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Debra Hamel is the author of a number of books about ancient Greece. She writes and blogs from her subterranean lair in North Haven, CT. Read more.

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Sharratt, Mary: Author interview

Mary Sharratt teaches at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis and gives workshops around the country on the subject of women and fairy tales. Her first novel, Summit Avenue, was a Book Sense Pick and is currently in its third printing. A native of Minnesota, Sharratt drew on her mother's and grandmother's stories of farm life in the early twentieth century for the writing of The Real Minerva. Sharratt currently lives in England. She will be editing a fiction anthology on the subject of female anti-heroes for Crocus Books UK.

The Real Minerva has been selected for the October Book Sense List as a "we also recommend" title. In late September and early October, Sharratt will be giving readings and doing author events in the Twin Cities, the San Francisco Bay Area, Portland, and Seattle.

Mary Sharratt is the author of Summit Avenue and The Real Minerva. Visit her online at Sphinx Rising, or contact her at [email protected].

1. Tell us a little about your most recent novel, The Real Minerva.

The Real Minerva poses the question: is it possible to leave your past behind and become someone wholly different? What if you are a woman living on the fringe of society in a repressive small town? I wanted to take the great 1920s myth of the self-made man a la The Great Gatsby and recast it through a female lens.

The novel centers on three very different women who are determined to reinvent themselves whatever it takes.

The germ of the story began bubbling up while I was camping in the Torres del Paine National Park in Chilean Patagonia nearly ten years ago. It seemed impossible not to create a story about a character who had been born in that raw, wild landscape. This was how Cora Van den Maagdenbergh came into being. The initial burst of inspiration culminated in a short story, yet even after it was published in a literary journal, the characters wouldn't stop haunting me. The reason was that I wasn't finished with them, or rather, they weren't finished with me. I decided to develop the story into a full-length novel.

Around this time I became intrigued by the idea of the female outlaw and wasn't aware of any novels that dealt with the subject. Contemporary films exploring "outlaw women," such as Monster, Thelma and Louise, and Baise Moi, are depressing, defeatist stories with tragic endings. They appear to serve as cautionary tales warning women what will happen to them if they step out of line. In most of popular culture, rebel women end up dead. The opposite extreme is "chick lit," which seems to find humor in presenting women as neurotic, insecure Bridget Jones parodies.

As a reader and a writer, I am tired of victim/chick lit; I don't want to see women either dead or trivialized. I chose the form of a historical novel, set in the 1920s, to present three heroines struggling against the kind of overwhelming social strictures that many of us today would have a hard time imagining. I wanted to write a book about strong women that packed the same punch as Thelma and Louise, except one that had a positive message behind it and a believable happy ending. In short, I wanted to write about women who fight for their independence against all odds . . . and win.

2. You weave references to Homer's Odyssey--particularly to the goddess Athena and Odysseus's wife Penelope--into your novel. Did you plan from the first to include these allusions in your book, or did the idea to do so spring, for example, from the name of your character Penny or of the town (Minerva) in which the story is set?

My fiction, to a large degree, is a homage to the power of stories, myths, fairy tales, and great books. The Odyssey is one of the greatest stories of all time and one that has endured for nearly three thousand years. There's a sense of the weight of eternity in it.

My first novel, Summit Avenue, explored my immigrant heroine's coming of age through the prism of fairy tales. In The Real Minerva I turned to Greek myths.

Where would Penny, a small-town girl with an eighth-grade education, learn about great heroines? What role models existed for girls like her? When she gets her hands on a copy of the Odyssey, her whole world changes. Suddenly she's living her life on a larger canvas. She realizes she can wed her dreams to the figure of Athena/Minerva, who gave her town its name. This is the goddess of the intellect, of civilization and learning, yet she is also a warrior. She emboldens Penny to stick up for herself, fight for her rights. Penny also learns the secret power of her own name as she comes to unravel the real significance of Homer's Penelope and her weaving and remembering.

3. As a mother, I found some of your evocations of parenthood and separation heart-rending. Do you have children, or are you simply prescient?

I don't have children. However, the tight symbiotic bond between mothers and infants, and mothers and daughters, fascinates me and has been a reoccuring subject in my fiction. I am very pleased that you, as a mother, found my portrayal convincing.

Ironically, I think that because I have no children, mothers have opened up to me about their experiences in a way that they might not do with another parent. I am honored that my friends have trusted me enough to confide their insights on the "darker" and more difficult aspects of motherhood.

In mainstream media, you often see motherhood presented in a cloyingly sentimental way that undermines the whole depth and spectrum of what mothers go through.

4. How do you go about developing a story? Do you plot out your novels elaborately beforehand? Concentrate instead on building up the characters' personalities and write without a pre-ordained plot? Some combination of the two?

First of all, I consider myself a storyteller. I want the reader to be completely bound up in the tale. I have little patience for self-important literary novels that exist for style alone. There has to be a story and characters that I care about.

I start with the major characters, find out what they want, put them down on the playing field, and see how they interact. Revision plays a huge role. I keep rewriting until the story feels as real as I can make it.

I work with loose plots and outlines that are often revised as much as my drafts are. You can't just harness your characters to a preconceived plot idea. Plot should emerge organically from your characters--they are not chess pieces the author moves around in an arbitrary fashion.

Strong plots are essential, but the character is the engine of the story. Most readers remember really good characters long after they've forgotten clever plots.

5. As near as I can tell from what I've read of you on the web, you live in the middle of a cow pasture, somewhere in rural England. How should your readers imagine your average day?

I get up, have breakfast, and work in my study which overlooks the cow pasture. Usually in the morning, the cows are lined up behind the house. They don't belong to me, but I love them. It's hard to take life too seriously if you're surrounded by mooing cows. They are very affectionate animals, always sticking close together. If I'm stuck for inspiration, I go out and talk to them. They like it if you sing to them.

Beyond the cow pasture, Pendle Hill rises. This was the famous hill where George Fox, founder of the Quakers, received his ecstatic vision. The hill was also the historical haunt of the Lancashire witches. So many stories rise up out of the land beneath our feet. Any writer who is stuck for inspiration should read up on local history.

People can learn more about Pendle Hill here:

6. Do you adhere to a writing schedule?

I write from morning to late afternoon generally. I'm lucky to have a freelancer's schedule, so I can arrange my teaching and my editorial work with Crocus Books UK around my writing schedule and not the other way around.

I'm fairly rigid and disciplined about my writing routine. Paradoxically, my strict schedule gives me the structure in which I can be dreamy and intuitive, allowing the writing to take shape.

7. What are the two or three most important pieces of advice you can think of to give aspiring writers?

One, you're in it for the long term. Like any craft or skill that you want to do well, it takes many years of hard work and apprenticeship to become a good writer. Put craft before ambition in the beginning. Learn to love the process. If you love writing with all your passion and intellect, you will become a good writer and writing will bring joy to your life.

Two, no writer can make it without friends. Friends who read and comment on your writing in a spirit of constructive criticism. Friends who cheer you on as you begin sending out your first manuscripts. Friends who recommend your books to other friends. Cherish your friends always.

Three, you can't be a writer without supporting other writers. I despair when I see would-be writers who only buy "How to Get Published" guides but never read other people's books. Would an aspiring musician refuse to listen to the work of other musicians? Young writers everywhere could create a sea change in the publishing industry if they went out and bought one or two books by midlist (non-bestseller) authors each month. If every person who wanted to write a novel went out and bought other people's novels, we could create a much more vibrant literary culture that fostered creativity and new writing. I encourage my students to become active in their local literary community. Go to author readings. Support your local authors. Support your local independent bookstore. If you love a book, write a review on Tell all your friends. Join a book group and encourage the people in it to read midlist authors and not just the latest New York Times bestseller.

Just imagine how much more vital our reading culture would be.

8. Do great story ideas come to you unbidden, or do you have certain tricks for developing them?

Stories are all around us. We just need to tune into them. Fairy tales, myth, history, newspaper clippings, and family lore have all provided story foundations for me. Stories beget stories. Stories are eternal. People say that there are around seven archetypal stories that keep being recycled through time--i.e. the quest, the tragic love story, the coming-of-age story, etc. Shakespeare stole most of his story ideas from other playwrights.

What makes each story unique and what distinguishes a truly good storyteller are the characters and the way you tell the tale. You need to find the story that speaks to you. Find the characters to stand at the center of that story. Follow the characters on their journey.

9. How much do you manage to read? And who are some of your favorite authors?

Because I write historical fiction, much of my reading is research. I read a lot of non-fiction, mostly history. I love reading up on women's history.

However, you can't be a novelist without reading other people's novels. So I try to read as much fiction as I can. I admire novels that balance style with substance, that feature powerful storytelling, a deeply rendered sense of place, and unforgettable characters. I love Willa Cather, E.M. Forster, Isabel Allende, Louise Erdrich, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Alice Munro. My favorite book this year was The Ghost Writer by John Harwood.

10. What are you working on now?

I am currently working on the edits of my third novel, The Vanishing Point, to be published by Houghton Mifflin in 2006. This is a literary novel of dark suspense set in colonial America. It's a sleight-of-hand story of love and betrayal, and of two sisters, one lost and the other searching. Imagine Margaret Atwood meeting Daphne du Maurier in 17th century Maryland. This book is a complete departure from my previous work. There are no Minnesota references in sight!


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