Marsha Moyer - A Wonderful New Writer
(August 26, 2003)
"The parts of my books that I havenít liked as well as others are invariably ones in which I can see my own hand directing the action, rather than the charactersí. With Lucy Hatch and Honky-tonk Angels it was rather like following a bunch of people around writing down what they said and did and trusting theyíd come out in the end where I wanted them to, even though when I started I didnít know exactly where that place would be."
Stumbling across Marsha Moyer's first book, The Second Coming of Lucy Hatch, was a wonderful experience. As I read it, I thought, "This is why I read - for the wonderful, glorious words and phrases and for how they fit together to tell me more about life." I enjoyed Moyer's second book, The Last of the Honky-tonk Angels even more, and was curious about whether there would be more books set in Mooney, Texas featuring these complicated, charismatic characters who'd stolen my heart. Moyer satisfied my curiousity about this and other questions I had. I hope you enjoy my conversation with her as much as I did.
Where did you get your inspiration for Mooney? Is it an actual town or an amalgam of places youíve been? How does the small-town climate affect your charactersí relationships and the direction you can go with them?
In 1990 I lived for three months on a wooded retreat outside the little town of Linden in far northeast Texas. The area captured my imagination, and I always knew I would write about it one day. Mooney is not a literal interpretation of Linden, but a fictional town that I placed in the same spot on the map. As for the effect of their small town on my charactersí relationships, my feeling is that itís as much a part of the story as the characters themselves. Ash and Lucyís courtship is heavily influenced by the fact that it takes place against the backdrop of a tiny, close-knit community, where just about every citizen has an interest in the outcome and is more than eager to speculate about it. I saw limitless ways of taking advantage of that, usually comedic ones, although in the second book I tried to show the more sober side of the coin, in the form of gossip about Denny and her relationship with a young black boy, Erasmus King.
Where did Lucy, Ash, and Denny come from? Did they spring fully formed from your imagination, or did you craft them with the traits they possess in order to explore certain themes?
Ash arrived fully formed, followed closely by Denny. With them, I knew I had two points of the triangle, and would have to invent the third. Lucy was a deliberate creation. I tried to make her as unlike myself as possible, because I didnít want her to be boring and didnít want to be bored writing about her, but she was a hard character for me to write, because her actions and emotions were so often at odds with mine. She was just so pigheaded. I kept wanting to grab her and shake her and say, "Are you crazy? Are you blind? This man is after you!" Of course, that wouldnít have been any fun for readers at all.
Bailey and Genevaís problem with infertility is a sensitive subject, and I thought you handled it with compassion. Why did you choose to reveal Geneva as infertile just as you were exploring the issue of Lucyís unexpected fertility? Will Bailey and Geneva get their own story to work out their problems? Will there be other books set in Mooney?
That particular story thread was the result of a somewhat offhand comment made by my editor when we were working on the first book. Why, she wanted to know, was a childless woman working for an ob/gyn? It had never occurred to me that that might seem strange, but when I got to a certain point in the second book, I looked at the question a little harder and realized it might have a role in the story I hadnít considered. I wanted to introduce a crisis between Bailey and Geneva that would rock the foundation of this extraordinarily solid marriage, and how to do that more effectively than by giving them the seemingly random inability to have a baby? I donít anticipate Bailey and Geneva getting a book of their own, but they will factor into the third Ash-and-Lucy book - which is set in Mooney - in a big way. Readers seem to care about what happens to them, and I want to show not just how they deal with the infertility issue, but how their relationship is about so much more than that.
In Honky-tonk Angels you introduce a new, racially motivated conflict. Why did you decide to add that particular storyline?
In 1998 a black man in Jasper, a little town in East Texas, was chained to the back of a pickup truck and dragged to death by a trio of white supremacists. What interested me in the aftermath of the crime was hearing the areaís white residents say they couldnít believe this kind of thing could happen in their town while the black citizens said it was exactly the kind of thing that was bound to happen; the white community didnít see their way of life as racist, while the black community perceived the existence of racism on a daily basis. Weíll never know where the truth of the matter lies - in a case like this, the truth obviously means different things to different people - but I felt obligated to explore it anyway. The kind of hatred that could permit something like that to happen, the climate in which itís bred - itís hard to let that go unanswered. In fact, I donít feel as if Iím finished with it yet.
In many ways Honky-tonk Angels and Lucy Hatch seem like two volumes of one book. Why the split? Was this your decision or the publisherís?
Youíre right, the two books started out as one long manuscript; originally, the reader was just supposed to turn the page and go from Lucy and Ashís reconciliation at the end of part one to the arrival of Denny and the discovery of Lucyís pregnancy at the beginning of part two. However, when I set out to try to publish it, I kept bumping up against the fact that publishers werenít willing to take on a project of that length by an unknown writer. I even got some advice from Diana Gabaldon, who cautioned me that the publishing world had changed a lot in the ten years since sheíd sold Outlander. I eventually made the decision to split the manuscript into two separate books, and found an agent who shared my enthusiasm for the idea, who then found an editor who agreed. It all worked out very serendipitously.
Music is a theme in both books. Are you musical? What kind of music do you prefer?
I can read music and play the piano, but Iím not a musician; I donít have the gift, although I admire it above just about all else. But Iíve been around music and musicians most of my life, and was aided and inspired by a lot of them over the course of both books. Iím first and foremost a fan of singer/songwriters, people like Lyle Lovett and Ray Wylie Hubbard, but in the car, which is where I do most of my listening, itís all country, all the time. I like contemporary country with a traditional edge (my favorites at the moment are Joe Nichols and Trace Adkins) as well as older stuff like Bob Wills and Merle Haggard, and in-between, like the Flying Burrito Brothers. It all comes out in the books, I think.
What do you think is the difference between romance and womenís fiction? Do your books fit the format of either in your mind? Many of AAR's readers have embraced your books because of the romantic relationship between Lucy and Ash. How do you feel about that?
The minute you stick a label on something, it automatically alienates as many readers as it attracts, and that bothers me for the obvious reason that Iíd like to think my books appeal to all sorts of people, readers of both commercial and literary fiction, women and men. On the other hand, the core of the books is unquestionably the love story, and Iím pleased that readers have responded to that. The second book emphasized Dennyís story, but with the third book in the series, I want to bring Ash and Lucy back to front and center. I loved the thrust-and-parry of their courtship, the fumbling and false starts, all those townspeople with their tongues flapping; and I intend to re-introduce that in a way that may surprise some people.
Do you read fiction for pleasure? Do you read romance?
I read fiction voraciously, much of it by women, although not a lot of romance per se. There is a breed of womenís fiction that is hard to do well that I really admire - domestic or social comedies that are well-constructed and witty without being overly cute or sentimental - and when I find good writers of that ilk, I latch onto them. A couple who come to mind are Elinor Lipman and Jeanne Ray. Otherwise, most of what I read is mainstream or literary fiction, which permits a luxury with prose you donít often find in genre fiction. I love Louise Erdrich, Richard Russo, Michael Chabon, Lee Smith, James Lee Burke - books you can just dive into and get lost in the language.
What authors, if any, have influenced your writing or style? Whom do you like to read?
A man approached me after a reading and told me that my work reminded him of Larry McMurtryís. Iíd never thought about it consciously before, but it was as if a light bulb went off in my head and I said, "Yes!" It would be hard to write about small-town life in Texas without acknowledging a debt to McMurtry. Richard Russo is another influence; he does the blue-collar thing so well, crackerjack dialogue, the fine line between humor and pathos. When Iím writing, though, I tend to read non-fiction, so that Iím not overly influenced, or distracted, by the writerís structure or style.
How long have you been writing?
I used to dictate stories to my mother before I was old enough to write them down. I co-wrote my first novel, a mystery, with my best friend when I was ten. As I got older and entered the working world, it was harder to make time to write, but I always kept at it I wrote two full novels before Lucy Hatch, and parts of many, many others. But I didnít send anything out for publication until I was absolutely sure I had something I felt was worth printing. My path to publication was not typical in that respect.
How has getting published affected your life and your writing? Has anything about the publishing business been a surprise to you? Has your publisher (William Morrow) been supportive of your ideas, goals, and projects?
I came into the business knowing so little about it that almost everything has been a surprise, and thereís almost no way in which my life hasnít been changed by it. But itís important to separate the art of writing from the business of having written, to create a balance between the two. In that regard, Iím still learning.
Lucy Hatch and Honky-tonk Angels are both character-driven books. How do you handle the plotting side of writing, the figuring out of what comes next?
I very rarely sit down and plot story points ahead of time, because Iíve learned that Iím not really in charge of the process, and if I try to impose too much order Iíll only be overruled. The parts of my books that I havenít liked as well as others are invariably ones in which I can see my own hand directing the action, rather than the charactersí. With Lucy Hatch and Honky-tonk Angels it was rather like following a bunch of people around writing down what they said and did and trusting theyíd come out in the end where I wanted them to, even though when I started I didnít know exactly where that place would be.
The book Iím working on now is a different matter; Iím a hundred pages into it and havenít got any real sense that the characters are leading me where I need to go, and every time I think Iím about to break through to a discovery of some sort, they veer off in a completely new direction. The key word is "trust." You just sort of flow with it and hope to eventually understand, much the way you hope your readers do, the larger purpose.
What is your next book about?
The one Iím working on now is called Bobby T.ís Blue Period. The protagonist is a former high school football star in a small Texas town who wakes up one day to realize heís become a middle-aged car salesman, and heís forced to confront the fact that almost nothing in his life has worked out the way he expected. Thereís no love story per se, but Bobbyís whole life is bracketed by women - wife, daughter, mother, sister-in-law, boss - and when a former schoolmate comes back into his life, to deal with her own motherís death, Bobby has a chance to connect with another human being, to do something important, in a way heís never done before. I guess you could say itís a story about creating meaning in your life at the middle of your life.
As in Lucy Hatch and Honky-tonk Angels, thereís a cast of colorful secondary characters, an intermingling of comedy and tragedy. When thatís done, Iíll finish the third and final installment of the Ash-and-Lucy saga, which takes place seven years after Honky-tonk and deals with the effects of Ashís success on his relationships with Lucy and their young son. As I said earlier, the approach - the point from which the story takes off - will probably surprise some readers, but in the end it should prove satisfying to everyone who enjoyed the first two books, especially Lucy Hatch. And I have an idea for a spin-off about Aunt Dove as a young woman, but itís very embryonic.
Anything else you'd like to add?
Just that I love to hear from my readers. They can contact me by email via a link on my website.