Thursday, March 25, 2010

Being on the Radio--WNPR Helps Me Fall in Love with My Story Again

This week I had my small moment in the sun. A thrill for any writer, I was invited for an interview on WNPR about my new novel, Qualities of Light. I'd sent a copy of the book to WNPR in October, when the book was released, hoping but not expecting. The email came in February--We're interested in interviewing you. Yes! I said.

The host is a real expert at getting the story behind the story, no matter who she's talking with. Faith Middleton's show is in its twenty-ninth year, and it has won two Peabody Awards (broadcasting's equivalent of the Pulitzer).

I've spoken on over 100 radio and TV programs in past years, for my other books, and it should've been a breeze. But the novel felt much more personal, more risky to talk about. I prepared lots of notes, and even with all my experience, I was nervous as I drove to the studio in the rain that morning. I'd heard wonderful things about Faith's warm and engaging style, but it didn't matter. What if she asked me something weird? Or, worse, criticized my book in front of all those invisible listeners?

She asked me to sit across from her, in a cozy armchair. I asked for a table for my notes, and she said I wouldn't need any. Oh, boy, more jitters. But her smile and obvious enjoyment of the process of our interview softened everything. So did her first question:

Tell us about the image or moment when you began this book. Where were you, what were you doing?

I'm a writer who lives in images. I usually start a book with a moment, or an image, and when Faith asked that question, I was immediately back on the lakeside dock, that summer nine years ago in the Adirondacks, watching the waterskiier's white wake across the wide expanse of water. I remember how that image struck me at the time, how it propelled the thought She walks on water.

I began to dream the dream that begins each book. To look at this dream again, during the interview, brought back all the joy I felt on that lakeside dock. Since I'm a painter, the visual was the doorway for me, into the dream. Other writers experience this dream doorway as sounds or smells, a feeling, a thought, a different kind of moment.

The other question Faith asked that really surprised me, delighted me, and made me think anew about the writing process was this: What did I expect readers to get from my story, and how that was different from what they said they got.

What an insightful question. Yes, there was a difference!

My intent, simply put, is for people to accept the idea that love is love. When love comes, no matter how it comes, it is important and real. You can't predict it, or control it, and it's a gift most times. I wanted us, as a culture, to get over the idea of predictable packages and recognize love in all its miraculous forms.

But readers take books in different directions than authors intend. My readers have been mostly transfixed with the family story--the equally miraculous change that happens in families after trauma, when certain "qualities of light" within a person transform and heal other family members. One elderly friend bought eleven copies of my novel to give to her friends, saying that the story was healing because of what happened in the family. It would give families hope.

This Week's Writing Exercise

This week's exercise has two parts. It lets you explore your starting and your ending for your beautiful project.

First, spend some time revisiting the initial image of your writing project. What did you start with? Was it visual, a sound or smell, a feeling, a thought or idea? Spend 10-20 minutes writing about it. See what comes to renew your love for your book or project.

Secondly, freewrite for 20 minutes about your intent for the book. What do you want readers to get from it? What might they get, despite you?

If you want to listen to my interview on WNPR, the online link is below. Let me know what you think:


  1. I thought your interview was fantastic. And again, love all the exercises you share. They are so helpful. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Thanks, Lynn! I was pretty pleased with it too. I'm so glad the exercises are helpful.

  3. Mary -
    Just attended your Loft workshop on 'self-editing' after attending same titled offering a few months back. Same title - different content. Both were excellent. The course was very dynamic and it seemed you let the writer's needs dictate where the discussion and instruction went; very valuable.
    I had a more directed focus as I recently completed my first draft and was looking for timely help in approaching revision. The course exceeded my hopes.
    Multiple practical suggestions woven among enlightening discussion on the conceptual framework of content, structure and language. I reviewed my notes and was impressed to find a large number of useful, significant tips that I have not come across elsewhere. Great course. Your offerings are, by a considerable margin, the most effective learning sessions I have participated in. Thanks.

    Regarding my offer to provide you medical guidance/input to assist you in your writing - would love to do it. No strings attached. If you felt the information I provided you was of value perhaps you might review some portion of my writing as you do as part of your "How to...Book" Loft offering.
    You mentioned a plane crash as an element of your story. I'd be happy to talk with you about the event and the possible physical, medical and emotional consequences of such a traumatic event.
    Generally aircraft crashes are commercial, militry or private. Fatalities are common. the spectrum of injuries varies quite a bit by crash type. Private aircraft crashes have a wide range and , in some respects, offer the greatest range of story potential. Injuries range from the life threatening to the trivial with large potential for post-traumatic physical and emotional consequences. Pilot error is a frequent final assessment of causation and this can have major impact on survivors and families.
    The medical aspects are interesting and dramatic/spectacular.
    All of the above provides grist for the fertile writer's mind.
    If you are inclined happy to discuss air crash or other with you on the phone. No obligation...I enjoy the process and have had very positive feedback from the writers i have interfaced with.
    You can use any of this you want for a post but i was not aware of a direct e-mail so forwarded on from your weekly. Congrats on NPR and what i considered a hugely successful workshop.
    Tom 763 442 0291

  4. Thanks, Tom. Always a pleasure to have you in the class, and I hope many writers take advantage of your medical expertise in their books. Here's a question for you: how would a pilot crash a small plane in the mountains in late autumn and walk away and survive? For instance, someone who wanted to fake a crash but survive? That's the plot I'm working with--not an easy answer, I'm sure!

  5. Mary, your interview let us in on how keenly you observe and understand your own process. Thank you.

    I love that your shared the exercise of putting unlikely objects together -- I heard Sue Monk Kidd speak and the same exercise produced the story line of her novel _The Mermaid Chair_.

    I haven't attended one of your classes at The Loft in at least 5 years, but I always look to see if you happen to be teaching a workshop when I will be in Minneapolis. (To jog your memory, I'm the one who put you onto _The Literary Life_ by Carolyn See.) I'm looking forward to reading your novel (and I just bought the last copy available at Amazon).

    I have one suggestion for your website -- how about an RSS feed button so I can follow you in real time on my news reader?

    All the best,
    Barbara Nelson
    PS. If you need a visual to remember me, my blog is at:

  6. What wonderful feedback, Barbara, of course I remember you. I'm thrilled you bought my novel and hope you enjoy it. Will work on the RSS feed...yes! Thanks so much for posting this.

  7. Mary -
    I'll run that scenario by my buddy who is an accomplished professional pilot for his notions on the piloting aspects. The issues appear more pilot based than medical in the scenario you describe. May help to know what the character's intent is and the motivation. Can then give you the range of options.
    Interestingly in a number of light aircraft crashes the problems are not over when they survived the crash and are on the ground. If injured or in remote, inaccessible country and inhospitable conditions the fun really begins.

    It sounds like this pilot has no intention of that occuring. Subterfuge and a plane crash! Are you turning loose your suspense/thriller persona?

    If you have a direct e-mail please let me know. Did not intend to clog up your site.
    Thanks - Tom