Jaime Boler: Thank you so much, Mary, for letting me interview you. I loved your haunting and atmospheric debut. Did you always want to be a writer?
Mary Vensel White: Thank you, both for reading and enjoying the novel, and for inviting me to your lovely blog! The writing sort of evolved around my decision to study literature.
I was attending a tiny junior college in Stockton, California, taking classes towards becoming a paralegal. I chose the field because I loved legal thrillers (my Grisham phase), the wordiness and drama of a good courtroom scene. In an entry level English class, we read D.H. Lawrence and Kerouac, neither of whom I really love but it was enough to ignite something. Also, the teacher encouraged me and pointed me in the right direction, something I’ll never forget. So I enrolled as an English major and assumed I’d teach. But I started writing on the side, too—short stories, bad prose poems.
By the time I’d finished school, I realized teaching would take too much mental energy away from writing, which is what I’d rather be doing. (Side note—my husband’s an attorney so I’m in a unique position now to realize what a preposterous idea it was for me to go into law!)
JB: How would you describe The Qualities of Wood in ten words or less?
MVW: Atmospheric and gripping, a mystery within a mystery.
JB: You were born and raised in California, yet The Qualities of Wood and your next novel are set in the Midwest. What captivates you about that part of the country?
MVW: There was a certain sleepy feel to the countryside; small towns with miles to go before the next. I thought about the ways a small town can be isolated and self-directing, almost like a character itself with its own history and habits. I really don’t like when people stereotype the people of another place and yet, another thing about the Midwest—everyone really IS friendly! Also, I was interested in the differences between urban and rural spaces, and how someone might feel coming from the city, with its rushed and crowded feel, and being dropped into one of these slow-paced, sensory-rich small towns.
JB: Do you think you’ll ever set a story in California?
MVW: Yes! I’m currently working on a short story collection set in southern California. Projects often start with setting for me and California offers its own unique feel—the labyrinth of freeways, the endless sunshine, cities bleeding into each other. You feel a wealth of possibilities living here, and maybe the overarching presence of chance. You seldom meet someone with a shared history. And yet, people everywhere have the same hopes, fears and needs.
JB: How did you come up with The Qualities of Wood?
MVW: I wanted to play around with the mystery genre a bit, write something that may, on the surface, appear to be a traditional mystery but really was about character. And there was the urban/rural theme I wanted to explore—how someone may feel differently in each of these settings. I like the thought of perception and every man or woman creating his own reality.
How much can we truly know someone, how can we be certain “history” is true, how do we bring our own luggage into any encounter or relationship we have? These were the motivators for the story and of course, it’s always good to have a dead body to rile everyone up.
JB: In the novel, Mr. Stokes tells Vivian: “The minute something happens…that moment is lost forever. There’s no truth. Just stories. Just rumors.” What do you mean here?
MVW: In college, I had a minor in history, so this is another love of mine. When I’m asked about influences, I’ll usually mention a history book, Imagined Communities by Benedict Anderson. The book introduced to me the notion that until people could imagine nations, nations did not exist.
And I thought this was so powerful, that identity (and history itself) could be determined by the collective conscious. Basically, that people could decide what was true. I started thinking about a small town, that insular setting, and how its inhabitants could cling to some version of history and in some ways, make that the true history.
Napoleon is quoted as saying: “History is a set of lies agreed upon.” On a more immediate level, anyone who grew up with siblings can relate to the idea that no one sees an event in the same way. Even moments after something happens, we all start processing and changing. If you live long enough, you can watch this process over time, people telling stories while you think: “That’s not what happened!”
JB: Who are some of your favorite authors and what are some of your favorite books?
MVW: Favorite authors: Per Petterson, Kent Haruf, Marilynne Robinson. I’ve read everything they’ve written and will rush to buy anything new. Some authors whose work I’ve just begun to read but could possibly become favorites: Michael Chabon, Jess Walter. Leif Enger has only written two novels but both are wonderful. Love Elizabeth Strout. Have an undying and devout love for the Southerners: Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers.
Favorite books: Lolita, Anna Karenina and recently inducted as #3 after a re-read: The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.
JB: What was your publication process like?
MVW: Fits and starts, highs and lows, and lots and lots of waiting. And it’s ongoing!
My particular process has been a little different than most. The book was released as an ebook in January of last year, so I spent a good part of the year promoting it. And now I’m gearing up for the print version, which will come out later this summer.
All in all, it’s been very gratifying and I especially enjoy talking to book clubs (plug: available to phone or Skype!), and meeting other writers at conferences.
JB: How were earlier versions of The Qualities of Wood different from the final published version?
MVW: This novel has been edited a zillion times over the past almost-twenty years! But I’m happy to say that the main essence of it, both in story, style and character, has remained the same. Probably the biggest change through the editorial process was the ending. I always felt the ending was flawed but couldn’t figure out what to do. And I can’t say anything more without ruining it for those who haven’t read it. But I will tell you secretly if you’re interested!
JB: What was the most difficult thing about writing The Qualities of Wood?
MVW: I wrote this novel before I had children, while I had a cushy receptionist gig in a Chicago high rise. The first draft probably took six months, start to finish.
These days, time is an ongoing struggle. People talk about writer’s block but I always have many more ideas than I have time to work out on paper (or computer). So I can’t really think of anything that was difficult in the writing process back then. I had lots of quiet, uninterrupted time and it went very smoothly!
JB: What do you like to do when you aren’t writing?
MVW: Well, I have those children I mentioned, four of them. They keep my husband and I pretty busy—sports, lessons, school.
I read, all the time. I’m in a book club that’s been together for ten years.
Our family watches a lot of movies, and we’re pretty active. I exercise (yoga, aerobics, stuff like that) and do a bit of running. Sometimes we’ll compete in races, preferably ones with beer at the finish line!
Also, I’m sort of a general arts enthusiast, especially dance. Broadway, plays, concerts—I’m happiest when several tickets to upcoming events are hanging on my bulletin board.
I like to travel too. I just returned from a Memorial Day weekend trip to Illinois and Wisconsin with my daughter. I’d been back to Chicago but hadn’t been out to the country for a long time. Everything rushed back—all the sensory influences for The Qualities of Wood.
JB: What do you hope readers take with them after reading The Qualities of Wood?
MVW: I hope it touches them on a personal level, engages something within. And I hope it leaves them with things to ponder and a strong urge to buy anything else I may write in the future!
JB: I know you are working on a second novel and a collection of interrelated short stories. What can you tell us about these books?
MVW: Sure! The novel is called Fortress for One. It’s about Gina, a middle-aged woman living a routine, unremarkable existence. Until the weekend when everything changes and she’s forced out of her rut. The book is set in the Midwest again, in Chicago and its suburbs but also Korea.
The story collection is the one I mentioned, set in greater Los Angeles and following the interlocking paths of three families. It’s about archetypal human stories and how they can be upended in modern times. The element of chance and how maybe life is just about responding to it.
JB: They both sound fascinating and I can’t wait to read them. Thanks, Mary, for a wonderful interview. Good luck with the book!
When Vivian and her husband Nowell are enlisted to prepare his late grandmother’s country home for sale, they decide to take a break from city life. Nowell leaves before his wife to begin work on his second mystery novel and by the time Vivian joins him, a real mystery has begun.
A local girl has died in the woods behind the house. The tall line of trees separating the old white house from the thickets and wildlife beyond attracts Vivian, seems to beckon her within. Details begin to emerge about the victim and Vivian becomes enmeshed in the secrets of the girl’s life and final moments.
Nowell’s temperamental brother arrives with his new wife and the house gets crowded. A woman who befriends Vivian relays local gossip, including the questionable legacy of the town’s founder, while a neighbor, a striking man with a buried past of his own, keeps appearing at strange moments. Meanwhile, Vivian’s marriage is unraveling as Nowell loses himself in his work and Vivian seeks purpose, and ultimately, truth.