Hello Monica! I’m so happy to welcome you to my blog and introduce you to my small but dedicated group of readers! After devouring One in A Million Boy, I couldn’t wait to interview you! Let’s get started…
First, I’ll ask you for the 2-minute Monica Wood intro as well as a fun little tidbit about you that not many people know (your favorite comfort food… something with lobster, perhaps?, your favorite/least favorite smell, your favorite weird human trick, the weirdest stat you found while researching the Guinness Book of World Records).
I’ve been publishing novels and other things for about 25 years now. It’s a terrible way to make a living but a wonderful way to make a life. I am an avid bird watcher, a singer, an intermittent teacher. I’d call myself an extrovert with introvert tendencies. And I think I’m the only American who loathes mac & cheese, a phobia that dates back to fourth grade, when Sister Edgar ordered me to eat it and I promptly threw it up. On her.
I like to go back and dig around the internet to find interview material, instead of just having a rote set of questions I ask, so I was pleasantly surprised to find this article about your work in the Maine Prison system, facilitating a writing class with inmates, where they got to “Meet the Authors”. I was especially intrigued by the idea that “intellectually engaging friendships have reached beyond established cliques,” because I find that constantly in my own life as well. What is it about writing and reading and literature that you think makes it possible to bridge the gaps that we aren’t otherwise able to cross? How have reading and writing had that effect in your life? Any unlikely friendships that you owe entirely to love of the written word?
When I first started writing seriously, all my friends were teachers. (At the time I was a young high school guidance counselor.) At this point in my career, though, I have acquired a huge posse of writer friends whom I have met only because I myself am a writer. This posse is central to my happiness in my career; we support and sustain each other, celebrate each other’s successes, and also commiserate with each other’s failures.
Speaking of love of the written word, you also talk about your love of the actual implements of writing in this interview with Story Circle. As in your most recent novel, One in A Million Boy, you come from a smaller town in Maine, but one where the paper mill was the big industry, which inspired a full on adoration of paper itself. I also read in a few places that good grammar and love of words are in your DNA. Did you always want to be a writer? With this kind of upbringing and love of story, it seems like it was almost an inevitability, but were there other careers that called to you equally? Or other forays into the working world in a completely different field?
I came to the career of writing pretty late—I published my first story at 33 and my first novel at 40. But I have always written. My earliest memories have writing in them. One thing about growing up in a papermill town is the abundance of paper, which in the 1960s wasn’t true of every household. I’ve spoken with audiences who read my memoir, people my age or so (I’m 62) who remember having to scrimp on paper because it was expensive. We got it for free!
I entered college with the goal of becoming a French interpreter or translator. I’m still an incurable Francophile, but halfway through, at the urging of one of my literature professors, I switched majors from French to English. But my twenties were pretty much lost to writing—I had to do what one does in one’s twenties: I tried out several jobs, got married, rehabbed a wreck of a house with my new husband, etc. I was 30 when I started really writing again.
Even if you have always seen yourself as a writer, I also found that your first job out of college was working in a nursing home. Did you draw on the people you met during that time to build the character of Ona in this most recent novel? Since she is 104 years old, she has this broad life experience starting in 1900. She has seen so much change and I imagine the people you met and worked with in this nursing home must have had such interesting stories to share with you!
Oh, yes indeed. I loved that job. I’ve always been drawn to old people, always. For the book I went back into the nursing home world, interviewing the oldest people I could find. I also had a 98-year-old friend (I’d met her when she was 87) who gave me direct inspiration for the character of Ona.
On a slightly more personal note, this essay that you wrote about your sister for Oprah.com had me dabbing at my eyes. Even though the boy in OIAMB is more of an Asperger’s-type disability, did you draw any inspiration from him from your sister, Betty? This quote especially brought his character to mind and even hearkens back to something that Ona says directly to the boy in the book: “At times like this, I find in Betty’s eyes a flame of wisdom, a burning intelligence, a flickering glimpse of a parallel self. She seems older in these moments, not just older than me, but older than everyone, older than her own mortal self.”
Well, Betty is a unique human being and also the most hilarious person I know. You would love her. Everyone does. But the boy in the book is based more on me as a child, to be honest. I was an inveterate list maker, highly anxious, a lot like many future writers, now that I think about it. I began the book in 2004, before Aspergers was commonly known, so I had no label in mind for him. He just came out the way he came out—an unusual person with endearing qualities.
As I talk to friends and fellow Bibliophiles about One in A Million Boy, I find myself comparing it to A Man Called Ove, and see that you also recommended it as a heartwarming read in Winter of 2016. They seem similar in that Ove and Ona both kind of “come back to life” through the friendships that surround them, even when it seems like loneliness will be the order of the day for the rest of their lives. But I also know that you wrote your novel many years ago and then it sat on the back burner for a while, and you went on to develop and publish your memoir, When We Were the Kennedys, and even wrote and directed a play in the meantime (Papermaker at Portland Stage in 2015). Do you see the parallels in the stories? Did you see Ona in Ove’s character as well? I’d almost recommend them as companion books!
To be clear: I did not direct my play. I left that to the professionals! (note from Kaytee: oops!) Ove was indeed a lovely novel, but I don’t see a lot of parallels between that book and my latest. Ove reads to me like a fairy tale, or a fable, with larger than life characters; my novel is more realistic in nature. I’ll take the compliment, though, because I loved Ove as a character, and the idea of second chances echoes through both books. Sometimes I refer to The One-in-a-Million Boy as my “coming of old age” novel.
You have so many beautiful quotes scattered around the web about writing and life and story and family that I couldn’t resist sharing a few of them here:
But what I realized is that storytelling—whether in a book or sitting around a kitchen table—is as much about what you leave out as what you put in. You are constantly shaping your story, and stories change over time, often unwittingly.
It’s so critical to establish that authority at the beginning, which says to the reader, “You are in good hands. Trust me. Go where I go. You won’t be sorry.”
– From Story Circle
I assemble families for my stories and novels with the assumption that any combination of people can fit into a family as long as they have some shared experience.
– From your own website backstory
How do you develop that “authority” that you talk about above that makes the reader willing to trust you and your conglomerations of families? And how do you manage to do it without leaving your readers feeling manipulated emotionally (which I didn’t, which is saying something since I’m 8 months pregnant!), something against which so many writers seem to struggle?
Authority comes from the writing itself, and a command of craft. Point of view, for example, is something inexperienced readers struggle with, and though a reader can’t point out exactly why they can find stability in the narrative, an inconsistent POV will throw them off. And the language, of course: avoiding abstracts words like love and glory and replacing them with concrete images is the best stay against mawkishness. Use words like “pane,” not “pain.” One is concrete, the other abstract. One is seeable, the other is not.
And finally: The Guinness World Records plays a role in the book. If you were to set a record, what would it be? J (note from Kaytee: I’ve been thinking about this since I read it and am leaning toward “most books consumed while raising two small children”. I’m on a roll this year especially, and get constant comments about “how do you read so much?”, but feel like I’m probably FAR away from the record on this!)
After poring through too many of the Guinness books, I think I’d go for something completely ridiculous, because ridiculousness is in the full spirit of that particular competition. Most Waterman fountain pens balanced on my head, for example. If I survive to very old age I’ll probably have some kind of “most cats” record, alas.
Thank you so much, Monica, for taking the time to share with us here on the blog! Ilove your answers. They are so well-thought, just like your books! I can’t wait to see more from you in the future and dive into some of your other works. 🙂