Marianne K. Martin (left) pictured here with Val McDermid, Kelly Smith and Me in P-Town 2009, is the author of numerous lesbian romances, and one of the publishers of Bywater Books. She’s kicking off the blog tour on my site with an interview.
What made you decide to write lesbian fiction?
It’s affordable therapy. Seriously. I taught in the public school system for twenty-five years, as closed and closeted a profession as you can find, except maybe the religious sector. Expressing and exploring who I was as an individual, as a whole person, had to be done secretly and during those few hours that I wasn’t teaching, coaching, or losing my mind. It is the need to express the beliefs and thoughts and feelings that had been suppressed for so long.
So what makes a story lesbian?
There was a time when there were so few clearly lesbian books, in which the relationship between two women was clearly a sexual one, that the reader had to ‘make’ the story lesbian. They made the story their own, relatable, by changing the gender, the name, the characteristics of male characters to female. They wrote fan fiction where they changed the intent of the story, the dynamics and the relationships between the characters to fill their need for lesbian story-lines. Readers did this because they longed for their lives to be validated, to be able to recognize themselves in books and movies and TV shows, just as other minorities have longed for the same thing. These were lesbian stories because the readers made them so.
Now, though, there are many writers, writing stories where the reader sees the world through the eyes of a clearly lesbian character. Every experience, every relationship, every thought that the character has comes from that unique place of how and where she fits into the world. The choices that she makes in finding that fit, whether we like it or not, are affected by her sexuality. Some affected in a good way, some bad, and some in ways that are barely noticeable. But it is what makes the character who she is and what makes the story uniquely lesbian. In so many stories now, a reader can find bits of herself and parts of her life recognizable in the pages of a book.
What is your writing process like? Do you write different scenes and put them all together or do you just go from point A to point B?
I never know how a new project will start. More accurately, I never know what will start it. Something eventually becomes the concept for a new story, sometimes it is a vision of a character, at other times it’s a news story or a scene or a phrase that plays over and over in my head. Whatever starts it begins to develop and I start imagining what the next day in the scenario would be like or what must have happened in the past for this character or event to be where it is. I write everything down – an idea, a sentence, a scene. And when the story takes on a rough development in my head, I put it down in a rough outline form. I don’t stick strictly to the outline, it usually changes. But it helps me start collecting and organizing my notes, many of them written on whatever was handy at the time, and putting them into chapters. One time I was shingling my dad’s roof, listening to the cows all lined up at the fence across the road, and something kept developing in my head that I had to write down, so I wrote it on the scrap of wood that I was cutting the shingles on.
If you could have an afternoon with any one of your characters, who would it be and why?
Probably Nessie Tinker. She’s the tiny ninety-plus black woman from Under The Witness Tree. Her family ‘breathed the smoke of Sherman’s march’ and with all that she would have experienced in her life she has the most to teach me. I am so enthralled with Nessie, and her voice is so distinct, that I want to know all I can about her earlier life. She will have a book of her own.
Do you have a favorite among your stories?
Each story has things about it that make it special to me. The first, Legacy of Love, for obvious reasons. Love in the Balance because of the emotional connection with my mother, Mirrors and Dawn of the Dance because I taught through those situations, Under the Witness Tree because I learned so much about a part of our history only touched upon in our schools. And so on. So, I don’t think that I could pick out a favorite.
What do you find hardest about writing?
Usually, beginning a new book, staring at that first blank page. Katherine Forrest once told me that beginning a new book felt like Atlas carrying the world uphill. And it is tough, we are virtually creating a world and everything in it. Where do you begin?
What I have found most helpful are those snippets written on all those scraps of paper, and wood, and whatever. Somewhere in that collection is a beginning. It doesn’t always survive long as the beginning of the book, however. A version of it may end up in some other place in the book, or not survive rewrites at all, but it served to kick start me.
Running a close second in difficulty is getting others to respect time thinking as work time. Sitting for an hour staring into space just doesn’t look productive, but if it isn’t imagined it can’t be written. And it is very easy for others to interrupt a process they can’t see.
What’s your favorite thing about being a writer? What, for you, totally sucks about it?
I love the creative freedom of writing. It is exploratory and introspective. Through my characters I can go anywhere my mind wants to go. I can be who I am and everything I am not. I can love and hate, deceive and forgive. I can be Asian, or white, or black. I can believe in God or blame God, trust in love or not.
What sucks is knowing where you want your story to go and drawing a blank on how to get it there. ‘Writer’s block’, an altogether irritating and appropriate term, makes me anxious and frustrated. The first time I experienced it, with a deadline looming, I asked for advice from someone I respect immensely, Katherine Forrest. She told me to walk away from it for a while and do something enjoyable and relaxing (for me that’s doing something constructive with my hands – yard work, working on the house, etc.). She also said not to be afraid to ask for an extension to my deadline. As long as this is not over-used, asking for an extension is helpful to both the writer and the publisher. Rather than send in a sub-par manuscript or just not meet the deadline, an extension can allow the writer the time they need to get past the block and the publisher can move up other matters to fill the delay time. It’s important to remember, however, that there is a significant amount of pre-publicity that is done for each book and meeting deadlines is essential for that. A certain amount of time is built into the schedule to allow for delays along the way, but a book only gets out on time when the writer and publisher work honestly and closely on the timeline. All this having been said, blocking still sucks.
If you couldn’t write, what would you do?
I would be creating something in some other medium. I have an art minor, so I would probably be working in charcoal or pastels (which I don’t have enough time to do much anymore). And if I couldn’t do that, I’d be building or designing something.
Sometimes writers work internal issues out through their narratives. Have you ever written a scene or character that “hit too close to home” for you? How did you handle that?
I’ve written a number of scenes that I lived through personally – my mother’s death (Love in the Balance), bullying and the loss of a student to suicide (Mirrors), my grandmother’s death (Legacy of Love) – and I handle them the same way I did when they occurred, I cry. For that reason, I never use those scenes at any of my readings. I’ve had a particularly difficult time working through and finishing my latest book, The Indelible Heart. During the past year, in the middle of this book that deals with loss and recovery, I lost some important people in my life. It was hard to take my character to emotional places that I was trying to get through myself.
Tell us more about this next book. Isn’t this a sequel to Love in the Balance?
There’s been a lot of reader interest over the years to revisit the characters of Balance, to know where their fictitious lives have taken them. Sequels, though, are difficult, especially a sequel to a love story or romance. What appealed to the readers in the first book is usually the attraction, the thrill of first love between the characters. A sequel is not going to offer that. So, even though readers say they want to know what happens down the road, unconsciously they want to ‘feel’ what the first book made them feel.
So, I hesitate to call The Indelible Heart a sequel in that sense. What I hope to do is show what ten years of ‘life’ has done to the dynamics of the group of friends and their relationships following the devastating murders depicted in Balance. Not all of the relationships have survived, and each have had to deal with the loss in their own way. But, now they are faced with the possibility that the man who murdered their friends may be granted an early release from prison.
Sharon Davis becomes the main character in this book. She is irreverent, strong-willed, and passionate. The loss of so many loved ones in her life has left her emotionally vulnerable, hurt, and angry. The precarious balance she has maintained in recent years is now challenged by the possible early release, and by the sighting of a lost love. A lot has changed over the years – the growth of LGBT organizations, their political voice, the economy – and this group of friends is forced to examine their own beliefs as they struggle to help Sharon.