in hand in her very Midwestern sort of way and bossed me and told me what to do.
In The Story Guy, your hero, Brian, is trying to hold together a life that seems unimaginably stressful and hard. As I read, I had a difficult time believing that Brian, no matter what happens, could ever truly escape the sadness that etches his life. Why did you write him that way?
Because so many people live just like Brian does, in the margins of regular life, because of the kind of obligations Brian has. Also, I don’t think it’s necessary to have a life without sadness in order to accept love, and I really wanted to write that character. I wanted a character who lived with genuine pain and uncertainty and worry and burdens and yet still found romantic love. In fact, I wanted someone like Brian to have romantic love more than almost any other kind of character because it would give him something to frame his sadness and uncertainty inside a larger context. Loss and sadness are a part of living, and they don’t prevent life from going on, particularly if the only expectation of the love that you receive is that you receive it. Carrie is right for Brian because all she wants is for Brian to accept her love and for him to love her in return. She is fully aware of the limitations and burdens he faces, of the reality of them.
The message is that if sadness is inescapable, well then, love is inescapable, joy is inescapable, because all of that is part of life, of living.
Your heroine Carrie is, at heart, content with her life. She’s fulfilled by her job as a librarian, loves her parents and her friends and, other than wishing she had a sex life, she’s happy. And yet as she falls for Brian, she begins to see happiness somewhat differently. Reading The Story Guy made me ponder what makes us genuinely happy. What do you think? How do you define real happiness?
I believe happiness is a kind of fierce and tenacious belief that life is interesting, worthwhile, and expansive. It’s a belief that resources exist, and none of this is a zero-sum game. Carrie doesn’t believe that if Brian lets himself accept love that he has to lose something, she believes that he will gain something. She believes that sacrifice is a process, not some singular action that is so indelible that its terms can’t change with life. However, this is something Carrie has to learn, and yes, she learns that contentment is something different from happiness. Contentment rarely asks us to risk or sacrifice or change, the payoff is a low degree of loss. Happiness, that fierceness, will ask for risk and sacrifice again and again. It will mean that loss is inevitable. However, the payoff is joy and love and well, people. Interesting people in your life.
I wanted to write a character that started from a place that if nothing changed for her, there would be no bad outcomes, but there would be little change or deep joy. If you start from a bad place, I think you’re actually more likely to take risks. It’s when we’re okay, content, that we’re resistant to risks and to change. In many ways, though Brian’s life is so difficult in such an overwhelming way, Carrie has to bring the most to the table. She has to sit in protest of her own life. For most of us, this is feels impossible.
You’re a hospital based nurse practitioner who works with children. Does your job influence your writing?
Oh, absolutely. My job gives me tremendous perspective, first of all. I work with families, every day in my job, who are basically living one of the worst days of their lives. I step into that space, and I interact with tremendous loss and grief and confusion and pain, and I have to do that on its own terms while making a lot of decisions. I also do a lot of routine health-care provision too, but there I am in constant contact with what is very much, you know, us, all of us, people. I talk to moms and dads and grandparents and kids of all ages. My population is incredibly diverse; I work in a big city. Basically, I just see and meet and deal with a lot of people, and because of my work, I do so with a lot of intensity.
So I think there is a way I am very hard on my writing, and because I write very naturalistic realistic contemporary, I expect my characters to live in a familiar world and behave in familiar ways and feel things like we do. Which means, as a writer, I have to really write in such a way that the story is more real than reality, because actual reality is incredibly distracting and we rarely have time to really think about things that we may briefly notice. I feel like my job, then, as a writer, is to stretch out time and consideration of small moments, so we can suck up as much reality as possible.
That perspective though, from my work, it is without measure in its benefit to me as a compassionate and I hope, thoughtful human being. That perspective is the eye I bring to the stories that I tell. If I write a lot about loss, well, it’s because loss is so much a part of living, it is living. If I write a lot about disability, or devastating change, that’s because change is inevitable, including the changes of our own bodies. It’s what I see, it’s where I live and work. And because I write love stories, these are the spaces I enter and consider how love happens.
Loss happens, change happens, love happens.
Carrie is a librarian. Why did you pick that profession for her?
Well first, libraries are at least 65% responsible for my upbringing. My own background is one of instability, as a child, an unfortunately common sort of story for a lot of children, and libraries were safe and tremendous places where however I wanted or needed to feel was easy to come by. The physical space, the books, were one kind of magic, the other was that it was the only place I knew, as a child, where the adults were in service to me. Now, if you are excellent parents or guardians, you know that this isn’t true for your children, but for many children, a librarian is the first person who asks them, “how can I help you,” and they mean it. Very powerful stuff.
Contemporarily, librarians have this incredible job of very literally, fighting for our future. The deal in information and its access, in a very dynamic and multi-valiant way, and are some of our most highly educated citizens within an environment of information analysis. What’s more, they combine this highly technical knowledge with a job that is in very personal service to the widest swath of humanity in each of our communities. There was a way in which Carrie needed to be a superhero. I could think of no other profession that would make her one but a librarian.
Finally, I don’t have a home office, and I’m a mom, and a working mom. Many, many of the pages I write are either in the very wee hours of the morning, or at my public library. A lot of The Story Guy was written in the library that inspired the library in the book. Almost all of us have very personal connections to libraries and librarians, and it was a way, I felt, that Brian might have easily “picked” Carrie from those that responded to his ad. Most of us, in Brian’s position, would think, “oh! A librarian!”
Each chapter in the book is a period of time, always less than an hour. Why?
The mistake all of us make in life is believing that we have time. We don’t, we have a life, which is different. When we believe we have time, there is a way in which we don’t let ourselves live—we distract ourselves, we focus on tasks and issues of contentment or management. Life is a limited time sort of offer, however, and so I limited Brian and Carrie’s time. I wanted them to live, so I took away their options for putting it off. Both of them are characters putting off life—Carrie is losing her life to contentment, and Brian is losing his life to daily, heartbreaking work and commitment. Meanwhile, life is passing them by. So I forced them to crowd their hours by giving them one. Just one hour. I made them put everything it is that they wanted in that space. Then I gave them another. My work, as a writer, then, was to let us see them ask more and more of that hour, and so, ask more and more of their own lives. Given only a little time, these characters start to risk, they start to love, and they start to really live.
I enjoy wonkomance.com which you and several other romance writers run. How did you begin writing there?
I wasn’t a contributor from its inception, so I’ll answer how I came to be a contributor, which the rest of the staff will tell you, was by abject flirting. I made cow-eyes at those ladies with epic comments, valentines of retweeting, and hopeless pining. Finally, they had to put me out of my misery, because they were so embarrassed for me, and Cara McKenna DMed me on twitter with the offer, and I tried desperately to act all cool, but honestly, all the dogs in the neighborhood could probably hear my squee.
One of my durable strengths in life is making wonderful, beautiful, amazing friends, and the women of wonkomance are no exception. They are all terrifyingly talented, sharp, and on the leading edge of ideas in the romance community. Obviously, I haven’t really stopped flirting.
Thank you for the opportunity to talk to AAR, Dabney! I’m so honored to be asked to appear here. See you Tuesday at #buffyclub!