Jo-Ann Mapson has been a kind of lifeline for me. I've known her for years, and she's held my hand through publishing trials and cheered me in publishing triumphs, and every time I see her, I'm thrilled. A prolific author, teacher, and owner of many interesting dogs, Jo-Ann also champions other writers, which puts her in Dante's highest level of heaven, to my mind. Her new novel, Solomon's Oak is a gritty, moving story of love, loss, and mystery. Thanks, Jo-Ann, for letting me pepper you with questions! And don't forget to take a look at Jo-Ann's book trailer!
I don't think I've ever seen a character so fully-realized and complex as Juniper, the 14-year-old who arrives on Glory's doorstep. Where did she come from in your mind? How did you find the voice, which to me, was pitch perfect?
Years ago when my son was living in Monterey, California, my husband and I visited him for a weekend. The newspapers were full of a tragic story. A local girl had taken her dog for a walk, and the dog returned without her, dragging his leash. She was twelve or thirteen years old, and had simply disappeared. Newspaper photos and fliers were plastered everywhere in this seaside town that was so beautiful it seemed nothing bad could ever happen there.
I thought about the incident for years. I’ve always been impressed at the way people move on (or don’t) after a loss that has no closure. What courage that takes. In my storyteller’s heart, I imagined the survivor guilt for the other kid in such a family. As kids we can be so cruel to our siblings. We make dreadful and dramatic wishes, but they’re a part of us. How would life be for Juniper, her when her family disintegrated? From that question it was a matter of research and filtering it through my own experiences of loss.
I tried to write this novel a couple of times, once from the mother’s POV, then the kidnapped child’s. Two publishers rejected it. Something was missing, and the story stayed with me while I wrote and published four other novels.
Then one autumn during the eight years we lived in Alaska, my husband caught the flu. Like many men, doesn’t take good care of himself. He was ill for a week, then developed pneumonia and was hospitalized for another week. As I sat by his bed, him on oxygen, with a fever so high he wasn’t making sense, I tried to imagine my life without him and it was horrible. We’ve been married thirty-six years and we operate like two halves of a scallop shell, nice by ourselves but together we make a life.
So my narrator, Glory, age 38 became recently widowed, and of course the first struggle in her life would have to be money. Because I try to feature at least one dog in every book, and I so admire dog rescue, I had Glory rehabilitate and re-home “last chance dogs.” I seized what was probably the biggest leap of faith in the novel by connecting Glory and Juniper through one of her dogs, that dog that came home without the girl. The outsider-looking-in structure turned out to be a rich vein to mine.
A character-driven novel is about piling on the pressure, so I made Juniper the same age her sister Casey was when she disappeared. Juniper had been abandoned, run away, taken advantage of, tattooed, pierced, and under her fury and bad behavior was simply this sister feeling guilty for surviving. I knew it would take a dog or a horse to reach her, and the character of my dog trainer, Glory, had both. Then it occurred to me that these two could help each other, so I put them together.
I learned from the foster system that parents sometimes abandon their children. The term for these kids is “throwaways.” They come home and the locks have changed and their parents have moved. Who can do that and live with herself? How does the child move past such rejection? I had to find out.
I know this is what every writer hopes, but I really did feel that this particular novel reached a new, deeper level for you. I've loved all your novels, but this one haunted me. Did you feel, as you were writing it, that you were engaging in new territory? Was this deliberate or just a "gift from the writing gods"?
The gifts the gods present don’t always look like gifts at first glance, do they? After The Owl & Moon Café, I turned in the first 100 pages of this book, and while the editor liked it, I was let go due to low sales (Insert plea for everyone who loves reading to please buy new books.). A blow, but now I had all the time in the world to write this book. Every book I’d sold since Hank & Chloewas on a partial manuscript. Not having a deadline hanging over my head was freeing. I had time to concentrate on a complicated story. In many ways it was like writing my first novel, just writingwritingwriting, a blessing in disguise. Because there was no hurry, I was able to emotionally reside in this book.
While writing this novel, one of my MFA fiction students was murdered by a methamphetamine freak that went on a killing spree. Jason was in his twenties, a generous and funny kid everyone adored, and he was about to finish his thesis. You’re a teacher, so you know how it is you can sense a student just coming into his writing strengths? Jason was teetering on the precipice. He worked with the mentally challenged, organized a community softball team, and had a thousand friends.
Then the MFA program I teach in decided to change delivery format to a low-residency format, and I was one of three professors who had to write the curriculum. Because I no longer needed to maintain residency in Alaska full time, my husband and I sold our house and moved to New Mexico, where he wanted to retire. Jason’s death would not settle into the place we all carry inside us for such sorrows. His killer was caught and received a 498 year sentence, which should have helped, and one day I just got so flipping angry about it that I wanted to kick someone’s ass. I invited Jason into the writing. Every day I’d have a little conversation with him.
Frequently the hair on the back of my neck stood up, so I knew I was in new territory in this story.
lot of your novels deal with people who are broken, who find themselves a bit of glue because of relationships with other people. (I remember reading Bad Girl Creek and wanting there to be such a place.) Do you feel that, unlike Sartre ("Hell is other people"), that people, at least the right kind of people, can give us our salvations?
I think people just knock around the universe and when paths cross (like Joseph Vigil and Glory Solomon and Juniper McGuire) you make connections that elevate you, keep you going, and possibly even transform you. That is truly one of the joys of writing novels for me. In Bad Girl Creek, I created a blueprint for women who needed each other to survive, and hopefully in knowing each other to learned to once again enjoy life. I wanted to live at DeThomas Farms, too.Growing flowers and having crème brulee for breakfast? Sign me up.
I deeply admired the way these three lives, Juniper, Glory and the police officer Joseph intersected. While you were writing, did you know how things were going to work out with them? Are you an outliner or were you working by the seat of your pants?
Seat of the pants. Most of the time I write into the darkness and then later see what’s there, and how I can shape it. I love the alchemy that comes about as a result. The writer has to surrender, which is really difficult, but that is when the magic happens.
What's obsessing you now these days? Can you talk about what's next?
Teaching 60% versus 150% has allowed me to get in some wonderful reading time as well as writing time. I’m writing a new book set in New Mexico. I’m researching chicken breeds, ageing hippies, the ordinary struggles we all go through and New Mexico ghost stories. I am following the blinking cursor wherever it takes me.
What question didn't I ask that I should have?
Advice for new writers: If you desperately love the act of writing, write. If you don’t, love doing something else. Sometimes it takes years to get a story right. Write every day or you’ll lose the thread. Cultivate other interests, or else what are you going to write about? Be humble. Rewriting is a gift from the gods. Adopt shelter dogs and practice kindness in every breath. And please buy new books, from indie bookstores if you can, because sales figures really help.