Mary Vensel White joins us to talk about getting published by HarperCollins, the gift of imagination, and her new book, Fortress for One.
WELCOME, MARY VENSEL WHITE!
Author of The Qualities of Wood
Winston: Let me start off by thanking you for spending some time with us here at The Object, and a huge congratulations on placing your novel The Qualities of Wood with HarperCollins. What’s it like having a Big Six imprint alongside your book title?
Mary: Thank you for having me! I should congratulate you as well for your novel, A Circle in the Woods, which I have just finished, and for the intriguing project you have underway with The Object, which I look forward to reading!
It is very gratifying to have support for my novel in all forms and yes, having HarperCollins offer to publish it was (and still is) somewhat surreal. There’s a certain comfort knowing the book’s in professional hands and the experience has been incredible!
Winston: Diane Donovan of the Midwest Book Review described your book as such: “Slowly a small town’s secrets come to light in a story that skits a fine line between mystery and psychological suspense.” Tell us a little about The Qualities of Wood, what inspired it, what it’s about, and what kinds of readers you think would enjoy it.
Mary: I was very humbled by that review. She really seemed to get at the heart of the novel. The Qualities of Wood is the story of Vivian and Nowell, a young couple who have moved from city to country in order to renovate his late grandmother’s home for sale. Nowell is a writer and he plans to work on his second mystery novel while Vivian does most of the work on the house. As soon as they arrive, they become involved in a real mystery when a local girl is found dead in the woods behind the house. Nowell sequesters himself with his writing and Vivian’s imagination works overtime as she tries to interpret local gossip and uncover family secrets and ultimately, discover what happened to the girl.
I was intrigued with the idea of a mystery inside a mystery, or the reader thinking one thing was the mystery when actually, something else was the real story. This tied into the themes I wanted to explore, namely: perception, memory, and relationships, and how all of these are subjective. Each person experiences an event, a moment, another person, in a unique way, so the idea of a true occurrence can be very nebulous. I had also just moved to my first urban setting and was thinking a lot about how manmade settings differ from natural ones. The types of stimuli, the ways we may feel about ourselves in each setting.
I think the novel straddles a few genres. Readers who like literary fiction will like the thematic aspects and the evolution of character. I’ve found that mystery lovers appreciate the fact that it’s an untraditional mystery, with a suspenseful mood and unraveling plot. But I think it’s pretty mainstream too—women’s fiction, chick lit even—because there are moments of humor and Vivian is dealing with issues specific to women.
Winston: On your website, you said, “I have always found imagination to be a great and humbling power. What better gift than the ability to imagine another place, another time, another life?” How long have you been writing? How did it start? Do you often draw from life or your childhood when describing settings, developing characters?
Mary: Imagination is probably the second greatest gift we’ve been given in life, second to love. Because we only get one life and it’s relatively short, we simply can’t do anything that occurs to us. There isn’t time. But by using your imagination, you can experience so much more. As a writer, you can travel to different places and times, even embody another person. I’ve always had an inclination towards writing and as a kid, was an avid reader. I loved the library, loved bringing home a stack of books. I kept diaries and journals and as a teenager, penned some pretty awful poetry. In college, I started writing short stories and moved on to novels when my ideas started getting bigger and more complicated. I think most things in my writing are filtered through experience, but experience includes life and much else—other books, films, music, stories you hear. Sometimes you don’t even realize where you’re getting something. I wrote The Qualities of Wood quite a while ago and now when I read sections of it, I realize where some of it came from. But at the time, I’m not sure I did. Now, I seem to start with characters. I think about them and let them begin to live in my mind. I’ll add things as they occur to me and soon, they’re sort of living on their own and it’s apparent what they might say or do in a certain situation. The characters perhaps have tendencies of people I know but I never think of it that way, consciously.
Winston: What’s it like working with an editor? Many unpublished writers are curious to know what happens after you receive the email that says, “We’re interested.” Can you share a little of your experience with HarperCollins?
Mary: In my case, working with the team at HarperCollins was relatively painless. After the contract was signed, the first thing I received was an email with editorial suggestions spelled out. Up to that point, my main concern was to stay true to my intentions for the book. Because it does delve into perhaps a few different genres, I was worried that maybe they’d want to make it more of a traditional mystery and market it that way. I wouldn’t have wanted to do that. Luckily, many of the changes were ones I was already thinking about. I’d had several insightful reviews from some folks at Authonomy, and from a few other trusted readers. The suggestions from HC were very directed but encouraging, and I believe the novel was much improved in the process. For example, I had always felt that the ending was problematic but wasn’t sure exactly how to fix it. HC gave me specific things to think about and suggestions on how to go about it.
After we were all pleased with the editing, the book went through a copyeditor, who looked for errors but also larger things like inconsistent word usage, things out of sequence or things that didn’t make sense. Because the book was published in the UK, there was a bit of back-and-forth about American English vs. English spellings and usage. I felt that I had the opportunity to disagree with any of the copyeditor’s suggestions; however, I accepted the vast majority. Then the book goes to a proofreader to look for errors. It’s sort of amazing that even after so many readers, there are still errors to be found!
Winston: The Qualities of Wood seems to be doing well with readers and reviewers. Do you have anything new in the works? When can we expect a follow-up?
Mary: I have had many inspiring moments since the book’s publication. It’s so gratifying when a reviewer or reader not only likes the book, but really gets some of what I was trying to do. I loved going to my first book club and hearing perceptions face-to-face. It’s a nice compliment to the process itself, like frosting on the cake!
I recently finished another novel, titled Fortress for One. The story is about Gina, a middle-aged woman with an orderly, uneventful life. Over the course of a weekend in March, her life will become disordered and quite eventful. Her brother leaves a mysterious message from Korea and a manila envelope with a secret from the past arrives on her doorstep. The book moves from Chicago to Korea and back again, as Gina undertakes a journey of self-discovery.
I’m hoping to dive back into the book later in the summer and do some editing. I’m in sort of a honeymoon period with it right now, unable to see many faults! We need a little time apart, and then I’ll be ready to tear in. And I’m also distracted by an idea for another novel. This one will be set in an American desert town and it’s about a young girl who’s suffered an incomprehensible setback. It’s occurred to me recently that it may be a Gothic novel. So in short…yes, I have several projects in the works!
Winston: We’ll be keeping an eye on you here at The Object and will definitely be recommending your book to our readers. Thank you again for putting up with us for a few minutes!
Mary Vensel White was born in Los Angeles and raised in Lancaster, California. She graduated from the University of Denver and lived for five years in Chicago, where she completed an MA in English at DePaul University. She lives in southern California with her husband, four children and two badly trained dogs in a chaotic but happy home. Her husband is an attorney and she is the mom with a book or laptop at the little league game, soccer field or dance studio.
The Qualities of Wood her first novel but she is currently at work on a second, set again in the Midwest, a place that lives and flourishes in her imagination despite her current sunny surroundings. Vensel White is also working on a collection of interrelated stories, a method of writing which the esteemed women of her book club refuse to acknowledge as a novel. Watch for news about these two projects.
To learn more about Mary, visit her at http://maryvenselwhite.com/