Wednesday, April 13, 2011

New Voice: Marianne Monson on The Mima Journals Vol 1: The Water is Wide

Marianne Monson is the first-time YA author of The Mima Journals Vol 1: The Water is Wide (Deseret Book Co., 2010). From the promotional copy:

When Mima's mother meets a pair of LDS missionaries in the small English town of Wood Box in 1844, Mima prays that the townspeople won't treat them any differently.

But when her mother chooses to be baptized, Mima's worst fears are recognized. Even her best friend refused to stand by her.

So when her mother decides to leave for America, Mima is faced with some hard decisions. Should she stay in London with her brother, or face the journey to America with her mother and her strange new religion?

Book one of three, The Water is Wide, begins the beautifully written adventure of a teenage girl who experiences the life of a pioneer as an outsider.


How do you psyche yourself up to write, to keep writing, and to do the revision necessary to bring your manuscript to a competitive level? What, for you, are the special challenges in achieving this goal?

This book was written because I found myself as a student in the M.F.A. program at Vermont College and suddenly I needed to produce manuscript pages.

Like many writers, I had grown up as an obsessive reader. As a child, my mother claims that I had a penchant for drama and would “transform” into the protagonist from whatever book I happened to be reading at the time, mimicking their patterns of speech and dress.

(I remember elusively darting around corners clutching a notebook after reading Harriet The Spy [by Louise Fitzhugh (Harper & Row, 1964) for example.)

At age seven, I recorded in my journal that when I grew up I wanted to write stories. That desire always stayed with me. Although I wanted to be a writer desperately, I was also terrified of failing.

For years, I pushed my goal of being a writer into the future. I told myself that I would write once I had more life experience. I would write once I had more education. I would write once I had a “writer’s studio” (it is a good thing I didn’t hold out for that, since I still, alas, cannot claim ownership of such an idyllic-sounding space).

And suddenly there I was at Vermont College, surrounded by famous author-teachers, with a deadline looming in my face and a husband and a two-year-old baby waiting for me at home, wondering if I was wasting a goodly amount of both time and money.

Luckily, the deadlines forced me to push aside all my years of fears and excuses and do as Jane Resh Thomas brilliantly recommended: “put your butt in the chair.”

A few years previous, I had studied for a semester in England. While in Yorkshire, I visited a graveyard (I must admit I have always loved old graveyards) where the headstones were tilted and scoured by time.

Several of my own ancestors had been buried in that graveyard, and as I looked over the parish records, I saw their names, baptisms, marriages, and deaths recorded in spidery, scrolling ink. Generations of families had been born and raised and buried in this small, rustic town. And then missionaries from the Mormon church arrived and created a religious fervor that tore families and the community apart in many ways.

I had been fascinated by this story, imagining (as authors do) the individuals and their reactions to this situation. I had wanted to write about it at the time, but lacked the confidence (see preceding paragraphs) to begin.

Years later at Vermont College, the graveyard scene came back to me. And I wondered if, perhaps, I could attempt the story. I was very nervous about tackling this subject.

For one thing, religion was a taboo subject in young adult literature at that time (yes, things have changed since then). The fellow students I shared the idea with tended to respond with a blank stare and a rather floundering response.

I had been raised as a Mormon and was used to reactions ranging from comments about cults to follow-up questions involving polygamy. Writing about something so personal to me seemed like I might be opening up an intensely intimate side of myself for public ridicule.

But my Vermont College mentors challenged me to “write what haunts you.” They took the manuscript seriously and asked me to continue with it.

Kathi Appelt taught me that good writing always comes from an intimate, personal space and often involves overcoming fear.

Marion Dane Bauer worked closely with me on the manuscript, challenging me to revise, stay true to Mima’s story, and to tell it as authentically as I was able.

It was an honor to work with such gifted writers and teachers, who truly provided the structure and encouragement I needed to find my own voice.

The novel was completed as my Creative Thesis for the program when I graduated in 2006. An editor at Penguin Putnam was interested in it for a time, but when she eventually passed on the project, I put it away for a while, aware that it needed more revision.

I worked instead on a chapter book series that sold to Deseret Book in 2009. I mentioned the novel in passing to my editor there, and she requested to see it.

I was completely unprepared for my editor’s response. She loved the novel and wanted me to consider developing it into a trilogy. I had always envisioned the book as intended for a broad audience. I felt that Mima’s story was the story of a girl’s journey toward spiritual peace—a journey I hoped would speak to girls with a wide variety of religious backgrounds (or none at all).

I had never imagined the book being published by Deseret Book (a publisher that sells primarily to the Mormon marketplace), since my protagonist is not a member and has asks some pretty difficult questions about the church (including polygamy), but overall it has been a good fit. I particularly love what they did with the cover and the interior design. My editor Heidi Taylor has been a pillar of wisdom and support.

Reading the reviews and responses from readers is always a very emotional experience for me. When they connect with the story, when they respond to Mima’s journey, it is as if the reader and I have had a conversation—connecting us across time and space. It is an exhilarating feeling, a feeling that will motivate me to continue to write for years to come.

As a teacher-author, how do your two identities inform one another? What about being a teacher has been a blessing to your writing?

I teach creative writing and composition/literature at Portland Community College.

Writing is a very solitary activity. Oftentimes, it involves me wrestling my beloved laptop and trying to extrude a morsel of insight from my brain, wringing it drop by precious drop onto my keyboard.

Writing is recursive. I return to the same scenes over and over, revising, reshaping, re-thinking.

Teaching is dynamic, spontaneous, and requires me to interact with live people, which I find to be of enormous benefit both to my emotional sanity as well as to my work as a writer. I learn constantly from my students—about the world, about human nature, and about the power of language to shape our experiences.

It is a blessed privilege to be able to do two things that I love so well and call this a career.

Cynsational Notes

Marianne Monson has always adored antique shops, steamer trunks, and old British Novels. She majored in English Literature at Brigham Young University where she particularly enjoyed studying the Brontes and spent a semester in London. She holds a master’s of fine arts degree (MFA) in creative writing from Vermont College. She teaches English and creative writing at Portland Community College and loves reading to her children, Nathan and Aria.

6 comments:

Mom Marilynn said...

I have read The Water is Wide and loved it! Although it is a YA book about a young women's journey, there are passages woven through her emotions and experience that are breathtaking in beautiful imagery that will appeal to all ages! I just had to read some parts over and over and over.... wanting more of her lyrical voice!
Marilynn

Cynthia Leitich Smith said...

Marilynn, thank you for this lovely recommendation! A book for all ages, Cynsational readers--be sure to snag your copy today!

Megan Wilcken said...

I agree, the imagery in The Water is Wide is compelling and beautiful. I particularly enjoyed the way music was woven throughout the story. The way Mima responds to music is so true to life -- there are feelings and thoughts that, I think, simply cannot be expressed except through music. I am very eager to read the next of Mima's journals. And I enjoyed Marianne's insights about the writing process. It brought to mind some of my own scenes...

Lisa said...

Congratulations Marianne on a lovely, lyrical novel that appeals to young and old alike. This would be a fabulous young adult book club pick with discussions around religious freedom, prejudice, spiritual awakening, migration, families torn apart, etc.

Cynthia Leitich Smith said...

Thanks Megan and Lisa for your reader insights! I love the idea of the novel as a book club pick!

briankangaroo said...

Thanks for the blog post. It's nice to get into the head of an artist in any medium to better understand how to mitigate impediments to my own artistic process. What I found interesting about this book and tend to primarily remark of it is how Marianne towed the line with a religious historical novel. Any media that pushes either a religious agenda or religious intolerance makes me want fresh air. This book is uniquely written from the perspective of an outsider with an intimate view of the pioneers and helps the modern reader see what led to the historic massive western expansion just prior to the California gold rush. That and I appreciate the way the protagonist reacts sincerely to those "crazy" Mormons.

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