Mary Lewis’ story “Quesasomethings” is published in the Winter 2015 issue of r.kv.r.y. focused on Caregivers. Writer Nancy Overcott comments “My heart went out to Dora in her discomfort that is so familiar and so well expressed in the story.” Nancy interviewed the author at a Mexican restaurant (in Decorah, Iowa) that serves quesadillas.
When did you start writing seriously and what inspired you?
I hated writing all through school, especially creative writing, so it astonishes me that now it is my passion. There were a couple of stages in the conversion. One was the practice of writing round-robin letters that my family kept going for a number of years in the days of slow mail, and I’d write a page that hit the high points of my life about once a month. I wanted it to be entertaining and found myself using writing skills I’d first learned in high school from Mr. Pink, my sophomore year English teacher. He insisted we give specific examples to support any statement, and once he leapt onto his desk to tell us not to bother to pick up a pen if we were going to write a stereotype. As a class we wrote Steinbeck to congratulate him on his Nobel Prize and were thrilled when we got a thoughtful answer.
Then there was the funeral of my uncle Danny in Washington State. I was touched by this whole community of interesting people who knew him so much better than I did, and I wanted to remember them. I also got to watch my mom interact with her colorful sister and brother in law, and wrote down some of their sayings, noted the way my aunt aligned the hairs of her eyebrows, the way he put her down. After the experience I wrote an account of it and showed it to Mom, and to my surprise, she was horrified that I could say those things about her sister. What astonished me was that she had been much more critical of her than I was, in fact I was just describing what I saw. I call it my Sinclair Lewis moment, because he was unpopular in his hometown when he wrote about them in “Main Street.” So I tried changing names, but that didn’t hide the real people well enough. Then I changed the incidents and details about he characters, and pretty soon I threw up my hands and just put in what I wanted to. And I loved the freedom. So that’s what I write mainly now, fiction.
Your endings don’t usually have clear conclusions or closures. In “Quesasomethings” we don’t know how the relationship turned out with Dora and Will. I like that, but what is the rationale?
I never think there’s an end to a story, it just gets to some different place from where it was at the beginning. I want to have some sort of satisfying conclusion, but I think that can be achieved by having something important change during the story. For example in “Quesasomethings,” Dora fails to communicate with people at the party, but does eventually find Will. The fact that they did so is to me the satisfying ending. I leave it up to the reader to imagine if their relationship develops.
Where do your story ideas come from?
The best advice I received about starting a story was from Brent Spencer at a workshop in Iowa City. He said, “Come up with a character and a setting, then put her in motion.” Even if I don’t have a good idea of a character to begin with, and that is the usual case, I have to figure out why they’re moving about, and that usually means there’s something going on that is upsetting in some way. That leads to more characters and more action.
I heard that people love dogs in stories, and guns, so I wrote a story with both. I wanted to do a “Twilight Zone” style story and invented a town in a hidden valley, out of sync in time and culture. I started my first novel, “The Trouble Swings,” by picking out an idea from a list I’d come up with that included a fireman who was afraid of fires, a dancer who hated to be touched, a teacher who couldn’t keep off the sauce. I was intrigued by a person who takes pictures of dead people. It rattled around for a while, and developed into a story of two young women struggling with their attraction to each other. It begins when Allie takes photos of Beth in a stage coffin as publicity for the school paper for a play about a prom queen who dies in an accident.
Have you studied other writers to come up with methods? Who are some of the writers you admire?
There are so many, Ann Tyler, Marilynne Robinson, Eudora Welty, Alice Munro, Stephen King, and the ones we don’t have to put first names to like Faulkner, Steinbeck, Chekov.
I read slowly to figure out how they do it. It’s like looking at a house and finding out how it was built. What I look for is voice, balance of showing and telling, precise language, arc, use of backstory. I can rarely just relax and read without thinking about craft. Now that I’m in an MFA program I’m doing that even more intensively, and practice what we call stealing from other writers. The understated poetry in Robinson’s fiction, the magic in the ordinary of Munro and Tyler, the writing from the inside of a character of Faulkner, the dry wit of Charlotte Bronte.
To what extent does your own biography enter your writing?
“Quesasomethings” draws more than most of my stories on my own experiences. For example, I teach college anatomy, commute by bike, and have experienced parties like the one portrayed in “Quesasomethings,” but Dora has a different personality from mine. In fact most of the time I invent characters who are different from me, though they may have some skills I know well, such as photography for my point-of-view character in my novel “The Trouble Swings.”
Since I love and treasure the natural world, outdoor settings come easily to me and are often a part of my writing, though not in “Quesasomethings.”
I have read many of your stories and feel I could recognize your writing if I didn’t know you were the author. What do you think contributes to the originality of your work?
It’s like holding up a mirror, but I don’t know if I see what others do in terms of style. I have an interest in physical details of both setting and characters, and I hope these carry emotional content as well. I have Dora doff her snowpants next to the stylish coats on the rack, and enter the party room steaming from her bike ride. Hopefully the reader will know right away this is a story about an outsider. I stay away from adverbs, especially for conveying emotions, and am so interested in showing, that exposition is a small part of my writing.
I like to get close to my characters, and I’ve been told I have a good ear for dialogue. I close my laptop if I see an agenda rearing up in my writing, and bring in information only as necessary to the story. I don’t explain a lot about a character before the story really starts, I just jump in. I prize clarity and struggle for the right word or phrase. For example, I describe Will uncoiling like a snail from his shell, and then add “but still attached to it.”
I usually work close in to a character, so as a narrator I take on something of her speech patterns, and what she pays attention to. In “Quesasomethings” I have Dora say, “Burned that bridge, but it was her own fault.”
Where can we find more of your writing?
I have a few stories in online literary journals. “Chimney Fire” is in the April 2009 issue of r.kv.r.y. “A Good Session” is in the summer 2014 issue of Persimmon Tree. On my website you can find excerpts of my novel, “The Trouble Swings” (as yet unpublished) and of several stories. I also have a blog, which has some complete stories.
Nancy Overcott is also a writer and has three published books. Her inspiration comes mostly from experiences in a hardwood forest of southeast Minnesota where she lived with her husband for 25 years. She is a retired RN and was also a teacher of German and French.
Knowing the background and motivation of a writer always help me understand the substance of the story I am reading. Ms. Overcott provided Mary with the questions that gave me this understanding of Ms. Lewis and her muse. Having this knowledge I am able read her work and sense her process as a creative writer. I enjoyed reading the interview as much as I enjoy reading her work.