Sunday, May 11, 2014

Julia MacDonnell: A Search for Truth

The Writer's Life

photo: Gabriel P. Chang
Throughout her life, author Julia MacDonnell has been "trying to piece scraps of secrets and stories" together. The fact that her mother never spoke about the experiences of her own painful childhood and upbringing--she was one of five daughters, losing her own mother in childbirth when she was six; her father died just a few years later; and she and her sisters were "taken in" and raised by a paternal grandmother--seems a "take-off point" for MacDonnell in the creation of her novel Mimi Malloy, at Last! (See review below).
MacDonnell's first novel, A Year of Favor, was published in 1994 and centers on a young journalist caught up in a dramatic saga set in Central America. MacDonnell has worked as a freelance reporter, journalist and is a tenured professor of Creative Writing at Rowan University in Glassboro, N.J.
It's been 20 years between books. Why such a large gap?
Believe me, it wasn't a gap I ever planned for or wanted! The reception of my first novel was a heartbreaking experience. At the time, my publisher was in the midst of a huge transition. My editor left, and my novel ultimately became something of an "orphaned book." In the end, it fell through the cracks. It wasn't championed as I had hoped, and it was a crushing experience. But I never stopped writing, never stopped longing to be published, and never stopped believing that I would, sooner or later, be published again. During those years, I wrote about 15 short stories, eight of which have been published. My story "Dancing with Ned" was recently published in the spring issue of Alaska Quarterly Review. I also have two other novels in various states of completion.
How did Mimi Malloy, at Last! germinate? What was the inspiration?
I recently found journal notes dated 1992 that I wrote right after my mother's death. I'm the second oldest in a brood of eight children. My mother and I had an enduringly contentious relationship, though we squeezed in a few happy years after my kids were born. But once she'd passed--unexpectedly from a stroke at the age of 64--I realized I knew almost nothing about her life. And by then I could not ask. Years of confusion and false starts passed. Then I wrote a story called "Diana's Dresses," in which a 40-something daughter takes her ailing, grouchy mother to an exhibit of Princess Diana's gowns. I found Mimi in that story. But only once my novel was finished did I realize that I'd imagined for myself the necessary mother, a mother I understood, loved, appreciated and respected, and who returned all those feelings back to me.
Tell us about how you write.
Before I begin to write, I stake out certain perimeters and parameters for the story. Sometimes, I'll scribble these out by hand and tack the pieces of paper to the wall. As the late John Gardner said, a bad plan is better than no plan. Usually, I know how the story will end, but I don't know how I'll get there. For me, everything that really matters happens during the writing itself, and everything is open to change. I listen hard to my characters--I'm a good listener--and I've learned to let my stories grow and change; to not impose my ideas on them or try to control them too much.
The setting and characters are always easiest for me. As with Mimi, the characters come at me, hooting and hollering like hungry children, demanding to be taken care of. Then I've got to figure out how to entertain and appease them, keep them busy, give them something worthwhile to do. Figuring out the plot and structuring the novel are always the hardest things for me.
Did the story of Mimi Malloy change over the course of the writing?
Drastically! Yes! The first time through, I imposed upon Mimi my own, much harsher, perspective on her life story. But then I began to hear her voice--a pungent brew of wisdom, snark and cliché--that emerged during the writing. She began to talk to me and tell me how she wanted her story to unfold. The early drafts of Mimi were quite dark. She was, in a sense, foretelling the story of her own death.... But Mimi mutinied. She told me in no uncertain terms that she wasn't done with life, with love, with mothering her children.... She was mad as hell about me trying to kill her off, and she switched on a big torchlight to show me where the story had to go. Mimi insisted that her life take a more joyful path. Thank God I had the good sense to listen to her, though we argued often.
Faeries and banshees (female spirits) play a part in Mimi Malloy. What is your experience with beliefs of this nature?
Angels and faeries have so much in common as to be almost indistinguishable, especially to a child with a vivid imagination. They're both invisible winged creatures with great power. My Irish-Catholic family considered assimilation into the middle class of the United States the ever-to-be-strived-for goal: we were Americans; we were required to melt into the melting pot. Those left in the "old country" were uneducated, ignorant even if through no fault of their own, and not to be trusted for any information at all about how the world worked. In other words, we most definitely did not believe in faeries, which would have been a form of blasphemy, though we knew people, including family members, who did. We knew about faeries to the extent that we knew we didn't believe in them. What we believed in were angels, winged spirits who were everywhere, reporting back to God on our every move.
Your two novels are vastly different, yet both deal with a search for truth. Is this a coincidence?
I was trained as a journalist and, like the protagonist of my first novel, I worked as a reporter, determined always to find the "truth" behind the official story, whatever that might be. I think I became a reporter because I intuited that my truth hunger could be put to good use. No such luck. Rather, I was frustrated and constrained by hard news, by journalistic ways of telling a story. So I moved on to fiction and memoir. But my tireless and, at times, obnoxious "truth search" is an essential part of who I am--even though I learned long ago that "truth" can never be fixed and is as stable as the slush in my backyard after a big snow melt. My need to find out the truth, the real deal, has often marginalized me among my siblings and my work colleagues. But there you have it, I can't help myself.
To me, what the novels share--and they share this with my stories, too--is the struggle of the main characters, all of them women, to find a way to be in the world. These are smart, uncertain, anxious women, locked in combat with their intelligence, their sexuality, their empathies, their inchoate values...they search to find a meaningful way to be in the world.
Will readers have to wait another 20 years for your next book?
I'm refining my story collection, which includes stories about a couple of Mimi's daughters. I've also got two novels in the works--and the less said about them, the better! It's that fear they'll wither on the vine if spoken of too soon. No, it won't be another 20 years!

Note: This interview is a reprint and is being posted with the permission of Shelf Awareness. To read this Q&A on Shelf Awareness: Reader's Edition (5/8/14), click HERE