Nicole Bonia | Linus's Blanket

Out of Twenty: Martha Woodroof, Author of Small Blessings, Answers 6 Questions

In this version of twenty questions, I send a list of questions to a willing  authorMartha Woodroof and they choose their own interview by handpicking the questions (and how many!) they want to answer. Martha Woodroof is the author of  Small Blessings. Here is what Martha had to say about reading, writing, and making a bucket list helped her publish her novel.

Would you give us a bit of introduction and let my readers know who you are, how you got started writing, and what kind of books you like to write?

I got my first rejection letter at the age of twelve from the poetry editor of The Atlantic Monthly. As it was a personal letter asking me to send in more stuff, I took that as encouragement. I’m both a college dropout (Mount Holyoke) and a grad school dropout (the University of Virginia). My first real job was as a teacher’s aide in a pilot Head Start program in Greensboro, North Carolina. Since the turn of the century, I’ve been attached to WMRA, the Little Public Radio Station that Can, in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and actively freelanced for the NPR Culture Desk and for npr.org.

Before that – among a lot of other things, I co-owned restaurants, did a bit of acting, was fired as a magazine editor, hosted local TV talk shows and anchored the news, wrote a book called How to Stop Screwing Up: 12 Steps to a Real Life and a Pretty Good Time, cooked for an artist’s colony, was a country music disc jockey and a psychiatric occupational therapy aide, taught preschool, published a bunch of essays, was a morning drive-time personality on a tiny AM radio station, ran a college bookstore coffee shop, directed a college’s co-curricular programming, and failed to sell cars.

I finished an early draft of Small Blessings a couple of years ago and then put it away to work on some radio and non-fiction projects.
I’ve never been all that frightened of failing (which is lucky, as I have failed a lot). It seems to me we are each responsible for living our own lives kindly, productively and well; figuring out what we need and want to do with our time and our talents, and then going after those things full-tilt. With this in mind, when I hit my early sixties, I made a bucket list. As I’ve done (and failed to do) a lot of very different things, my bucket list had one item on it: Publish Small Blessings! I’d recently reread the novel, re-fallen in love with its people, and the one thing I really wanted was to land them a better gig than life in a cardboard box in my home office.

How Small Blessings came to St. Martin’s is a long, funny story involving some more major non-shyness on my part and (as any first novelist will tell you) a giant helping hand from the serendipity gods. One auction later, Small Blessings and I had fetched up at St. Martin’s, which is publishing heaven as far as I’m concerned.

Small Blessings by Martha Woodroof - JacketAs to the stories I want to tell: I want to explore the lives of ordinary people who have ordinary problems and somehow things happen that bring out the best in them. I am, and have always been, an optimist!

I am often struck by the different ways writers respond to the process of writing a book. Linus’s Blanket refers to my use of reading and other activities as a means of escape and comfort, can you share with us any routines, food or recipes, or favorite books or rituals that help you thorough the writing process?

My process is not very mysterious; it’s what I think of as the Just Do It school of writing. I get up every morning and write for a couple of hours before I do anything other than give my email a cursory look. As soon as I start to interact with the outside world, the inside of my head turns a pinball machine and I lose my ability to hang out in my imaginary worlds.

As to rituals and food: Coffee. Brought to me in continuous supply by my husband, Charlie, who is bucking for sainthood.

Write the question you would most like to answer in an interview, and then answer it.

Q: Is writing fiction fun?
A: Yes!

What was it about this the story that made it the one you had to tell at this time? What impact did telling this story have on your life? Did you find that it had changed you?

I’m a long-term sober alcoholic/addict (hallelujah!). Sobriety has taught me that there’s always another chance. Or conversely, as the Doobie Brothers once put it: “You always have a chance to give up. So why do it now?”

If I had to be stuck on a desert island with only one book, it would be The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor, edited by Sally Fitzgerald. In one particular letter, someone asks Ms. O’Connor (who was a seriously devout Catholic) what our duty in prayer is. Ms. O’Connor replies something to the effect that our duty is to figure out what we want and ask for it. The italics are mine, as I read this at a point in my life when I was not yet sober and so was really floundering. And even though I wasn’t even a person of faith at the time, I remember those words hitting me like a blow. Our duty is to figure out what we want…

At the time I was clueless about who I was, let alone what I wanted. That moment with Ms. O’Connor began an ongoing process of learning to accept myself exactly as I am in the world as it actually is. This has been both challenging and, at times, very scary. But – yowza! – it’s also, in my opinion, the most alive way to live. How can we possibly be happy without first being our real selves? So – back to Small Blessings – in general, I think I’m interested in writing about nice, well-meaning people who are willing to face the extreme challenge of accepting themselves as they really are and, in the process, learning what it is they really, truly want.

What were your experiences with reading when you were growing up? Was there a pivotal moment in discovering literature when you knew that you wanted to be a writer?

My mother read aloud to me way past the age when I could read on my own. She was an English professor who loved literature, and she made Dickens and Shakespeare and Jane Austen as real to me as second grade. I think that’s when I fell in love with words and their power to tell other people’s stories.

Long years reporting in the NPR system only fueled this love. Stories allow us to inhabit the lives of people we will never meet (or who will never exist, in the case of fiction), try on their viewpoints, experience their struggles and triumphs, feel their emotions. I can truthfully never remember not wanting to be a story teller in some form or other.

Who was your favorite character to write, and why did you have an affinity for that character in particular?

I love all my characters, and I was surprised by how much I missed their company once Small Blessings was finished. Writing Agnes Tattle (Tom Putnam’s mother-in-law) was a real blast, because she is so no-nonsense and straightforward.

1DA652C2516038AE4D02F55645591F39 Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel, Simon Vance (Narrator)  Audiobook Review

About the Author: Martha Woodroof was born in the South, went to boarding school and college in New England, ran away to Texas for a while, then fetched up in Virginia. She has written for NPR, npr.org, Marketplace and Weekend America, and for the Virginia Foundation for Humanities Radio Feature Bureau. Her print essays have appeared in such newspapers as the New York Times, The Washington Post, and the San Francisco Chronicle. Small Blessings is her debut novel. She lives with her husband in the Shenandoah Valley. Their closest neighbors are cows.

Weekend E-Reading: Americanah & The Vacationers

office-272813_1280While I am a big fan of reading books and turning pages, I read in fits and starts on my Nook and tablet. Books act as great physical reminders to me of their actual existence. I find that I forget about the books that I have downloaded. This weekend is all about making an active push to take a look at what I have going there and to finish some of the books I forgot I had.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi AdichieAmericanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: I last mentioned Americanah back in April, when I anticipated reading it in order to attend a friend’s book club. Plans were changed but it is showing up in the book club docket again. That must say something about its effectiveness as a book club pick. Adiche’s writing is gorgeous, and at 74 pages in, her observations of Nigerian and American culture are astute, thought-provoking and sometimes humorous. Ifemelu and Obinze are characters with intriguing depth and complex lives. I’m convinced our discussion will be a lively one.

The Vacationers by Emma Straub: Summer was officially over at the midpoint of The Vacationers by Emma Straubthe week, but I don’t have to let it go completely. The beautiful weekend weather and Straub’s tale of family drama coming to a boil while on vacation in lovely Mallorca, will help me pretend for a little while longer. This one landed on my list after hearing so much about Straub’s debut novel, Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures (which I have yet to read). Also, nothing screams summer or beach read like the cover of this novel. I look at it and am immediately transported to warm weather relaxation.

1DA652C2516038AE4D02F55645591F39 Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel, Simon Vance (Narrator)  Audiobook Review

 

Out of Twenty: Thrity Umrigar, Author of The Story Hour, Answers 12 Questions

In this version of twenty questions, I send a list of questions to a willing  author and they choose their own Thrity Umrigarinterview by handpicking the questions (and how many!) they want to answer. Thrity Umrigar is the author of  The Story Hour.  Here is what Thrity had to say about reading, writing, and whether talking solves problems.

As a published author, what’s been the biggest surprise about life after the publication of your first book?

Honestly, it’s been the kindness of readers.  People who make the time to come to my readings.  Or write to me on my fan page on Facebook.  Or write me long, detailed emails that sometimes break my heart but always remind me that words matter, that literature matters.  That there is a good reason to spend months at a time lost in writing a book, neglecting friends, family, house, pets.

Who was your favorite character to write, and why did you have an affinity for that character in particular?

Honestly, I have loved writing all my characters.  Each one is different, each one carries his or her own history, and I’m intrigued by them all.  I love trying to figure out why they behave the way they do, what in their past tugs at their present.  I have to confess that Lakshmi was probably the most challenging one to write because of her ungrammatical, idiosyncratic English and the way she would turn a phrase.  In many ways, Lakshmi was a stranger to me—she grew up in the Indian countryside, she was the daughter of peasants, she had an eighth-grade education.  She had very little in common with me.  And she insisted in speaking in this very non-standard English.  So I had to get to know her in the course of writing this novel. Read more

Tatiana de Rosnay, Mhairi McFarlane, Emma Healey| Reading Roundup

The Other Story - Looking At You - Elizabeth MissingThe Other Story by Tatiana de Rosnay: I’ve been trying to read a novel by de Rosnay since the success of Sarah’s Key (I still haven’t read it). The premise of this novel appealed to me more than the execution, and I think that’s mostly a result of the jacket copy promising “a journey to uncover the truth that took him from the Basque coast to St. Petersburg”. They get to that journey, but not very quickly. The novel begins in the aftermath of Nick’s success as a writer, as he is struggling to begin the process of writing his second novel. Nick, in the aftermath of his fame and fortune, exhibits a complete lack of charm or appreciation for life that makes him  insufferable. I’m usually okay with characters I don’t like, but even Rosnay’s beautiful writing couldn’t make Nick more palatable or interesting.

Here’s Looking at You by Mhairi McFarland: Loosely based on Pride and Prejudice, this novel was funny and engaging at times but stylistically was not my cup of tea. There was a lot of dialogue in this book–pages and pages of it. I don’t love that, but I did enjoy the interactions between the main characters. I suspect I would have liked this a lot more had it been shorter.

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey: I didn’t expect to love this as much as I did. However,  I was completely absorbed in Maude’s struggles with her deteriorating mental state, her race against time and her own memory to solve  the disappearance of her friend Elizabeth, and another mysterious disappearance from her past. Healey’s skillful depiction of elderly Maude’s limitations and confused musings set a deliberately slow and thorough pace for the reader. While some may find it frustrating to be lost in the myopia of Maude’s mind, I reveled in the depth of perspective Healey provides a character with Alzheimer’s. I loved the atmosphere of the novel and its engaging depiction of present and World War II Britain.

1DA652C2516038AE4D02F55645591F39 Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel, Simon Vance (Narrator)  Audiobook Review

Literary Movie News: Jennifer Lawrence & Bradley Cooper in the Movie Adaptation of Ron Rash’s Serena


Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper are reuniting to star in Ron Rash’s Serena, and the only thing I am worried about is that I haven’t read the book yet. The trailer makes it look all kinds of angsty and dramatic, it’s also period piece to boost, ya’ll. The goal will be to read it before I see the movie, and my motivation to do this is doubled by the fact that I’ve read some of  Nothing Gold Can StayRash’s powerful and moving collection of short stories.

1DA652C2516038AE4D02F55645591F39 Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel, Simon Vance (Narrator)  Audiobook Review