Nancy Means Wright is the author of twelve novels, including two
award-winning novels for children, and five mystery novels from St. Martin's Press. Her latest is Midnight Fires: A Mystery with Mary Wollstonecraft (Perseverance Press, 2010). A former Bread Loaf Scholar for a first novel, Nancy lives near Middlebury, Vermont, with her spouse and two Maine Coon cats. (www.nancymeanswright.com)
What book or project is coming out or had come out that you’d like to tell us about?
Ah. Loaded question. I’ve written 12 published novels to date (mainstream and mystery), and I’ve love to tell about them all! Never fear, I won’t—but let’s take a look at the latest. I’ve now embarked on a quartet of novels in the persona of 18th century feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. Don’t know her? Well, think of her daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, who married the poet Shelley and wrote Frankenstein.
Though my beloved protagonist is Shelley’s mother, who wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and other novels, memoirs and political pamphlets. Wollstonecraft was a passionate woman with a brilliant, inquiring mind, who led an extraordinarily colorful life before she died, age 38, after giving birth to the future Mary Shelley. She even risked her life in Paris during the Great Terror of the French Revolution. While heads rolled from the cruel blade of the guillotine, she was falling in love with a dashing American who got her pregnant and then abandoned her.
But that trauma will come in the third of my series. In the first, Midnight Fires, she’s a lowly governess in the mansion of the notorious (real life) Anglo-Irish Kingsborough family. Lord K. invented the cruel practice of spilling oil on rebel peasants’ heads, and then applying a match—if that gives you a sense of him! And Lady K lisps love soliloquies to her lapdogs while her twelve children ran wild through the manse. Young governess Mary must pick up the pieces, nourish the minds of the three daughters in her charge, and try, with her big heart and anger at any injustice, to save a young peasant rebel who is to be hanged for the murder of a womanizing aristocrat.
She does her sleuthing with aplomb, but as author, I must stay close to her real life character and personality—and to the major events of 1786, when my novel takes place. If certain events and characters are fictionalized, well, that’s what we historical novelists do, don’t we?
Tell us about your journey to publication. How long had you been writing before you got the call you had a contract, how you heard and what went through your head?
I wrote my first novel in fourth grade about the kidnapping of a pestiferous brother—and my mother threw it out. That was my first rejection. After that it was all downhill for years except for a poems or short stories in the literary magazines. My first novel came out when I was in my thirties—my heroine was a faculty wife in a boy’s school (substitute boys’ locker room) who slowly anesthetizes herself with sherry. The cover, depicting a naked female taking a shower had nothing to do with the book, and embarrassed, I sent my young children to buy up all the copies. Of course the bookseller thought she had a bestseller and kept ordering more! (Don’t try it.)
Next I published a YA, Down the Strings (E.P. Dutton) that was banned at a local school because it had one F word and one D word in the dialogue.It came directly out of a party my daughter invited a dozen kids to, and got 200! (Don’t try it if you don’t want your house wrecked.) After a divorce that knocked the sails out of me, I read about two elderly Vermont farmers who kept their money under their mattresses in small bills, and were assaulted one night. The perps were discovered when the bills they threw about in bars and restaurants reeked of barn! So I wrote a mystery using that premise, with a dairy farmer amateur sleuth. I hadn’t even read a mystery since Nancy Drew—only classic authors like Austen and the Brontës, whom I adore. My first mystery, Mad Season, concerns that elderly farmer, using six different points of view; I used my professor-husband as agent. I wrote the letters and he signed them.
After several rejections, we found legendary Ruth Cavin at St. Martin’s Press.The call came, my husband answered, and I stood breathlessly by with a notepad to tell him what to say. Then I took him out to dinner for his efforts. After that I fired him and got a real agent. Needless to say, I was overcome with the whole experience.
Do you still experience self doubts regarding your work?
Absolutely. I’m hard on myself, and am always grateful for a good editor. For every published novel there are two more in my closet, including the manuscript of my “Great American Novel” that was never published. I’ve used bit and pieces of it (and characters) for my short stories, though.
What mistakes have you made seeking publication?
I guess the biggest mistake was sending out a manuscript to a single agent or publisher at a time and wasting precious months. Sometimes half a year! With one novel, a whole year slipped by and left me wasting away in my writing garret. One really should multiple-submit. My current agent does!
The worst mistake after publication, is not doing enough marketing. With my first two novels, I had a signing at the local bookstore, yes, but then sat back and figured: well, the publisher will take care of it. Ha! The publisher did not take care of it. And both novels basically tanked. Number two is back in print now, though, and I take it to libraries and conferences with my newer books and make sure it has an online presence.
How do you craft a plot? Do you begin writing with a synopsis in hand, or do you write as the ideas come to you?
I don’t outline. I can’t! In my mystery novel, Stolen Honey, I was two-thirds through the book when I discovered that the person who strangled my victim couldn’t possibly have done it. Murder just wasn’t in his character. So I had to choose another of my red herrings and go back and fill in the blanks. In another novel my editor asked me to produce an outline and I had to write the whole book first so I could write an outline!
No, I just start in and let the characters take over, let things roll-ll. You might call the method organic. If I know what is to happen—how boring! I love surprises. I have little idea of what will happen except for the very end (order will prevail, etc etc) but I’ve no idea about the middle until I write it. This method works for me. Maybe not for all.
Each day, though, at the end of a writing session, I do take a few notes of what might happen in the next scene. And that helps. I rarely have writer’s block. And since I’ve done a lot of theater, I think in scenes. One scene leads to the next and before you know it you have a whole novel!
What’s something you wish you’d known earlier that might have saved you some time/frustration in the publishing business?
I wish I’d begun writing mystery novels earlier. I spent so many years writing the Great American novel—it came close a few times, and I had an agent for it (she died while handling it—should I feel guilty?). But it didn’t hit. I moved into the mystery world in 1996 when a lot of other good people were publishing and the scene was quickly crowded with competitors. I didn’t know enough about marketing either, as I mentioned above. I sat in a few bookstores and told folk where the rest rooms were when they asked, and now and then someone took pity on me and bought a book. I learned too late that I’m not a Proust or a Jane Austen, though I soak in a hot tub and dream I am….
Is there a particularly difficult setback that you’ve gone through in your writing career you are willing to share?
In 2005 I wrote the fifth novel in my Vermont dairy farmer series, Mad Cow Nightmare. The idea came from a local family whose sheep were euthanized by the Feds because one of them seemed to have scrapie, a disease similar to mad cow disease that affects sheep. The Feds bugged their house and crept around in the dark, but they never could prove that the sheep really had that disease. The couple lost their whole livelihood! The woman wept when I interviewed her.
So in my novel—you guessed it…my dairy farmer sleuth buys a calf from a western farm that is suspect for mad cow disease. And in the end of the book my sleuth’s favorite wild cow Zelda (Ruth names all her cows after fictional or famous women) is shot by the Feds for rear-ending one of them, and the whole herd is taken away. My Ruth wept and I wept. And I wept even harder when the book came out and the sales didn’t meet expectations. Well written but too depressing a subject, was the consensus. So my editor and I decided I should end the series. And I did.
It was a black two years (I did write some award-winning kids’ novels and a lot of depressing poems) before I recuped and took a time machine into the 18th century and the life of Mary Wollstonecraft. And lo! I found a wonderful new publisher who publishes literary mysteries. And Midnight Fires (see above) will be out this April!
Never say die.
But don’t throw away the Kleenex box—you never know what’s waiting around the corner.
Do you think reading the work of others helps you as a writer?
Absolutely! I tell my students (I’m a longtime teacher) to read, read, read. It would take too many words to explain why, so I’ll simply shout it out: A WRITER HAS TO READ!
I might add that for my current series, reading works by 18th century English novelists such as Fanny Burney, Elizabeth Inchbald, Mary Hays, and of course my own Mary Wollstonecraft, helps enormously in view of language, theme, and how people lived and thought!
What piece of writing have you done that you’re particularly proud of and why?
I always seem to favor the most recent story or novel – and then change my mind when something new comes out. So right now I’m in love with The Nightmare, a sequel to Midnight Fires, but the former won’t come out until 2011. In it, Wollstonecraft is now in her thirties and back in London where she has just written her celebrated but controversial Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Still, a virgin, she has an (unrequited) crush on Henry Fuseli, a real life artist, famous for his painting of “The Nightmare” (picture a naked woman lying on her couch with a leering demon on her breast and, to the left of the painting, an ogling mare’s head. Mary is horrified—and fascinated! In my novel someone steals the painting and accuses a young artist of the theft; a literary lady is strangled with her blue stocking and trussed up to look like the painting. Writing it, I could feel the stocking twist about my own neck. I think it’s my best so far, but then, as I said above, I always think that.
What is your best advice on maintaining a good editor-author relationship?
Listen to your editor and carefully weigh her/his words. If you think she’s right, and she usually is, revise accordingly. If you still disagree, then write STET, or e-mail her and explain your position. Maybe you can come to a compromise. Me, I’m deeply grateful for a good editor. I adore the one I have now.
How many drafts do you edit before submitting it to your editor?
It’s hard to say with a computer, since I can constantly delete and revise. With an earlier, 1982 novel, I had to type the novel over some 20 times just to change a few phrases here and there. Thank God for computers! But I do have a trusted person read the ms; then I sleep on it for a few weeks, and finally do an umteenth draft. Even then I find errors and inconsistencies, et al. and go at it again. And again….
What tips can you offer to help other writers pen a good query?
Keep it short and to the point. Not more than a page—editors are busy people. Don’t brag. On the other hand, make it your best, freshest writing so that the editor can perceive you through your words. The Novel and Short Story Writer’s Market can add more tips.
How much marketing/publicity do you do? Any advice in this area?
My chief advice is to not overdo it—i.e.: be sure to give yourself a life! And figure out what you can do for the greatest impact. I usually have two or three bookstore signings, participate in a few large conferences, such as Malice Domestic in DC (I attend every year) or the 4-day Bouchercon, or Crime Bake (New England). I wangle myself onto a panel and then shamelessly promote (sometimes I hate myself for doing it!). Our Sisters-in-Crime New England chapter has a speakers’ bureau—I’ve done over one hundred events at libraries.
Now, in this digital age, everything is changing. At this moment of writing, I’m on three panels for a virtual, webconference put on by Poisoned Pen Press. Nothing face-to-face, just questions and answers or essays. Is this the wave of the future? Additionally, I’m on four online chatrooms: I was recently in Paris to research a book and came home to 400 plus e-mails!
Will I have time to write if I do all this online marketing? Do I have to chatter away on Facebook and Twitter and My Space? Will I still recognize my husband when I’m done with the day’s PR? I’m worried, yes, but I’m slowly adapting to the new age. After all, I’ve buried a typewriter and a Selectric and a big boxy 1986 computer (my first)—and now I’m bringing my out-of-print books into ebooks! Am I with it or not?!!
So take it slowly, writer friends. Think before you jump. Make a list of priorities. And keep a sense of humor—a sense of the delicious absurd. It’s the only way to manage a life along with a writing career.
And take time to write the best book you can. Don’t think about who’s going to read it.
Have you received a particularly memorable reader response?
Here’s a nice one about my first mystery novel from Vermonter Chris Bohjalian, author of Midwives and other celebrated contemporary novels:
“Mad Season is a terrific mystery, filled with real people in real jeopardy. Vermont has never seemed so dangerous—which is probably what makes this book so much fun.”
I later had that put on the back cover of the reprint book. I especially like it because of the “real people” and the word “fun.” I try to inject humor into my books as well as what I hope is truth about character and theme.
Thank you so much for taking the time to read this! It has been fun….
And good luck, all your writers out there. I’d love to hear from you! (www.nancymeanswright.com)
Monday, April 12, 2010
Nancy Means Wright is the author of twelve novels, including two