Maddie Dawson's The Stuff That Never Happened is a Target Emerging Writers book, and it's also wise, witty and very, very smart. I'm thrilled that Maddie is here on my blog to celebrate the paperback edition and to talk about writing. Thank you so much, Maddie!
What’s your writing life like?
Basically, I get up in the morning and over a cup of tea try to evaluate whether it’s going to be a good “writing at home” day or whether I’m going to need to pack up the laptop and get to safety. A bad day for writing at home used to be one in which the phone rang incessantly or the children needed to be driven places. But these days it seems to be up to the hawk population of Guilford, Connecticut. I work on my screened porch, you see, overlooking the woods, where until recently it was cool and quiet, even a little boring. Then a couple of hawks made a nest in the willow tree by the porch, which I thought was lovely. Some company! But now they have invited all their cousins and BFFs and just about every hawk they know in the tri-state area, and all of them have taken to setting up housekeeping and making new families there. (The Guilford school system is known to be quite good.) Take it from me: hawks have noisy, messy family lives, and they sound like pterodactyls. Not only that, but they’re also pretty keen on looking for food—and perhaps I’m getting paranoid, but I have noticed on a few occasions that if I’m sitting too still for a long time, several hawks have tried to throw themselves at the screen, perhaps to eat me.
So lately I can often be found writing at Starbucks, where it’s true that there are lots of distracting human situations that can interfere with truly productive novel-writing—but at least no one is considering having me for lunch.
Have there been any big surprises since your novel, The Stuff That Never Happened, was published?
I always thought the best part of writing a novel would be the wonderful day that you get the very first copy to hold in your hands, but it turns out there is another thing that’s even more fun, and even more long-lasting. It’s that people start talking to you about your characters’ lives—you know, as if the characters you thought up were real people, who exist in the world. Of course, I have always believed in them—Annabelle and Grant are sometimes more real to me than some of my family members, but I still was shocked when a woman came over to me at Starbucks one day, plunked the book down on the table in front of me, and then started to cry as she described all the ways Annabelle made the same mistakes she had made in her own life.
I love this. Even when people don’t agree with Annabelle (and let’s face it, her decision to have an affair with her husband’s mentor was a risky move), I have adored all the conversations this had led me to. I’ll be standing in line at the bank when someone recognizes me and wants to yell at me for my apparent disregard for marriage vows. “I did not like the way she was willing to run off like that!” one woman said. I didn’t have the heart to insist that, well, you know, she’s not real, she’s just a fictional character. Instead, I just nodded my head solemnly. “I know,” I said. “She’s very willful, just like a lot of people.” The women stared at me for a few moments, and then said, “Well. I just hope you’ll write a sequel and we can see if she learned a few things.”
Now what could be better than that? It’s way better than holding a copy of a book in your hands.
When did you know that you were a writer?
I think I was born writing, if such a thing is possible. My mother tells me that when I was four years old, she and I were out planting flowers, when I suddenly said to her, “I hope you know this isn’t how we did it in the Navy.” Until then, she hadn’t known about my Navy career—and since we didn’t know anyone who actually was in the Navy, she wasn’t exactly sure how I knew about my Navy career either. She felt it best to drop the subject.
Then, when I was six, one day she refused to give me money for the ice cream man, so I marched inside the house and wrote a little book. I made a binding and drew pictures for it, and titled it “The King Who Slept for 3 Hours and 45 Seconds,” a tragedy about a king who took a nap and missed his coronation. I took it door to door until a neighbor bought it for twenty cents—which in those days was enough for two banana popsicles. My mother was embarrassed about this and went and bought it back and told me never to do this again. But I remember thinking that this really could be a good career move for me. At least it could keep me in frozen desserts for the rest of my life.
Since then, I’ve been good for very little else. I am non-mechanical, can’t fix things, hate gardening—and although I can make a decent pie crust, I’m generally not in the mood to do it. I’d rather write than do almost anything, and although sometimes I envy my friends who have the kind of careers that don’t have them staring off into space and mumbling all the time, I really do love what I do. Today I can be seen pacing and mumbling to myself as I write a new novel, and I’m lucky enough to lead writing workshops in my home, helping other people figure out the madness that is fiction-writing. It’s so much fun helping others take apart their manuscripts and come to finished drafts. But it gets my fingers itchy to get back to my own work.
Is The Stuff That Never Happened your first novel?
No. I am the author of three other novels and three books of humorous non-fiction about parenting, published under the name of Sandi Kahn Shelton. Maddie Dawson is actually a pseudonym, chosen specifically for this book, because my other novels (What Comes After Crazy, A Piece of Normal, and Kissing Games of the World) are all novels with young protagonists, and fell more into the genre of “chick lit,” stories about 30-somethings falling in love and finding where they belong in the world. When I was writing The Stuff That Never Happened, I decided to use a pseudonym since it’s a book about a woman approaching 50 and taking a hard look at her life and deciding whether she wants to stay in a marriage that may be heading off the rails, or whether she wants to go back to a man she once loved.
What I’ve discovered is that it doesn’t matter what name is on the cover—I love writing and connecting with readers and other authors, and these days that’s mostly how I spend my time. I have to say, it’s also a little bit fun, even though exhausting, to be two people. Some days there’s barely enough of me to be even one person. That being said, I believe it’s Maddie who’s working on “our” new novel: the story of a 40-something woman who discovers she’s pregnant for the first time just as she’s separating from the man she’s loved for 15 years.
What’s the best thing about being a writer?
Well, it’s probably not the financial rewards or the fame and glory. And maybe not even the peaceful, sleep-eight-hours nights. (I often dream the plots of my books and find myself needing to get up and write stuff.) And it’s definitely not the sanity it brings: writers (and me among them) tend to be obsessive-compulsive worriers who are gifted at dreaming up problems, both in fiction and real life. We’re also constantly walking around with little pieces of napkins and paper bags and post-it notes, upon which plot points and character traits are written in a kind of shorthand that defies logic. I have one currently that says: “Soapie yoga bloody Marys,” which I know means something important.
Wow, what are the good parts? I’m trying to remember if there are any. Oh, yes! Yes, of course there are! For one thing, you get to have more than one life, to play God just a little bit. You can invent people and then march them through situations and watch how they handle everything. One of my favorite quotes about writing is from Lee Smith, the author of Fair and Tender Ladies and Oral History, who says, “When stuff in life gets really rough, I would just die if I was not writing a novel. Once you think it up, it’s like a whole other city with a little door, and every time you sit down to write you just open the door and there you are—a wonderful vacation for two hours.”