Can you tell us a bit about your journey to becoming a writer? What writers inspired you when you were young, and at what point did you understand that this was your life’s work?
I grew up in a house with very few books, other than the schoolbooks we brought home. I did have my mother’s copy of A Child’s Garden of Verse by Robert Louis Stevenson. I wore that out, reading it. It was my constant companion when I was at home in my early days of reading. My mother also had a manuscript of original poetry by one of her uncles, my grandfather’s brother, a wedding gift bound in a leather portfolio. They were formal poems and I read them over and over and I suppose knowing that they were written by a living person—someone I knew— must have made an impression on me. I made up for the lack of books at our house in a couple of ways. One was going regularly to the branch library in Main South, my Worcester neighborhood, where I took armfuls of books home every week—as many as the librarians allowed. I particularly liked reading plays – having a dramatic sense even then, I guess. There was a magazine called PLAYS, which I remember was a favorite and which I supposed cultivated my interest in conversation and helped me learn something about dialogue. I also spent time at my Worcester grandparents house many days after school let out. There was a small bookcase there, but the books it shelved helped expand my world greatly. There were copies of Anna Karenina, Pinochio and Heidi. I actually read the Swiss author, Johanna Spyri’s version and not the film version of Heidi, and I read Pinochio before I saw the Disney film. But what I read over and over were Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and I was also fascinated pouring over a complete set of the Universal Standard Encyclopedia. My grandfather read a lot and my aunt who lived with them read voraciously and had a subscription to Reader’s Digest Condensed Books, which interested me, as I got older. So I was exposed there to great variety. Probably the first memoir or autobiography that I read— other than one of the Lives of the Saints, which were foisted on us at Catholic School—was Richard Wright’s BLACK BOY. The writing and the world described left a deep impression on me. I had to read a lot for school and we had to memorize poetry and recite it. In high school I loved Shakespeare. I remember I had an English teacher who was also, amazingly, the football coach. He taught us to write various forms of poetry. One assignment was to create a manuscript of poems in the forms he assigned to us – sonnets, etc. and various rhyme schemes and meters—and then we had to read and record them “for posterity,” he said. It was an amazing thing to do as part of a high school English curriculum. This wasn’t an AP course or a writing course, but a regular English course that all the students had to take.
I always loved to write from the time in third grade when my teacher read aloud a paragraph “story” I’d written about a trip to Boston shopping with my grandmother. I knew in high school that I wanted to be a writer. In high school we had a daily news show broadcast throughout the school. I wrote and read stories “on the air” for that. I made no secret of wanting to be a writer and the high school guidance counselor in a meeting with my parents told them that journalism was no career for a woman, that I should be a teacher. It’s interesting, since women have made great strides in journalism.
You write poetry, memoir and are about to publish your first novel. Was there a natural progression from one type of writing to another? Does your experience as a poet inform your fiction and memoir?
No, I don’t think there was a natural progression, though I’m not sure what that would be for anyone. I began writing poetry in high school because I loved poetry – from my early reading and memorizing and reciting—and probably that football coach/English teacher had something to do with that, too. When I was a senior in high school, I read Denise Levertov’s Relearning the Alphabet. That was 1968 and students were marching in the streets against the Vietnam War. I was awakening politically and the poems spoke to me. I realized you could write about contemporary subjects and that poetry didn’t have to rhyme or adhere to a particular form. In high school I had studied journalism and thought I wanted to be a journalist. I’ve always written articles since then, but I gave up the singular goal and found others.
My interest in poetry was nurtured in college courses (I was an English major) and by going to readings by living poets on campus and off. I also took my first fiction-writing class in college, but didn’t really write much. After college I became involved in the Worcester County Poetry Association and was offered a place in two workshops in an NEA-funded program called “Master Poets/Apprentice Poets.” It is such an amazing thing to me now that as it worked out, one of those workshops was with the poet Denise Levertov, whose work I’d read in high school and which had by then, become very important to my understanding of contemporary poetry. I was very fortunate to have been helped along by WCPA. It’s amazing to think of the roster of poets who came to read for their series. Galway Kinnell, Alan Dugan, Adrienne Rich, Robert Bly, and so many other fine poets! Even the now Nobel Prize winner, Tomas Transtromer came to read in Worcester.
I had always loved to read stories though and at a certain point after college I realized that many of my poems were narrative. I began to feel that I wanted to see what I could do in fiction. I joined the staff of a Worcester cultural magazine some friends had started, The Little Apple. I published my first piece of fiction in the magazine, a story called “The Lilac Joke.”
After I completed work for my MFA degree and graduated I began a novel. My thesis had been short stories, but I’d never felt like I was a short story writer. I really appreciate short stories, love reading and figuring them out, but I can’t achieve that myself—or haven’t yet. I have the long breath, I guess. You’ve probably figured that out by now. Interesting though that I write poetry, so economic. But I attribute that to my relationship with my dad who was blind. He liked me to be concise in describing things to him, so as not to interfere, I guess, with the memories and images he had in his head from when he could see.
I worked on that novel I began after graduate school for 10 years and got nowhere, though I wrote hundreds of pages. I was trying to write an autobiographical novel about my own life. It was a complete failure. I never got the voice right and the characters were barely disguised versions of others in my family. When in the 90’s literary memoir became popular, I read many of them. My husband read one written by a friend of mine and knowing how frustrated I was with that novel, suggested I maybe reconsider and try writing a memoir instead of an autobiographical novel. I sat down and wrote what I called a prologue. I read it to him and by the time I finished I was in tears. He said, “That’s it. It’s the real thing.” I threw away all those pages of the autobiographical novel and began the memoir. I guess I had this stupid idea that a memoir couldn’t be art and I knew I was an artist so I felt I had to only write fiction.
Once I finished the memoir, it freed me to write fiction. I had a novel I’d begun while doing the revision and I set to work finishing it and revising and revising it. I am now submitting it to agents, looking for representation.
As far as my sense of poetry informing my fiction and memoir, I believe that my language is probably richer and perhaps I get deeper into things. What I know about imagery, I hope makes my sentences more vivid and sensory and the writing more palpable.
You earned your MFA from the writers program at Warren Wilson. How did the program influence your approach to your work, and what role did community play in sustaining and nurturing you as a writer?
Yes. Warren Wilson was, I believe, the first low-residency MFA Program in the country. Now there are so many. I enrolled in the program because I couldn’t afford to take two years off to go to graduate school at the Iowa Writers Workshop or elsewhere. I needed to work and I had a very demanding job in State government at the time, but I was completely motivated to learn what I could about writing from an incredible faculty group of writers; so I became involved in the balancing act that was very good training for a career as a writer—managing to produce creative work while staying on top of family life and the work necessary to support both. That was probably the biggest influence on my approach to work – learning that the struggle to get it done and still live a life was always going to be there. One of my faculty mentors, Mary Elsie Robertson, said to me at one of our first meetings, “Ordinary life suffers a lot.” I think that when I began at Warren Wilson I thought that I already knew how to write. I mean I read a lot and had written a lot and published a little in the way of creative writing and a lot of journalistic pieces and policy statements and memos for my job. I was a little surprised at first at the response to my first efforts, shocked really. I quickly realized I hadn’t scratched the surface. My first workshop was with Geoffrey Wolff, author of the Duke of Deception – Tobias Wolff’s brother—you know the story – they both became writers, one was raised by his father (Geoffrey) and the other (Tobias) by his mother. Wolff handed me back my manuscript after the workshop group had discussed it. He had written more on it than I had! And in red pen! In another workshop Stephen Dobyns said to me, “You make of words a Gothic cathedral, and this is just a little mud hut.” So I had a long way to go, it became clear. I was accepted in fiction or poetry, based on the two manuscripts I’d submitted in application, but I was told I had to choose. At the time a student could only be one or the other, but I think you can study both now—though I’m not positive. I became a fiction writer and audited poetry, going to as many classes and lectures I could fit in, though I wasn’t able to go to the workshops. I chose fiction because by then I had realized that I had many stories to tell and that poetry couldn’t hold them all. I also wanted to move beyond the narrative poem and learn more about writing the lyric and I thought that if I began to write stories, that it would be freeing for me and I could explore writing lyric poetry. The faculty at WWC was actually more nurturing than it would seem from those two anecdotes, though they were tough and wanted every student to find a genuine voice and not settle for superficiality in their creative work. It wasn’t about getting published; it was about developing as a writer, learning about process. I loved the lectures, the readings and those workshops, as anxiety-genereating as they were. And many of the students have become longtime friends. The alumni have begun a reading series at the Boathouse in Cambridge and graduates of the program over the years who live locally attend and share their new work with each other. It’s a terrific, nurturing community and we help sustain each other in our work that way, and there are even peer-to-peer writers groups that have developed as an offshoot. The Writers Room of Boston is like that, too. We have readings and gatherings and get the chance to learn about each other’s projects, and that’s an inspiring and supportive environment, which has actually helped me complete work that had gone unfinished for many years.
How would you describe your process as a writer? What is your approach to discipline? What would a typical writing day look like for you?
That’s a very detailed answer and I’m going to cut it short—shorter than it should be probably. I revise, revise, revise. I discover what I’m writing about as I go along— and even after having a complete draft, each revision after helps me discover more, helps me get deeper into character or story. I do not plot out stories or novels. I see where the characters and especially the place take me. I am a perfectionist, sometimes to my detriment. After a while I give it up, abandon it and hope it’s good enough.
My discipline—I usually try to exercise in the morning first thing. I’m a runner and that clears my head and sometimes gets me working on a problem I’m having in the writing. Often I’m inspired. I have a chapbook of poetry called Living Proof and many of those poems were inspired while running. After breakfast I take the subway downtown to the Writers Room. It’s in the middle of the financial district, a seemingly strange place for it; but as I say, those suits wear their black and we wear ours. It’s a beautiful room with individual workspaces – open with lots of light and looking out at some very architecturally beautiful buildings. It’s a silent space, though sometimes there is conversation with others while having lunch in our little kitchen. I usually try to work for about 4 hours, sometimes a little less. When working there, I have the sense of affirmation and expectation. Not pressure but just the feeling that I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing for work and being there people expect I will achieve. As someone who does not teach in an academic institution at this time, it gives me a sense also of credibility to be part of The Room. And importantly, it gives me colleagues.
In your memoir, My Father’s Eyes, the narrative is extremely vivid and detailed. Were you a journal writer as a youth? What kind of research was required, and how did you handle the fallibility of memory?
I did not keep a journal as a youth, although I remember writing some stories and lyrics for songs. In my twenties I read all of Anais Nin’s diaries though and loved them. Some things in my childhood were fuzzy memories but I generally knew enough that I could use research to learn the truth. That took a few different forms: I did some interviews with relatives to confirm some dates and facts that needed supportive anecdotes. For example, my agent at the time said to me after reading and accepting the memoir for representation that she thought that I’d thrown away the theme of denial in my father’s family about the loss of sight being so profound. I realized that to someone who hasn’t encountered this, that indeed it was weird that no one until my dad had actually seen a doctor to determine what exactly was the problem with his eyes. It made me actually doubt that this could be so. I called my uncle, my dad’s younger brother and I asked him point blank, was it true that no one, including his mother who was blind, had ever acknowledged the problem with their eyes. He told me a great story then that confirmed it, one that appears in the memoir, about going camping with the boy scouts and not having a flashlight at night and not being able to see. He’d assumed that his problem was only that he didn’t have a flashlight, that if he had one he’d be able to see, not knowing that night blindness was the first stage of retinitis pigmentosa, the gradual deterioration of the retina, the condition that affected his mother and many other family members.
There were other kinds of research, employing more usual methods, like calling the historical museum to confirm that the first pressurized space suit was created at the Worcester manufacturing company, David Clark. Several facts like that obviously needed to be checked.
Memory of course is fallible and selective. A memoirist must rely upon methods other than simply plumbing ones own memory, which can fail as much as a fiction writer’s imagination can. I did my best to check facts I wasn’t sure of. Here are some of the methods I used to verify and fill out scenes that were sketchy for me and which a writer can access: interviews with others who might have been around to witness an event, letters if there are any, photographs – these are useful tools not just in the writing of scenes but in order to clarify and refine and fill in gaps and especially for dating scenes – something that helps in understanding motivations For those who question the validity of dialogue in a memoir, I say, It’s true. As I child I didn’t walk around with a tape recorder. I don’t have the auditory equivalent of a photographic memory. But if I didn’t simply transcribe tapes, how can I explain the use of dialogue in memoir? I would answer that this way, “A writer can and should be honest with the facts. And it is conceivable that if one knows well the players to whom dialogue is attributed, though the vocabulary may be inexact sometimes, one strives to get the cadence of speech right. We all remember the lines our parents repeated to us again and again, and the rhythms of their speech are etched in our hearts. We find ourselves saying the same things they said to us, to our children. Regarding descriptions of place, etc., I am blessed with a photographic memory and more than that. I can actually remember colors and go shopping without swatches and find the exact color I want. I have other kinds of memory too, utilizing the other senses. You can throw a note at me and I can sing it. Of course I don’t remember everything in my life, thankfully, only what matters to me in a particular way. And of course my memory of what went on in the family is informed by my birth order, the role I played in the family in helping my dad, because I was the oldest.
What was the best advice you ever received about writing?
Sit your arse in the chair and just do it, and when it’s done, find the way to share it. And read. Read voraciously—all kinds of writing.
Most writers begin as avid readers. Which authors particularly inspire you? Are there writers you consider teachers? Who are you currently reading?
I have read widely. I’ve been inspired by so many writers. My mentors and the faculty at Warren Wilson, my friends like Edward P. Jones, John Dufresne whom I’ve known since my youth and have followed their success, reading their work and learning from it. Reading a couple of writers in particular helped me to write the memoir—Edna O’Brien’s trilogy, The Country Girls and Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes. The other Irish writers: O’Neil, Joyce, Trevor, and O’Connor. I learned a lot about writing from reading Annie Dilliard and also from studying the stories and reading all the interviews with Eudora Welty for my degree year essay as a graduate student. They taught me a lot. I feel that every writer I read teaches me something—even if I don’t like what I’m reading, I’m learning why not, what’s gone wrong in the telling. I’ve read all of Elizabeth Strout’s novels, all of J. Courtney Sullivan’s, Jennifer Haigh’s, and right now I’m reading Edna O’Brien’s The Three Little Red Chairs. Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet and the work of Pablo Neruda were important to me. I’ve already mentioned Levertov and I feel a kinship to the work of Galway Kinnell.
Can you talk a little about any upcoming projects?
I don’t know what’s next. I just finished a novel, my first. I am in the process of sending around my query letter and sample pages, looking for an agent to represent my work, hoping for a good one who will help find a publisher who will get my work to a larger audience.
What encouragement or direction would you give aspiring writers?
Keep the faith. Read, read, read. Don’t get caught up in professional jealousy or in doubting yourself. Realize that every hour you put in, adds up to something. You can write a whole book that way. Just carve out the time, whatever you can, and sit it out until the story or the poem becomes apparent. Then go for it.
Meet Mary Bonina
Bridging Writers Author Series
Monday, December 5, 2016
6:30 - 8:00 p.m.
Thayer Memorial Library
717 Main Street, Lancaster, MA
Please join us for the free event.