The Wolf at My Door: A Conversation With Mary McMyne

Before we continue on with what I think is a truly superb  interview, I’d like to share a bit of exciting news: I’ll be returning to teach at the annual Pacific Northwest Writers Association Conference next month. Held right here in our sparkling Emerald city July 17th-20th, this conference is not only a well-run, fantastic spectacle of fabulous writers, teachers, agents, and editors, but also holds a mighty special place in my heart. It was at the PNWA conference several summers back where my agent met up with the editor who would fight for my little story and eventually go on to publish it. Our trio felt like it was destined to come together from the very start, making our journey a PNWA success story we were all too happy to share during a panel discussion at last summer’s conference. This year, I’ll be teaching a workshop titled, Working with Literary Magazines, a topic a I happen to know a thing or two about after nearly five years behind the editorial desk of The Los Angeles Review.

 

I recently interviewed friend and fellow contributor to The Burden of Light: Poems on Illness and Loss, Mary McMyne, about her collection of poems, Wolf Skin. I’m a long-time fan of Mary’s writing and it’s been a pleasure to follow her success over the years, and an honor to be a part of that success.

wolf skin

1. Let’s talk about that fantastic title! At what point in the process of composition did you nail it down and know you had the title of your manuscript? What does it represent for you?

Many of the poems in the chapbook explore our preoccupation with putting on a front of invulnerability or fierceness. European folktales as we know them today are violent stories, with clear underlying assumptions about the widespread existence of evil in the world. One of the questions I found myself asking, as I wrote these poems, is do I believe in that evil? Whatever it is, how should we choose to react to it? The title poem follows the huntsman from the Brothers Grimm variant of Little Red Riding Hood as he comes upon the wolf asleep—snoring loudly—in the grandmother’s bed. Because the poem is written in second person, reading the poem, you enter the huntsman’s mind as he realizes what the wolf has done and rushes to save the girl and her grandmother. You become the huntsman, as he “slit[s] the beast open, the word hero stinging [his] tongue.” But Red and the grandmother do not respond, here, as they do in the Grimms’ version. At the end of the poem, the huntsman plans the story he’ll tell his friends, then tries on the “wolf skin” as he walks home. The title shifted several times during the writing process, but when the poem was accepted at Los Angeles Review, I loved your and Kelly Davio’s suggestion that I pull out the phrase “wolf skin” from the final verse and use it as the title, because of the way it brought out the themes of the poem. Ultimately, the poem asks, what really happened at grandmother’s house? Why do men become heroes or villains?
2. Has poetry always been your primary literary outlet; what about the genre keeps you coming back over the years?

Actually, although I’ve written poetry for as long as I can remember, I’m not sure I’d call it my primary literary outlet. Certainly, I was one of those kids; on a cross-country road trip when I was about nine or ten, I recall, very clearly, torturing myself over the rhyme and meter of an epic poem about St. George and the Dragon. In college, the first workshop I ever took was a poetry workshop in which I had the good fortune to meet and encounter the early work of Ava Leavell Haymon. But I’ve only ever enrolled in one poetry workshop since—a wonderful, idiosyncratic class with Andrei Codrescu, which I took in graduate school at LSU. My formal study of writing has actually focused on fiction. I’ve had the good fortune to study with wonderful novelists and teachers, like E.L. Doctorow, Chuck Wachtel, Moira Crone, and Jim Wilcox. The truth is, I’ve always written in multiple genres, and I don’t think of them as entirely separate. My poems are often narrative; my fiction has lyrical elements.

I think the thing that keeps bringing me back to poetry is its music. I took piano lessons for years as a kid, even composing a little, but seven years ago, during my second cross-country move in three years, I realized I couldn’t afford to keep moving my piano. Poetry is music you can compose anywhere. I love its lyricism, its brevity. When I’m working on a novel, it can take me hours to get started. You can slip into the world of a poem more quickly than you can slip into the world of a novel or story, and when I come to the writing table I am looking for that dream state.

3. Your poetry has strong anchors in history and place. Do you make a conscious effort to root your creative work in the context of time and place?

Absolutely. Anything I write that’s not confessional or personal—set in a place and time I know well—I do a ton of research to get the details right. Primary sources, reading in the period, going there if I can, taking pictures, viewing videos or photographs, reading scholarly articles, whatever. The poem I wrote about Marie Curie’s daughter, “Irène Joliot-Curie,” which originally appeared in Painted Bride Quarterly but you recently reprinted in The Burden of Light: Poems on Illness and Loss, is probably the most painstakingly researched poem I’ve written to date. I wanted to make sure I understood not only Joliot-Curie’s scientific accomplishments, but also the details of the poem’s setting. I sought out photographs of Joliot-Curie in the lab with her husband Frédéric, photographs of the Curie Hospital in Paris where she died, and information on the exact medical technologies that would’ve been used at the time of her hospitalization, and so on.

The poems in Wolf Skin are set in two time periods: there are poems about a modern woman whose mother told her all the usual folktales, and then there are the poems retelling those tales. For the modern poems, because the speaker’s mother is into entomology, I did a lot of research on butterfly migration patterns and insect collecting. In order to write the fairy tale retellings, I researched the known iterations of each tale—how they changed over time—and the historical conditions that inspired them. For example, there’s a poem in the chapbook about the woodcutter’s wife, who convinces her husband to leave Hansel and Gretel deep in the woods, which is clearly inspired by the famine conditions that were often experienced in medieval Europe. I read a lot about that, about the medieval werewolf trials, the flora and fauna in southern Europe, you name it. I’m an obsessive researcher.

4.      What surprised you most about working through this chapbook?

How wonderfully consuming it can be to write a linked series of poems. Wolf Skin was my first multi-poem project, and I found myself obsessed with this woman’s story and emotional journey. In some ways, the process of writing the chapbook was similar to the process of writing fiction; I would see things, in my daily life, and consider them from my character’s perspective. The first poem in Wolf Skin is one I composed in the car, on my way to visit my husband downstate as my daughter slept in the backseat. I saw a billboard, heard the first line in my head, and felt compelled to keep reciting and reworking the subsequent lines aloud until I got it right and pulled over to record it on my phone. That’s another thing that keeps me coming back to poetry—the way you’re haunted by a line or image, at first, but have no idea why it fascinates you. I love the process of figuring that out with sound.

5.  As the mother of a young daughter, how did your treatment of fairytale lore change as the manuscript evolved? Surely, this must have been a complicated matter as both parent and artist.

Well, I’ve loved fairy tales since I was a girl, but I’ve become a far more critical reader since I became a mother. Rereading my copy of Grimm when my daughter was very young, in preparation for telling her the tales, is actually what inspired Wolf Skin and my novel-in-progress. Originally, I thought I was looking forward to telling Alice these tales. But rereading them, I had an altogether different experience than the one I had as a girl, finding myself less enchanted than irritated at their underlying assumptions about gender. Why does Little Red Riding Hood fall for the wolf’s scam?, I wondered. Why does Rapunzel slip up and accidentally reveal her affair with the prince to the witch—does she lack the intellectual capacity to deceive her captor? What would happen to the girl who grows up believing the lessons of these tales?

As I’ve read and reread these stories, I’ve come to prefer some tales over others. Rumplestiltskin, Hansel and Gretel, Seven Ravens, and Snow White and Rose Red, are some of my favorites, for their relatively active heroines. I can’t really stomach the classic Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, or Sleeping Beauty—if Alice wants me to read one of those, I can’t help myself; I’ll change details! I’ve also become a fan of folktale retellings for children, collecting a library of picture books with strong female heroines, such as Kate and the Beanstalk and Cinderedna, which I prefer over the classic versions. Right now, Alice and I are working on a musical puppet show that we’re calling Cinderelsa: a mash-up of Cinderella and Frozen. In this version, Cinderella has ice powers which she is somewhat careless in using to retaliate against her stepmother—she has to learn to control them. Maybe my aims as a parent aren’t so different from my aims as a writer. I want to teach Alice not to be a passive reader, not to look at stories as static.

6.      What project(s) are you working on now?

A sequence of poems so new, if I talk about them, I might scare them away, and a novel set in 12th century Germany, The Book of Gothel, which speculates about the historical roots of several well-known folktales. There’s actually a lot of crossover between my novel-in-progress and Wolf Skin; one of the poems, “Old Woman Gothel,” reads like a persona poem from the narrator of the novel late in life. I was lucky enough, last year, to win a grant from the Sustainable Arts Foundation to travel to Germany to do background research on The Book of Gothel. Earlier this summer, I got to spend two weeks in southwestern Germany, following in my narrator’s footsteps, visiting city museums in Konstanz and Freiburg and Bingen, hiking to the ruins of medieval abbeys and castles in and around the Black Forest, making a pilgrimage to a thousand-year-old abbey, and being blown away by 12th century religious art. During the trip, I marked my manuscript to bits; now I’m revising those pages so that the time and place will ring true.

Mary McMyne is the author of Wolf Skin (dancing girl press, 2014).Her poems and stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Poetry International, Los Angeles Review, Pedestal Magazine, Painted Bride Quarterly, Word Riot, New Delta Review, Apex Magazine, and many other publications. Her criticism has appeared in American Book Review. She has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Rhysling Award for her poetry, and she has won the Faulkner Prize for a Novel-in-Progress and a grant from the Sustainable Arts Foundation for her fiction. She teaches English and creative writing at Lake Superior State University, where she is co-editor of the journal Border Crossing. Follow her on twitter @marymcmyne.

Author Leslie Lindsay Moves Mountains, One Rock at a Time

So much of a writer’s life is spent hunched over messy desks under the glares of overworked computers, all alone,  trapped inside the creative avalanches of one’s own mind. Those few times each year when we congregate at conferences, book fairs, and workshops, we marvel at and cling to one another with abandon. The connections we make and those intellectual bonds we form sustain us year-round, often throughout our entire careers. They buoy us during hard time as well as success. I was fortunate to come across just such a friend in author Leslie Lindsay this past April at the University of Wisconsin Writers Conference in Madison, Wisconsin. My very own home state, no less.

With all I’ve had on my plate these last few months–putting together this incredible poetry anthology, finishing my novel, promoting Girl, working a full-time day job, and trying to keep myself and my dog in good spirits, I am fascinated by how writer-mamas manage to throw their families into the mix.  I damn sure plan to keep writing as I move through life and, hopefully, one day become a mother myself. I asked Leslie what writing means to her as she evolves, and how she balances those dual identities of artist and mother. Here’s what she had to say:

 

As I write this, I have a load of wash going, towels in the dryer, a happy basset hound at my feet, dinner simmering in a Crock Pot and two children happily playing outside with rocks, sticks, and their imaginations.

Am I distracted?  Of course!  Am I a driven writer?  Yes.  Can I do it all and still have time to do the things I love?  Well, that depends.

The art and craft of writing takes time.  Lots of time.  It also takes a certain doggedness, a thick skin, a passion for the written word, and more time.  To make it work for me and my family—which is comprised of a devoted hubby, a basset, and two very busy elementary-aged children—I must be very disciplined.  Some days it’s easier than others!

Leslie Author Pic (1)Perhaps you’ve heard of the jar and the rock scenario.  Bear with me as I explain. Take a glass jar…one of those big canning jars and fill it with a few large rocks.  Those are your main priorities in life like home, work, church/synagogue, family, school.  You have to do those things to make it in life, right?  But the jar’s not full yet, is it?  Okay, so go out and grab a few smaller rocks—the things you like to have as part of your life.  Maybe that’s time to shop, study, read, time with friends, etc.  Still not full, right?  Then you add in sand and water…now the jar is really full.

As a mom-writer, I’ve had to shift my priorities so that writing is one of my “big rocks.”  It’s quite literally what grounds me.  When I am writing, I am in my own world where nothing seems to matter except my story and the characters that inhabit that world.  Yet, all of those other things need to get done.  It’s about balance.  For me, writing is as integral as eating, breathing, and being with my family; it’s a strong fiber of my being.

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Silent Paddle

At my family’s camp Up North in Wisconsin, one of the most beloved traditions we still follow today takes place far outside Birch Trail’s property lines. Our beloved BT sends out nearly 65 wilderness trips each season, taking the campers climbing on the granite bluffs overlooking Lake Superior, hiking in the Isle Royale National Forest, paddling down the mighty Namekagon river, or from lake to lake in the  Boundary Waters Canoe Area. Some of the most beautiful scenery to be found on all of god’s green earth.

I never took to backpacking as much as I did to the boating-oriented trips because, to me at least, it always seemed rather silly to carry a week’s worth of camping gear and food on one’s back when a lovely little canoe or kayak could manage the heavy lifting for you  instead. Though most of our days during those canoeing and kayaking trips were filled with talking, laughing, and singing (there is a whole lot of singing and cheering that goes on at Birch Trail) our trip leaders would inevitably institute another long-held Birch Trail camping tradition: the silent paddle.

There isn’t much about silent paddling to describe that you wouldn’t already assume; enforcing an hour or two of total silence as the canoes, kayaks, or sailboats cruised across the water allows a young person the opportunity to really notice the exquisite beauty and quiet of their surroundings, as well as to go inward and notice what those surroundings could make her feel. As a deeply imaginative and introspective kid, I truly relished those silent paddles, and they include some of my fondest memories.

On my sea kayaking expedition with NOLS in 1999 along the southeastern coast of Alaska the summer after my senior year of high school, I was surprised and much delighted to discover that silent paddles were a tradition among their ranks as well. Though I often found myself battling rainy skies versus the sunny ones of my summer camp days, and struggling against powerful swells and strong currents of unprotected ocean waters much more challenging than the gentle rivers and lakes of my Midwestern wilderness sojourns, there was still something comforting about not having to talk.

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What’s at the Core of the Core Ideas

Along with my faithful writing companion, Kelly Davio and several other writer pals, I attended Jennie Shortridge’s release party for her latest book, Love Water Memory at Elliot Bay Book Company here in Seattle. The party was a rollicking good time, complete with booze and schnibbles, and—best of all—music performed by the author and her friends/bandmates. Jennie is a brilliant writer with the most lovely singing voice, and I envy her beyond measure. I was truly blessed, and quite humbled, when Jennie graciously endorsed Girl with a great blurb several years back and I have ever since admired the way she seems to effortlessly move through this crazy industry.

While Jennie read and discussed her new book, she talked about the genesis of the core idea behind it: a newspaper clipping about a couple who found their way back to one another—and back to love—after one of them suffered a rare form of amnesia. Listening to Jennie describe how she came to weave her own story from this nugget of a core idea got me thinking about what compels writers to do what we do, to tell stories. No two writers truly accomplish the task in the same manner, but at the heart of it, we do because we cannot imagine a life without writing.

J.K. Rowling once said that the idea for the Harry Potter series came to her while she rode home from work one day on The Tube, and the train pulled into King’s Cross Station, the character of young Harry Potter suddenly appeared in her mind fully formed. Stephen King says that the plot of his bestseller, Misery, came to him in a dream. For me, the experience of stumbling upon inspiration to write has been varied. For my memoir, obviously the story was already there and was already pretty good (at least, that’s what the reviews say so far), and I just had to make sure to tell it right. The idea for my current project came up a little more adventurously: while skiing in white-out conditions on the Summit at Snowqualmie with my brother, Dylan, about three years ago, he turned around to ask me if I was alright and I assured him that I was. Then, he asked, “It’s kind of ominous, isn’t it? Looks a little like the end of the world.” Boom—in a single heartbeat, the concept for a post-apocalyptic, volcanic winter story waltzed right on in to my mind, my protagonists desires and conflicts, trials and allies, mentors and loves all swirling around in my head just like the snow whipping around my face as I moved down the slopes. And poor Dylan had to endure my wild, ceaseless and barely coherent brainstorming for the remainder of the day.

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Earning that Title, One Tear at a Time

Do not be so sweet that people will eat you up, nor so bitter that they will spit you out.

-Pashto folk saying

It’s been a great week, full of some damn exciting developments: I’ve purchased a brand new car and landied a hard-earned promotion at work, and yet I’ve had an awfully rough go of it all. That might not make much sense to some of you, but to those who have come to know loss and grief, it makes perfect sense, because you know that after suffering a life-changing loss of someone close to you, all good things become bittersweet rather than purely sweet. Let me explain.

A few weeks ago, my old Volvo wagon blew her tranny and is now going to the great Volvo lot in the sky. She served me well and kept me safe on the road for the last five years, and I was sad to see her go. I was pretty certain about what kind of car I would buy next, how it would all go down, and indeed the decision has essentially made itself. I considered and drove a few different cars, sought advice from several knowledgeable folks, and did a good deal of research on Consumer Reports. My big brother, Gabe, held my hand from 2,000 miles away and helped me through every single step of the process. In the end, I settled on a new 2013 Subaru Forester, with not many—but just enough—of the niceties to make me feel like I’ve gotten something pretty fancy-pants. I got a great car at a great price, and I cried the entire way through it.

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All Grown Up and Stuff at AWP

I’ve just returned from my fifth trip to the annual AWP Conference (the Association for Writers and Writing Programs) , and am proud to say that I’ve yet again survived the thrilling ordeal. It’s taken me two days, three loads of laundry, about six servings of pasta, and many hours of sleep to recover and recombobulate after the exhaustion and overstimulation of the chaotic, 12,000-attendee conference, but I am once again walking and talking like a human being.

This year’s conference was almost like a homecoming, in a way: I caught up with old friends, signed and swapped books with said friends, reminisced over the silly foibles of my not-so-distance youth in this industry, and looked back at the distance I’ve traveled thus far in my writing career. When I first attended the AWP conference in Chicago five years ago in Chicago, I was fresh out of my MFA program and had no idea what trajectory my career would take. I had only submitted my work to a handful of literary journals, and had only been published in one. I certainly never dreamed that in a matter of years, I’d be editing one of the industry’s most reputable literary magazines, and would have published my debut memoir, A Real Emotional Girl by a New York-based publisher of substantial prestige (In hardcover! With a photo insert!).

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The Girl on the Cover of Girl

Next week is the annual AWP conference, to be held in Boston this year, and I’ll be attending the weekend’s festivities for yet another round of literary gluttony and general mayhem along with my faithful companions and fellow editors of The Los Angeles Review: Kelly Davio, Ann Beman, and Joe Ponepinto. In addition to the densely scheduled and attended panels, workshops, and readings, as well as the whirlwind of nearly ten thousand like-minded artists crammed into one overburdened convention center, there is also the delightfully overstimulating chaos of the AWP bookfair.

I spend about 90% of my bookfair time manning the LAR booth where we sell issues and subscriptions, say hello to all the contributors we’ve come to positively adore over the years, and–of course– participate in some of the best people-watching around. But that other 10% of my bookfair time belongs to the decadent hour or two or five I get to spend blissfully wandering the crowded rows upon rows of the world’s best literary magazine, arts programs, small presses, and writers. For those of us in the writing biz, this is heaven. I savor that experience of say hello to old friends every single year, and every year I buy too many books and magazine and merchandise because I find myself wanting EVERYTHING. Best of all, though, I look forward to drinking up the sights of so many gorgeous, hard-won books on display, all those richly crafted nuggets of knowledge and emotion and art wrapped up so finely in the kind of design feats that can knock your socks right off. Heaven, I tell you, heaven.

One of the things many non-writers are surprised to learn about the publishing process is how little control an author will usually have in the selection of his or her cover art. Luckily for me and Girl, the incredible team at Skyhorse Publishing included me on the decision and welcomed my feedback in what proved to be a thrilling and highly educational search for that perfect image to represent my book. Because I’d been dreaming of publishing this memoir for so many years, I came to the table with images already in hand. I’d held onto a photograph taken by progeny photographer Holly Henry, and was delighted when the designers at Skyhorse responded well to it. Galley copies were printed with that original image, which was a haunting and somewhat polarizing image, and I was elated. While all the little loose ends of font choice and alignment were still being settled, word came down from on high that we’d have to choose a new image, and do it quickly.

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A Midwestern Homecoming

Part of the benefit to living 2,000 miles away from where I grew up is that I get to come home, in that way that one can only do after spending considerable time away from the place of one’s birth. Hemingway once advised “Never to write about a place until you’re away from it,” and in my own experience, I’ve found those words of wisdom to hold steady and true. Because, sure enough, now that I’ve lived away from Wisconsin for more than 13 years, all I seem to want to do is write about home. In my fiction and nonfiction, poetry and short story forms, I find great satisfaction in exploring that landscape of my youth, the place that holds the most potent elements of my sense of heritage.

I’m heading to Milwaukee tomorrow to celebrate the release and success of my memoir, A Real Emotional Girl, at Boswell Book Company on Downer Avenue, this coming Friday the 12th at 7 pm (Click here for directions and details). The incredible people at Boswell Books, in addition to hosting the event, will donate $1 for each book sold to the Richard Chernov Children’s Fund, which raises money to send children with cancer and other terminal illnesses to summer camp.

This homecoming is truly special to me; knowing that I’ll have so many friends and family members at my side to bring Girl home is a wonderful kind of validation. And if you don’t already have plans to attend, I hope you’ll join us there—all are welcome!

I’ve been thinking a lot about my Midwestern roots in recent weeks, for several reasons. First and foremost of course is my upcoming book signing, but I have also written a Wisconsin-based plot device into my current project, a post-apocalyptic novel titled “This Winter.” Having the chance to showcase the beauties of my homeland through this lyrical work of fiction has allowed me to enjoy it for myself in new ways—much of the research I’ve done thus far has scarcely felt like work at all; rather, I’ve quite enjoyed reading up on the immigrants and industries that laid the foundation of my fair home state.

Aside from my writing, though, I’ve committed to participating in another longstanding Wisconsin tradition: The American Birkebeiner Events. I last skied the 23k Kortelopet cross country ski race 10 years ago in the winter of 2002, when my father had been gone a year. Looking to honor his memory and give myself something positive to focus on, I trained hard for the race and was happy for the distraction from my grief and studies. Held near Hayward, Wisconsin, the Kortie serves as a companion event to the marathon-length, 54-kilometer Birkebeiner race, which honors Norwegian heritage in being patterned after Birkebeiner Rennet, which has been held in Norway since 1932. Founded in 1973, the American Birkebeiner and the Kortelopet re-create a historic Norwegian event not widely known by present-day folks. In 1206, two warrior soldiers, called “Birkebeiners” because of the birch-bark leggings they wore, skied infant Prince Haakon to safety during the Norwegian civil war. Prince Haakon subsequently became King of Norway, and the Birkebeiner soldiers became a Norwegian symbol of courage, perseverance and character in the face of adversity.

Over the years many thousands of people, both elite and “Citizen Skiers,” have enjoyed the thrill of personal triumph crossing the finish line of the Birkie and earning their prestigious award medallions. Though my older brother, Dylan, has skied the Birkie nine times, it’s a bit of a lofty goal for a busy gal like myself. Truth be told, the lesser distance of nearly 16 miles will still be plenty challenging for me. But it’s a great fitness goal and is sure to be an incredibly fun weekend for the whole family. Best of all, it makes me feel like I’m doing not only myself and my father proud, but also honoring my beloved Wisconsin traditions.

No matter what distance or time will separate me from my Midwestern upbringing and the landscape of my heritage, Wisconsin will always be home, and I will always wear that badge proudly. Go Packers!