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Final Vinyl Days and Other Stories
Author Q & A
Q: As an author and a teacher and a mother, how do you find time to write?
JM: It's a juggling act. Before my children were born, I had the luxury of--if not a daily schedule--at least a more structured schedule. Now I just write whenever I can get the time. I'm constantly taking notes and writing smidgets of things, because, in desperation, that's the only way I can get there. And now the public school system is freeing me up a little.
Q: What does the process of writing do for you personally?
JM: The desire to write came very early in life for me. It was a way to vent emotions safely without receiving any criticism. It gave me a place to go. I find that oftentimes writing is a way to pull myself back into perspective. I think going to the movies can do it for me, too, because I completely disappear into this other world, and that distance enables me to look back at my own world in a much clearer way.
Q: You once referred to your short stories as "orphans." Would you explain what you meant by this?
JM: Well, I think early in my career what I hoped would be a novel or what I felt might be the beginning of a novel sometimes didn't become one. I think the more I've worked with short stories, the easier it has become for me to recognize them as such, as opposed to a novel. But I still have the occasional character I hope to work into a story--that doesn't. There are a lot of examples--Denny in Carolina Moon started out like that--as a short story character. I felt that her monologue would be along the same lines as, say, "Dysfunction 101" or "Your Husband Is Cheating on Us." I thought she had the sound of a monologue, but I just never knew where to take her as a story. She just felt more like a bit player who needed the balance of a darker character like Quee or Tom.
Q: How do you create your character? Are they based on people you know?
JM: Oftentimes they seem to come out of nowhere, or I observe a total stranger and wonder how he or she has come to be that way. A lot of characters begin with "What if?" My mind is often preoccupied with occupations, so "It's a Funeral! RSVP" began with the whole idea of someone having this business, and then the woman's character grew out of that. As far as "The Anatomy of Man," I've always been intrigued with what I think must be a difficult line to walk in that business--to have all these people with these expectations--and I just started trying to imagine what a young, single man in that profession must feel like.
Q: Is their one character who is more you than any other in your work?
JM: In Final Vinyl Days, the one character I really feel closest to is the woman in "Life Prerecorded." It's not so much the facts of the life that are accurate as the emotional impact. When I was pregnant and living in Boston, I really did have an old neighbor with a pretty serious heart problem, and we had a wonderful friendship. So this is a story that in many ways was written as a response when I received word that he had died.
Q: When you write stories, do you know the outcome ahead of time, or do they take on a life of their own?
JM: In "Life Prerecorded," I began writing memories of the place and my neighbor. I also had been accurately writing down my dreams when I was pregnant. So I had all these pieces, and I didn't know how they all fit together. I didn't even know that it would become a story. I thought it was a kind of writing I do for myself--I call it "cleaning house"--these little bits of ideas that start getting in my head space if I don't do something with them. After I had all these snippets with no notion of how they might fit together, I looked at them and realized that the idea that was running all the way through them was the smoking image--trying to quit smoking. Not only did it connect to the pregnancy and the time I did actually quit smoking in my life, but it also connected back to my childhood in North Carolina, rich with tobacco land. In many ways, that story was my lovehate song to tobacco.
Q: Are those dreams in "Life Prerecorded" yours? Did you really dream you gave birth to a kitten?
JM: Yes! Those dreams were mine, right down to the little freeze-dried baby. I really did dream it was the product of Marilyn Monroe and JFK.
Q: Of the many voices you use in the collection, which ones were the most difficult to write? Was it harder to write from a man's point of view, for example?
JM: I guess at the time I wrote "Final Vinyl Days" it was difficult to write because I had never really written from a male perspective. I wrote that story before I wrote Carolina Moon--when I knew that I was going to take on quite a few men. So I knew that I wanted to start experimenting with male voices. What I discovered--and what I preach to my students--is that if I'm in the right place emotionally with a character, the other parts seem to fall into place. So with "Anatomy of Man," I didn't find it as challenging. Of course, a lot of people tell me he's a complete nut, but I didn't see him that way, which made him easy to handle.
Q: How did you select the title of this collection? Is "Final Vinyl Days" in some way representative of all the stories?
JM: Shannon Ravenel [at Algonquin Books] and I went round and round about it. We both like "It's a Funeral! RSVP" and had in mind this engraved invitation for the cover, but other people thought it might be a little tacky. Then I really liked the idea of "The Anatomy of Man" with the drawing by Da Vinci. We played around with all these ideas, and then finally, one of the younger people at Algonquin who had read the collection pointed out that what all the stories have in common is references to old songs. Suddenly, the use of "Final Vinyl Days" represented a period of time and a nostalgia that all the stories did have.
Q: Do you see your works as feminist in nature? Do you see yourself as a feminist writer?
JM: I can see it being said, and it certainly wouldn't bother me. I guess I'd prefer to think I'm a "humanist," because I write about people who are figuring out where they fit in society and how to reach a certain level of acceptance. Many of my characters are women, and as result I deal with a lot of feminist issues. I think something like "Your Husband Is Cheating on Us" certainly has a feminist flavor--I like to think of it as a kind of Thelma and Louise kick. But at the same time it was important to me to understand the mistress and how she reached this point and what was missing in her life. Oftentimes I start out with an idea just because it's funny, but then I like to find the darker part of the story.
Q: What role does humor play in your writing? Do you consider yourself a comic writer?
JM: I've been told that I'm funny. I love to be funny, and I'm disappointed when I'm not funny. I look for humor and sure enough it can always be found--sometimes in the most serious of moments--as a way of handling the situation. The funniest things in life are very often tied to something quite heavy and dark. What's being told isn't usually funny, but the way it's told--as in life--is, as in "It's a Funeral! RSVP."
The whole time at my Dad's funeral, there were all these hilarious things happening, and I just kept thinking that if he were there, he would have been coming up to me and saying, "Are you getting all this down?" We had this funeral director who kept begging me to put him in one of my books--and I will someday. He was such a breath of life. We were all laughing, and I thought, "Here I am in the middle of this awful awful day, and life doesn't stop." I kept thinking that unless they get hit in the head by lightning, people tend to go out the same way they've lived.
Q: Is that when you wrote "It's a Funeral! RSVP"?
JM: Yes, I was at a place in life where more and more people that I loved dearly were moving on, and the whole shift in balance of what I felt is important was changing. My father died of lung cancer at the same time an aunt was dying--two back-to-back deaths of people I was close to. I felt very lucky to be with my dad the whole time, knowing I had the chance to say all the things I wanted to say. I've just always thought it would be great--the old Tom Sawyer thing--where you get to go to your own funeral and have a little control over what happens there.
Q: Many of the characters in Final Vinyl Days are ruled by--even paralyzed by--their fears. How important is fear in these characters' lives?
JM: I think fear is an important element. In "Final Vinyl Days," he's really torn because there is the fear of staying the same, but there is also the fear of moving on and feeling that he has abandoned what he really loves in life--that he somehow "sold out." For the woman in "A Blinking, Spinning, Breathtaking World," it is absolute fear. This is someone who thought she had life figured out and was on one track and all of a sudden was completely derailed. She's in a crisis of fate and trust.
I think something that comes out in my stories is what I personally feel--that the best part of life is the anticipation of what is to come. I often give characters this hopefulness as they're on the path, but there's this great fear of reaching the end or making the turn that will make it impossible to come back. Then, inevitably, there is something in life that forces them to accept it: There's cancer and divorce and children being abused. All you have to do is pick up the newspaper. So I guess I do have characters who are always aware of their possibilities--which include the worst as well as the best.
Q: What books or authors do you pick up when you want to read for your own enjoyment?
JM: There are always the old faithfuls: Eudora Welty and Katherine Anne Porter--and the re-reading of To Kill a Mockingbird and early Truman Capote. Among contemporary writers, there's such a wonderful list to choose from. I like southerners Lee Smith, Kaye Gibbons, Doris Betts, Richard Bausch, Smartt Bell, and Larry Brown, to name a few. And then there's Alice Hoffman, Sue Miller, Jayne Anne Phillips, Tim O'Brien, John Updike, and Charles Baxter, among others. I also like to read short stories and poetry.
Q: Publishers Weekly wrote that you are "gradually becoming our contemporary Eudora Welty." What aspects of your work do you see yourself sharing with her? What does it mean to you to be compared to Welty?
JM: As a writer, the first time I discovered Welty's work, I felt liberated because she tackles everyday life--not these catastrophic events but the more subtle emotional changes within an individual's world. Certainly her work One Writer's Beginning has had an enormous impact on me.
The comparison is the kind that you dream up for yourself but never breathe aloud. When I hear it, I feel like I'm at the bottom of a very very steep and long set of stairs I'm traveling on. Her work has the quality and depth that I would always aspire to. She's got such a range that I admire--the range in characters, in subject matter, in emotional tone. I feel like she never stops experimenting and pushing.
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