Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Mary Ann Henry talks about Ladies in Low Places, fate, story structure, and that fabulous Hell Hole Swamp Queen 2nd Runner up tee-shirt

The infamous book promotion tee-shirt that EVERYONE wanted at Pulpwood

Pulpwood Queens and Timber Guys Book Nation party

Mary Ann Henry traveling solo

Know why we bonded? We each had similar necklaces. This is Mary Ann's

The boo

So there I was at the Pulpwood Queens and Timber Guys Book Nation weekend, when this woman came over to me because we had the exact same necklace. Everywhere I looked among the hundreds of attendants, people were wearing this t-shirt that said Hell Hole Swamp Queen, 2nd Runner Up. Of course I wanted one. And of course, it was the brilliant promotional idea of Mary Ann! But that wasn't all we shared. Over fireballs at the Liberty Cafe in East Texas, we talked about everything from food to books to our lives and were fast friends by the middle of the drink.  Born in Charleston, Mary Ann has been described as "Turning the archetype of the Southern Woman on its head." Ladies in Low Places was awarded First place in the Fiction/Short Story Collection from Chanticleer Reviews. 

So happy to host you here, Mary Ann. Hope to share a glass of wine and talk with you again!

I always think that authors are haunted by something, which propels them to write their novels. What was haunting you with Ladies in Low Places (great title by the way.)

During my daughter's wedding, which I hosted at my house, my best friend's crack-addicted son broke in and stole more than twenty thousand dollars worth of antique jewelry which my daughter had inherited from her grandmother. Plus, thousands of dollars in cash. Never got the jewelry and cash back. But, the worst part? My friend was advised by her son's lawyer to never discuss it with me. We were best friends for twenty-five years and we never spoke again. 

it was a betrayal on many levels. I realized that women have experiences unique to our gender: mother-daughter, mother-son, and friend relationships that are complex and, sometimes, wounding. I took the heart break and funneled it into stories about women of all ages, and the real things that happen to us. People often expect short stories to be edgy and dark. I'd had enough edgy and dark in real life. And, because I'm Southern and I'm me, I laced it all with a dose of Southern humor. So, yes, the stories are about losing virginity, family alienation, disappointing husbands, searching for the authentic self...and humor. All with a somewhat hopeful ending.

What inspired you to do a T-shirt giveaway at the writer's conference where we met?

It was a risk, leading with my quirky humor, when the book has a lot of heart and soul and sadness as well. But, I thought: What the heck? We're all here to have fun. So, I took a character from one of the stories in Ladies in Low Places, who is forced to compete in the Miss Hell Hole Swamp, SC beauty pageant (it's a real thing) by her grandmother, who was a former Miss Hell Hole, and I put it on the t-shirt. I can't wait to hear from readers, as I've asked them to write and tell me what stories they make up when someone asks them, (when they're wearing their shirt), why they only made 2nd Runner-Up.Tell us about your creative process. Do you outline or fly by the seat of
your pants? 

I am obsessed with story structure. So, I like to write the story all the way to the end. Then, I go back and, in layers, concentrate on one thing at a time: plot, character, setting, timing, etc. I try to strip the character down to his/her essence. If they feel too shallow, I talk to myself while I'm driving or exercising, asking, 'But, why? Why would she do this? Why?' (laughing here). And, just because I write to the end, it doesn't mean the characters don't decide on their own what they're going to do. 

Do you have rituals?

Sort of. I avoid my office. Let everyone else's needs come before my own. I let all manner of distractions take me away from what I really should be doing (writing). And then, when I can no longer make excuses...I write!  I am also, finally, learning to regard writing as a spiritual practice. 

You mentioned you are working on two novels now. Is this a "Torn Between Two Lovers" situation? How do you manage this?

I realized at least two of my short stories from the collection could/should be novels or screenplays. I was half-way through a novel based in Charleston, SC, where I now live, when, last winter, I accepted a writer's residency on a mountain top, alone, in West Virginia. I took a train. I had no car. Snow everywhere. Isolation. I was Jack Nicholson in The Shining. But, that same mountainous region was one of the settings in a coming-of-age novel I'd written and hidden in a box years ago. I re-read it and wanted to give the main character and her supporting cast of characters, a chance at life. So, I took advantage of being back in the novel's setting and began re-writing and am presently polishing it. Hope to get an agent and a publisher. The other novel waits patiently. Perhaps readers will accept that I am both an Appalachian writer and a Southern one.  

You and I both share the same necklace, which we both think is fate. How else has fate impacted your work?

Other than the fact that I won a Women's Fiction award for the collection and flew to Seattle to accept it; and happened to be trapped on a bus for hours, in a traffic jam, going from the Seattle airport to the awards ceremony where I met Kathy Murphy, the head of the largest book club in the world, the Pulpwood Queens; and then, Ms. Murphy read Ladies in Low Places and invited me to be a featured author at their event in Texas, where, last weekend, I met one of my favorite authors, Caroline Leavitt, who happened to be wearing a small, bronze, antique compass on a long chain, nearly identical to my own, fate, I feel, is still waiting out there; ready to strike and make my writing dreams come?  All editors are welcome to completely change the punctuation in that sentence. 

What's obsessing you now and why?

I'm obsessed with solo and adventure travel for women. I've traveled to study with shamans, backpacked around Ireland; participated in a private ceremony inside the stones of Stonehenge; studied on a Lakota reservation; am headed to the Outer Hebrides this summer. I post about travel tips for women on my Author website and really can pack for 30 days in a 21" tall and 15" wide backpack. I am always obsessed with gardening because I have to be in contact with nature. I'm obsessed with dogs because I put my soul friend/black lab, Bentley, down last year and I have not yet met the Next Dog. I've been single for a long while and I wonder when the Next Man will appear. As a writer, I am obsessed with finding the perfect marriage of writer/author/publisher for my next two books, the novel set in West Virginia and the one set in South Carolina. 

What question didn't I ask that I should have?

Do I like fresh peas, walnuts and olive oil? Yes! Actually, I also love to teach writing. I used to teach young, creative geniuses at a School of the Arts, who would go to Carnegie Hall every year and pick up writing awards. I especially enjoy teaching a Finding Your Voice workshop where I get to unlock the writer-within in adults, usually women, who have been holding back all their lives. The flood gates open. It's amazing. I've put these workshops on hold to concentrate on my own projects. But I will teach again, someday.

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