Today, Feathered Quill reviewer Amy Lignor is talking with Mary Hutchings Reed, author of One for the Ark
FQ: You are so poignant in expressing small-town life; did you grow up in a town like Stirling that helped create the background for this tale?
REED: I grew up in the 1950’s in a small town, Crystal Lake, Illinois, more than fifty miles from Chicago, a town which then was 8000 people and now is more than 40,000. Although my primary residence is in the heart of Chicago, I have a weekend home in Walworth, Wisconsin, on the west end of Lake Geneva, just over the Illinois border. Walworth, population 2800, is the town I think of when I think of “Stirling.”
FQ: In a world of conservative versus liberal (especially with the election coming up), was it difficult to show all points of view in this novel? In addition, you have a background of works that touch upon major subjects facing the country and offer all sides of a contentious subject through your characters. Is this a type of personal activism so that readers will open their minds enough to see all sides?
REED: As a lawyer, I’ve been trained to see all sides of any argument, and in college I studied different political and economic models as a Public Policymaking major. Important social issues play out in individual lives, which is why I like fiction that shows that. I would be thrilled if my writing led a reader to a new perspective on a political controversy. In my own reading, I like fiction that makes me think or offers a unique idea. I detest polemic.
FQ: Route 66 definitely springs to mind when visualizing the sign that your character created to let people know a Noah’s Ark replica would be available on his site. I have to know, what spawned this idea?
REED: You’re right, Amy. The Noah’s Ark sig is the kind of thing one sees on certain stretches of highway away from urban areas, and I have over the years driven thousands of miles east, west and south. The original idea for One for the Ark came from an overheard remark: a woman said, “the hardest thing I ever had to do was accept that my daughter wanted to become a man.” (I wrote OFTA before Caitlyn Jenner was on the cover of Vogue, wondering how a mother, who was a feminist, would feel about that decision. It was also written before a $100 million “exact replica” of Noah’s Ark went up in Williamstown, Kentucky. (See www.chicagotribune.com) But the novel needed more issues to reflect the chaos of real life. Several years before the first draft was finished in 2007, an image of the blessed virgin appeared on an underpass here in the city.
FQ: Humor is not often found anymore (unfortunately) and you (thankfully) have supplied it perfectly. Are you a fan of humorous novels, or plots that have humorous characters?
REED: I’m so glad you get the humor. I think humor is our compensation for all the things we can’t control in our lives, even if we are the mayor, the parent or the boss. I would never, however, make fun of a character who is sincere and well meaning, as both George and Martha are.
FQ: What are your personal favorite genres? Favorite authors?
REED: I like literary mainstream fiction. By “literary” I don’t mean obscure or experimental; I mean well-written with attention to metaphor and the complexity of the human condition. I love Ann Patchett and Robertson Davies. Also, Tom Mallon, Colum McCann, John Irving, Russell Banks and T.C. Boyle.
FQ: You were in the Writer’s Digest Top Ten Self-Published Book Awards (Mainstream Fiction) for your title Warming Up. Can you speak a bit about self-publishing, and why other authors should open their minds to that road and not simply give up because a major publishing house turns them down?
REED: Warming Up was also a finalist for the Foreword Reviews’ IndieFab Awards, and the Eric Hoffer Awards and runner-up for the first Illinois Library Association’s Soon To Be Famous Author Project award for self-published authors. (I have to say, these awards, while subjective, do help to validate my decision to indie-publish.) I came to indie publishing (Courting Kathleen Hannigan (Ampersand)) after my first agent died and my mother was slipping away from us with Alzheimer’s. I wanted her to see my book in print. My second agent recommended Warming Up to She Writes Press, a California-based hybrid press in which the author still financed the publication. (My then agent became an advocate for indie publishing.) I returned with my third and fourth novels to Ampersand, Inc., (Chicago and New Orleans) because of the high quality of their products, the uniqueness and thoughtfulness of their cover designs, and their highly personalized attention to my work.
Publishing is a vital part of the writing process: it makes a writer an author. I get to be read, to know my readers, and to have significant input on publishing decisions. (I’ve written about this on my blog at http://maryhutchingsreed.com/the-point-of-publishing/) The downside is of course marketing, but any midlist author has to do most of the marketing themselves. It is expensive to publish a quality product, produce an inventory and invest in marketing. But I enjoy it, and I’ve tried to widen my audience and add an aspect of “service” to my “self”-publishing by participating in Ampersand’s Good Reading For A Cause. Ten percent of the proceeds of Warming Up go to The Night Ministry, serving Chicago’s homeless; 10% of Saluting the Sun to LAF, the largest provider of free civil legal services to the poor of Cook County, and 10% of One for the Ark to Lawyers for the Creative Arts, providing pro bono legal services to emerging artists and arts organizations in Illinois.
FQ: What is the main thing (or things) you would like your readers to take away from your extremely intelligent writing?
REED: There is no intended “message,” but I do hope that readers take away a smile and a willingness to entertain a different perspective on the next controversy that comes their way.
FQ: What can your fans expect next?
REED: I have a couple projects going (always!) I’m currently seeking representation for an historical novel, Free Love, because I think that is a very specialized readership and an agent would be particularly helpful in reaching that audience. It is set in the 1870’s amidst rich prostitutes, controversy about spirit photography, and spiritualism.
On the mainstream front, I have two novels I would like to publish next, Markers, which raises the question, what would you do if you had a fatal disease, and Womb, a story about a woman growing out of The Feminine Mystique to her motherhood of an imperfect thalidomide baby. But of course my favorite is my current project, drafting a story of two brothers, a genius and an overachiever, Harmony’s Peace & Joy.
FQ: Is there a genre you have not yet delved into that you wish to try?
REED: Free Love, which I just mentioned, was my tenth novel and written specifically for the challenge of writing an historical novel. I’ve long admired the work of Thomas Mallon, who turned me on to the 1870’s as a particularly dynamic decade in our country’s history.
FQ: If you could have lunch with one writer (living or dead), who would it be and why?
REED: For 15 years, I have participated in a monthly 5 hour workshop with Fred Shafer of Evanston, Illinois, in which we study the work of one author for a year, and then the author comes to a 4-hour literary interview and then we have lunch. We’ve studied folks like Andrea Barrett, Margot Livesy, Russell Banks, T.C. Boyle, Jeffrey Eugenides, Colum McCann, Colm Toibin, Elizabeth McCracken, and many others. This year, including lunch, Ann Patchett!!!!
I would’ve loved to have met Robertson Davies--his writing is so psychologically complex and spiritual.
FQ: Thank you for your time, and your writing. I am most definitely a new fan!
REED: Thank you, Amy, for this opportunity. I really appreciate how tailored your questions were to my work, and I’m so happy you enjoyed One for the Ark.