In this version of twenty questions, I send a list of questions to a willing
victim author and they choose their own interview by picking which questions, and how many questions, they want to answer. Mary Simses’s novel, The Irresistible Blueberry Bakeshop & Cafe, tells the story of a Manhattan woman who flees her engagement and pending nuptials to fulfill her grandmother’s dying wish. Here is what Mary had to say about reading, writing, and receiving title help from James Patterson.
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 grew up in Connecticut, where my mother’s family has some fairly deep roots (several generations). I’m an only child and we lived in Darien, a suburban town on the Connecticut Coast. When I was young I was always writing short stories and poems and my teachers encouraged me to write – especially my ninth grade English teacher, with whom I’m still in touch.
By the time I started college, I decided I’d better take up a “practical” career, as I didn’t think I could ever make a living writing fiction or poetry. I decided to major in journalism because at least that way I’d still be writing, although doing a very different kind of writing. I spent a couple of years after college working for a small trade magazine in Connecticut (fortunately, an interesting one that covered the field of magazine publishing) and then ended up going back to school to get a law degree. I worked for a law firm and then spent fifteen years working in the legal department of a large corporation in Westchester County, New York.
It was during that time that I realized I had to start writing fiction again. I kept imagining scenes and thinking of dialog and I figured I’d either have to write or I would drive myself crazy not doing it. I enrolled in an evening fiction writing class at Fairfield University in Connecticut. And that was it. I was totally hooked again – but now, as an adult. I wrote “on the side,” whenever I could – late at night, on weekends, traveling, any time I could squeeze it in.
Over the next few years, several of my stories were published in journals and literary magazines. Then my husband, also an attorney, was transferred to South Florida, so we moved there. After that, I had our daughter, Morgan, and I put the writing away for several years, during which time we opened our own law firm. But, once again, I came back to writing fiction and began to work on more short stories. A close friend and author kept telling me I needed to write a novel, and, finally, I took the big leap and wrote what became The Irresistible Blueberry Bakeshop & Café.
My stories, and my novel, are all relationship-driven. The characters define the stories. Locations are important to me as well, however. I tend to set my stories in small towns and my favorite small towns are those on the New England coast. I like to use fictional towns, so I can create them from the ground up, exactly the way I want them to be. In Blueberry Café, the location is Beacon, Maine, a small coastal town where Ellen, the protagonist, goes to deliver a letter for her recently deceased grandmother who wanted to set something right before she died. I guess small, coastal New England towns and characters dealing with “unfinished business” in their lives are my themes. Those two elements are also in the new book I’m writing.
Can you share with us any routines, food or recipes, or favorite books or rituals that help you through the writing process?
This is hard. My only real routine is probably the lack of one! Actually, that’s not quite true. One thing I find is that I like to write in the same place, at least when I’m home. There is a little “nook” in our bedroom with a banquette against two of the three walls and there are windows in two of the walls, making it a nice, bright spot. I usually sit on the banquette with my laptop on a small laptop table and that’s where I write. We do have a home office but I use that to pay bills, sort mail, work on photographs (I love photography and have been taking pictures since I was a child), and that sort of thing. I don’t write there.
I also find that my best schedule (when I can stick to it) is to write in the morning, before I get distracted and the day gets away from me. To do that, I really have to “x” out time on my calendar for myself. Otherwise, it will get filled in with appointments and things I could, at least for the most part, just as easily do in the afternoon. If I’m getting really distracted by being in the house, I just pick up my laptop and go somewhere else to write – preferably somewhere outside, if it’s not too hot.
That said, I don’t always write in the morning and there are periods when I don’t write at all. Then I’ll have several days where I really knock out a ton of pages. It’s also not unusual for me to write until the wee hours of the morning, when I really get going.
I usually have something to drink next to me, such as my one cup of coffee in the morning or a cup of tea. Cinnamon, one of our two cats, is typically hanging around, looking to be petted or threatening to walk on my laptop keys, which he loves to do. (Sometimes he sleeps on the keyboard!) He’s not the best writer, though, so I try to discourage him from coming too close.
What are you reading now? What are some of your favorite books and authors? Has writing your own book changed the way that you read?
I just finished reading That Part Was True by Deborah McKinlay, a novel I received as an advance reader copy from my publisher. The story involves letters, food, and love – three things that are also critical elements in Blueberry Café – so I was intrigued from the start. It’s a delightful read and I enjoyed every page.
I’m now reading Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, also published by Little, Brown. It’s an amazing novel and, because of that, it’s hard to put down. So if anyone in my house thinks I’m cooking dinner or anything like that . . . .Some of my favorite books are: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee; The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald; The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger ; A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving; The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd; Angle of Repose by Wallace Steigner; The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr; Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson; The Last Time They Met by Anita Shreve; The Deptford Trilogy by Robertson Davies; The Salterton Trilogy by Robertson Davies; Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen; David Copperfield by Charles Dickens; A Room with a View by E.M. Forster; Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh.
For humor, I love David Sedaris and Bill Bryson.
If writing has changed the way that I read, I think it’s given me an even deeper appreciation of great literature because now I know how hard it is to craft a book and do it well.
Did you know what you wanted the title of the book to be? How involved were you in choosing the name of the book?
For the three years while I was writing the book, I was using the working title, The Letter. Not terribly exciting but I thought it got the point across, as the main character’s journey comes about because of a letter. The author, James Patterson, who also lives in our town and who read and liked my manuscript, asked me if I had a title. When I replied, “The Letter,” he just looked at me and said, “You need a really good title,” which told me all I needed to know about using The Letter as a title! Being the mastermind that he is, Jim put his head back and thought for a moment. Then he said, “I think The Irresistible Blueberry Bakeshop & Café would be a good title,” and that was it. I had the biggest-selling author in the world handing me a title. You can’t do much better than that!
Do you ever look back on your early work? How do you feel your writing style or approach to writing has evolved since you first began?
Not very often. It’s funny because even back then, most of my work (short stories) dealt with small-town life. And a couple of them were set in Maine. One of my earliest stories, which I just reread in order to answer this question, was about a young woman who traveled from Seattle, Washington to Camden, Maine to visit her dementia-stricken mother. Even though the story was serious, the mother said some things that really made me laugh, confirming my suspicion that it’s always been hard for me not to throw in a few humorous lines, no matter what I’m writing.
In terms of style, I think I’m probably a more fluid writer now. I guess that just comes from writing a zillion sentences. And, of course, age and stage of life have a lot to do with it. Twenty years ago I couldn’t have written what I write now or the way I write now. Nevertheless, when I read a story that I wrote a long time ago, I’m usually still fairly happy with it, at least in terms of what it represents for its time. I’m often struck by certain phrases or sentences or descriptions that I like. It’s an odd feeling, because although it’s my own work, in a way it also feels as though it belongs to someone else.
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?
The strange thing is that although I read as a child, I was never an avid reader, the way I am now. I don’t know exactly when all of that changed but I think it was during college. I remember one summer when I decided I wanted to read a lot of plays. I’m not sure why, but I just did. So I went to the library and took out huge volumes of work by several American playwrights – Tennessee Williams, Lillian Hellman, Eugene O’Neil, and a few others – and I just read them from cover to cover. I think that might have been the beginning of my deep love of literature because I haven’t stopped reading since.
As far as having a pivotal moment when I knew I wanted to be a writer, that’s a tough question because I started writing stories when I was around eight years old. I can’t say that I remember a particular moment at that age; I just remember always writing, at least as a child. But there was a pivotal moment when I started writing fiction as an adult and I realized I would always be writing, at least as a side venture.
That happened in the evening fiction writing class. In one of the classes, I read a story I had written for the assignment. Afterward, there was a lot of discussion about the story and the characters, and a lot of positive comments, all of which I found very encouraging. But the most amazing thing was what took place after class. A young man, probably in his early twenties, came up to me and told me how much the story had moved him and how, at one point when I was reading it, he thought he was going to cry. I drove home that night feeling as though I was floating on a cloud. I’d written something that had really touched people and I was ecstatic. I knew then that I would always keep writing.
As a published author, what’s been the biggest surprise about life after the publication of your first book?
The biggest surprise – and pleasure – has been the number of wonderful responses I’ve been getting, through my website, Facebook, and Goodreads. People have written me such kind notes, telling me how much they’ve enjoyed Blueberry Café and I really feel honored that they think so highly of the book. There are so many great books out there – thousands of choices – and readers are giving up time, and usually money, to read them. It makes me feel great when I know that someone is happy with the investment he or she has made in my book.
Another big surprise is how much I’ve enjoyed giving book talks. I love meeting and talking with people so the book signing part was never an issue. But I was nervous about giving the talks – what should I say? What stories about the book should I include? Will people be bored? Will I be nervous? Fortunately, everything has worked out very well. I haven’t felt nervous and people in the audiences have told me how much they enjoy hearing my story. I’ve also discovered that a number of people who come to my talks are writers who are working on stories or books themselves or are people who are interested in writing but haven’t done it. If I can help or inspire them in any way, that’s an extra bonus for me.