Saturday, June 5, 2010
A Visit with Nancy Means Wright
Nancy Means Wright is the author of 15 books, including five mysteries from St. Martin’s Press. Her latest release is an historical novel, Midnight Fires: a Mystery with Mary Wollstonecraft.
She was a Bread Loaf Scholar for her first novel, an Agatha winner for a children’s mystery, and has published stories in American Literary Review, Level Best Books, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, et al. She lives in Vermont with her spouse and two Maine Coon cats.
Nancy, tell us about your first writings at age nine. Why did your mother destroy them and why did you later write opening chapters of depressing novels?
Like most girls of that age, I was inspired by Nancy Drew. I liked her spirit, longed for adventures, secretly envied her with only a father (my mother had a very dominant personality). And I’d always walked to school making up dialogue and scenes, like the kidnapping of a pesky older brother.
The scenes played out, and soon I was writing them down. I had some fifty pages before mother found them and thought she had a juvenile delinquent living in her attic. That was my first rejection. And then my beloved father, who brought home licorice and hugs each night from work, died suddenly when I was twelve. The depressing novel chapters came when mother put me in a girls’ boarding school for five years, and because she was a housemother there, I was supposed to be a model student and obey all the rules. I wasn’t and I didn’t.
Your first novel, The Losing, is about a young woman trapped in a boys’ school, who anesthetizes herself with sherry. How much of that is autobigraphical?
Definitely the boys’ school, myself, and the sherry. I wasn’t allowed to teach English because the headmaster claimed it a man’s subject! So I taught remedial reading which was boring, and the sherry became ever more inviting. Finally I got an MA in French and put on plays that weren’t the headmaster’s “cup of tea,” so I felt vindicated. And I cut back on the sherry.
Did you actually write by kerosene light in a house built in 1795 in Vermont, with no plumbing or electricity? How did that come about?
Winters we lived in dormitories at that school (I’d married a Vermonter, a paragon of “the simple life” and civil disobedience). We bought the 1795 house for $3000—named it the Broken House. Summers I was studying French—did my homework while the diapers spun in the the laundrymat machines. The same jug of water was recycled for cooking, washing hands, dishes, rinsing out stinky diapers, and finally dumped into an unflushable toilet. This went on for five summers until my husband succumbed to indoor plumbing and electricity. I never did get a bathtub to ruminate in or spin plots.
When did you decide to write mystery novels? And who inspired you to write them?
I divorced in the early nineties and taught in a liberal arts college in Poughkeepsie, NY. On a weekend home in Vermont, I read about two elderly farmers who were assaulted one night for the cash they refused to bank. When the police caught the perps spending bills that reeked of barn—I knew I had to write a mystery. I put that assault into the first chapter of Mad Season, and Ruth Cavin at St Martin’s Press bought it.
You have some unusual book titles: Poison Apples, Harvest of Bones, Stolen Honey, Pea Soup Poisonings, The Great Circus Train Robbery and Mad Cow Nightmare. How would you categorize your work and do your books have a common theme?
They’re all mysteries, somewhere between cozy and noir (I call the St. Martin’s series “rural noir.”) And each title alludes to a theme in the novel. For instance, Poison Apples is set in a vandalized orchard, and Stolen Honey refers to the thirties’ Eugenics Project in which so called “degenerates” (often simply illiterate folk) were sterilized in order to “breed better Vermonters.” Horrible! The law was on the books until ’73, and not only in Vermont. In my novel a young professor is strangled when she writes a paper, comparing the project to the Holocaust. If there is any theme common to all, it’s the plight of small farmers today, as my sleuth is an impecunious single mother dairy farmer.
Tell us about your latest novel, Midnight Fires, which features eighteenth-century feminist, Mary Wollstonecraft (mother of Mary Shelley who wrote Frankenstein). Do you identify with her in any way?
She has been an alter ego to me since I first read her work and letters in the sixties in a consciousness raising group. Her Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) blew me away with its radical call for the right to divorce, for equal education with males, and for females to think for themselves and not be the pawns of fathers and husbands. Like me she left home in her teens, taught school (is a rebellious governess in Midnight Fires), and above all, wanted to be a writer. And like me, her desire for independence conflicted with her sensuality—head versus heart. She made ill-fated choices in men—until her late thirties when she found the right one (writer William Godwin) but she died, alas, shortly after childbirth.
What’s the most important trait a writer can possess? And is perseverance more important than writing talent?
I dare say curiosity. A driving curiosity to discover what makes people tick, and to virtually become these real or fictitious people, and vicariously live their lives. Perseverance is important (it’s the name of my wonderful new publisher!) but I do think writing talent is equally key. Without the “drive” you won’t succeed, but without good writing, a book won’t go beyond your doting mama’s eyes.
How do you spend your day and when do you write? What’s your schedule and do you aim for a certain amount of words per day?
Like Pavlov’s dogs in that long ago experiment, the saliva flows round 8 a.m.and I head for my computer. Until I (recently) broke my right arm, I seldom have writer’s block, so I keep at it until noon and then return in the evening for a second sprint—or revision. Afternoons I shop, walk, read, do workshops—whatever! No, I never aim at “so many” words. I’m disciplined, but I don’t outline, and I take what comes. I let it surprise me.
Advice for fledgling writers?
Well, Vermont writer Howard Frank Mosher nails up rejection slips and adverse reviews on the side of his barn and shoots holes in them. I just leave mine in a cardboard box and let my Maine Coon cats make a nest or pee on them. So send that ms out again!
What three inanimate objects would you save in the event of fire or flood?
First my latest manuscript, be it fiction, play or poem. Then my glasses, since I’m hopelessly near sighted. After that, probably my wallet with its preponderance of identity/ credit/ insurance cards, photo IDs, and my good luck 18th century Piece of Eight.
Thank you, Nancy, for taking part in the series.
Nancy's web and blog site: http://www.facebook.com/pages/BECOMING-MARY-WOLLSTONECRAFT/178981144431?ref=ts"
Her Facebook page: www.facebook.com/#!/pages/BECOMING-MARY-WOLLSTONECRAFT/178981144431?ref=ts"