Yesterday I had the pleasure of sharing my thoughts on Mary Vensel White’s picturesque novel The Qualities of Wood and today I’m thrilled to be hosting Mary here at Literary Inklings for a Q&A! Many thanks to Mary for taking the time to share her insightful answers.
You published The Qualities of Wood with HarperCollins under the Authonomy imprint. Could you tell us a bit about what Authonomy is, and your experience with it?
Authonomy is HarperCollins’ online community for authors. After creating a profile, you can post all or part of a completed novel or work-in-progress. Users read each other’s books and offer critique or support in the form of a rating system or by placing a book on their virtual shelf. At the end of the month, the five books with the most support are sent for a review by a HarperCollins editor.
Photography by Vanessa Honda
I joined Authonomy in March of 2010, having decided to put myself out there and see if I could accomplish anything with my novel, The Qualities of Wood. I think the most unexpected aspect of my experience with the site was the gratification I felt when people read my writing. All writers can feel isolated at times, and certainly unappreciated! To have a place where other writers—peers—could read the book and offer suggestions and advice, that was invaluable to me. And the process of reading the first few chapters of so many other books really helped to develop my own critical eye and editing process. I’ve made some wonderful friends and of course, eventually was published!
My novel was sent for review early last year and within a few months, I was contacted by Scott Pack, the editor who had read my book and also the publisher who had just been put in charge of Authonomy. He was looking to start an imprint for books from the site and wanted mine to be the first.
The Qualities of Wood was released in January and just last week, two more books were acquired for the Authonomy imprint. You can read more about these books here and check out the rest of the site while you’re there!
The book takes place in the Midwestern countryside, yet you were born in LA and continue to live in Southern California. What prompted you to choose this setting for the book?
I was born in Los Angeles and grew up in Lancaster, California. The Mojave desert—tumbleweeds, dirt, vast skies. I always wanted to move somewhere green! But the small town in The Qualities of Wood probably springs from the town where I grew up more than anywhere else. That small town character—neighbors knowing everything about each other, the ripples when something new happens, the local flavor of history—these things seem to be universal among small towns anywhere. I was living in the Midwest at the time I wrote the novel, having just moved to Chicago. It was my first experience living in an urban setting, where you’re somewhat removed from nature. We had relatives in Wisconsin and outer Illinois, so we did a lot of driving through that landscape of rolling hills and proud farms, slow cattle grazing and sun heating waves of grass. On these times when we ventured out of the city, it was almost as if another aspect of my personality rose to the surface, and I started thinking about how urban and natural settings influence our emotions, our actions. All of this factored into the town in the novel.
Read my review here
You’ve said that both The Qualities of Wood and your next novel have been many years in the making. Did you intend to pursue publication when you first began writing, or was it more of a hobby?
I wrote The Qualities of Wood many years ago and for a while, pursued publishing. I had another novel that was making the rounds, too—agents, small presses, etc. A few of my short stories were published in journals. Then we started a family, four children in two years, and I took a hiatus from writing. I still wrote things now and then, and always kept up with reading, but didn’t pursue the business side of things. Of course, it remained a dream to be a published, working author. Once the kids started grade school, I felt my brain cells starting to recharge and I had a little time each day to write, to begin researching opportunities. Thanks to the internet, there are vast amounts of information and many resources available. When I first started out, everything was snail mail only. I can’t imagine how much money I spent mailing out my stories and queries on my novels, and you had to include return postage too, so everything came back! Now, you can submit electronically in many cases and you can find writers groups and places to publish online. As for the next novel, yes, it took me several years to finish because I wrote notes for it while the kids were small, during that long, child-raising hiatus. All in all, I guess you could say I worked on it for ten years but it was very inconstant work. I’m hoping my productivity will improve from this point on!
Vivian’s husband, Nowell, is a mystery writer and her parents are both scholarly, creative types as well. Did you draw on yourself or people of your acquaintance when you wrote about their unique artistic personalities?
I suppose the characterizations in The Qualities of Wood draw heavily on my university experience and the myriad of subjects I was learning about. Both of Vivian’s parents are stimulated by learning, so much so that they have remained students even while becoming teachers. But there are two sides of life, perhaps, the intellectual and the emotional, and an expert in Sociology may not have any idea how to live with people. Small traits came from people I knew, physical descriptions, tendencies or manners of speaking, but the main ideas for the characters were more theoretical. I also liked the idea of a mystery within a mystery, or thinking something was a mystery when maybe it wasn’t, or something else entirely was the real mystery. The idea that each person is actually a mystery, and the notion of art imitating life through one person’s lens.
Lastly, I’d love for you to share a bit about what sort of story your next novel will present and when readers can anticipate its release.
The novel I’ve just completed is another story set in the Midwest, more specifically in Chicago and one of its close suburbs. Gina is a middle-aged office worker with a routine, orderly life. She goes to work and takes the train home to her condominium. She keeps few friends. Over the course of two days in March, Gina’s life is disrupted by a co-worker who insists she meet an eligible suitor and by a pushy neighbor who won’t leave her alone. A manila envelope arrives, containing information that will force her to reevaluate the past, while a choppy voicemail from her brother propels her towards a shifting future. The novel is titled Fortress for One, and I hope to see it published soon!
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.