Light From a Distant Star, Mary McGarry Morris, Songs in Ordinary Time, The Lost Mother

An Interview with Author Mary McGarry Morris

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Mary McGarry Morris
A while back, I posted a review of the book The Lost Mother by Mary McGarry Morris. If you missed it, you can see it by clicking HERE. I contacted her after that post and asked if she would be kind enough to share her thoughts through an email interview. She was generous with her time and answered a long list of questions. I’m excited to share that interview with you today. Those of us who are readers will enjoy learning more about her wonderful books. Those of us who are writers will learn a great deal about the art and craft of writing from her answers.
The Lost Mother is set in the deepest part of the Great Depression. What influenced you to choose that setting?
The Great Depression was such a long, harrowing period in our country’s history and psyche that its effects are still felt today.  I grew up hearing my parents’ and relatives’ stories of their own hardships and the pain they saw around them.  So, even though I hadn’t actually lived through any of it, I felt an almost visceral connection to their experiences.  When I began to write “The Lost Mother,” I had a keen sense about that time and place.
The book has great relevance in today’s world, perhaps even more than when it was published a few years ago. Is there a personal connection for you? Did you write The Lost Mother as a message book or did you simply have a story to tell?
“The Lost Mother” was a story that had been gestating in me forever.  My maternal grandmother left her home and family when my mother was only four years old.  My mother felt that loss and abandonment all her life.  She always wondered how a mother could walk away forever from her children.  It was such a deeply painful question that seemed to have no logical answers but the kind of haunting question a writer can’t let go of.  Writing “The Lost Mother” was my fictional attempt to quarry through the obdurate unknown to the truth, or at least the common enough truths of human frailty, determination, and enduring love.     
The Lost MotherThe book is very real to me. I certainly relate to it from stories my parents shared of that time, and some things were very hard for me to read because they were much like the hard times my parents suffered. Can you talk a little about the research process for The Lost Mother?
I read many great books about this period, but my most important research came from talking to people who had lived through it.  First hand accounts collected during that time by the WPA Writers Project were another vital resource for understanding both the widespread deprivation as well as the often guilty success of those few who still had jobs and could feed, house, and clothe their families.
How do you discover your fictional characters? Are they based on real people?
If some of my characters seem to resemble real people, it probably comes from always asking why. Digging deeply enough into a story reveals the characters’ motivations and from there comes a better understanding of the whole person.  And much of what I discover about a character may never end up in the story.
Your writing has such a great, natural flow to it. Do you spend a lot of time planning your writing – outlining and such – or is it a much more organic process for you?
When I begin a story I need to have some idea, some sense where I’m headed.  I may think I know the ending, but it’s usually not what I expected.  I have a great reverence for the ancient art of story-telling.  In many ways a story is an almost living thing, an organic process of discovery that constantly surprises with all its twists and turns, false starts, and wonderful moments of revelation.  And that’s what I mean about needing to know and always asking why.  The layers get peeled away to the steady heartbeat of why, why, why
Writing can be a lonely business. Do you work with critique groups or critique partners? Maybe you could talk a little about your writing process.
I’m not part of a writing group.  When I write I need quiet, though with much of my family nearby I’m used to interruptions.  I try to be at my desk by 9 a.m. and then write for as long as I can.  I’m lucky to have a large room as my “writing space.”  When I first saw this house 35 years ago it was the study that sold me on it.  Finally, a room of my own, which seemed to validate what was then an often insecure pursuit.
As writers, we all hear so much about the editing process. You had a long relationship with Penguin publishing, but your last two books are with Random House. Do you find a difference in working with the editors from two different houses? Are there philosophical differences between publishing houses that are apparent to you as an author? How does that affect your work?
I’ve been fortunate to have worked with two of the best editors in publishing, Kathryn Court at Penguin and John Glusman at Crown (now at Norton.)  I’m sure there are philosophical differences between publishing houses, but I’m unaware of them.  It’s not a world I move in beyond my own work.  Publishing is a strange business, especially in these times, and no one seems to know where it’s all heading.  Just a few years ago death knolls were tolling for independent bookstores, but now it’s the chains that are foundering.  If sales of electronic books ever overtake sales of bound books it will be interesting to see if the obvious savings to publishers (paper, printing, shipping, warehousing) will be in any way passed on to writers.  Or to readers.
Songs in Ordinary Time (Oprah's Book Club)A Dangerous WomanSomething many of us aspiring writers dream of is having our books turned into blockbuster films. Two of your books, A Dangerous Woman and Songs in Ordinary Time, were made into films. How was that for you? Did you have much input on the screenplays or casting?
I had no real input turning “A Dangerous Woman” and “Songs In Ordinary Time” into films.  Wish I had, but it’s a very different process and I understand that. 
You have had books in print for over twenty years. Do you think it’s much more difficult for writers to be published today than when you started? How do you think things have changed for emerging writers over those years? What advice would you pass along to those of us who haven’t gotten that first book published? 
It may be more difficult for new writers to get published today just because there are so many more people writing books now.  But today’s new writers also have the advantage of self-publishing, which is a great way to get one’s work to probably more readers than some publishing houses can reach.  My best advice for emerging writers is born of my own experience: confidence in your work and persistence, persistence, persistence. 
Light from a Distant Star: A NovelYour latest book, Light From a Distant Star, will be out in September. It looks wonderful and I can’t wait to read it. I’ll be setting aside some time next month for that. From the synopsis on your website, it looks like it has a very young protagonist, as did The Lost Mother.  And yet, your books all have very adult themes and are marketed to adults. Does the young adult market hold any interest to you? 

“Light From A Distant Star” was written for an adult reader.  But I’m pretty sure there’s a young adult reader in all of us no matter how far we are from our own childhood.  Everyone remembers what it felt like to be overlooked or disrespected or, worse, not believed because you were only a child.  It can be a frightening experience, especially when you’re convinced you’re the only one who knows the truth.  And in “Light From A Distant Star” that is Nellie Peck’s dilemma, a frustration we’ve all felt as powerless children. “Light From A Distant Star” may well find a young adult audience just as “The Lost Mother” has.  “The Lost Mother” is read in many high school English classes as well as  courses that blend history and literature. 
Thank you for so generously sharing your time and thoughts.


9 thoughts on “An Interview with Author Mary McGarry Morris”

  1. What a wonderful interview, Rosi. I learned so much from mulling over her writing process. You don't hear enough about the need for silence and isolation. Her books sound like must reads, every one of them, and I'm ashamed to say I haven't read any of them yet, although I have had my eye on Songs in Ordinary Time. One reason I love reading your reviews and interviews is that I find such good recommendations.


  2. This sounds like a must read book. Our family stories from the depression years have always interested me and I know Mary's stories will be fascinating!
    Helen Jacobson


  3. I'm so glad you all enjoyed the interview. I certainly enjoyed doing it. Mary was so gracious and generous with her time. And I'm digging my way through her impressive works. I just finished reading A Hole In The Universe, a dark character study of epic proportions.


  4. Joyce, it's well worth the search. I've loved all those I've read.

    Margaret, I think you will especially like her style. It's very different from what you write, but really amazing.


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