Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Authorsday - Nancy Means Wright

Today I interview Nancy Means Wright who has a delightful story about voices in her head.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

Well, like Harold Crick in the film, “Stranger than Fiction,” I hear voices. They started early on, and really, I’m grateful for them. I’ve carried around all manner of diverse voices in my head ever since I was a child and would walk to school with strange accents murmuring in my ears. Back then they were the voices of rabbits and cats and funny little creatures I called snurds (which happened to rhyme with words). We’d chat or argue togther like Frog and Toad all the way down through the glen in the small town I lived in and then up the hill to my elementary school. I loved those imaginary conversations and scenes—especially when my teacher said, “Now, girls and boys, it’s time for arithmetic.” I knew then that I wanted to write.

How did you pick the genre you write in?

I write in several genres, but since my current book is a mystery, I’ll pick that. In 1990 I read about two elderly farmers who were assaulted one night and left for dead. The police found the perps because they were throwing stolen money about in bars and it reeked of barn. At the time I was divorced and desperately wanting to put some kind of order back into my life. And though I’d read few mysteries, I knew that their ultimate purpose was to turn chaos into order. So I wrote one called Mad Season, with a single mother dairy farmer sleuth, and lo, it was accepted by St. Martin’s Press—and four books after that.

Do you plot or do you write by the seat of your pants?

A good way to phrase it! No, I can’t seem to outline. Outlining would take away all the surprise, which is what I love about writing mysteries. If I knew what was going to happen next, I think I’d quit. A writer to my mind should be open and ignorant and let the plot come largely out of a flaw in the character. For Stolen Honey, the fourth in the series, St Martin’s asked for an outline, and so I rushed to write the whole book so I could do the outline! I do have a general idea at the start of Who dunnit, but again in Stolen Honey I got two-thirds of the way through the book and discovered that the perp I’d had in mind couldn’t possibly have done it--murder just wasn’t in his character. So back I went and found another of my red herrings to replace him. You don’t win every time!

What was the name of the first (adult) novel you wrote? Did you try to publish it?

It was a mainstream novel, called The Losing.I had an agent who found a publisher, Ace Books, but it was exactly that: a losing. The cover depicted a naked woman taking a shower, and a hairy hand pulling back the diaphanous curtain—a scene that wasn’t even in the book! So I sent my four kids down to the local Vermont Bookshop to buy up copies. And thinking they had a best seller, they kept ordering more! Moreover, I thought I was writing a feminist novel, but Ace called it a romance. It was a no win situation all the way round!

Describe your (new) book.

Midnight Fires is the story of a bright, feisty, impecunious young governess struggling with three unruly aristocratic girls in Mitchelstown Castle, home of the notorious Anglo-Irish Kingsborough family. and seeking justice after a young Irish rebel and a roguish aristocrat die in cold blood. The governess is based on real life 18th century Mary Wollstonecraft, who wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and led a wholly unconventional, revolutionary life, and ultimately gave birth to Mary Shelley of Frankenstein fame. In Paris during the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror, Wollstonecraft fell madly in love, bore an illegitimate child, was abandoned by her lover, and tried to do herself in by water and then laudanum. Most of these events, however, are still to come in Midnight Fires, the first in a projected trilogy.

How many rejections have you had?

Like Mary Wollstonecraft, lots. Back in 1792 they called her a “hyena in petticoats” because she advocated divorce, coeducation schools, and called marriage “slavery.” No one has called me a hyena, but I’ve virtually papered my bathoom with rejection slips (poems, stories, novels). Despite it all, I’ve managed to publish 15 books and dozens of stories and poems. I even got ten bucks once for a rejection slip printed in Writer’s Digest. The rejection was from Saturday Evening Post for a story called “Petticoat Strip” and signed by President Nixon’s daughter Julie, who was then Post editor. Obviously I got the tenner because of Nixon’s ultimate “rejection.”

Tell me one thing about yourself that few people know.

My grandmother was illegitimate. Even my mother claimed she didn’t know! I was in Scotland doing research for a novel, and decided to look granny up. And the archivist came back with a lifted eyebrow and a page of spidery handwriting that read “Jemima Brown, illegitimate.” That pious Scotch Presbyterian great-gran! Jemima came over to America at the age of 17 to be nanny to my widower grandfather’s seven children, and eventually married him. So I sat down to write a story and sold it as a “novelette” to Seventeen magazine. Of course by then everyone knew the story—if not that it was my story.

What’s your favorite quote:

Only she who attempts the absurd can ever achieve the impossible.” It’s by Anonymous. I abide by it—although I haven’t yet achieved that “impossible” and never will of course. But I like the dream of it!

What other time period besides your own would you like to experience?

The 18th century, to be sure. It was such a period of enlightenment—all those revolutionary ideals of liberty, equality, brotherhood. Sisterhood, as well, with Wollstonecraft planting the seeds of women’s rights—although it would be centuries before they took root. Of course there were major drawbacks for women: midwives were replaced by male physicians with forceps—one baby died out of every 15 born at the British Lying-in hospital, and Mary Wollstonecraft herself died when the doctor used his unwashed hands to pull out her placenta. A married woman couldn’t divorce or own property or make a will, and her husband could lock her up in a madhouse with impunity. Moreover, women were thought to have inferior minds, and female erudition was called “affectation.” “A woman’s noblest station,” Lord Lyttelton wrote, “is to retreat.” The list goes on and on. Still, I’d like to go back and meet Mary, along with Abigail Adams in Massachusetts, who was a Wollstonecraft disciple.

What is the one thing your heroine did that you wouldn’t?

Back in 1792, just after her Vindication of the Rights of Woman was published, Wollstonecraft fell madly in love with the celebrated artist, Henry Fuseli. She was in love with his mind, she said; it would be a platonic affair, but she simply had to be with him day and night—never mind he was married. She was so obsessed that she couldn’t write a word for several months. And he toyed with her, used her, realizing she, still a virgin, was finally coming into her sexual self. At the same time, he was jealous of her new celebrity as a writer—he felt that a woman could never create anything that would endure. Well, one evening she went to his home, told his wife Sophia that she had come to move in with them—an innocent “ménage à trois,” said she. Naturally, Sophia was outraged and ordered her out, and Henry Fuseli stood by, quietly furious himself, and said nothing. And didn’t speak to Mary again. Me, I don’t think I would do this! But Mary was desperate with love.

Nancy Means Wright

Midnight Fires Review blurb

From Publishers Weekly:
Captivating… As Mary snoops around in search of the culprit, she is bound not to lose herself to the mystery, her job, or the charms of any man. Wright…deftly illuminates 18th-century class tensions.


Nancy Means Wright said...

Hi, Chris: I left a comment earlier, but it evidently didn't go through. Anyway, I'm so happy this sunny Thursday to see my Authors Day thoughts up here on your great blog--and a thousand thanks for your kindness! With cheers and daffodils.... Nancy

A.R. Grobbo said...

My mom was likely a fan of Mary Wollenscroft. A single mother in the fifties, she too was a feminist before feminism was considered proper. Great to read about you and your books, Nancy, and wonderful that Chris has opened her blog to other writers! Look for me May 5...Anne

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