Marian McMahon Stanley’s just released Boston-based mystery about the murder of an elderly nun, is described by author Hallie Ephron as a “taut, character-rich whodunit”. She shares with me membership in the Guppy Chapter of Sisters in Crime and has been fortunate in careers – first at a Fortune 500 company, then at a university. She is delighted with this third incarnation.
Free print copy of THE IMMACULATE going out to a commentator chosen at random! (Who answers the question at the end,)
You have an all-expense-paid long weekend to spend with three guests. The Starship Enterprise has agreed to beam you to the place of your choosing, so travel time is not a consideration. Who are your guests (and why) and where are you staying (and why)?
Let’s see. Maybe in an old camper van driving along the blue highways or secondary roads of The US and Canada. Or actually two old campers to fit all of us. And, you know, we would be having so much fun that we’d start with a long weekend and just keep going for weeks or months.
John Steinbeck, accompanied by his standard poodle Charley, is driving Rocinante 1. In his book TRAVELS WITH CHARLEY, Steinbeck named his camper after Don Quixote’s horse Rocinante. Like Don Quixote, Rocinante “is awkward, past his prime and engaged in a task beyond his capacities”.
William Least-Moon, author OF BLUE HIGHWAYS, is driving the second camper, Rocinante 2. If we are lucky, we spend most of our time getting lost in interesting places.
We need music, of course. I couldn't decide between two iconic folk singers who died too young – Kate Wolf and Canadian Stan Rogers, so I figured we’d all squeeze together and make room for both of them.
Riding along, we enjoy the stunning landscapes of this great continent and poke around little towns, taking in sights like the world’s largest ball of twine and the Dan Quayle Library. Steinbeck makes coffee in the morning and later we eat in four-calendar roadside cafes and diners. (Least-Moon judges that a café or diner having four product calendars behind the counter has traveling salesmen who frequent the establishment, thus insuring decent food.)
Our West Highland Terrier Archie and Steinbeck’s dog Charley, of course, become fast friends. They ride along together with their heads out the camper windows, facing into the wind and occasionally barking at cows.
Every now and then, Stan Rogers bursts into song, and belts out “Barrett’s Privateers” or maybe “Northwest Passage” as we head west along Lake Superior. At night in the Rockies, Kate Wolf sings us to sleep under the stars with “Across the Great Divide” and “Unfinished Life”. Perfect.
(Editor note: as long-time readers of the blog know, fiction writers often feel unconstrained to stay within the guidelines of the question, but Marian is the first to over-invite and over-stay! Makes me smile.)
What is the background noise when you write and why is it there?
I grew up in a big family and was the working mom of four active, lively children. My last career was at a large urban university with thousands of young adults on its campus. As a result, I always thought that I could write and study in any kind of low-level pandemonium.
But, if it was that way then, it’s not now for some reason. I can’t handle the noise level in a coffee shop when I’m writing. Even with earphones on, I’m conscious of a hum of activity. I also get too interested in everything and everybody. Or, working in my own beloved town public library, a quiet question at the reference desk or a subdued conversation between library patrons tends to be too distracting for me to get any real writing or editing done. I’m embarrassed by this wimpy ultra-sensitivity but there we are.
For real writing, I like to work in very early morning pre-dawn or dawn silence with only quiet house or nature sounds. When I’m in a certain kind of a roll, usually editing some mess of scribbles I’ve made in the earlier hours, I listen to Celtic music – the tin whistle (Sean Potts or Joanie Madden) or the fiddle (Martin Hayes or Eileen Ivers) are favorites.
Are you a plotter, pantser or something in between and why?
I guess in between – though perhaps more toward a pantser. Anything tighter than a broad loose idea of where the plot is going makes me feel a little claustrophobic. I once had an excellent teacher who said he couldn’t start a story without knowing the end of it. I could have wept for him. Where’s the fun in that? But, to each his own.
I don’t write scenes sequentially. I usually write scenes out of order for various points through the course of the book. When I’m forward writing with these out of order scenes, I kind of think of it as throwing out markers – like those little stone cairns you might see on hiking trails. I write scenes further and further out and then come back to fill in the gaps. Perhaps in some odd way, this is my own version of an outline. Again, each to her own.
When you start reading a book do you always finish it? If not, what causes you to permanently put a book down?
I’m too old to finish books that I’m not enjoying, though I might give a book an extra chapter to be sure I’m not being too quick to judge. I‘m not sure I can always tell you what makes me stop reading. Perhaps I find the writing flat or the book too formulaic with stereotypical characters, or maybe the pace of breathless action is just unbelievable and getting a little silly. All of this reflects my particular taste, of course. Another reader may enjoy the book.
Do you read reviews of your books? Why or why not?
Right now, I’m in that rosy period of bringing out a first book to the sweet accolades of friends, family and colleagues. If they don’t like THE IMMACULATE, they have been too kind to tell me. However, this won’t last and I do plan to read reviews of my book as it heads into a somewhat wider market. Having been through many frank, and occasionally merciless, experiences of “workshopping” a manuscript in various classes and forums, I think I can handle the reviews with some equanimity. We’ll see. What I look for in critiques is a pattern – more than one person mentioning a point. Then, I’ll examine that point or insight and see if I can learn from it.
What do you do that you suspect causes your copyeditor to pull her/his hair out?
I don’t know why I use the English spelling for certain words – “acknowledgement” or “afterwards”, as opposed to American and Canadian usage – “acknowledgment” and “afterward”. Perhaps it’s a New England thing, perhaps it’s because of the time I spent in the UK as a student and later for work. Anyway, usage corrections were all through my copyedited manuscript this time. I still write that way, without even realizing it, so I imagine that the copy editor for my next book will be equally annoyed.
What language error, when you hear or see it, grates on you like the screech of fingernails on a chalkboard?
I make enough of my own language errors (always have to look up “lay” and “lie”) that I tend not to be too uptight about other people’s errors. I also find some old rules arbitrary and annoying. How many awkward sentences could be written just to avoid ending with a preposition? “With whom did you attend the party, Miss Glamorous Suspect?” (Editor’s note: this reminds me of Winston Churchill’s retort which goes something like: “Ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put.”)
I break certain rules all the time and am sometimes tempted to put in a little footnote, “I know the rule, I know the rule. It’s a dumb rule and this reads better.”
That being said, I get a teeny bit on edge when subjects and verbs don’t agree or when “I” is used as a direct object instead of “me”. Then, I just take a deep breath and remember that it is, after all, only grammar.
Name three writers from whom you have drawn inspiration and tell us why.
I’m very fond of Louise Penny’s books for her storytelling talent and her sense of place, of course, but also for her skill in representing the human character. I love the way she brings out small and large personal failings even in her most beloved characters. She is quite funny too, always a blessing.
Tana French and Benjamin Black (John Banville’s pen name when he’s writing mysteries) are two Irish mystery writers who influence me most. The way they use words and images as they are telling a story is like water to a thirsty soul. I still chuckle recalling Black’s description of a difficult old man as having a face “like a carp” and Tana French’s description of a reluctant character’s having “silence so stubborn that you could feel it elbowing you”.
What is a piece of writing advice you think is worth sharing?
The best advice I’ve gotten – especially helpful to women with our family commitments and caretaking– is to take our writing seriously. Find a place to write and have a regular time to write. It’s okay for us to have a passion for this creative art and to carve out an important space in our busy lives for it. Even to think of writing as a serious vocation.
I’d like to turn it around on this one and ask readers what mystery writers inspire them and why.
Free print copy of THE IMMACULATE going out to a commentator chosen at random! (Jim will contact the winner and obtain your mailing address.)
You can find out more about Marian on Twitter, LinkedIn or Facebook (Marian McMahon Stanley Author) or her website www.marianmcmahonstanley.com.